Review: OnLive — The What, Why and Who of Gaming in the Cloud

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I’m sure you have all heard of cloud gaming by now. Cloud gaming is the “new gaming” that allows you to connect (via a high speed internet connection) to a remote server that is hosting the game data. This enables you to play video games by streaming the game data to a proprietary cloud gaming adapter, and then on to your television. You are probably more accustomed to running the game from the hard drive of your video game console, PC or Mac.

Let’s take a detailed look at the OnLive cloud gaming platform and see what the fuss is about the shiny black box with the orange “O” you get in the mail. First of all, the OnLive platform offers some innovative options for cool features that allow lots of interaction with other players.

OnLive MarketplaceOnLive Marketplace

Image: OnLive, Inc.

These are what they call “video enabled community features”:

•Massive spectating. Watch games in action you might want to buy, check out strategies to master a level or see what your friends are playing. There’s no limit to the number of viewers.
•Brag Clip videos. Capture 10-second recordings of your finest moments.
•Live video social networking. See your friends playing live within their profiles.
•And of course, chat capability. Chat with friends during multiplayer games or while watching them play.

OnLive Brag Clip videosOnLive Brag Clip videos

Image: OnLive, Inc.

OnLive Game System

You have two options: play on your television, on a PC or Mac (unfortunately, no Linux support at this time), iPad, and (soon) Android tablets. You will have to purchase an OnLive Game System through the OnLive Web Store. For those of you who don’t have OnLive accounts, you’ll have the opportunity to create a free account during purchase of the OnLive Game System. After you receive the OnLive Game System, plug it in and simply follow the on-screen instructions. I’ll speak more on installation later. To play on a PC or Mac, you will have to sign up for a free OnLive account. After you register and setup your account, you will need to install the OnLive client locally. You have the option of connecting via an Ethernet cable or via a wireless network.

OnLive MicroConsole and Wireless ControllerOnLive MicroConsole and Wireless Controller

Photo: OnLive Inc.

So what is inside the shiny black box? The OnLive Game System comes bundled with the following components:

•OnLive MicroConsole™ TV adapter
•OnLive Wireless Controller
•Cables and accessories
•Power adapter
•HDMI cable
•Ethernet cable
•Rechargeable Controller battery
•USB play and charge cable
•2 AA alkaline batteries

[For the purposes of this review, I tested the OnLive Game System on a Panasonic 40″ HDTV with an HDMI cable. Testing was completed post-beta on the OnLive platform. OnLive has worked hard to mitigate and improve the performance and quality of service issues that I have reported.]

Main Hardware Components

The OnLive MicroConsole TV adapter is a well-made adapter of heavy plastic composite that sits easily on top of your television. There are two USB ports on the front for charging the controller and pairing the system with the controller. Simply plug in the controller to the MicroConsole via the USB cable to have it registered in the system. You also have the option of connecting a USB keyboard for text input. Mini gaming keyboards are often worthwhile for saving your thumbs from game messaging hell, and can be purchased for as little as $35.00. The back of the box has an Ethernet port, an HDMI port and an optical audio connector and the power connector.

OnLive MicroConsole front/backOnLive MicroConsole front/back

Photo: http://freethememob.wordpress.com

The highest quality images will only be enabled by hooking up the HDMI cable included in the package. The OnLive service uses proprietary video compression with distinct algorithms that attempt to compensate for common issues with streaming such as latency, jitter and packet loss. When the OnLive server streams the compressed video to the MicroConsole, which in turn, decompresses the video and outputs to your TV. The MicroConsole is designed to output in 1080p at 60 frames per second, and when you drop $3K on a new 3D HDTV, it is still capable of outputting 3D titles for your multidimensional pleasure. Composite video adapters for older televisions are very cheap to purchase. Full high definition connectivity will eventually be the case with most end users, in light of the new statistic via Washington Business Journal that per the Consumer Electronics Association’s May 2011 report, 65% of U.S. households now have HDTV. I would recommend placing it with adequate room for ventilation, as it does heat up somewhat after an hour or two of game play.

