The cloud-based, “non-console” gaming service known as Onlive is coming soon to a computer screen or TV near you. But, as the June 17th launch date grows closer I find myself wondering if this great experiment in gaming technology will flourish or fail. I wonder who, exactly, Onlive is marketing themselves to; and if those people even know it exists? I wonder if the company will have the ability to get exclusive titles, as well as if they’ll be able to get all major, cross-platform releases just as quickly as game stores. I also question the very idea of “buying” games through Onlive, since you could never actually receive a version of the game that is playable outside of their service. I also wonder if they will be able to stay competitive in the console market when trends have already started shifting towards more interactive gaming options.
The fact is there are already many problems I see facing the newest sibling to join the gaming console family; and Onlive is going to have to either address or completely overcome these problems if it wants to stay competitive against its elder Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo brothers.
For those of you who do not know much about Onlive’s gaming service you can click on the above link to go to their official site, or you can stay around here and read Platform Nation’s coverage of Onlive’s 2010 Game Developer’s Conference announcements. A quick recap for those of you not wanting to open a new browser tab: Onlive is an upcoming video game service which will cost you approximately $14.95 a month – and it will allow users to play popular game titles (“Mass Effect 2,” “Assassin’s Creed 2” and others will be available at launch) without having a physical game console or a high-end spec computer at their disposal.
Onlive accomplishes this by hosting all of the hardware needed to play their games themselves; and paying subscribers will simply log-on to the service, choose a game to rent or purchase, and then, using Onlive’s specialized controller (as pictured lower in the article) will then play games just like you normally would on a PC or console system (think of it like an interactive version of “Youtube”).
What this means, essentially is that you could play a graphics heavy game, like “Crisis,” on a netbook or Mac Book. This is contingent on your internet service and having a suitable network connection, however (1.5mbps for “Wii” level graphics and 4-5mbps for hi-def quality play). Playing Onlive games is not limited to just being on the computer, though, as Onlive will also be selling a relatively inexpensive “micro-console” (pictured below) that will allow users to play through Onlive’s game library on their TV instead. The micro-console includes HDMI-out connections for optimal game graphics on the TV, as well as component and composite connection options.
Many developers such as EA, Ubisoft and THQ have already signed on to show their support, so Onlive has the backing it needs to provide the types of titles that will ensure its service is not limited to casual-type gamers; and it has plans to add even more gaming developers to its list of partners in the initial months after launch. Clearly this is not going to be an experiment in gaming that fails because of the initial content offerings, though it will be interesting to see just how many titles Onlive will release after the initial launch, and how often it will have new titles to choose from.
There have already been quite a few articles written about the potential that Onlive has since it was officially announced at least years Game Developers Conference – with many of them questioning claims made by Onlive that their servers will be able to handle streaming interactive HD content simultaneously to thousands of players at once. Personally, though, I’m not so much interested in those types of questions as I am with questions like, “will there even be enough people playing online to get a death match started?” And while I know that a larger part of the company’s success does hang on their ability to provide the quality of service they are currently boasting, I am, for the moment, going to set aside what technical concerns I have.
To start off I want to look at who Onlive could potentially appeal to. It doesn’t really offer anything that would appeal to the most ‘hard-core gamers,’ for instance, because it only offers games that are already available on the systems they already own. There is no real multiplayer advantage for those gamers that like e-sports, either; and, without enough initial subscribers, online game play may look more like a ghost town than a bustling, world of the future. I’m also fairly positive that if there was even the remotest hint of lag that those hard-core gamers concerned with their e-reputation, as well as gamers that strive to be perfectionists, would abandon Onlive’s playing field in favor of a more suitable and stable environment. After all, it would simply be unacceptable for a 10 year old noob to kill a ‘god’ of “Modern Warfare 2” just because of some slight lag – which, of course, we all know is impossible on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network since the noobs you find there are only capable of running around in circles, starring up at the sky and getting knifed by leet gamers that emote “hugs” afterward.
On the other hand, though, Onlive doesn’t really seem like a good choice for casual gamers, either. I think this way for two main reasons: A.) The first is that the titles offered at launch, as well as the titles rumored to be coming in the future, appear to just be the most popular titles that are offered on consoles. Games like “Mass Effect 2,” for instance, are not casual-friendly, mainly because a casual-gamer does not have the time to sit around watching cut scenes of dialogue and running around a space ship – when instead they could be blowing crap up with a big gun, finding hidden objects in a haunted mansion, or helping Flo run her own burger joint. B.) The second reason casual players won’t be rushing to sign up is that Onlive is asking self-proclaimed casual-gamers to spend $14.95 a month for a service that they might use a few times a week.
So, if casual and hard-core gamers (who combined make up the majority of video game players in America) are, indeed unlikely candidates to pay for Onlive’s gaming service, then who will be?
One of the demographics I see making up the initial customer base for Onlive are members of the Mac community. Gaming on the Mac is hardly ideal since there are severely limited options available at present, and Onlive is offering a chance for the Apple crowd to play some of the games their PC brethren have had access to for quite some time. This means no longer trying to run Windows on a Mac just to get a quick FPS fix, and that alone could be a godsend for interested parties.
