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OnLive Game Service Preview - Is this the future of PC gaming?

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: General
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Running OnLive and the Control Panel

Running the OnLive Beta

I first have to admit that I don't actually have a beta account with the OnLive service; instead a friend of a friend of a friend passed to me their login information after I requested it in order to write a preview of the technology.  Why is this a note-worthy point to make?  There is a chance that OnLive is only selecting beta members that are on ISPs close to their current data centers and as I live outside that area that could affect my experiences with cloud-based gaming.  I'll touch on that where necessary.

There are a couple of interesting limitations for the current beta release that I found.  You HAVE to be hardwired to your internet connection; you cannot use WiFi in your home as the client detects that and disables logging in.  Obviously the OnLive team is being very careful here trying to regulate the experience early users are going to have and they feel the added latency of a wireless network over a wired network might adversely affect users' opinions.  Rumor has it that an upcoming update to the beta in Q1 will enable Wi-Fi support.

Also, for now at least, the beta is limited to a single resolution: 1280x720.  While that resolution isn't what PC gamers are used to seeing, for games that are going to be played on a TV (the long term goal of OnLive) that is a reasonable setting.  That being said, when starting OnLive on my 30" display the process of stretching the 720p image up to 2560x1600 definitely added noticeable noise to the image.  You do have the option of playing OnLive in the 720p window which I did for a lot of the time (the ability to Alt-O to pause and check other applications is great). 



Imagine, if you can, a black screen with an orange logo that says "OnLive" and underneath it are the words "Step 1: Performing system test..."

I was also surprised to find that the client does do some local hardware checking and validation as it would not run on my HP Mini 311 netbook that uses the Intel Atom processor and the NVIDIA ION chipset, even when directly connected via Ethernet.  Considering how little CPU horsepower the client seems to use this is a bit of a let down as well as it was one of the key selling points for the OnLive service - playing high end games on just about anything.  If you think about the end goals of OnLive, including iPhone gaming support and a really really cheap set top box, I would have to assume that support for a platform like Atom and Pine Trail would be supported soon. 



Imagine this same black box with the same orange logo with the words under it reading "Step 2: Connecting to OnLive..."
The OnLive client is also testing for latency on start up to see how well your connection performs.  Every time I connected from my area, this is the warning I got:


Now this one is tricky.  Imagine a black box with these words: "Performance Warning - The following conditions were detected, and may impact your experience: We have detected a high latency connection to the Internet that may result in slow responsiveness."
This is the reason I made the note above about the location of current beta testers; there were even a couple of times when my Internet was particularly sluggish where the client would not let me connect to the service AT ALL!  (Note that this only happened on one single evening where my cable provider was providing 1-1.5 Mb/s downstream as opposed to the normal 20-25 Mb/s downstream.)  The problem here is that from a scientific stand point I have no idea what my true ping was to the OnLive servers or what they consider to be "high".  Regardless, the beta application was willing to let me run the program so the game was on!

The OnLive Interface

When you first start the OnLive
application you are met with a simple animation that attempts to indicate the "worldliness" of the OnLive service...or something like that.  The good news is you can skip and go right to the main menu when you want to.  Rather than continue with my completely relevant descriptions of the screens you see, instead I have included a video of the introduction and interface.

Because this video uses another company's logo and totally awesome splash screen on it, we are being forced to remove it, sorry!



Another update!  I found this video of the EXACT SAME THING that has been on YouTube for about 10 months without a DMCA take down notice given to it, so I thought I would include it here.  :)

On the main menu you'll see options for Arena, Profile, Games, Showcase, My Stuff, Last Played, Brag Clips and Friends.  Most of these are pretty self explanatory.  The Arena is an area to see challenges, Showcase will hold trailers for new games and upcoming games that you'll be able to add to your OnLive subscription, Brag Clips is a place where you save videos of games you were playing to share with your friends - this is actually cool because it works with any game on the OnLive service and basically emulates applications like FRAPS and YouTube hosting. 

While using the main menu interface I saw my first indication that something wasn't perfect - mouse lag.  The lag I am referring to here is of course the lag between the time I move my mouse on my desk to the time I see it happen on the screen.  This is of course the principle debate about OnLive and other technologies like it - can the latency issue be solved in a way to make it actually "feel" like you are working locally?  The first answer, not in-game, that I got, was a no.  It wasn't unusable but definitely was immediately recognizable. 

The Game Selection and Loading Process

The Games list is interestingly laid out and I expect that as the
number of games grows they will need a better way to organize it that
just having a single alphabetical list.  The games currently offered in
the beta are:

  • Burnout: Paradise The Ultimate Box

  • Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood demo
  • Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts demo
  • Crysis Wars
  • Crysis Warhead
  • Defense Grid: The Awakening demo
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War
  • Mass Effect
  • The Maw demo
  • Price of Persia
  • Tom Clancy's HAWX
  • Trine demo
  • Unreal Tournament III: Titan Pack
  • World of Goo demo

During the beta phase, users are limited to playing a single game
session for only 30 minutes at a time.  That was kind of a let down but
my guess is the game publishers asked for this so they could still sell
games to OnLive testers in the interim.  You can also see that OnLive
has a good mix of gaming types: fast past FPS games like UT3, arcade
racing with Burnout, real-time strategy with Company of Heroes and even
indie-games like World of Goo.  I played quite a few of these games of
course for my article but we'll be focusing on just a few of them for
our side-by-side testing later in the article.

Another benefit of the OnLive service is in the load times - the games all loaded relatively quickly, within about 30 seconds.  I would put that on par with a lot of top level gaming PCs out there and what's great is that those load times won't deviate at all whether you are running on a slow PC or a fast one.  Also, exiting a game and switching to another one was incredibly quick and easy using the keyboard shortcut of Alt-O that brings up a Steam-like back end menu that you can use to navigate around. 

Despite my nagging about the latency issues in the menu though, the user interface itself seems clean and simple.

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