Onlive set to change the way we play our games, but will it work?

Onlive claims to have sorted out the gaming sector and offer us “Powerful Gaming made easy”. The idea behind Onlive is that you never have to purchase another computer console to play the latest games again – music to the ears of every parent in the western world no doubt. Instead you use either an ‘entry level’ PC or MAC; or use the OnLive MicroConsole connected to your TV to play your games. These devices will connect via broadband to the Onlive cloud of gaming servers and the output is sent directly to your screen.

Is this the End of Gaming Hardware?

The purpose of Onlive is to eradicate the annual purchase of the latest hardware such as a Playstation or Xbox (the PS3 launched in the UK at a RRP of £425), reducing the cost of games by ‘renting’ games through the service, improving development cost and time for dev companies by only having to develop for one system, use a cloud service to offer ‘save games’, friends list, multiplayer and other social networking goodies.

During the development of OnLive, due out 17th of June 2010 (initially US only), specialists have raised several possible problems to such a system in our current technical environment. I will mention three of the largest problems facing the service and possibly leading to its downfall.

1 Internet speed

Or more accurately, internet latency. Game input data has to now travel from your wireless device (if using the micro consoles Wi-Fi controller), to the console, forwarded through your local network, to the server cloud a number of miles away. The server then runs the game code dependant on your actions, converts the display to a compressed video and sends the signal back to your micro console which then forwards the display to your television.

Bandwidth may now be large enough for HD video to stream down a broadband connection. However, the fear here is that the time between inputting a command to the game and seeing the results on screen, maybe too large for most gamers and hinder the experience. Considering that a lot of current gen games software alone lag at around 50ms, that doesn’t leave much overhead for further delays.

2 Server Horsepower

A single computer required to play today’s ‘hottest games’ would be a large expense for an individual. This new company is looking to purchase a huge array of servers, each machine capable of supporting multiple players simultaneously. Onlive have so far kept very quiet about their pricing structure and cost of installing their cloud. I personally will be very interested to see how low they can get their monthly subscription fee.

3 Image quality / data compression

Everyone today is talking about HD and this is no exception in the gaming market. Onlive, however offers sub-current generation output. Although Onlive does offer HD gaming, the compression needed to get the data through your broadband connection will affect the final output image in terms of quality.

However, with all that said, Onlive have demonstrated their system working at GDC last year within a ‘controlled environment’ using an external server to the building where games were being played. Also I am sure to excite our own Director of Search, Jon Earnshaw, by highlighting that the iPhone was also recently demonstrated playing Crysis via Onlive to a group of Columbia University students by Onlive founder, Steve Perlman. No doubt then that the service will smoothly transfer to the iPad.

Also BT has just purchased a 2.6% stake in the company, promising to host servers which would vastly reduce game latency.

Although with an Xbox 360 now costing just £160 RRP, will a service offering lower quality output, with slower game reaction speed really be able to compete?