The OnLive Wireless Controller felt like an XBOX controller in my hand. It’s a sleek piece of hardware with its own proprietary look. The left and right sticks are placed at the bottom, and there is a proprietary control pad on the top left. The X, Y, A, and B buttons are placed like the XBOX controller, but the OnLive controller has an extra Brag Clip control panel in front with “record”, “pause”, “stop”, “back” and “forward” buttons. OnLive players can record Brag Clips of their awesome pwnage in their favorite game and share them with other players. I was impressed with its balanced weight; it’s not just pretty but it’s easy to manipulate in your hands. The control sticks are solid and responsive, and the D-pad has an indentation which makes for excellent manipulation and control in your gaming. Once paired with the MicroConsole, it had excellent response time moving through the menus and with in-game use.

OnLive Wireless ControllerOnLive Wireless Controller

Photo: OnLive Inc.

For those gamers who are less adventurous, you will be happy to know that you can pair other controllers with the MicroConsole. Here’s the complete list:

•Microsoft Xbox 360 Controller for Windows
•Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows (requires the Microsoft Wireless Gaming Receiver)
•Logitech Chill Stream
•Logitech F510
•Satie P3200 Rumble Pad
•Mad Cats Gamepad

Setup

Most people have the common home network setup: a wireless router with various devices connected to the network. OnLive recommends putting the MicroConsole at least six feet away from your wireless router or wireless access point, and at least three feet away from any wireless bridge or any other device transmitting high power. While setting up the system, I did have a few problems. I signed into my OnLive account (which I had created online earlier) in order to connect to the OnLive service. After about 30 seconds, an error message was displayed, “We were unable to verify your network connectivity.” I rebooted the MicroConsole and then was able to connect properly. The OnLive site officially recommends at least a 3 Mbps wired or wireless signal.

What this actually translates to: for TVs over 40″, a 5 Mbps connection; for TVs between 30″ and 40″, a 4 Mbps connection and a 3 Mbps connection for TVs with under 30″ screens. For larger TVs there is a higher connection needed as there is a larger surface area of data that needs to be refreshed. For purposes of comparison, I did test connectivity (from the back of the house) on my wireless connection that is well above the recommended baseline speed. The connection was quite laggy, and I would flat out recommend a wired connection to those who don’t want to deal with the vicissitudes of wireless routers and their sometime problematic connections.

Cloud gaming is a new platform, obviously, and users will need to accommodate some of the many other variables in wireless connections: overlapping wireless signals, degradation of the wireless signal behind concrete or thick walls, etc. If you do have the budget (after breaking it from having snapped up that 3D HDTV), I would recommend purchasing a dual band N class router, and configure the service to stream strictly on the 5 GHz frequency when configuring the router settings. This eliminates possible interference from cordless phones, which broadcast by default on the 2.4 GHz band. Common internet use can be sequestered to the 2.4 GHz band to allow for full dual channel throughput.

Gameplay

After I selected my network, I launched the OnLive service. The logo launches and then the camera swoops and zooms to the OnLive dashboard. There are several panels, and each launch a unique feature: games, settings, OnLive controls, chat, achievements (for those games that support achievements), etc.

OnLive ArenaOnLive Arena

Image: OnLive Inc.

The Arena panel lets you watch other players to get a “feel” for a game before you play it. Most of the games have a free demo you can play before you purchase. I tested several different types of games in order to get a broad feel for the OnLive Service. The first game I tested was Homefront, an awesome FPS game that is much less graphically complex than Call of Duty Black Ops. There was a slight latency problem that caused some of the game controls to hiccup. For example, there was a slight delay after respawning when I wanted to regain control of my rifle. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction and Metro 2033 also had a similar lag problem with some minor jerky character movements. When playing Defense Grid Gold (an indie game), there were some latent responses in the turret movements and firing from different levels. I will say again: given the fact that I tested the game in late beta, there have been several updates and patches that I hope will fix any remaining issue with lag. But again, with new technologies, there will always be some casualties along the learning curve of deployment.

