GDC: A look at OnLive, on-demand gaming through your browser

Imagine being able to play video games anywhere, anytime, and with any computer or TV. Imagine being able to play top of the line games like Crysis or Prince of Persia and doing it on your mom’s TV set or your old iMac. Imagine never having to upgrade your computer to meet the system requirements of a new game.

OnLive Welcome Screen
OnLive's Welcome screen may not look like much, but it promises to bring a ton more games to the Mac.
This is the basic promise of OnLive, a digital distribution service and console system that has been in stealth development for the last seven years.

Steve Perlman, best known for the development of QuickTime, hosted a packed house of journalists and high-end developers at the SF Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on Tuesday night. Perlman, OnLive’s CEO, president and founder presented OnLive as a “Games on Demand” system that offers the latest high-end titles, instant access (no downloading or patches) and availability on any device.

What does he mean by “any device”? Perlman demoed the system on a television set, a Dell Studio 15 and an old Macbook. Perlman admitted that Mac users “never get their fair share” and this service was going to hopefully help change that. As long as the computer has 1MB of space for a browser plugin, it can run OnLive.

How does it work? Essentially, OnLive is a black micro-console that’s about the size of an iPhone. They haven’t set a price yet but they’re hoping for a very low price or a service package where the device would be free. OnLive’s console plugs into the Ethernet outlet on any computer. From the console, you can plug in a mouse and keyboard or a specially designed wireless controller.

The major innovation of OnLive is the lack of lag. The service uses high-end servers with one or more GPUs that can stream video back to your home instantly. Linear video compression, Perlman explains, “is way too laggy for video games.” OnLive’s algorithms are designed to minimize lag and since all of the computing is done on the server, virtually any computer can experience high-end graphics and gameplay. Simply by hitting a button you can utilize the broadband internet connection. The video compression, he boasts, is faster than human perception- you won’t notice the millisecond lag.

Perlman then showed us a quick demo of the system. The menu itself isn’t remarkable- just a series of icons, but surrounding these buttons you’ll see streaming videos of several high-end games. Several of these are looped videos designed for the presentation, but he claimed that some of them are actually live videos of some of the top players on the service playing in real time. As a reward in the community, if you post some of the top videos or are one of the top players, your gameplay may be seen by millions of people.

So Perlman clicked on the “Games” icon and scrolled through some of the games he had access to. These included “Frontline: Fuel of War,” “Mirror’s Edge,” “Crysis Wars,” “Lego Batman,” and several others. Clicking on a game brought up a new screen. You can choose to buy a game, rent a game, view the trailer or see gameplay videos of the some of the top players. If you’ve already played a game before, OnLive will remember where you left off. That’s right, OnLive will remember the game state for every player. You pause a game and leave, several days later you can come back and pick up where you left off. Some games don’t allow you to do that, let alone game systems.

Moving onto to OnLive’s community, the chief operating officer of OnLive (formerly of Tomb Raider publisher Eidos) Mike McGarvey utilized an old Dell laptop to give his intro. OnLive will be a community with leaderboards, tournaments, and something called the “arena” where you can watch people play in real time. There’s no other system out there that currently allows you to watch people play halfway across the US in real time.

McGarvey and Perlman then played a little game of Crysis. From a hardware perspective, Crysis is one of the most demanding games in the business. Even top of the line rigs have difficulty playing the game at its highest graphical settings. But McGarvey and Perlman demonstrated Crysis on a Dell Studio 15, a Macbook, and several televisions with stunning graphical clarity.

After dying at the hands of Perlman in multiplayer, McGarvey showed another spiffy feature of the OnLive service: “brag clips.” Players can record and share the best (or worst) moments in their gaming experience with each other. Again, nothing is stored on the player’s computer or TV- it’s all on the servers.

Parents will also be very pleased with the OnLive service because it allows an account to set restrictions for kids. If you wanted to give your kid a limit on gaming time, the ESRB rating they can play with, and the amount of money they can spend, you can do so with only a few button clicks.

Right now, OnLive has ten publishing partners. These include Atari, Ubisoft, Rockstar, EA, Eidos, Epic Games, 2D Boy, Warner Brothers, THQ, and Codemasters. Those are some pretty heavy hitters. The games offered on the service currently include games that I’ve seen on PC, Mac, and PS3. The major obstacle for the company will obviously be getting more publishers on board and getting access to more games. Many publishers and developers will likely hesitate to make their games cross platform especially if a game’s exclusive status is a major selling point for buying a system. So don’t expect to see Zelda, Gears of War, or the Halo Franchise on the service anytime soon.

But that’s a short-term problem, most likely. Perlman is looking to revolutionize the industry, and he may just in time. Developers who see OnLive’s potential will like that they only need to use one binary for TV, PC, and Mac. The tools will be made widely available too, so hopefully OnLive will look more like the App Store than a narrowly-focused console’s lineup. Perlman also claims that the system will help improve economics for developers as there will be no platform transitions to adjust to and the system is piracy free. For developers, the potential is great.

OnLive offers gamers a media rich community, a flexible payment system and a variety of games that will likely attract users from a variety of backgrounds. Gamers looking to save money won’t have to purchase multiple consoles to enjoy many of the games they want and computer gamers won’t have to constantly upgrade their machines to run the newest games. OnLive won’t necessarily end the console wars, but its impact on the computer gaming community cannot be underestimated.

OnLive’s potential is truly promising. If it can deliver on its promise, upgrading your computer for gaming will become obsolete. Buying video cards would become superfluous. Lag becomes a thing of the past. And consoles with their high price tags may have found a cheaper, more versatile rival. Check out OnLive.com for more details. Launch is Winter of 09.

[Editor's Note: Updated 3/26/09 at 1:40PM PST to correct Mr. McGarvey's job title.]

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