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The Questions OnLive Refuses to Answer

Posted by nfinit on March 16, 2010

Last week at Games Developer Conference a few more details about OnLive’s business model took shape, including pricing for the service, a preliminary list of developers and what’s purported to be a release date of July the 11th.  But while the pricing model is starting to gel, there are some questions that OnLive and its founder, Steve Pearlman, have thus far refused to address.  These remaining questions are troubling, as large swathes of the gaming community remain unconvinced the entire OnLive project isn’t some sort of massive con job the likes of the Phantom game console or the Indrema L600.  Here’s a short list of what’s currently bugging me about the service:

*Will Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo allow OnLive to use their systems? The prospect of console gaming on OnLive keeps being bandied about, and OnLive’s own personnel have been unwilling to gainsay any speculation.  But the question remains if OnLive intends to allow console gaming, how exactly do they propose to do so?  Emulation of any console is, strictly speaking, illegal, and it’s unreasonable to expect OnLive to keep separate consoles on hand for every client who may wish to play Mario Galaxy or Halo 3 ODST or Uncharted 2.  Yet none of these consoles allow for the sort of virtualization tech that OnLive attests they will rely on to keep PC hardware costs reasonable.

*How much will the actual games cost? Sure, the $15/month covers the service subscription fee, but surely Activision, Ubisoft, EA and THQ will balk at not receiving their customary sixty dollars per title.  If game delivery systems such as Steam are any indication, it’s not likely that any of these publishers will be willing to cut OnLive a break on game pricing– combined with the cost of the initial hardware purchase the supposed savings for OnLive vs just buying a cheap gaming rig become less apparent, especially seeing as how OnLive will only provide for high-def streams if the client is in possession of a costly 5Mbps stream.

*Where are the games, exactly? According to OnLive sixteen titles have been announced, but as of now OnLive will only commit to Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Borderlands, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Metro 2033 and Assassin’s Creed 2.  And even then there’s weird restrictions in play, such as Mass Effect 2 only allowable using a Windows PC.  Also you may notice a trait particular to all the games listed– a remarkable tolerance for lag.  Sure Borderlands may bill itself as a twitch-based FPS, but it’s always been more of a massively multiplayer online game than a straight first person shooter and  at any rate it’s not really built around competitive play.  Everything else is a decidedly single-player experience and there’s not a single game on that list that’s on the competitive level of Modern Warfare 2 or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or even Team Fortress 2.

And really, by the time the service is released in June it will have been pushed back at least six months past its initial start date– isn’t sixteen games at launch a tad low for that sort of lead time, particularly if OnLive will only commit to a half dozen titles, any one of which by the time this service is released will have long since been a mainstay in the bargain rack?  But back to this focus on single player games–

*How much lag can we expect? Sure, gameplay impressions from trade conferences have been positive, but it has to be noted that these conferences are all held in California, and usually less than 300 miles from OnLive’s only known server farm.  OnLive claims they’ve arranged for data optimization across all major ISPs provided you’re within a thousand miles of one of their servers, but if getting lag free gaming with streaming video was as simple as that, why hasn’t Valve already implemented a similar service?

We are a couple months away from OnLive’s supposed launch and we still don’t know how much lag we will be looking at.  This is by far the number one concern in every gamer’s mind in regard to the service. The fact that OnLive has yet to provide firm numbers is troubling.

*Furthermore the whole “optimization” thing is kinda weird. Why would ISPs willingly work with OnLive in order to let their own data stream through?  The absolute last thing ISPs want to deal with right now is a whole new market of gamers that will be guaranteed to tie up entire 5Mbps data streams for eight hours a day.  Aren’t these the exact same people who are screaming for download caps and an end to net neutrality?   How did this plan ever get past Comcast, for that matter?

*And the one that’s bothering me the most about the entire OnLive business model– why games? Or rather, why just games?  If this thing works, then why aren’t you selling it to every small-to-medium office in the nation as a legit alternative to stocking your entire office with Dells and the associated service fees?  Sure your office would be screwed if the net connection went down, but the modern office is screwed anyway without access.  Why not put Netflix and Blockbuster out of business overnight?  If this system works, why not just sell every home in America a micro-console and tell them to throw out their home PC?  Why not sell OnLive to colleges as an alternative to expensive CAD stations?  With OnLive’s service you could give every student on your campus a cheap fifteen-inch laptop in lieu of MacBooks– how does it work out that the natural application for this technology is allowing people to play Borderlands on an iPhone?

It may look like I’m not willing to give OnLive a shot, but it’s something I honestly want to work.  The retail games model as it stands is simply not viable.  We need a legitimate online option and as of yet no one appears to be willing to drop the brick-and-mortar business model despite constant protests that Gamestop is putting developers out of business.  But if OnLive doesn’t work– or worse, turns out to be a massive con job– that’s just going to set the online distribution movement back years, if not cripple it for the foreseeable future.

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