When accessing some of the games for the first time (and fiddling with the controls, of course), I did note that the Help section specified controls for PC games such as R-click and L-click with mouse. [Again, I tested the game in late beta, and hope that the Help section will have been updated with the proper controls for guiding the gameplay of console vs. PC players.]

There are now 100 games in the OnLive Marketplace. You can subscribe to what they call a PlayPack Bundle which allows you unlimited access to 50+ game titles for $9.99/month. This is a competitive offer, considering it’s only three dollars more than other casual gaming companies offering one credit a month (to be redeemed for one game).

E3 Update

OnLive, Inc., will display its cloud gaming platform during E3 2011 at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles on June 7-9 (South Hall, Booth #801), with new products and features and also key partners and milestones. OnLive opened its cloud gaming service about a year ago at E3 2010 with 19 games available for free demos, rental or purchase on PC and Mac. The OnLive game catalog now included 100 games.

These are the main points from OnLive’s E3 2011 announcements.

  • OnLive will release its 100th game, Red Faction: Armageddon, to the OnLive game directory day-and-date with consoles on June 7.
  • OnLive will also add its first current AAA title, Homefront multiplayer to its $9.99/month, all-you-can-play PlayPack Bundle.
  • Disney Interactive Studios will have OnLive support, joining 40+ top publishers, starting with two award-winning games, Split/Second and Pure.
  • Facebook integration brings social gaming to console-class games on OnLive. The new Facebook features include automatic wall postings of gamer status and Brag Clip™ videos. Users will be able to instantaneously launch OnLive from Facebook to directly access games, spectate or view Brag Clip videos.
  • Intel-based consumer TVs, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes will soon work with OnLive. New partnerships will include VIZIO and HTC, with planned integration of OnLive into 10s of millions of their devices. OnLive and Intel will support 10s of millions of consumer electronic devices powered by Intel embedded processors.
  • Universal Wireless Controller supports TVs, Blu-ray players, tablets, PCs, Macs and almost any OnLive compatible device.
  • OnLive Game Service will be offered in the UK this autumn. OnLive UK Founding Member signups will be accepted at http://onlive.co.uk/ on June 7 at 8 PM BST.

Conclusion and recommendations

In my opinion, the OnLive Game System has excellent hardware components, good functionality and an attractive design. Given a baseline 4 Mbps connection speed, latency will not be a major problem. OnLive offers an attractive offering in the new world of cloud gaming for those who are looking for a gaming platform that is ultra-portable and easy to use. Whether OnLive will be able to compete with the existing digital distribution communications platforms for PC, such as Valve, remains to be seen. The Steam platform controls 50% to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games, selling titles from bigger firms such as EA and Activision, as well as Valve Software’s own games. Steam has 30 million customers downloading PC games and add-ons. Only Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony have larger footprints in the gamer community. However, the OnLive service includes both PC and console games in its market offering. The question is, will this added value be enough to break into the competitive market for PC and console gaming?

OnLive ProfileOnLive Profile

Image: OnLive, Inc.

There are several points about the viability of OnLive as a gaming platform for children. If OnLive does plan on targeting a wide age range of gamers in order to gain market share of the 67% of American households that play games, it will have to include games that are rated for children (or that parents, using sound, critical judgment, are willing to let their kids play). According to the 2010 ESA study, 25% of game players nationwide are now under 18 years of age. There were 26 rated T for teen games at my last count, and 17 rated E for everyone, an encouraging number that I hope will grow in the future.

One major feature that is lacking is a parental controls feature. According to the terms of service, the minimum age required to use the OnLive service is 18. But despite the statistic in the ESA study that “parents report always or sometimes monitoring the games their children play 97% of the time” (qualified in the study as “parents with kids under 18 who also own a game console and/or computer used to play games”), the reality of busy, twenty-first century family life supports the probability that children under 18 will play games that are rated T. Including a parental controls feature in a future patch of the game would give the platform added value as a child safe gaming zone and increase the trust factor of parents with little gamers in the household. Welcome to the

[Full disclosure: I received an OnLive Game System and PlayPack from OnLive, Inc. for the purpose of this review]

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