The question I have, though, is how many Mac owners are really concerned with gaming? The marketing of Mac computers in the last ten years hasn’t been aimed at the hard-core gamer audience to begin with. In fact, if you are to believe the commercials, the typical demographic for Mac owners tends to be made up of artistic professionals, or more commonly, college-age students. The latter might find some appeal in Onlive’s service, as will the average person that owns a Mac, but really…how much demand is there?
At this point it’s fairly well accepted that if you own a Mac you won’t be able to do the majority of PC gaming; and yet Mac’s still continue to sell quite well. Onlive has a chance to offer Mac users something they might have previously thought was impossible, but I honestly don’t see a great majority of Apple owners willing to hand over $15 a month just to be able to game as if they had a PC. Especially when they could just go out and buy a console instead.
Another demographic that I see Onlive appealing to is the middle-age crowd. Onlive could potentially be appealing to this group mainly because it would allow them to play games on their computer or TV without having to buy a dedicated gaming system. It would also allow people (regardless of demographic) to not have to constantly upgrade their computer to stay on top of the ever-increasing system requirements list. Again, though, how much demand is there going to be from this demographic? And (again), wouldn’t it be easier for them to just buy an Xbox or PS3?
The way the current generation systems are set up they can easily be the centerpiece of many home theater systems. The PS3 especially in this demographic because of its superior blu-ray player which is appealing to non-gamers looking to get the best media player option for their HD TV’s. But even the Xbox 360 (and soon Wii) offers Netflix, as well as music and photo sharing from in-home networks. It’s these features in particular that appeal to those who are looking to buy a video game system – even when they’re not specifically concerned with gaming in general.
Onlive’s micro-console option especially doesn’t seem overly appealing to this demographic since all it does is play games. It would make more sense for people in the middle-age segment to simply hook up the home PC to the living room TV and play games through Onlive’s normal online service, as it would still allow people to have access to Netflix, music, and photo viewing. Many people I know and many more I have talked with, though, simply don’t like the idea of having a PC connected to the TV at all times. Many of them consider the idea of a dedicated “TV-PC” a hindrance rather than a convenience, since an ever increasing amount of them are buying notebooks and netbooks instead of desktops. These are, by their very nature, not PCs that are meant to be tied down to a single room in the house.
This may change as people become more and more aware of the advantages that TV-connected computers offer; but, again, with internet-ready TVs increasingly available, as well as more and more blu-ray players offering Netflix and Pandora streaming services, I just don’t see Onlive becoming popular with the middle-aged, middle-America types. At least not anytime soon.
The last demographic that I see Onlive appealing to –- and perhaps the group that it will appeal to the most –- is the business traveler and always-on-the-go professionals. Depending on what kind of service quality can be offered through, say, a mobile-broadband card, Onlive could be a hit with anyone from business execs constantly on the road to long distance truck drivers. This isn’t a large demographic, to be sure, but it’s still a group that I believe could take full advantage of what Onlive has to offer, as well as take advantage of it on a regular basis.
People that are on the go do not want to be hauling around a 20 lb gaming laptop, or worse yet, an entire gaming console, and the option to just bring along the Onlive micro-console or the small, business notebook you already take with you everywhere is much more appealing. However, bandwidth limitations on your average hotel network, as well as on mobile broadband cards may shoot the idea of high quality, portable gaming in the foot before the race even starts (Though, this is not Onlive’s fault, and in fact I’m only mentioning it because I had a feeling someone would point it out if I didn’t. Yeah, I’m looking at you, internet).
Going outside the demographics now, I wanted to mention a few thoughts I have about Onlive in general. The first one being that as an avid gamer for the past 20 years I admit I am a little hesitant to jump on the hype-wagon and dive headfirst into the non-console gaming idea. I admit that part of this comes from the fact that I am used to the way things have been; but the other part of my hesitance comes from the fact that one company (at least for now) will be controlling all of the content.
What this means is that Onlive will have the final decision about which games are allowed to be on their service; and they will most assuredly do this based on their business platform as well as who their current business partners are. While they do have a surprisingly decent number of partners listed for launch it remains to be seen who will join the fold and when – which means subscribers potentially risk missing out on a significant number of popular titles (which would otherwise be available on the major console systems) if Onlive does not partner up with the right companies. It could also mean losing the ability to sell or rent certain titles, even if they were available in the past, if a business partnership with a specific developer ends.
Say, for instance, that you are half-way through a rental game purchase of “BioShock 2” when Onlive loses 2K Games as a partner. And if 2K Games retained their intellectual property rights throughout their business deal with Onlive they would have every legal right to make the game unavailable for you to finish playing – at least on the Onlive service. This is especially worrisome when considering that you can purchase titles through Onlive since there has been no concrete answer, as of yet, that assures potential customers that the games they buy will continually be supported and available for play, regardless of Onlive’s continued partnership with the game’s developers. This is a huge “what if” to consider.
