OnLive: Gaming in the Cloud

2011-05-18 by . 0 comments

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OnLive Logo

The Future?

I first heard about OnLive from a co-worker, before it was even in beta. He thought it was going to revolutionize gaming. So I kept an eye on it. I signed up for the mailing list. I was able to get in on the ground floor, and watch the service from the very start.

You’ve probably noticed that OnLive hasn’t completely revolutionized gaming yet. But it still might…

First, let’s talk about the service. OnLive is the name of the company, but it’s also a gaming service and a piece of hardware that plugs into your TV. You can choose to connect through their “micro-console,” but you can also get the exact same content from an internet connected PC or Mac.

What’s interesting and futuristic about OnLive is how you get your games. In short, you don’t. You have no discs. No game data is stored to the micro-console or the PC hard drive. It all lives on a server farm in another city. When you want to play your game, you connect to the server farm. The game starts up on one of those servers, and the OnLive system transmits the video output across the internet, to your TV or PC monitor. When you push a button on your keyboard or controller, that input goes across the internet to the server, where it has some effect on the game that’s running there.

If nothing else, this system is a significant paradigm shift. There are a few advantages and disadvantages to disentangle.


Processing in the cloud

Like other cloud services, OnLive takes the strain off your local machine and puts it on the server farm. You can suddenly run the most graphically intense new titles on any machine that can handle HD video. You never have to install or patch a game. A failed hard-drive won’t destroy your progress. You can save your game at your house, then head to your friend’s house and pick up where you left off.

No more console exclusivity

The service runs slightly modified versions of PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. You can play Xbox-exclusives on your PC, and PC-exclusives on the mini-console. Mac-lovers can play everything too. And when the next generation of consoles come out, you can expect to be able to play those games too.

Purchase options

As expected, the service allows you to purchase games outright, but there are also numerous other options. You can play demos. You can rent most games for 3 or 5 days. There’s also a subscription service that allows you full access to over 50 games (as long as you continue to pay the monthly fee). From what I’ve seen, OnLive also has frequent sales, on par with other services like Steam.


The menus and organization of the service are simple and slick. For the most part, it stays out of your way. There are the standard features, like a friends list and messaging system. There are built-in trailers for upcoming games. You can record short “brag clips” to show off your exploits, and others can view and rate them. (You can waste an evening watching clips of people blowing stuff up creatively in Just Cause 2. Believe me, I’ve done it.)

The best feature is the Arena. Because every game has a video stream, you can literally watch anyone playing, as they play. If you’re not sure you want a game, you can watch half a dozen streams of people at various levels and see what you’re in for. If you like “Let’s Plays,” you’ll love this feature.



Like many subscription gaming services, like GameFly or GameTap, the OnLive subscription service only gives you the gaming goodness as long as you keep paying for it. Of course, with OnLive, you can buy the games too. It’s not quite the same as owning a DVD, however. The game resides solely on the OnLive servers. OnLive is a business, and like any business, it could fail. If OnLive goes under, all your games will probably be gone. It’s probably not likely to happen in the near future, but it’s something to consider.

Game selection

You may be able to get around console exclusivity, but only for the games that OnLive supports. It’s almost a year since the service launched, and there are upwards of 50 games available. This seems fairly respectable to me. If the platform can prove its sales potential, I suspect this will ramp up quite a bit. It’s easier to port a game to OnLive than an entirely new console, so it should take much less profit to make it worth it for the developers. That said, the current selection of games is considerably smaller than for other consoles.

Lag and internet connectivity

This is the big kicker. The recent failure of the PlayStation network has ruffled some feathers, but most PS3 games continue to be playable. With OnLive, the internet has become a piece of the console. If you have internet issues, you can’t play anything.

Lag is an equally serious concern. We stream movies, music and radio, but games are different. The problem is that unlike those other forms of media, gaming requires a constant cycle of input and output, and it must be in real time. OnLive has gone and put the entire internet in between the screen and the console, and the internet is a fickle beast. Compared to the connections between components in your PC or console, it’s not very reliable. Sometimes data gets slowed down. Sometimes it’s lost. It might depend on your location, your ISP, the local weather, or your neighbor’s 2000 torrents in progress. Everyone’s internet connection is different.

