When I first heard of OnLive, the tech entrepreneur Steve Perlman's plan to run high-end video games over the Internet, I thought it sounded completely crazy, damn-near impossible, and absolutely amazing, in that order. So did everyone else in the tech industry.
"The first thing we heard was, 'You're violating the laws of physics,' " Perlman says. Games are some of the most computationally intensive programs we run today. It takes a lot of horsepower to seamlessly render intricate 3D worlds on the screen, which is why gamers spend thousands on their desktops and why companies like Microsoft and Sony spend billions developing new game consoles. With OnLive, all of the intensive processing takes place on servers far away from your house. The graphics are shuttled to your screen—and your actions on the controller are shuttled back—over the Internet in real-time. If it worked, Perlman's system would liberate the world's gamers from expensive consoles and tricked-out desktops.
The overwhelming consensus was that it would never work. Check out the skeptical comments on the gaming blog Kotaku after Perlman announced the project last year: "Unless this whole service acts as a separate ISP with its own special Internet connection, I'm calling Phantom-fail," wrote one guy. He went on: "There's no way this is going to actually work without lag, the uncontrollable type that happens thanks to our current ISPs." That's what I thought, too. Sure, Perlman has run some impressive demos to show off the system, but they've taken place in a controlled environment, where he could be sure that the broadband was fast enough to handle the quick action in gaming. Would OnLive work in real life?
The answer: So far, so good. And it might even be as revolutionary as Perlman predicted. OnLive opened to the public last week; you can sign up now to be on the waiting list, from which the company will begin activating accounts throughout the summer. I played OnLive all last weekend on three different computers—a midrange Windows desktop, a midrange Windows laptop, and an entry-level Mac notebook. Each of these systems struggles to run games on their own processor and graphics chip. With OnLive, I was able to play graphics-heavy titles nearly flawlessly on every system.
The games were beautiful. During a few fast-paced moments I noticed a very slight pixellation to the graphics—the sort of distortion you see when you record a show on a DVR using a low-quality setting—but most of the time, the pictures were crisp and the colors vibrant. There was no noticeable lag. The images reacted instantly to my every move, just as they would have if I was playing them on the latest and greatest gaming machine. In short, playing OnLive was indistinguishable from playing games on a console or PC—except when I looked down at my computer and saw a machine that any serious gamer would laugh at.
I should note that I played OnLive over my 20 Mbps home Internet line, which I get through Comcast for about $50 a month. This is on the high end of home connections and faster than any available line in some parts of the country. OnLive says the system will run on a 5-megabit line, which means many people will need to upgrade their connections to play it—and that's assuming the ISP can actually deliver on the advertised speed. (The game constantly monitors your network performance and warns you if you're dropping below that threshold.) At the moment, OnLive software requires you to connect directly through an Ethernet port—that is, it won't work over Wi-Fi—but Perlman says the firm plans to lift that restriction soon.
OnLive is a subscription service; entry costs $5 a month, but the company has waived the fee for the first year. OnLive has also signed deals with ISPs in several countries that could let you purchase a subscription as part of a bundle with your Internet and TV service. The subscription doesn't get you any games, though—you pay extra for those. There are a couple dozen titles available now, covering a range of genres and styles of play. They include Mass Effect 2, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and NBA 2K10. Depending on the game, you can buy full access or just rent the title for a few days. For instance, the first-person shooter game Borderlands goes for $6 for three days of access, $9 for five days of access, and $30 for full access, which entitles you to play the game for as long as it is available on OnLive (at least until June 17, 2013, the game informs you).
For now, OnLive can be played only on computers, but the company has built a dedicated "microconsole" that will let you play OnLive on TV. (The console is essentially like a set-top box for games—it doesn't do any heavy processing by itself, simply connects your controller and Internet line to your TV.) The company hasn't announced a release date or price for the microconsole, but it will likely come later this year; one potential plan is to give the console away for free as part of a subscription, Perlman says.
I chatted with Perlman on Tuesday morning, after I'd gotten a chance to play the system for a while. My first question is the same one you'd ask someone who'd just shown you a fusion reactor he'd built in his garage: How on earth did you do that? Perlman says the key problem that OnLive had to solve was lag. When you hit a button on your Xbox controller, the console registers the button-press instantly, and the action is immediately translated into an image on the screen. With OnLive, every time you press a button or move the mouse, you're sending a signal across the Internet to OnLive's servers, which then generate an image that must travel the whole way back to your screen. If the round trip takes longer than 80 milliseconds—the threshold at which humans begin to notice delay, Perlman says—the game will suck. To solve this problem, OnLive built dedicated server facilities in different regions of the country. During its months-long beta period, the company worked with many ISPs to reduce the time it takes for data to travel to OnLive. Obviously, the better your Internet connection, the better OnLive will work for you.
Given all the infrastructure costs involved in setting up OnLive, you might wonder whether the system is financially feasible—after all, it needs processing power to do the work of thousands and thousands of expensive gaming consoles. Even if cloud gaming is technically possible, is it going to be able to profitably scale up to meet mainstream demand? Perlman says there are several ways in which Internet-based gaming is more computationally efficient than console gaming. Even the most dedicated gamers will only play for a few hours a day; the rest of the time, the console is dormant. What's more, sometimes you play games that don't require the full power of your Xbox—the system could be doing much more, but you're only asking it to render World Series of Poker 2008.
OnLive can use these inefficiencies to its advantage. Depending on how many gamers are using the system and the kinds of games people are playing, the company can spread the power in one gaming processor across two, three, or more gamers, Perlman says. This allows the company to operate far more cheaply than game console manufacturers, which often have to subsidize the cost of the console in order to get mass adoption. (For the first few years of production, Microsoft and Sony sold the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 for hundreds of dollars less than it cost them to make the devices.) "Our cost of operations [is] about a 10th of Microsoft's capital costs involved in getting a user on the Xbox 360," Perlman claims.
But cloud-gaming doesn't just make good business sense; it also makes for a better experience for gamers. For one thing, it's portable. You can play the same games across different kinds of computers and in completely different parts of the country. As the mobile Internet gets faster, you could also imagine playing console-type games on minimal hardware. OnLive has demonstrated the system on netbooks and iPads; because the games are running on the same server regardless of where you're playing, they'll look the same on any hardware you choose.
But Perlman pointed to an even more interesting possibility. "We don't have any upper limit in performance," Perlman says. "Today the serious gamer can build an overclocked 4GHz, 6-core double-NVidia-board beast of a machine, but because there's so few of those out there, game developers don't create many games to take advantage of that." In the same way that OnLive can share processing power across different users, it can also combine processors to make for games that surpass what's possible on your console—creating a big new market for the most advanced games. Before I signed up for OnLive, I'd been wondering whether Internet-based games could ever match the quality of something like an XBox or PS3. Now I wonder if consoles stand a chance.