Editor's note: Chris brings up one of the major sticking points of services such as OnLive — game ownership. While I'm not quite ready to jump in to such a service (and neither is my Internet connection), I think distributed computing and providing access to software as a service are only growing in popularity. – Jay
When the concept of cloud computing first started gaining traction, it became apparent to everyone — gamers, developers, publishers, and the press — that eventually this trend of keeping everything online would make its way to the games industry. It offered so many benefits: access your games everywhere, platform agnosticism, and no more worrying about losing a memory card or having a hard drive crash, as your saves would go wherever you went.
Services like OnLive offer these perks and more. You have the ability to watch other people play games live, upload clips, and work under a unified system that displays the games the same whether you're in the living room in front of the TV, on your desktop PC, or messing about on a netbook. Sure, OnLive has its share of technical hitches such as latency, but overall the impression that OnLive would like to give is that they're offering everything we've had in previous generations, and more.
Social games led the trend of cloud computing for years with titles like Farmville operating completely independent of platform and working inside a web browser to run on pretty much any home computer. If I played Farmville, I could do so with the knowledge that so long as I had access to my Facebook account, I'd be able to carry on playing whether I was at home, at work, in the cafe, or at the University's computer lab.
Despite all of this, I'm actually quite resistant to any form of the cloud as the future of computing, whether that be in games or software in general. The recent news that Zynga shut down its Street Racing game is the main reason why, and the fact that they're doing this is no surprise.
In the good old days, when I purchased a game I had the disc to use forever. Even if the title was a commercial flop, I still had the hard copy to prove that I put down the cash, and I owned that disc as long as I wanted to keep it. Even if the game never got a sequel, I could still go back to the original many years later and play it. People who invested money in Street Racing won't enjoy the same luxury; most of the in-game items they purchased will vanish forever, and only money they invested in the last 90 days will be reimbursed — with lots of strings attached.
Similarly, with more core-oriented services such as OnLive, they stipulate that they will only support titles for three years, after which nobody really knows what will happen to it. Another problem is that if you decide one month that you don't want to pay OnLive's monthly fee, all that money you've invested in the games on the platform up to that point becomes worthless, as you lose access to the lot. They are, essentially, holding the content you paid for to ransom in order to swindle another monthly fee off of you.
When I imagined the cloud, I thought we'd wind up with a service that worked with what we had and added to the features we already enjoyed in our games. I never expected games would move out of our reach and control. I figured they would back up our save games online and offer features that Xbox LIVE and PSN have, such as achievements, friends lists, and communication networks. I expected to always be able to play my games offline and, if the provider I bought the game from went bust, to have the ability to unshackle my games from their DRM, either via an official solution or through the community. I feel it's my moral (if not legal) right to retain ownership of the games I pay for.
What Zynga did raises many concerns for even hardcore gamers. I fear that they will lure people with the good features of OnLive and these customers will be totally unaware of the consequences they may face three years down the line. Eventually, due to the changing nature of the service, we will lose access to some of our favorite games, and many people will be left wondering what, exactly, they paid for.
And the answer will be simple: thin air.
Chris Winters is an unemployed (and unpublished) novelist and wannabe games writer. You can check out his stream of reviews from his backlog on Been There, Played That, or get in touch with him on Twitter: @akwinters.