You may never buy a new video card ever again. Actually, the only PC gaming hardware you might ever need will cost you less than a Wii, should OnLive's potential live up to its promise.
OnLive is a new video games on demand service that may just change the way you play PC games. The brainchild of Rearden Studios founder Steve Perlman, formerly of Atari, Apple, WebTV and more, and Mike McGarvey, formerly of Eidos, the technology looks to revolutionize the way computer games are brought home. Instead of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the latest video game hardware that will make games like Crysis playable at nearly maxed settings, let OnLive's servers handle the processing. All that's required is a low cost "micro console" or a low end PC and a broadband internet connection.
Yes, even your sub $500 netbook or MacBook can play processor intensive, GPU demanding PC games. In fact, that's the whole point. How does it work?
The concept is simple. Your controller input isn't going from your hand to the controller to the machine in front of you, it's going from your hand to the controller through the internet to OnLive's machines then back again as streamed video. Whether you're using a USB gamepad, Bluetooth wireless controller, or tried and true keyboard and mouse, the processing and output happens on OnLive's side, then is fed back to your terminal, with the game "perceptually" played locally.
In other words, it's cloud computed gaming.
Using patented video compression in tandem with algorithms that compensate for lag, jitter and packet loss, OnLive delivers video at up to 720p resolution at frame rates up to 60 frames per second. Of course, the quality of the video feed relies on your connection.
For standard definition television quality, a broadband connection of at least 1.5 megabits per second is required. For HDTV resolution, a connection of at least 5 mbps is needed.
What about lag, you say? OnLive's technology "incubator" Rearden Studios claims that its servers will deliver video feeds that have a ping of less than one millisecond. Its patented video compression technique is also advertised as blazing fast, with video compression taking about one millisecond to process.
That speedy delivery of video game content means more than just video games on demand, it means no install times. It also means cross-platform compatibility, the ability to try demos instantly, and an opportunity to rent or play games almost instantaneously.
It also means real-time streaming of video feeds from players far and wide playing their own games at home via OnLive which could ultimately mean broadcast style feeds to observers. Up to a million, according to OnLive reps.
The best part? It already has serious buy-in from major publishers, including EA, THQ, Codemasters, Ubisoft, Atari, Warner Bros., Take-Two, and Epic Games. Oh, and 2D Boy.
The appeal on the publisher side is that it essentially means less opportunity for profit-whittling piracy. There's little modification on the developer side to make a game run with OnLive. There's even an SDK available. On the consumer side, the prospect of no cheating—or at least heavily reduced cheating—is also desirable.
OnLive is showing 16 of the games planned for the service this week at GDC, some of them playable on low-spec machines, the kind of Dell your grandmother might buy.
Of course, they'll also be playable on OnLive's micro console, a simple, low-cost device that's about the size of your hand. It's simple tech—there's not even a GPU in the device. It simply acts as a video decoding control hub, with two USB inputs and support for four Bluetooth devices, and outputs audio and video via optical and HDMI connections. The micro console is expected to be priced competitively, "significantly less" than any current generation console on the market and potentially "free" with an OnLive service contract.
Plans for a monthly subscription are in the works, said to be priced on par with Xbox Live fees, offering the same community and multiplayer features popularized by Microsoft's gaming service. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the unified OnLive community is the option to save and upload Brag Clips, a 15 second replay of, well, whatever just happened in-game.
We too were a little suspicious of OnLive's capability to deliver perceptually lag-free on-demand games. But then we played a hasty online game of Crysis Wars on the service today and became a little less suspicious. It seemed to work. Obviously, it was in a controlled environment with only a few hundred internal beta testers populating the system. But it worked.
Will it work in the wild? It might. OnLive is currently beta testing internally, with an external beta planned for Summer and a launch later this year. Expected to be deployed by launch will be five server centers hosting the latest and greatest games—OnLive isn't aiming to be GameTap, with no immediate plans to host archival PC games. Server clusters will be located in Santa Clara, Texas, Virginia and elsewhere, hoping to offer OnLive subscribers within 1,000 miles a seemingly lag-free experience.
We'll be testing the service later this week, letting you know what we thought.