OnLive – Are You Ready for Full Price Rentals?

A while back the OnLive gaming service launched, and I posted my first impressions, and proceeded to spend much of my free time playing free demos of the various games available on the service. Now after a few months of hands-on experience I am ready to deliver my thoughts on this start-up video game-over network service. How does it work? Read on and find out!

The Hype:
OnLive is the pioneer of on-demand, instant-play video game services, delivering real-time interactive experiences and rich media through the Internet. With groundbreaking, patent-pending video compression technology, OnLive harnesses cloud computing to provide the power and intelligence needed to instantly deliver the latest, premium game titles directly via a sleek, inexpensive MicroConsole TV adapter (coming soon), or on PCs and Macs via a web browser.

The Reality:
This is an odd sort of review, since it is much like reviewing Netflix as a movie streaming service. Only with Netflix all you are really concerned about is availability and the ability of the stream to utilize your connection efficiently to deliver quality playback without delays.

OnLive utilizes a model where the game you select is ‘played’ on a remote server and the video results are piped over your broadband connection. Obviously this involves pushing some serious data. You need to have your actions transmitted to the server, then have the game react and draw the screen, then send it back to the client on your machine, and then get those results displayed.

Let’s take a look at the various features and how well they work:

Graphics: As OnLve themselves noted, their service is not meant to replace the high-end quad-core, SLI equipped mega-PC costing thousands of dollars and requiring an annual upgrade to remain cutting edge. The service runs at a fixed 720p (1280×720) resolution, which may or may not change in the future.

Although 720p sounds great, the reality is less impressive. The graphics are compressed and there are no user-options available. For some games this is not an issue – LEGO Harry Potter looked about the same as my full PC version, but for higher-end games such as Splinter Cell Conviction, Just Cause 2, Mafia II and so on … the differences are stark. But again – if you can see the differences, and worry about them, perhaps OnLive isn’t for you.

Controls: This is a tricky one because it seems to be game specific. The defaults and availability of user settings for controls seem to vary from game to game. For some games I could change everything and it would be saved even when I logged out, for others I was just stuck with whatever the game wanted. Most game allowed use of a XBOX 360 controller as well as the traditional keyboard and mouse … though that wasn’t always a good choice.

Lag / Performance: There are two issues here: how well controller performance works and how well the OnLive system behaves.

In general I found the system responsive when playing with keyboard & mouse. I was actually quite pleased at how well it dealt with transmitting the actions so quickly – and even more with the downstream response. However, using the XBOX360 wireless controller I ran into more issues with lag and missed responses. Nothing critical, but it seems that the wireless processing ran into more critical timing issues.

As for playability and general performance, I never had a single issue. Basically, if the service would start, it would run and play perfectly. I could play demos, watch others play in spectator mode, and so on, without any problems.

WiFi / Network Utilization: The first time I launched OnLive, it grabbed a ~5MB/sec pipe and wouldn’t let go. It ran great, but pretty much shut down the network for anyone else in my house. When I tried a Steam download from another wired machine and it started competing, OnLive shut down.

The good news? Since then the network efficiency has greatly improved, with the service pulling a smaller network chunk and being more robust to the normal ups and downs of a network situation. That said, the other day I was downloading the newly released King’s Bounty: Crossworlds from GamersGate (which also meant re-downloading and re-installing the original King’s Bounty and the King’s Bounty: Armored Princess expansion) and decided to play some stuff on OnLive, and it just couldn’t come to an agreement with the three open downloaders and refused to launch. I wasn’t surprised – I had just gotten used it always working so I didn’t even think twice!

The service just launched a WiFi mode, and has been rolling it out as beta availability for existing users. I have had a chance to play, and so far it has worked very well. I have managed to play games at the furthest point away from the main router in my house – which is far enough away that I have Airport Express repeaters! It has dropped on me several times, and shows all the signs of a typical beta … but I am hopeful they will keep improving it over time.

Extra Features: Aside from the core tasks of buying/renting and playing games, OnLive also has a number of social and community-based features. These include ‘Brag Clips’, recorded snippits you can post for others to see how wonderful (or not) you are, as well as typical ‘friend’ messaging and community sharing services that are well integrated.

You can also enter Spectator mode – basically you are watching others play a game. This might seem silly, but aside from playing a 30-minute demo this gives you a great way to see what it is like to get into the meat of a game, or just watch how others approach multiplayer, or whatever. It is actually fairly useful, and can be fun viewing.

Game Availability: When the service launched, there were fewer than 20 games available, and some of them were ‘demo only’. At this point the list has grown by 50%, but there is still a mix of limited releases – ‘demo only’, ‘buy only’, coming soon – along with full-featured releases.

I have been underwhelmed with the selections OnLive has offered from the start, and little has happened to change that opinion since the games added since launch include more ‘retreads’ – such as Virtua Tennis 2009 and LEGO Batman – than new additions like Mafia II and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. It isn’t a terrible line-up, and the new ‘day & date’ releases of those high-profile games is definitely a good thing … but there isn’t much that I would use to sell someone on paying $5 a month!

