OnLive gaming service now available for Mac

“OnLive can run on most PCs—but on all Macs,” boasted Steve Perlman, founder and CEO of OnLive. On Thursday, the cloud-based gaming service launched for the Mac and Windows, thereby enabling thousands of players to stream high-end games to their computers like never before.

At OnLive.com, players can download a small client and check out the service for free. All that’s required is a 5MB direct broadband connection. From there, players can demo games, spectate anyone else’s game, add friends, and buy full games.

On Wednesday, Macworld talked to Steve Perlman about the release of his gaming service and why he’s excited its coming to Mac. He explains that Mac users in particular have been excited about the service’s launch and the ones most appreciative about what this means for the platform.

With high-end games like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Borderlands coming to Mac and not requiring major graphics cards or huge downloads, “suddenly horizons are opened,” Perlman boasts. Virtually any Intel-based Mac (save the original MacBook Air) can run OnLive without a problem. Perlman also likes working with Macs because “Mac users tend to have no latency monitors. You won’t notice any lag.”

The “lag” factor has worried many critics prior to the service’s launch. How can servers, which can be hundreds of miles away, seamlessly render high-end games on computers with such varying Internet connection speeds? Perlman claims that the testing has proven it can work and that “99 percent haven’t had any lag complaints.” That’s a pretty stellar record, to be sure, but that’s before the service was open widely to the public. The true test of OnLive’s servers will be this initial launch week when thousands of new players flood the servers for the first time.

The other worry with OnLive was seemingly its ability to get third party developers to bring their games to the service. Why would Ubisoft, EA, or other companies want to bring their games to an untested platform when they’re already doing very well on consoles or PCs? “The economics are better here than on a console,” explained Perlman. OnLive makes stealing impossible, Perlman claims, ensuring the service is something that is more economically safe than typical PC gaming. The developers seem to agree, as a whole slew of new and soon-to-be released titles are already contracted for the service.

OnLive walked me through a demonstration of the service again, but this time with a twist: we played using a TV and OnLive’s adapter and then played on an iPad. On the TV, we jumped around to different games in seconds. Unreal Tournament, Arkham Asylum, all could be reached with a click of a couple buttons. Perlman explained that all demos are free to play and are actually the first 30 minutes of a full game. That’s a much more rigorous demo than something you can typically download off a game’s website.

Assassin's Creed 2 is one of the launch titles that will be available for the Mac through OnLive.

If you want to buy a game, you buy a Full Playpass. You’ll then have unlimited use for the game. Some players may hesitate to buy a full game on a service that doesn’t actually download the game physically to your hard drive. There’s a concern that if OnLive went under, the games would be lost as well. While that is a concern, I could also see the benefit of the service: physical disks break down, hard drives crash, but if OnLive stays afloat, you can play the game forever.

Perlman also showed me how easy it was to watch other players’ games. A huge screen with thousands of smaller gaming screens appeared, showing us everyone who was playing on OnLive right now. We could hop in and spectate virtually anyone’s game, letting us see their tactics, skills, and even ways they beat bosses or got through tough parts of games. For those looking for walkthroughs or ways to get better at multiplayer, spectating is a great shortcut. You can also add the player as a friend with just a quick click. If you’re playing a game and just did something awesome, you can take a ten second brag clip that will retroactively record the last few seconds of your game. You can then share that with others online and watch as its voted up or down in popularity.

Perlman demonstrated spectating on the iPad and what it looked like to play a game on the tablet. Spectating was easy; we could effectively jump around to different games, add friends, see brag clips, and basically do everything except play a game without a hiccup. Playing a game was a bit more difficult. While the graphics weren’t awful, the ability to actually control the character was frustrating. That’s going to be the major challenge for publishers, translating high-end control schemes to a touch interface. Again, as discussed in previous coverage of OnLive, there’s still no guarantee that Apple will even approve the apps.

OnLive can be downloaded today for free from OnLive.com. You owe it to yourself to see if your Mac mini, iMac, MacBook or Mac Pro can indeed run the most graphically-complex games on the market. Check back next week for our first reviews of games on the service.

[Editor's Note 6/18/10: It looks as if there is still a waitlist to get access to OnLive, contrary to assertions that it would be open completely to the public yesterday. Users can sign up for the service but it may take a few days to be activated.]

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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