OnLive is instant gratification tempered with disappointment, a glimpse at the future of video games that constantly reminds you that we’re not there yet.
The value proposition: Subscribe to OnLive, and you’ll never have to buy another game console or graphics card. The service streams video games as compressed audio and video from remote servers with minimal effort from your own hardware. Although OnLive launched for Windows PCs and Macs in June, the service takes a major step this week with the MicroConsole, a tiny $99 television set-top box and game controller that starts shipping on Thursday.
I’ve been playing around with a loaned MicroConsole from OnLive, and while I wouldn’t dare abandon my Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 for it right now, I won’t rule out the future that OnLive keeps promising.
OnLive rarely ran perfectly on my cable Internet connection, which clocks around 10 Mbps in speed tests. (between 3 Mbps and 5 Mbps is recommended, depending on screen size.) Cutscenes would usually hit little bumps of video choppiness, and games, while smooth enough to play, were prone to service interruptions. A few times in any given hour, the game would stop and a “network problem” message would pop up in the corner of the screen. At best, the game would quickly sling forward to what I was doing before the interruption. At worst, an error screen would encourage me to quit or try again later, but I was always able to resume playing after about 10 seconds of waiting.
Then there’s the input lag. As you might expect, OnLive excels at games whose pacing is slower. The spy shooter Alpha Protocol was managable, but I barely survived the tutorial of Unreal Tournament III. I’m not entirely confident that OnLive can handle racing games like Dirt 2, which require split-second reactions, but I barely noticed the lag when playing Madballs in Babo: Invasion, a simple top-down run and gun. In all cases, the controller’s analog joysticks help mask the input delay, which is more noticable on a PC mouse and keyboard. (The controller has its own problems, which I’ll get to shortly.)
Despite OnLive’s service issues, it has one redeeming factor inherent to the service: Because all data is stored remotely, you can pick up on the console precisely where you left off on a PC, and vice versa. It’s a wonderful feeling to be liberated from hardware, and it’s just convenient when someone wants to use the TV and you want to keep playing.
Next to the hulking Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, OnLive’s MicroConsole is a statement of defiance. It literally fits in the palm of your hand, and I immediately imagined myself sliding it into my laptop bag for travel. (I probably never would, but it’s possible.)
There are two USB ports on the front for charging and syncing controllers, and ports for HDMI, Ethernet and optical audio on the back. I’m not bothered by the lack of AV outputs–chances are, if you’re checking out OnLive, you’re cutting-edge enough to own an HDTV–but the lack of built-in Wi-Fi is a drag.
The controller looks like an Xbox 360 gamepad at a glance, but positions both thumbsticks towards the center, like a PS3 controller. It feels nice in the hands, with one potentially dealbreaking drawback: There’s a huge deadzone in the thumbsticks that really hurts accuracy. I’m sure the aforementioned input lag isn’t helping, but after testing extensively, I found minor aiming and movement adjustments to be nearly impossible with OnLive’s controller, to the point that headshots in first-person shooters were practically out of the question.
On the bright side, the OnLive controller’s D-Pad feels better than any current console, producing an audible and tactile click when you depress the directional buttons. It makes me wish that OnLive offered some classic platformers and arcade games in addition to its modern choices.
For a service that can serve up any game in an instant, OnLive’s current library is a letdown, with only 35 games at launch, none of which were released for consoles or PC in the last month. Activision and
Take-Two Rockstar Games are absent for now, which means no Call of Duty and no Grand Theft Auto. (There’s hope for the latter given that one of Take Two’s other subsidiaries, 2K Games, has several titles on the service.) Electronic Arts, which supported the service in beta with hits like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, no longer provides any games. (A licensing deal with competitor Gaikai could be to blame.)
Even if OnLive’s game library grows, it’ll have a tough time competing with consoles whose bread and butter are exclusive franchises. If streaming games are the future, Microsoft and Sony will build their own services before handing over Halo, God of War and LittleBigPlanet. Mario and crew will never leave Nintendo for third-party hardware.
OnLive can potentially create its own exclusive content. Powerful servers allow the company to deliver better graphics than any modern console, but it’ll take pioneering publishers and developers to tap that potential, and they won’t commit until OnLive has an audience.
Which brings us to the business model. OnLive lets you rent individual games for $4 to $9–if publishers allow it — and purchase them at retail prices, but you never really own the games, and they’re only guaranteed to work for three years. That’s why OnLive’s promised flat-rate subscription plan is so important. If the company can put together an appealing smorgasbord of back catalog games, it’ll at least have a unique service for gamers to consider. This could provide the audience OnLive needs to grow.
Beyond all the fancy technology, OnLive needs to be a good game console. Count achievements and voice chat on the list of sorely needed features, but the latter might be tricky because OnLive needs all the bandwidth it can get for games.
I really liked the ability to instantly spectate from a random selection of games, and for that matter, to be spectated. Periodically, you might see a little message that someone’s watching, and if you’ve got an ego, you’ll feel the urge to show off. Other players can “cheer” or “jeer” your performance, which adds a neat social element even when you’re playing alone.
Players can also upload highlights, or “brag clips,” of their virtual exploits, but honestly I never felt compelled to do this. Maybe some sort of OnLive-administered contest would provide some incentive.
OnLive still seems more like a proof of concept than a fourth competitor in the game console wars. I can’t recommend it on the strength of the service and MicroConsole alone, and the wimpy game library doesn’t inspire confidence.
Then again, $99 is not a lot of money as far as gaming hardware goes. If it weren’t for the substandard game controller, I might’ve splurged on the MicroConsole just to have it around as OnLive evolves. It’s the kind of whimsical technology that a lot of people should check out, but few should invest in right now.