Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Distributed gaming

The Games Development Conference has been raging for the past week, and amongst the exaggeration, misrepresentations and flat-out lies of the PR blitz, one company is offering something that could (gasp) change the industry as we know it – after seven years in ‘stealth mode’, OnLive is promising gamers with amazing broadband connections the chance to play console and PC titles, all without the need for an expensive disc-based console. Yeah, they get all the luck.
With high-end computers running at the server-side, and video feed being pumped through the ether to your television or computer screen, it’s the equivalent of cloud computing. The bandwidth issue might hold back the service from these shores for a while, though – a 1.5Mbps connection is required for standard-definition content, while a whopping 5Mbps connection is necessary for HD-quality footage. There are two main hardware options as well – running the service through a PC or intel-based Mac will be cheapest as OnLive can be run through any browser window, but if you’re playing on a television, you can buy a cheap “microconsole” (pictured, with the ugly controller) to relay the signals from the cloud to your television. Controller issues have also been addressed, and OnLive is promising 1-millisecond ping times and a magically minimal signal latency. Demos at the show looked promising, but there’s no proof that the problems of streaming high-res video and managing controller feedback have been solved.
The company is also promising a raft of community features, including spectator support for all users, brag clips from any game you’ve played and friends lists with video-based avatars. OnLive’s promises may sound suspiciously like those of the Phantom console (R.I.P.), but the new service already has the support of nine publishers, including Atari, Codemasters, Eidos, EA, Epic, Take Two, THQ, Ubisoft and Warners. With little chance of software piracy, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t sign up and try to tap that mythical untapped market of gamers with spare money but no consoles.

Best of all for the new company, OnLive doesn’t really have any competitors. If it takes off, this distributed gaming thing could be huge. That said, pricing tiers for games haven’t yet been rolled out, and subscription fees to the service could be prohibitive – and without competition, there’d be little incentive to decrease their prices or offer non-restrictive terms and conditions to consumers. And we’re not even beginning to address the question of ownership of non-corporeal digital games. Still; it’s exciting times, the future is now, but where’s my flying car, et cetera.

Edit: Eurogamer smashes the OnLive dream here.

[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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