Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is the future of gaming in the cloud? OnLive tested; my impressions.

Today, I walked into Burger King while Lynn's car was in the shop, plunked down my laptop and played a game that can't even be run on the laptop's hardware, much less at the resolution, frame rate and graphics quality I was playing it at. How? The cloud, my friend, the cloud.

It seems like the future of everything exists in the cloud, those huge server farms that process and store massive amounts of data. Video games have taken advantage of key elements of the cloud, such as with online gaming and MMOs, but they've almost always required that some sort of application or client run on the PC that the player is using. The landscape is changing quickly however, and I believe that the future of gaming also lies within the cloud, allowing players to play games that they don't actually run on their PC.

I remember going to the beach a few years back with some friends, and one of them happened to have a laptop in the car. I realized that I needed to train a new skill for my character in the MMO EVE-Online, and joked that I wished I could log in to start the training. My friend played the game too, and told me that on occasion he remoted to his PC to do skill changes. I happened to have my cell phone handy (hacked to remove tethering limitations) and within a few minutes, we were connected to his PC and I was training a new skill in EVE.

Of course, the connection was a slideshow, but we talked about how cool it would be if we could somehow improve the performance of the remote connection so that the game would be more playable. I'm sure just about anybody who has remoted to another PC has considered this possibility. A company named OnLive has turned it into a reality.

OnLive is one of the first companies that has been able to demonstrate that cloud gaming is feasible. I've recently been invited into OnLive, and I've spent the past few days playing around with it. I've come away thinking that if I could afford to invest stock in anything right now, it would be a company like OnLive.

Honestly though, I'm a poster child for OnLive's target customer. My desktop has been stored away ever since my daughter learned to crawl since she found far too much joy in yanking cables out of the back of it, and anyhow I'd found myself spending too much time gaming and too little time with her or keeping the house in order. In November, I picked up a fairly cheap laptop (a 17-inch ASUS with a dual-core Intel, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD, and Intel GMA for $450 off Newegg) for light gaming (I still have my EVE subscription), web browsing, study and writing.

It's served me well, but the GPU is obviously lacking the muscle needed to play a few games I've been dying to try when my daughter is asleep and I've got some free time on my hands. Namely, Mass Effect 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and Borderlands. I've managed to run Borderlands, but I have to play at a shamefully low resolution for it to be playable (no, seriously, I was playing games at a higher resolution back in the Windows 3.1 days). Most games won't even install; the 128 MB of available memory for the Intel GPU is not sufficient for many modern 3D games that use large texture sizes.

But a service like OnLive runs the game you're playing remotely on a specially-configured server that streams back only video and audio... when you run OnLive, all you're running is a downstream video stream, and an upstream stream of keyboard / mouse inputs. That's it.

Immediately, the drawbacks seem obvious. If you're playing a fast-paced game, even a fraction of second in latency between your keyboard / mouse inputs and what's happening on the screen can make the game unplayable. Imagine a delay between moving your mouse and seeing the screen move in a game like Unreal Tournament and you get the idea.

Suprisingly, OnLive appears to have addressed this, even in the early implementation I've been playing with. There is, and let me emphasize this, no discernible lag on the screen after keyboard or mouse input. If I didn't know better, I'd have no idea the game is not installed and running on the PC when I'm on OnLive. Of course, the video stream requires quite a bit of bandwidth; OnLive recommends 5 Mb or faster. This video stream is, according to OnLive, by default 720p (scaled to fit your screen), with support for 1080p coming at some point in the future. If bandwidth drops while you're playing (ie kid brother starts playing YouTube videos), the video continues coming in smoothly but the quality visibly degrades, starting to look fuzzy and compressed, until eventually as you run out of available bandwidth you begin to get audio and visual stutter (along with an OnLive notification overlay informing you of network issues).

Another big plus about the OnLive service is the lack of any further need to install the games, manage hard drive space, patch the games, or even wait for the game to load. Everything is already running on OnLive servers and loads almost instantly. Saved games go right into OnLive's servers and thus can be loaded from any PC that runs OnLive. Apparently OnLive is also able to scale game processing across multiple server CPU / GPUs if necessary, or for lower-end games, it can run multiple sessions on a single machine. It's worth noting that the video settings in the games are generally preset (I'd say they're middle-to-upper end graphics settings) so you may not get the same kind of visual experience you could have on a very high-end gaming rig, but definitely better than what you would experience on a low-to-mid-end or an older computer.