In a recent email survey a question hinted at a ‘GameTap’ like feature:

“Would you be interested in paying a flat rate per month to get access to a library of games that were more than 6 months old?”

Personally I would love that – paying a few dollars a month to have access to a large library of classics without having to install them locally. We will have to wait and see … but for now in terms of available the service is severely lacking.

Price: In my earlier article I mentioned that so-called ‘founding members’ were given a year of service for free as well as their choice of one ‘free game’. At that point I really hadn’t paid much attention to the pricing model.

However, once I decided to buy a game, I clicked on ‘Get PlayPass’ and saw the screen above. I had actually completely missed out on the whole ‘Rental’ thing, as had many folks. This gives you several play options:

  • 30 minute timed demo
  • 3-day rental
  • 5-day rental
  • ‘Full’ playpass

Well, that isn’t entirely accurate – that is the MOST you will ever see, as some games are demo-only, some offer only a Full PlayPass, some offer either a 3 or 5 day PlayPass, and some offer everything. That in itself is disconcerting – here is a game service with less than 30 entries, and they have been unable even to get every publisher to allow a demo of the game, let alone rentals!

The 3 or 5 day rental is in direct competition with BlockBuster game rentals, and are priced at either $5 & $7 or $6 & $9 depending on the game, with new releases commanding the higher price (and also LEGO Batman … I have no explanation). Considering I paid $7 BlockBuster in ~2006 for a PSP rental before the launch of Goozex, I consider this a GREAT DEAL! My big concern – too many limits on which games get what offers!

As for the Full PlayPass, it is priced at the full current retail. In some cases they use the PC game price ($50) and for others the console pricing ($60). Once again Ubisoft is causing me to scratch my head, charging $60 for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction, a game I can get at Amazon right now for $30 for the PC … and not offering a rental.

In my opinion THIS is where the rubber hits the road for OnLive. Will gamers find enough value in the service to pay full price for games over the long term? Will even those with PC capable of running the games decide there is a value to not installing and using disc space and having to maintain DVDs and so on? All of that remains to be seen.

Service / Subscription:
Because it is currently free, it is easily to forget that OnLive is a subscription service. The monthly fee, which was originally supposed to be $14.99 per month, is now going to be $4.95 per month after the AT&T sponsored free year expires.

And because it is a subscription, if you allow it to lapse you will no longer have access to your games. Even the ones you ‘bought’. If the service is down, there is no way to play, and so on.

Imagine if you bought a cell phone at full price and attached it to your monthly service plan, only to find out that when you terminated the service you had to turn in the phone as well. You wouldn’t really feel like you ‘owned’ the phone, would you? If you got a significant discount for doing that it would be fine, but at full price … ?

That is the closest analogy I can find to what happens. You pay $50 for Mafia II – the exact same amount as on Steam or at retail – and you can only play when attached to a >3MB/sec pipe, and only as long as the OnLive service is up and running, and only as long as you are subscribed to the service.

Summary: Nobody believed that OnLove would work – including me! Think about it – you are streaming HD video over the internet that is responding in real time to changes you make using a control system that allows for multiple simultaneous inputs.

Yet is DOES work – and it works really, really well! Gameplay is smooth, controls are responsive with minor lag issues, networking is improving and even the elusive WiFi gaming is starting to roll out.

Let me go a step further – this service worked well on my Lenovo netbook when I plugged it into my network adapter. That is exactly the sort of thing that makes it attractive – great gaming on a low-end system!

The pricing model for the ‘Full PlayPass’ is what really gives me pause. Think of it this way – if you buy one game per month at $50 and remain subscribed to the service, it is the same as paying $55 per game! You are paying a premium for games you don’t really own and that require high speed access.

I am also concerned with the seemingly tepid support from publishers. Ubisoft is the worst, with limited options and high prices – but the lack of a single unified standard is troubling. I hope that there is enough success during this period to convince more publishers to adopt a more customer-friendly stance.

Aside from the technical aspects of playing games, I was also very impressed with the pricing of the 3 and 5 day PlayPass. For the same price as dealing with BlockBuster you can simply click to play a game, and the pass will simply expire at the end of 3 or 5 days without any concerns about a penalty or late fee!

For me, that is how I see my usage of OnLive – as a rental service for games I want to play but have no interest in owning long term. I think that is what publishers fear – they want you to buy the full game and add on DLC through the life of the game. The real question for OnLive and publishers is how gamers will respond to the service and its offerings … and that remains to be seen.

Review: OnLive Gaming Service

Where to Buy: OnLive Home Page

Price: $4.95/month (plus price of games)

What I Like: High quality graphics – even on a netbook; responsive controls with minor lag; games launch instantly; demo is the ‘real game’; competitive rental prices; service keeps improving

What Needs Improvement: Needs a unified service model including demo, rental and purchase; prices too high on full games; WiFi still sketchy (but keeps improving)

Source: Personal subscription

Categories: Gaming, Reviews


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