The OnLive service has been running now in the UK for a week, so I guess it’s time to take a closer look.
OnLive is a Cloud gaming service, offering to “stream” the latest games into your home without the need to provide expensive equipment or PC upgrades. It works by sending the game data as the game is played, rather than downloading the game for example, to your PC, Mac or TV using the Microconsole. It can also be played on most TVs and other devices with a built-in Internet connection and browser. With the promise of tablet support coming soon, in the form of iOS and Android, the service seems to have the bases covered.
The best way to describe the OnLive service is to imagine it is like sitting in the bedroom playing games on your console. The controller is in your hand and the screen is in front of you. However, the console itself is in another room and really long wires connect your controller and screen. It is like that except instead of another room, the “console” is somewhere else in the country and instead of really long wires, you have the Internet. It really is quite impressive.
Once a player has opened an account, they can purchase or rent the latest supported games, or sign up for a Playpack subscription. This gives the player unlimited access to more than 100 games, with new titles being added regularly, for a reasonable monthly cost of just £6.99, while also giving the player a 30% discount on new games that they buy.
To use the OnLive service on a PC or Mac, the player must download an App which will launch the service and give access to both their account and the available games. OnLive is marketed as allowing you to play games on pretty much anything with a screen and a net connection. I was interested in the prospect of playing games on the little netbook that sits in my house being barely used. The 2 year old HP netbook has thus far been fairly unsuccessful as a gaming machine, due in part to the lack of pixel shader 2 support. But no worries, these games are streamed so playing Space Marine on the little screen shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Well, as it turns out, wrong. It appears that the PC app has certain requirements to run successfully, including pixel shader 2 support, which left me bang out of luck. The app just guided me to the FAQ and then shut down. It would seem that the possibility of running OnLive on older laptops or PCs with old graphics cards may be something that remains just out of reach.
Those who were lucky enough to pick up a Microconsole at the recent Eurogamer Expo, or who have purchased one for £69.99, can plug it in to their HD TV and enjoy gaming from the comfort of their sofa. The Microconsole itself is small and unobtrusive, about the size of a paperback book, and comes with an HDMI cable, power cable and USB connecting cable for the controller. The controller has the form of an Xbox360 controller, with the layout of a PS3 controller. It is quite well made and seems to have all of the bases covered, but takes a little getting used to. There are a row of media buttons along the front underside that can be used to record clips of your gameplay and upload them to the service for others to watch.
The social side of the service is quite a big deal and players are able to communicate with the people on their friends list or drop in and watch whilst other people play games. One thing that is a bit cheeky though, is the fact that the games and subscriptions bought are only applicable to the account that buys them. Given the high level of social interaction encouraged on OnLive, players will not really want to share their accounts. But the alternative would be multiple purchases of the same game or subscription for each account, which is going to work out expensive if you have a large household filled with gamers…
One glaring omission thus far is the absence of any EA games. Given that EA are trying to build the user base for their Origin service, it is perhaps understandable that they are not keen on supplying their games to what could be considered as a rival service.
The current selection of games available, besides the Playpack with its 100+ games, is fairly sparse. Pretty much every genre is covered, but the choice is fairly minimal. This is the launch of a new service though, so a lack of software can perhaps be forgiven, however, the fact that these games have been available before will reduce the appeal to anyone who regularly plays video games.
But, as you can imagine, sending all of that data across the net is going to require a decent connection speed. The minimum they suggest is 2mb, with 5mb recommended. My connection is a crawling 4mb, with the connection being shared amongst multiple devices and people within the house. Each time I started the service, it warned me that my connection was not quick enough and may result in a less than optimal experience. However, once I had started the service up, playing the games was mostly a pleasant experience. Space Marine, for example, flowed very smoothly and was thoroughly enjoyable. I did have some trouble at a later date playing a game, as someone else was watching YouTube videos. The game became almost unplayable as it stuttered and jumped, reminiscent of the old days trying to play Counter-Strike on a half-meg connection. Nostalgic it may have been, but fun it was not.
Something else that is important to note, the Playpack is filled with 100+ games, all of which can be played on your Mac or PC. But not all can be played on your TV with the microconsole, unless you can plug in a USB keyboard and mouse, which will certainly make the “sofa gaming experience” less comfortable. I would guess that around half of the games cannot be played with a controller. Something to bear in mind.
Essentially, OnLive is very impressive. The speed with which the player can switch games, the social aspects, the fact that it works as well as it does, are all factors that make OnLive an attractive prospect, especially for a service that has just launched. There are a fair few things that need to be improved and the service won’t be suitable for everyone. But, as with all new tech, it can only get better. So OnLive is certainly one to watch.