Saturday, 15 May 2010

OnLive Gaming Service Comes To The UK

Last September OnLive began beta testing its brand new streaming video gaming service in the US, called unsurprisingly OnLive. The technology represented a whole new way of bringing videogames into the home. Rather than requiring a hardware box with specific processing components for rendering graphics, gameplay, etc, it acted more like a router or Internet connection device, instead delivering its content through the use of real-time streaming video.

Games aren’t downloaded onto a hard drive for play later on, instead they are instantly streamed on the fly, ready for the user as soon as the OnLive MicroConsole has started its download. During the beta controls were found to be fairly responsive, with some lag - much like the delayed responses to be found in many motion control titles on the Wii. The video stream was, at best, relatively serviceable, with evidence of macro blocking and a fare share of image break up. Detail had also been compromised as a result of the video compression scheme, lacking the same kind of intricacy found in a direct uncompressed HD source.

However, it did seem like a perfect compromise for the quality oblivious masses, in which around 50% still play their HD consoles in SD – some on a HDTV no less. I can see OnLive featuring as almost a games-on-demand rental service for most consumers, with the more serious of gamer types opting to buy a traditional console for maximum quality. Either way, the technology and idea represents a very different way of thinking when it comes to giving us a definitive gaming experience. There are upsides to the use of streaming video, mainly in the form of users not needing to have powerful hardware at their end, in a separate box powering the games. Instead, all the processing is done on high-end PC’s at OnLive and them streamed out through their array of data servers.

In ten years time, with broadband rapidly increasing in speed and reliability, we could be seeing a service such as this become the new face of traditional gaming. OnLive is in effect, in its current state, a big trial, a test to see not just how well the technology could work, but also if people are ready for such a business model so soon after the initial breakthrough.

For the United Kingdom OnLive are partnering with BT in rolling out a beta trial for sometime this summer, just after the final service goes live in the United States. Whilst no date has been set for the trial as of yet, we do know that it will be available through both a PC and MAC alongside the OnLive MicroConsole. Helping OnLive to pick up much needed market share in the territory is BT, who has purchased a 2.6 percent share in the company. This basically gives BT rights to bundle in the OnLive with its broadband packages increasing overall uptake compared to individual subscriptions.

Anyone not using BT will still be able to order the service directly through OnLive for use with their existing ISP. Users from all around Europe and the UK will be able to play against each other in online matches, along with community-based features such as Chat options, brag chips and profiles. Online play will be restricted between European and UK users only, although the community features will work regardless of region. So gamers can at least talk and compare profiles with their US counterparts.

So far various publishing companies, including the likes of Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Warner Bros. Interactive, THQ, Epic Games, Eidos, Atari Interactive, and Codemasters have already signed up to have their games available on the service. That’s a pretty large show of support and should allow most of the high-profile AAA release PC titles to make an appearance on the service, with other titles and publishers joining later down the line if it proves to be successful.

OnLive certainly looks promising, on paper at least. There is still some issues that need to be sorted out with control lag – which is pretty bad at this point – and with regards to the amount of compression used in the video stream, which at present is said to be somewhat blocky and unsuitable for fast motion. However, the service looks to provide the next step in videogame rentals at the very least, with a solid replacement for traditional retail games likely to come further in the future when high-end broadband speeds are available to most of the general public.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how well OnLive performs in the UK both technically, and from a consumer’s point of view, with the financials and quality of the tech being paramount to its success. The public must also be happy with how the service performs, along with having enough new content released each week to justify the entry fee each moth.

Nevertheless, what OnLive hopes to achieve could well revolutionise how the games playing public actually takes delivery of their gaming experiences. If done right, it could eventually replace the traditional consoles as the main source of gaming in the next ten to twenty years.

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