PAX 10: The Future of OnLive

onlive622-530pxDuring PAX, Chris and I stopped by the OnLive booth to check out the games and ended up having a surprisingly in-depth conversation with Bruce Grove, director of strategic relations for the service. We talked about pricing, ownership issues, and the ambitious future of OnLive.

The price OnLive charges for games has bothered a lot of people — and for valid reasons. Why pay full price for a digital game you don’t even technically own? Bruce said  the whole issue of ownership will fade in time as people start to consume more and more media online. He cited iTunes, a store where you buy songs and TV shows and movies you don’t technically own, as a comparable service.

As a consumer I want to object. I don’t like the idea of having my entire game collection exist on the whim of some company. But from a business perspective it’s hard to argue with him, it really seems like the future of digital distribution, especially streaming services, is in the license agreement. Amazon also offers downloads with DRM, though it’s less stringent than Apple’s; Steam also forces you to buy games you can lose if the service shuts down and no one seems to take issue with Valve; and consider that Netflix offers a huge library of streaming movies it can add to and remove from without consequence. Of course, Steam has its famous sales, and Netflix doesn’t make you buy the movies, which brings us to the issue of pricing.

I asked Bruce if OnLive will pursue a pricing strategy similar to Steam, and he replied that there are already games on sale nearly every week. In fact, there was a big 50 percent sale over Labor Day weekend. However, even that doesn’t quite match Steam’s celebrated bundles, and Bruce gave no indication that OnLive would ever go that far in a sale. But he did offer a tempting and arguably better alternative: Rentals.

One of the big features OnLive offers is the ability to rent games for three or five days. This completely sidesteps the whole issue of ownership because no one expects to own a rented game, and both rental prices are far below even the lowest sale price from any distributor. Some gamers may dismiss this feature, insisting that buying new is the only way to go, but I strongly disagree. This year, 2010, has been a great year for games, and if I had been only playing games I bought, new or used, I’d have missed out on many great experiences. My GameFly account has been a godsend, and for the moment it’s really the only viable rental service for games (the Blockbusters around me have a very poor selection), so this is a market primed for expansion. I think renting is one of OnLive’s more exciting features.

Various other perks encourage you to rent games: The price you pay on a rental counts towards a future purchase, and any progress you make in the rental, or even a free demo, is saved and counts towards future playthroughs.

Unfortunately, for the moment some games can’t be rented, like Assassin’s Creed 2, Mafia II, or even an older game like Red Faction: Guerilla (these example are accurate as of this writing). While these are big games that you might not beat in five days, you might get your fill within five days. Consistency with rentals will be necessary to convert the doubters, but the ability to rent a streaming game on day-one is something nobody has ever offered before. And it’s a feature I think many will embrace. As if that weren’t enough, there are also free demos for almost every game (the only exception for the moment being Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands).

All of that is OnLive as it stands now, but things became really interesting when Bruce began talking about its future. As of September 2, OnLive supports lower-end computers, and a wi-fi beta will be enabled later this month. Previously the service only supported wired internet connections. As proof of just how far the service can go, Bruce showed me OnLive running on an iPad.

Seeing OnLive run on an iPad proved two things. One, that the service truly can work wirelessly and on low-end processors; two, that the folks behind OnLive are serious about getting the service to as many people as possible. Expanding it to portable devices adds an entirely new dimension to the service. Suddenly it’s not just about just playing high-end games on a low-end PC, it’s about playing high-end games anywhere. It essentially takes Microsoft’s vision of “Live Anywhere” and bumps it up a notch.

I jokingly told Bruce that he was going to make me a PC gamer against all my expectations, and what he said back surprised me. He doesn’t want to make me a PC gamer, he wants to make me an everything gamer. It hit me then, just how much we think about gaming in terms of platforms. From exclusive deals to ports to flame wars, our platform of choice goes a long way in defining who we are as gamers. But by defining ourselves with such a narrow definition we limit the number of experiences we can have. Developers have talked at length about a utopian “one console future,” and until now it’s been impossible to imagine such a time because that would mean the death of every other platform. But what if instead of killing off the other platforms, you just make a game easily accessible on them all? That’s the very “one console future” promised by OnLive.

Bruce played Dirt 2 on the iPad in front of me, and while it did work the controls looked unwieldy since a HUD with virtual buttons and thumb sticks took up the top third of the screen. But this may not always be the case. Bruce said that OnLive is working on its own Bluetooth-enabled controller capable of connecting to various devices. It’s strange to imagine a world in which a controller becomes a portable gaming console on its own: Connect it to any device with OnLive, sign in, and start playing. Such a service would make even Steam look antiquated since with that you still have to download a game to play it.

I had some serious doubts about OnLive when it was announced, and had mostly dismissed it as something I’m not interested in since I’ve got all three major consoles already. But seeing the service work at PAX and hearing about its intended future, it’s hard not to be impressed. There are still bumps in the road ahead; mainly a small library and games that can’t be rented, but these seem like natural hurdles for a fledging service. Many of the things that make me uncomfortable about OnLive are things I accept without question in other services: Steam doesn’t let me fully own games, and Xbox Live is another online subscription that makes me pay for games as well as the service itself. And neither of them let me rent games in addition to offering demos. Those facts make my initial discomfort for OnLive seem hypocritical, and there’s only one solution: I got an account. You can still sign up for a year for free, so there’s nothing to lose. I’ll let you know how it goes, but if I can be convinced to get an account, then the future of OnLive looks quite bright.

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  • Microsoft would never allow it – but if I could run OnLive on my Xbox 360 in order to access PS3 games, I’d be all over this.

    Did you have a chance to play on their (OnLive) hardware?