The first thing people worry about when I explain OnLive is bandwidth issues, but OnLive does a pretty good job in that regard. You can get a crisp HD picture on a decent connection. If your internet gets too slow, it will gracefully degrade into a somewhat fuzzier picture. Really, they’re just streaming back a video feed of your game, so this isn’t much different from NetFlix or YouTube. OnLive recommends an Internet connection of 5 Mbit/s or faster, and a 3 Mbit/s connection is the minimum requirement.


The real problem is latency. For those who don’t know the difference, bandwidth is the amount of data you can receive in a given second. Latency is how long the data takes to get to you. Imagine your internets are a series of tubes, and data is water running through them. The bandwith is the diameter of the pipe. It determines how much water you can get per second. The latency is the speed of the water, or how long it takes to get from one end of the pipe to the other.

Latency isn’t much of an issue for books, movies, music or most websites. But latency is a very big deal for OnLive. I can wait a few seconds after pushing the play button on a movie, no harm done. If I have to wait a few seconds between pushing the B button and firing my rocket launcher, I’m going to be pissed.

Remember the co-worker who got me interested in OnLive in the first place? Well, I live in a major metropolitan center, and he lives about 35 minutes outside the city. We both signed up as soon as the service was available. It worked great for me. He had to wait a second between pushing the B button and launching a rocket. He tried changing ISPs, but he still had problems. He even called them up and asked if he could get a lower-latency connection. A Helpful Tech Support Agent informed him that he already had a high-bandwidth connection. A lengthy discussion of the differences between bandwidth and latency only served to confuse the poor Helpful Tech Support Agent. So my co-worker has given up on OnLive. He went from true believer to lost customer in a couple weeks.

This is the big gamble that OnLive is taking. When OnLive works, it works great. When it doesn’t work, there’s nothing you or OnLive or Helpful Tech Support Agent can really do about it. Until Google buys us all fiber connections direct to our houses, latency issues will probably be the most significant limitation on the growth of the service.

Try Before you Buy

To give OnLive a fair shake, there are really two separate issues to consider: your internet, and the service itself.

Check your internet first. If you don’t have the pipe to support it, there’s no point in delving into OnLive. Find the nearest server farm and run a ping test to that city. If your ping is under 30ms, you’ll probably be unable to see any lag. As it creeps higher than that, you’re liable to have issues. (My ping to Chicago – the nearest OnLive server farm – is around 10. My coworker’s was about 55.) The OnLive Wikipedia article seems to keep fairly up-to-date on expansion plans, so check there to see if an OnLive server may be coming to your area.

If you’re on the edge of reasonable numbers, sign up (it’s free) and try a demo or drop a couple bucks on a 3-day rental. I’d recommend testing an action-heavy game, like a first person shooter. You should be able to notice any lag pretty quickly.


Beyond the challenges of internet, I can wholeheartedly endorse the OnLive system. The social features like the Arena and brag clips are great. The ability to play all games on any PC, Mac or through the micro-console is quite convenient, and the micro-console itself is wonderfully sleek and small. Even the controller that comes with it is high-quality. The subscription option is nice for those who like to try lots of games, and it should get better as the selection grows. There is already a nice variety of games, ranging from top tier console offerings like the Assassin’s Creed series or Batman: Arkham Asylum, to indie PC titles like Braid and Trine.

There are still a few things besides the internet connection for OnLive to work on, but none of them strike me as deal-breakers. Bigger game selection would be nice, but they’re obviously working on that. They also seem to be getting some AAA titles closer to their console release dates, such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. The other thing that will concern some people is the lock-in. Because you don’t have a physical copy of the game you buy, you have to trust that OnLive will not go under, lest your games all suddenly vanish. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a big deal or not.

Overall, OnLive is an interesting experiment, and one I will continue to watch closely. With any luck, cloud gaming will continue to expand and improve. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future of gaming is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Filed under Impressions

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