Onlive: A journey into cloud gaming

Originally written for 7Bit Arcade, the original has since been taken down, this one has been edited to make it read better and stuff. All details were correct at time of writing.

Clouds are amazing; they’re big, white and, best of all, fluffy. What they can’t hold a candle to though, is the potential of “the cloud”. The cloud is similar to a huge server, which will offer a service – in most cases so far, it’s been storage – that can be accessed from anywhere you’re connected to the internet. It’s a fantastic concept for most things; anti-virus software can back up your entire computer to the cloud, iTunes can now stream your entire music library to your iPhone and full games can be played by streaming over the internet with services like Onlive and Gaikai.

Except I have an irrational fear of cloud gaming. I respect what services like Onlive and Gaikai can provide – the fact that nearly all PCs, laptops, TVs and smartphones will be able to play the very latest games is fantastic – but there are few reasons why I squint my eyes and survey them with a degree of anxiety and caution. Confronting my fears head on then, I decided to try out Onlive’s PC service – hopefully, the console service soon as well – and see how my fears ranked next to the real experience.

My first main quibble with cloud gaming is that any degree of ownership over a product is removed. If – or more likely, when – cloud gaming becomes the norm, the game library will join the VHS, CDs and Vinyl library heaven in the sky. No great shakes, right? Well, not exactly. Although there has always been a second hand market for those other formats, gamers rely on trade-in’s far more than other market. Argos, ASDA, HMV have all recently added Trade-In services to games for a reason and cloud gaming will put a stop to this benefit. This effect on the gamers wallets could be disastrous, with no games to trade in, gamers may cut back on the games they will buy. Certain gamers won’t be affected, but in my position – and a lot of the people who I know – I can’t afford a new game without having to let go of an old one.

So, this is the first thing I rushed to see on the Onlive store. Prices. As someone who is fairly concerned what may happen to my videogame buying options, Onlive needs to offer a fair price. It does, for the most part. It’s subscription service – at £6.99 per month – offers you a game library with unlimited access to it, plus subscribing offers 30% off every purchase. However, the game library for this subscription service so far is filled with releases that are a couple of years old, such as Arkham Asylum and Borderlands. Recent releases like Arkham City or Saints Row: The Third are available on the site, just not as part of that subscription deal. After that, the price of games is in keeping with most physical outlets. Most brand new purchases will set you back £34.99 – £5 less than buying a game on the high street – while rentals are £3.99 and £5.99 for 3 and nights respectively, roughly the same price as a Blockbuster rental. Yes, they still exist.

While it doesn’t fill me with hope that gamers won’t feel the effect of not being able to have games to trade in, OnLive is a fledgling service who has to look for an audience. The fact that the prices are fairly competitive with physical media is to be expected and for those who stick to the subscription service will likely get a tonne of value for their money. Of course, there’s also the sentimental reason that you won’t have a tangible, physical product, but then again you don’t with Steam and that hasn’t stopped us from using it.

Moving on, OnLive represents a seismic shift away from the relative ease of consoles. The majority of consoles are at their very core, plug in and play. Yes, you may need an internet connection to get updates or for multiplayer, but if you wanted, you can always stay offline. Cloud gaming, you need a permanent internet connection. Anyone who had to deal with that with Assassin’s Creed 2 or Splinter Cell: Conviction on the PC already knows how much of a nightmare that can be.

It also leads to another problem of excluding some gamers. While all of us reading this have an internet connection, there will be some gamers who don’t. Back in 2010, an Ofcom report estimated that 75% of adults had broadband in the UK. While the chances are that figure has risen, there is still almost a quarter who don’t have an internet connection and are, therefore, excluded from the service. To get OnLive, you will need at least a 2Mb connection and this speed is not available to everyone. Obviously, the chances are if you don’t have a broadband connection you won’t be hugely interested in gaming, but nevertheless, we should get as many people as possible involved with gaming and not shut anyone out.

So one of the things I have to commend Onlive for is the ease of service. You sign up, install the programme – which took me around 10 minutes – then you’re good to go. The menus are easy to navigate and at no point did I get confused or ever think that it would be much harder for someone who had never gone near a console or PC in their life.

But all of these issues are foibles compared to the real problem that has had me waking up in the night in a sweaty state. That’s how the servers perform with streaming and how they cope under pressure. With all the data of a game being constantly streamed back and forth, could the graphical fidelity of certain games be lost? In truth, I thought ever so slightly, depending on the time you’re playing, although I didn’t get to test as extensively as I would have hoped to, only getting try a few demos in an evening – a combination of tight deadlines and university work meant I would only get to scratch the surface.

A few games I sampled at peak hours – around 6 – seemed to have trouble with pixelation, while later on in the evening – 9/10ish roughly – I could hardly tell any form of difference from what I was used to on my consoles. Seeing Arkham City running on my laptop with graphics on par of any big rig PC was a sight for graphic whore’d eyes. In terms of the problems I had with graphical issues, it could have been my internet connection was slower than usual – I’m with Virgin Media in Bournemouth, sharing a connection with two other people – but even if it was, there is an issue that some people’s experiences will be less favourable compared to others because of the quality of their broadband subscription.

So, like nearly everything else in life, my fears for Onlive weren’t as bad in reality. The service at the moment is reasonably stable and the range of games is acceptable. There are huge games missing from the site though and considering you don’t own the games, just the right to play as long as you’re connected to the service are going to be problems that depend on your point of view. Until internet speeds can keep up with the service and there are no graphical issues though, it’s hard to fully recommend the service, but you should certainly try it out, if only to get a glimpse of the future.

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