[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra's Kris Graft looks at some of the furore around cloud gaming service OnLive in the context of core gamers and the wider industry, suggesting that cloud services may do more for gaming than many expect.
The excitement for cloud-based gaming seems to have tempered considerably since OnLive's introduction at GDC 2009
, as following its June launch, the realities of the current service are now apparent.
It's understandable why some of the buzz has died down among gamers. Lag on the service is kept at minimum but still nevertheless noticeable, particularly when playing with a mouse and keyboard; you don't actually 'own' a physical or even digital copy of the game on your own hard drive.
In addition, you are presented with lower resolutions than if you had a higher-end PC with a locally-installed game; and the technology requires you to be constantly connected to the internet.
But what irritates me is the way in which some commentators -- both game developers and gamers alike -- are writing off this infant technology as a failed experiment.
I think it's just another example of this industry failing to take potentially disruptive businesses seriously. The people currently casting OnLive off to the side because it doesn't fit their perception of how things 'should' be might be blindsided once the service works out its kinks.
First, many of the concerns about OnLive are concerns of the core PC gamer. I'm not saying that more 'casual' players don't appreciate things like better graphics, lower lag rates and the like, but to the person who has a cheap dual core laptop or a desk rig with crummy integrated graphics, sub-130ms lag and 1080 resolution just doesn't matter that much. So just as a reminder, hardcore PC gamers: OnLive wasn't really meant for you anyway.
Current technical drawbacks that come along with being a cloud-based service are wiped away by the stunning ability to load up a game that would take up 10GB of space on a hard drive, and starting it up within a few seconds of buying the game. I wouldn't have thought that was possible in any way a few years ago.
That accessibility factor alone is huge for PC gaming. Now, could a lot of people upgrade their PCs with a relatively cheap $150 graphics card and have less lag and better graphics than OnLive? Sure.
But while tweaking game and system settings has been sort of the PC gamer's rite -- a burden that we're happy to shoulder due to some genetic defect -- most people find that kind of fiddling to be a pain in the ass. And it's one of the main reasons why it's better for most people to just forget about PC gaming and all of its advantages, and just buy an Xbox 360 and a retail disc and start playing.
How many of you have had a non-geek relative go out and buy a new laptop and then they become confused as to why their new expensive toy won't run some game? I mean, it's a new PC, it should run everything
, right? Well, I guess there's always FarmVille
One of the most exciting aspects of OnLive is the upcoming MicroConsole
. In general, anything that encourages PC-to-TV connectivity is a good thing. This way, developers can just make a game on the open PC platform, throw in some controls compatible with an Xbox 360 controller and boom, your PC game is in the living room, not just in the office or den.
It's not too difficult either to imagine televisions or set top boxes with OnLive built in, internet plans that include a subscription or maybe even, somehow, cloud-based gaming technology on a major console -- not as a replacement for full downloads or discs, but just another option for consumers. Who knows? That's not to mention that this kind of tech can give games an entry point in piracy-infested territories.
From a marketing standpoint, cloud-based gaming gives options not possible with previous technologies. OnLive's Joe Bentley, director of engineering, said he was surprised to find that the service's "spectate" mode, which allows users spy on others' gameplay, allowed for virtual window-shopping. Three and five day rentals are cheap and as easy and fast as ordering an on-demand movie.
Upcoming cloud-based service Gaikai has an even more interesting business model than OnLive that, at launch at least, will revolve around advertising. It will allow consumers to click on a banner ad for a new game, then plop the web surfer right into a demo.
OnLive head Steve Perlman even hinted at adding a similar marketing component with OnLive's tech, in which gamers would check out a game demo on that service, then get referred to Steam or Direct2Drive for a full download.
There's also the ability to track all kinds of user metrics, since everyone using OnLive is connected to servers. It's exciting stuff that shouldn't be wholly discounted, even taking into consideration current technical limitations.
I don't want to sound like the commanding general of the OnLive Defense Force, or a regular practitioner of OnLive apologetics. There are some other serious issues with OnLive outside of technical performance -- for instance, the questionable price points and subscription scheme, and a core-focused game library that mostly highlights any lag and graphical deficiencies that still exists in the service (how about some less-twitchy RPGs, puzzlers and strategy games?). It's good to be skeptical, after all, it is a new service so I don't expect everyone to throw away their consoles and PC hard drives quite yet.
But if it were up to some people in this industry, we'd still have a five year console cycle that involved upping the processing power and slapping new paint on annually-released games that are sold in boxes. Just as we all need to be open to new hardware and game design ideas, we need to be open to new ways to distribute and receive games, particularly when they show as much promise as OnLive and other cloud-based gaming services.
[Disclaimer: I've spent a good amount of time playing OnLive's lineup through a press account provided by OnLive. And yeah, the PC is currently my primary gaming platform.