On a brighter note, one of the definite advantages I do see with Onlive is the fact that it could theoretically avoid the next-generation console wars altogether. While the rest of us will fight and argue over which system is better, Onlive will be able to not only offer games from the past — regardless of what new system you purchase (making it the most backwards-compatible “system” ever) — but it will also be able to “upgrade” its graphics engine to support next-generation games without actually having to purchase any new hardware. Since all of the hardware updates would be done by Onlive at their server sites you could potentially save $500.00 or more buying a new system every three years or so. This is the main reason why I immediately loved the Onlive idea when I first heard about it last year, in fact.
Although the next feature I’ll mention is no doubt smaller, and somewhat less important than some of the rest in this article, I still found it extremely satisfying that Onlive has incorporated a “brag clip” toggle on their unique controller. This button, located along the bottom seam of the controller, allows you to record game play off of your TV or PC so you can always remember the times you kicked ass and took names against your friends. You can not only use the playback feature to laugh at how noobish your co-workers are when you’re at home, but you can also upload your pwnage-footage to Onlive’s video section – so everyone around the world can see and critique your handiwork. This is something I have wanted for my PS3 and Xbox systems since I first purchased them. The hassle of connecting third-party hardware to my television just to record a few minutes of game play is beyond ridiculous, and I’m glad Onlive has been an innovator and leader in this small, but definitely awesome area.
One more pseudo-negative thing I have to throw in here, though, is my concern that Onlive will not be able to offer the technological advancements that future consoles will. If 3D gaming and motion-sensing technology are indeed going to be the next big things in gaming then Onlive has yet to mention how it plans to compete on those two playing fields. The fact is (and despite some hesitance on my part) that right now Microsoft and Sony are both gearing up to release motion-based add-ons for their respective systems this fall; and with 3D TVs and 3D blu-ray players hitting the shelves now it’s only a matter of time before consumers demand that their video games take place in motion-sensing, 3D realms. Yet, despite all this there is no word from Onlive about their plans to compete in those two areas. To be fair, though, it remains to be seen how 3rd party developers plan to integrate each of the three major system’s unique motion controls into cross-platform titles, of if that is even worth taking the time to do. Still, Onlive is the newest “console” on the block and yet it’s already behind since it doesn’t have anyway to compete with the motion-controlled gaming options that will be available this holiday season.
Here’s my wish: I wish Onlive would have been something just a little bit different. I wish that instead of a cloud-based virtual-console that it was a paid, monthly service which was offered through existing console systems. This iteration of Onlive’s gaming service would have allowed current system owners to play full length games via internet streaming – without the need for extra memory (Wii) or even a hard drive (Xbox 360 Arcade). I think this idea would have been more appealing to not only hard-core gamers, but casual players and relative non-gamers alike. Instead of Onlive starting up an all-in-one service they could have offered the gaming equivalent to Netflix’s immensely popular movie streaming service.
This would have made them infinitely more visible to potential customers, too. In fact the most common question I hear about Onlive from everyone I talk to is, “What is it?” And since there is no conformation from major electronics retailers about whether or not they will carry the Onlive micro-console, it remains to be seen how people are even going to find out about Onlive to begin with. The lack of consumer knowledge, combined with the non-existence of an advertising campaign — especially since we’re just months away from launch — are two more worrisome problems I see facing this start-up, gaming enterprise. Basically, if you’re not one of the ‘geeks’ who browse gaming and tech websites (I say ‘geeks’ lovingly, since I write for such websites) then it’s pretty much a guarantee that you have no idea what Onlive is. How are people supposed to know when and why to buy it, then?
Finally, and despite all I’ve written I have to admit that I’m still somewhat excited to give Onlive a test run when it starts up June 17th. The reason I can say this with a straight face is that two (possibly three) cool things are going to happen on launch day. The first one is that I’ll be able to see just how good “Mass Effect 2” looks when played on the ancient paperweight I used to call my 2004 Compaq laptop – a ‘computer’ that currently can’t even run “Warcraft 3” without having ten blue-screen seizures and wetting itself. The second cool thing that will happen on launch day is that I will get to see just how far gaming and computing technology has come since I picked up my first Atari controller over 20 years ago. Onlive is, without a doubt, one of the bravest and boldest experiments in gaming, and whether it fails or not isn’t nearly as important as the leap it’s making towards the future. The third cool thing that (might) happen is the launch of Onlive could prove just how horribly and demonstrably wrong I was for writing this article. It could turn out to be a smashing success that takes the whole gaming world by storm the way the Wii did three years ago. I could be proven so wrong, in fact, that my own grandmother will have to issue an apology for me because I’ll be too busy crying and softly rocking back and forth in a corner.
A large part of me actually does hope that I’m wrong, if for no other reason than to see a start-up company take on two of the largest, most well funded corporations on the planet as its direct competitors; and not just that, but to compete with those companies by offering something new and original, rather than just copying what they’ve already done. Honestly, how cool must it feel to be in the shoes of their employees…getting ready to face Goliath and his evil, green cousin?
Until Onlive is officially available for play I’d encourage everyone to read more about it at their official site. And if you decide sometime before June 17th that you will be supporting this gaming experiment then leave me a comment here, or shoot me an e-mail at either email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org letting me know what made up your mind, or what features appeal to you the most and why. Otherwise feel free to leave any other comments or questions below, and I’ll try my best to respond.