I have had my eyes on OnLive ever since it first released on US shores. Although I had been playing on their overseas servers on the PC and Mac I had yet to sample their Micro Console, which launched alongside the release of OnLive service in the UK last year. The thought of playing games with the relaxed mindset of never having to upgrade a PC or buy a new console again was exciting. So with a Micro Console in my hands, plugged in, I’ve had some time to see what the service can offer us gamers. Is this the future of gaming? Let’s find out.
For those unknown to the OnLive platform, let me first bring you up to speed. OnLive allows you to send your control inputs of your selected game to the remote OnLive servers in the Cloud, whilst in turn they stream the audio and video from your game to your display. Now this can be displayed on a number of devices: from PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones or on your HDTV via their very own Micro Console. So no boxes cluttering up your shelves, no physical discs to scratch or put in, no waiting in-line in the cold at stores on release day and no downloading, patching or updating of the game either. Simply plug in, sign in, select your game and start playing. It’s pretty simple stuff.
The one way of interacting with the OnLive service that intrigues me the most is the Micro Console – A tiny device, no bigger than a DVD case, which allows you to plug in and stream the OnLive service directly to your HD display via an HDMI socket on the back. The Micro Console also comes with an Xbox 360/PS3-inspired controller that allows you to play current games on the service in the same way they are played on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 consoles. The games available are indeed PC versions, yet with more and more PC games being developed with connected Xbox 360/PS3 joypads in mind, the support for the OnLive controller is always available on most titles you can play.
OnLive Micro Console (Front and Back)
The Micro Console can keep its lightweight size because all it has to do is handle the video and audio streams from the OnLive Cloud servers to your display. So because all the hard work is done remotely in the Cloud the device does not have to include any bulky or expensive processors or graphics cards inside. This means it can be practically given away (as we saw during OnLive’s launch at the Eurogamer Expo last year) or sold for a very competitive and wallet friendly RRP of £69.99, which is pretty good considering that is for the Micro Console, Joypad, batteries, rechargeable battery pack, and all the necessary cables (HDMI, ethernet, USB charge/data cable and power cables) to get you hooked up.
Choosing to play your games up in the cloud always has one major flaw and reliance – yup, the internet. So as long as your bandwidth is stable and fast enough, you are good to go. Early adopters of the service found a few server issues, but months down the road I have yet to run into any frequent problems with lag or disconnections. The amount of input lag can show itself depending on the type of game you play. Racing games and action adventures for example maybe more forgiving than say first-person shooters that require fast input response. On a slow or busy internet connection this can be a little frustrating when comparing the response rate to a disc-based version of the game on Xbox 360 or PS3, but for a casual gamer, or for people that are none the wiser, performance might be totally acceptable.
Getting into the OnLive service is as easy as simply turning on the console. Thanks to a new firmware update to the console and the pad, players can now switch on wirelessly through the controller (instead of being connected via the USB cable), just like on an Xbox 360 or PS3. Once signed up and logged in you are shown a simple interface where you can observe other OnLive gamers playing in the Arena area, view and update your Profile, read any latest offerings and promotions in the Showcase area, view Brag videos recorded by other gamers, view and manage Friends request, jump back into your Last Played games, view your purchased games in My Games or browse the game library in the Marketplace.
OnLive Joypad Controller (Xbox 360 form-factor with PS3 button/stick layout)
Like any new console that struggles to win gamer’s hearts, you are only as good as your games. Thankfully at this early stage OnLive has a fair few titles under the hood, with more titles being released each month. Most of the available games come with a free 30-minute trial, and it is worth pointing out that these trials are not demos of the game, but more like 30 minutes of the full game. Sadly, the first 30 minutes of most games feature heavy narratives, simple ease-in levels, tutorials or character creation screens and menus – so the impression you get within your 30 minutes can vary between each game and it can sometimes result in a much less engrossing experience as say a tailored demo but still, it allows you to sample the game before deciding whether to avoid, rent or purchase the full release.
Selecting each game in the Marketplace gives a well presented running trailer along with much more information on the game, such as the controls used (keyboard & mouse or joypad), release dates and player modes, through to Metacritic scores and OnLive player ratings of the game. At a tap of a button you can also jump into other people currently playing the game as well as any bragging clips recorded by other gamers. So overall there is plenty of information here to assess weather the game is worthy of jumping into a free trial, renting it for 3 to 5 days or to purchase and own the full game.
Pricing of each game varies between the big blockbusters and the more XBLA/PSN-like titles that are on offer. An OnLive PlayPass can be bought for 3-day or 5-day unlimited access to the game. This behaves in a similar way as if you were renting the game, or you can purchase the full game for a similar retail release price of around £29.99 to £39.99 for the latest triple-A titles, which is fairly reasonable considering the outrageous On Demand prices of games on Xbox 360 and PS3.
OnLive Marketplace (Browsing for games)
Aside from the single purchase options OnLive offers a PlayPack Bundle subscription option, where for £6.99 per month gamers are subscribed to receiving exclusive discounts (30%) on game purchases and have unlimited access to over 120 selected games on the service. If you are a UK gamer, BT is currently offering its broadband subscribers an exclusive opportunity to get the OnLive PlayPack Bundle free for three months when they sign-up before January 31 2012, so be quick if you want to grab this offer.
The PlayPack Bundle is not a bad deal if you see yourself using the service on a regular basis. It is just a shame to see that first day releases are not included in this offering as well as the rest of its catalogue of games. Amongst the 120+ titles available there are are only a few triple-A titles worth playing. There are plenty of “fillers” in there to pack out the full line-up of games available, yet some of the triple-A titles are at least a year or two old, so if you are an avid ‘core gamer you would have probably played or even completed these already.
There are a few things like like to see addressed before myself and I am sure many other gamers could fully jump onboard on a regular basis. The first would have to be a better subscription model that includes first day release titles, I’d want access to everything for my monthly fee not a limited amount of old titles. I am thinking along the lines of Spotify’s Premium subscription, where gamers could get all they can eat for a single monthly fee and have no limits. Secondly, I would improve on the graphics hardware, as it feels some games are not fully maxed out in their settings. This is certainly going to be a costly area and is one that can be updated in the future without effecting its users. Thirdly, I’d like to see more publisher support. With the major publishers backing their own digital service it is sad to see not everyone is jumping on board, yet. Once again in time this can also be addressed and would greatly improve the appeal to gamers.
OnLive Game Details View (Game Details and Pricing Options)
Overall I find OnLive is getting off to a flying start, and with only just a few months under its belt in the UK and a year or so overseas. There is certainly plenty of potential and growth in the service, but with worldwide home bandwidth speeds not being fantastic enough for everyone to enjoy its full potential, perhaps we are exploring this digital age a year or so too early?
Personally I feel this is the way gaming will be going. Whether you like it or not, I see streaming or downloading your games as a significant evolution in gaming at home, at least in the distribution scheme of things. With services such as Valves online Steam service, EA’s Origin, GAME’s download store and lets not forget Apple’s App Store, the way we are consuming our content, digitally, is becoming more and more frequent online. With highstreet videogame stores closing down each year, due to heavy competition of online and digital sales, I can see the next target will be the online retail stores themselves, as video games join the music, television and film industry by streaming content to our screens, and it is the OnLive platform and service which might just kick-start gamers along that journey.