OnLive is a new game streaming service that was announced at Game Developer’s Conference 2009 and released on June 17th to the general public. The concept behind OnLive is simple: games are rendered in the cloud, and delivered to your computer or television via broadband where they are displayed. Since all the processing is done in the cloud, you don’t need an expensive video card or CPU to play any games, nor do you need to worry about upgrading your PC when new games or technology comes out.
It’s essentially “VNC” for gaming: Your controller/keyboard input are sent to the OnLive servers, and the game’s screen output is sent to your PC.
The fee for the service is $14.95 a month, although AT&T is sponsoring a “Founding Members” program that makes the first year free and locks a member in at $4.95 a month for the second year. The fee essentially buys you access to the service, but no games. Games are an additional cost—you pay additional fees for a “PlayPass” which grants you access to the game on sort of a rental basis. For example, you can buy a three-day PlayPass, or you can buy a “lifetime” PlayPass for something like $30 or $40 (depending on the game).
I tested out OnLive recently and had a set of questions ready to be answered. Most importantly, I wanted to know how the games looked, and how they played.
I used a demo of LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 as my test bed. The test system is a high-end gaming PC: AMD Phenom II X4 965 CPU, 4gb of RAM, and an ATI Radeon 5870 GPU. The internet connection is 24mb AT&T U-verse.
The OnLive service loads quickly, does a test to see if your computer and internet connection qualify, and then launches the admittedly awesome UI. The menu system used here is extremely smooth and slick, and makes finding games to rent a breeze—although some of that may have to do with the fact that there are only about twenty games on the service right now.
Once a game is selected, you can choose which PlayPass to buy for it, and then launch it immediately.
It’s not exaggeration to say that games launch immediately—the moment you click launch, it’s go time. It’s a bit unsettling, actually—especially if you’re used to waiting for games to load or disks to spin up.
But how do they look?
Now comes the difficult part: the visual quality.
The moment LEGO Harry Potter launched, the intro movie started. I purposely chose LEGO Harry Potter for our visual tests because the solid colors would be good to show any artifacting that results from compression used to send the images to us.
I’ll let the video speak for itself; in order to see exactly what I saw, please view this full screen at 1080p quality:
The compression artifacting is significant, as you can see. It’s exceptionally disappointing to witness. It’s like playing a game through YouTube.
Here’s another clip of actual gameplay. Again, view full screen at 1080p:
And how do they play?
There was absolutely no lag at all; it was as if I was playing the game locally. The OnLive service currently supports an Xbox 360 controller plugged in via USB as well as keyboard and mouse.
Who is OnLive right for?
The idea that OnLive will be cheaper than standard gaming is debatable. The service fee in addition to the cost of renting games is only slightly lower than just buying the game itself; whether or not this is a good way to offset the cost of building and maintaining a gaming PC remains to be seen. As it stands, the OnLive service has surprisingly steep system requirements: A dual core CPU, a lot of RAM, and a very high quality internet connection. The equation will change significantly when they release their “Microconsole”, but no details are known about it yet. The ease of demoing and screwing around with multiple games is appealing, and makes jumping into games simple; but if you’re used to high-def PC gaming, you’ll probably have a hard time getting over the compression issues.