The Future of Gaming—In My Pocket

The Internet gaming service OnLive now has a tiny console that lets you play video games anywhere.

OnLive media console

One night last week I started up a game of Shaun White Skateboarding on my favorite new gaming console. It was getting late, though, and I had to catch a plane in the morning, so I didn’t play for long. The next day, I threw the console and controller in my backpack, dashed through airport security, and flew halfway across the country. When I got to my hotel, I plugged the game console into the hotel’s TV and Internet line. Shaun White Skateboarding started up right where I’d left off the night before. A little while later, I found myself in a coffee shop with pretty good Wi-Fi, so I pulled out my Macbook—and there, again, I started up Shaun White Skateboarding from where I’d stopped.

Which game system was I using? How did I manage to stuff the entire console into my backpack, get it past the TSA without incurring an up-in-my-junk pat-down, and somehow sync my game to my laptop, too?  

It’s not magic. It’s the Internet. My tiny, cigarette-case-sized console is the newest part of a growing “cloud-gaming” empire called OnLive. Unlike traditional game devices—everything made by Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, or Apple—OnLive’s console doesn’t contain any high-performance hardware to render the immersive 3-D pictures you see in modern games. Instead, OnLive processes all graphics on specialized servers located in Silicon Valley, Northern Virginia, and Texas. Every time your game image changes—or every time you press a button on your controller—the update goes screaming over the Internet in real time.

Yes, this doesn’t seem like it should work. Pretty much everyone in the tech industry thought OnLive was vaporware when it was proposed a few years ago; the Internet, we all argued, is too slow to handle high-definition images in real time. But the team behind OnLive spent years perfecting ways to reduce network lag along every step of the path between you and its servers. When OnLive launched on PCs over the summer, it was a revelation. Because all the processing took place far away from your machine, OnLive allowed gamers to run high-performance titles on rinky dink hardware. At the time, I wrote that “playing OnLive was indistinguishable from playing games on a console or PC—except when I looked down at my computer and saw a machine that any serious gamer would laugh at.”

Now OnLive is getting even better. Today the company will begin taking orders for its new MicroConsole, which lets OnLive games escape from PCs and stand side-by-side with the Xbox 360 and PS3 on regular TVs. The console—which will begin shipping on Dec. 2—sells for $99 and comes with a wireless controller and your choice of one OnLive game. (Games sell for up to $50.)

I’ve been playing with the MicroConsole for several days, and I’ve found it nearly flawless. Despite its size—slightly wider and chunkier than the original, quite-chunky iPod—the console is capable of delivering dazzling high-definition graphics (it packs what video geeks call 1080p output, which is very sharp). The actual image quality you get, though, depends on the size of your TV and the speed of your Internet line. In general, the faster your line and the smaller your screen, the better it looks, OnLive says.

But I had a pretty good experience on every set-up I tried. At home—where I’ve got a 20 megabit line and a 42-inch TV—OnLive’s picture was crisp; I noticed only slight blurring in some fast-paced sequences, but these moments were fleeting. When I switched the console to my 24-inch computer monitor, it wasn’t noticeably different. At the hotel—where the TV was 32 inches and Internet speeds ranged from about 4 to 6 megabits—the picture was a bit more pixilated at times, but I only spotted distortions when I was looking for them. For the most part the service performed exceptionally even on a hotel line.

OnLive says that the system will work with line speeds as low as 3 MBPs. I’ve noticed that playing OnLive on a PC over Wi-Fi (an option that wasn’t available when the system launched in June) can sometimes cause pretty big drops in video quality. But to my mind, the convenience of being able to tap into the games you’ve been playing on your console makes up for these occasional hurdles. Indeed, it was pretty dumb of me to take the MicroConsole on my travels with me, because I could just as easily have used my Mac to access OnLive. Like a Kindle book or a Netflix movie, the best thing about playing an OnLive game is the way it switches seamlessly between different kinds of hardware—you can start up a Virtua Tennis on your console connected to your TV, and then pop back into it on your laptop at Starbucks the next day.

When I raved about OnLive in June, there were fewer than two dozen games on the system. Now there are 40, and the company keeps adding more—new titles are often released on the same day as on competing platforms. For a typical game, you might buy a three-day-pass for about $7, a five-day-pass for about $9, and a full pass from $20 to $50. Most games also offer a free 30-minute demo.

When I described this plan in the summer, several commenters pointed out two potential downsides of amassing a library of games on OnLive. At the time, OnLive announced that it would one day begin charging a $5-a-month access fee. That raised some red flags—if you ever chose to stop paying your $5, would you lose access to all your games? Even worse, critics fumed, when you buy a “full pass” to an OnLive game, you’re given what looks like an expiration date—OnLive tells you that it’s committed to supporting that game for a minimum of three years. What does that mean? Will your games expire after three years? Will you have to buy new ones? The plan suggested that, compared to the games-on-disc-model, cloud gaming could diminish gamers’ rights.

I think these concerns are valid in theory, but in practice, for OnLive, they’re a little overblown. For one thing, OnLive has wisely dropped the $5-a-month access fee. It is true that in getting a game over the Internet, you are sacrificing some rights you held over physical media—you can’t sell OnLive games after you’re done with them, for example, and you can’t loan them to a friend. But OnLive offers a few advantages too. For one thing, title for title, OnLive games tend to be cheaper than their counterparts on traditional consoles. (For instance, the Wii, Xbox 360, and  PS3 versions of Shaun White Skateboard sell for around $50, while the OnLive full pass sells for $30.) Plus, the OnLive game is cross-platform—it works on Windows, Macs, and the MicroConsole. Starting next year, the company will begin offering OnLive in select TVs.

I asked Steve Perlman, OnLive’s founder, about the fears that games will “expire” after three years. He dismissed them: “It’s my goal that 10 years from now you’ll be able to play every game that we had at launch,” Perlman said. But his lawyers won’t let him officially say that. Over the next 10 years, the tech world will change radically—servers, network equipment, displays, game development, and all the other ingredients will continue to advance, so it’s impossible to promise anything. (No game platform is future-proof; you can buy a mint-condition Super Nintendo on eBay, but good luck connecting it to your HDTV.)

The other worry about OnLive is whether it can scale. If it really does offer many advantages over traditional gaming, and millions of people flock to it, will it be able to handle that demand? Perlman says the service has seen a huge rise in interest since it launched last year and hasn’t suffered any major outages. He also argues that cloud gaming is inherently more efficient than console gaming. Depending on which games people are playing at any particular moment, OnLive can dedicate each server in its data center to several players at once; this means that it can operate more cheaply than console manufacturers, who often subsidize the cost of their hardware in order to gain market share.

There are other potential complications. Not everyone is very optimistic about the future of the American broadband market. What if people don’t get super-fast connections, or what if more and more providers impose broadband caps? Earlier this month I worried that Netflix’s streaming service might destroy the Internet. If it gets popular enough, could OnLive wreak havoc, too? 

Nobody knows, but if that happens then you’ve got a lot more than OnLive to worry about. For now, there was only one thing I found annoying about OnLive’s new console—it doesn’t include a Wi-Fi chip, which means that if you don’t have an Ethernet cable that can reach your TV, you’ve got to buy a wireless bridge—a small device that harnesses your wireless signal into a wired port. (You can get one for about $50.) Perlman says that a future version will carry Wi-Fi, but that the company wants to make sure the system is running well on wired Internet before it branches out into wireless. This sounds reasonable, but I worry that having to add a bridge will turn too many people away from what is otherwise the most convenient and flexible video game system on the market today.

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