One other thing to consider is that, when playing multiplayer games on OnLive, all of your opponents (or allies) are on the same physical network as you are, technically speaking, or in some instances, possibly even on the same computer. There is virtually no latency between the sessions themselves, and when combined with the fact that video / input latency is practically zero as I've experienced so far, the result is some of the smoothest and most consistent FPS gaming I've ever experienced. If my girlfriend starts downloading something, instead of rubber banding all over and watching my ping skyrocket, I just notice the screen get a bit fuzzy, which has thus far been much more tolerable than what I've dealt with in the past.

Something else I really enjoy is the spectator mode. In OnLive, it's called the Arena, and it's basically a 5x5 grid of live (in-progress) game video streams that you can move endlessly in any direction over a massive field of video. Click on any one screen and you zoom in to watch in full screen, with the option to thumbs-up or thumbs-down the player. The player doesn't see your rating, but it helps other spectators quickly determine upon entry if a player is worth watching. It's all very well done, an experience that feels smooth and seamless and is almost as entertaining as actually playing yourself.

Lets get on to limitations: lets start off with the subscription charge. As a "founding member" I get a free first year, second year at $5 a month, and then after that (I assume) the standard rate which is a fairly hefty $15 a month, considering it doesn't (currently) actually grant you the ability to do anything other than spectate or play 30-minute demos without buying a game first. And that's another thing; currently only 20 games or so are on the OnLive marketplace, though OnLive plans on having many more. Some of the prices are also fairly high, particularly those charged by Ubisoft, running about $10 more than the games currently retail. Most of the rest of the games are fairly priced, and as a plus some allow game rental periods of 3 or 5 days for a reasonable amount.

Some games also have licensing limitations. For example, there's nothing stopping Mass Effect 2 from running on a Mac that runs OnLive, despite the fact that the game never was released for Mac. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that apparently Microsoft has a stake in ME2 and a licensing agreement was made that it would NOT be released for Mac users. OnLive has been apparently having troubles figuring out how to ensure that the licensing rules are met and that Mac users can't run the game, and it certainly doesn't help that the Mac users are not too happy about the arrangement, (can't say I blame them.) Otherwise, OnLive provides a pretty awesome option to play games from any platform on a PC or via the upcoming OnLive MicroConsole which puts OnLive on your TV, no PC necessary. Provided the developers don't have licensing agreements like those previously mentioned, it could allow gamers to play games that they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

Currently, the OnLive beta (or whatever you call this, their beta page still says the beta is coming soon) does not support the use of WiFi during the OnLive session. Some people are making a big deal out of this but OnLive has explained that this is for the sake of bug-hunting and troubleshooting before release since using WiFi adds a bunch of other latency / reliability factors that could complicate figuring out problems with actual internet performance. Regardless, I've found a rather simple workaround to the problem; just bridge your Local Area and Wireless connections. Disclaimer: I can't explicitly condone this (though I doubt OnLive is reading my blog) because it probably violates some TOS agreement or something. In any case, OnLive has stated they will support WiFi eventually (I'm guessing at launch) so it's not something to get worked up over.

So, provided OnLive's servers don't buckle under the pressure of streaming countless Terabits of video while simultaneously running thousands of games, it promises to be a game-changing (pun intended) experience for the industry. Gamers may find it worthwhile to save the money that they normally spend on high-end computer hardware every year and instead spend a fraction on an OnLive subscription to allow the cutting-edge games to be played on tired old hardware. The question "...but can it play Crysis??" will become a moot one when any PC will be able to play even the most graphically intensive games. Console gamers will get to play those PC-only games that everyone raves about from the comfort of their couch with the familiar feel of a game controller in their hands. You can own dozens upon dozens of games and never have to choose between them or the collection of ripped DVDs on your hard drive. Game developers will revel in the knowledge that OnLive subscribers are buying and playing their games without ever actually installing them, the ultimate DRM.

What do you all think? Will OnLive be able to provide hundreds of thousands of subscribers with consistent low-latency service? Will Steam and Impulse follow suit with services of their own? Will gamers be willing to let go of their obsession for the latest and greatest hardware? How will developers react to cloud gaming if it becomes mainstream? Do you think cloud gaming is the future or is it simply a niche market?

Leave me a comment below, hell, you made it this far!

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