OnLive investors out to lunch?

The revolutionary game streaming system OnLive was announced at GDC this week and has prompted a flurry of press about the future of the games industry. Their presentation was ultra slick and all the right buzz words were in place.

Cloud computing… tick

End to piracy… tick

Ground breaking video compression… tick

Streaming HD video… tick

Thin client… tick

Play top end games without having to buy a top end rig… tick

The last of those is obviously aimed at potential end-users. Those people who would love to play high end PC games without the cost of buying/upgrading a high end rig. Just imagin “owning” a top of the range rig for just a low subsciption payment. Sounds too good too be true doesn’t it?

Moving on I think the other items are aimed at a different target demographic. Not the cost concious/cheap/poor gamer but the rather more affluent potential investors. As mentioned above it had the slick launch/presentation and all the latest buzz words, so what are the odds they already have a bunch of investors lined up ready to sign up if OnLive successfully gets through this GDC launch?

I think the odds of investors biting are good but the odds of the service delivering are rather less so. Like the “Leet rig on the cheap” concept that is going to attract end users the technology claims just seem too good to be true. I am sure the system does work in the lab – under controlled conditions. Sadly however the real world doesn’t much care to be controlled and neither does the Internet.

Video compression/streaming – they are talking about being able to compress and stream video far better and faster than anything currently on the market. Not a little better…. way better. Download any streaming video on the internet and there will almost certainly be a delay before it starts as your system buffers the video. It does this because the Internet isn’t a stable delivery platform… not even close. The buffering allows the video download to get ahead of your viewing so that when there is a lag in the download you can keep viewing smoothly and then, hopefully, the video download will catch up again when the connection quality returns.

Of course you can’t buffer game play because the game has to react to what you are doing with the controller now, not 5 seconds ago. So, even if their video compression is as good as they say it is, the Internet isn’t. The ability to provide a stable, close to real-time video stream at the quality they are proposing simply isn’t something they have control over. This sort of problem might not be an issue with something like a turn based game or an adventure but anything with an element of twitch control, such as a racing game, platformer or shooter will suffer badly when the quality of the connection drops. Far worse than current games that only need to transmit small amounts of 3D data.

The other issue with OnLive is that they are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Yes, cloud computing probably is the future for many games. Run your game on the server, prevent or reduce piracy, eliminate stock problems (you still sell at retail but the box just has a redmption code for a download) and remove the need for (obvious) patches. However all this can be done without the need for a giant (some may say Science Fiction) leap forward in video compression and a complete overhaul of the internet.

I am sure this service will make it to market in some form and I am sure that some games will appear but as for it being the future…. far from it. Personally I think it will be a phantom memory in a few years.

As usual the guys at Penny Arcade have things pretty well nailed.

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