The age of instant digital game distribution got under way last week as OnLive launched its games on demand service, which allows you to instantly play high-end games over an Internet connection even if you have relatively lame computer hardware.
More than eight years in the making, the online gaming service has gone live with a limited number of inaugural customers. For the skeptics who thought it would never get off the ground — I have to say that they were wrong. I’ve tried it out and managed to do just about everything I wanted to do instantaneously. It worked the very first time I logged in, with no lag, or delays, in the game. So far, it lives up to its promise of providing a hassle-free way to play games.
Playing server-based games in real-time is what OnLive is all about. It uses compression technology and heavy-duty servers to compute video games in centralized data centers. Then it sends video images back to your PC in real-time, while your mouse clicks and other keyboard taps are sent back to the servers. OnLive has set up a handful of data centers around the country with lots of custom Dell servers with graphics chips in them to handle heavy-duty game computing. Because OnLive does the computing on the server side, you don’t need powerful hardware on your end.
You do need a Windows or Mac computer and a broadband connection with a speed of 5 megabits per second, which is less than the speed of phone-based digital subscriber lines or cable modems. My cable line had a fast speed of 15 megabits a second, more than enough to handle OnLive. I also used a fast gaming PC with an Intel quad-core processor with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 graphics chip. That was overkill for OnLive, as I could have gotten away with much less capable hardware than that. You can play with a mouse and keyboard or a Windows-compatible Xbox 360 controller or a few other game controllers.
OnLive does not recommend that you play a game through a corporate firewall, as it slows down the service. It also says you shouldn’t use Wi-Fi wireless networking. I tried to log in with the weakest machine in my house: an old Acer laptop with an Intel Celeron M processor running at 1.73 gigahertz. OnLive stopped the login, citing an error, and told me to contact technical support. It recommends that you use a system with a dual-core processor at a minimum. [Update: I tried Assassin’s Creed II again on this weak machine, which has 512 megabytes of main memory and an Intel integrated graphics media accelerator 950 chip set, and it worked. That’s pretty amazing].
Because the game is in the cloud, you can take OnLive wherever you can go with a decent computer and a broadband connection. OnLive’s preferred broadband providers are Comcast and AT&T. You can log in from a friend’s house or a hotel via your laptop. And you can find your own account with your saved games, brag clips (videos that show off your greatest moments in games) and your friends.
Signing in is a breeze. The first time you do so, you have to download a small OnLive app to your computer. Then you launch it and log in. (Right now, OnLive is not letting in every person who tries). The OnLive servers test your system and if you pass, it lets you into the main menu. The interface is cool, with a Matrix-style compilation of scenes from video games playing in the background. Within 20 seconds or so, the startup screen appears and you can see the menu at the top of this post.
Right now, there are 19 games available in the Marketplace to purchase or rent. With each game, OnLive shows you a video of scenes from the game with real game play, so you won’t be confused about what you are purchasing. It shows the average “metascore” rating as well as its Entertainment Software Rating Board rating. There are a bunch of hot titles such As Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction, the World of Goo, and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. I got Assassin’s Creed II, which is priced at $39.95, and it became instantly playable on my computer. It played fine at the 720p high-definition resolution, but the images are fuzzy once in a while. That’s not so noticeable.
There are also a bunch of demos available, including demos for each game you can purchase. You can play the demos for free. You can also buy a PlayPass, which essentially is the same thing as renting a game for three or five days. Rentals can be as little as $3.99.
There are a bunch of “Coming Soon” titles. Among them are games that are not yet published such as HomeFront, Red Faction Armageddon, and Darksiders. These are all relatively recent titles, but the now playing list in Marketplace does not yet include the newest games. Electronic Arts’ games are conspicuously absent at the moment, though they have been promised.
You can create your own profile with a picture and an accompanying video. You can invite friends to join you and record and share “brag clips,” or the videos of your exploits in games. Right now, you can store up to 15 brag clips.
You can watch others playing games in the Arena where you can learn how to play better by watching gamers who are better than you. The Arena is a place where I could spend a lot of time just watching people who are good at games. Once you get good enough, you can play your own multiplayer games against friends.
By and large, the service worked fine. It crashed on my once in the middle of Assassin’s Creed II. But I signed on again and picked up right where I left off. The service also logs you out if you are inactive in the middle of a game. One of the cool things about OnLive is that you never have to update or patch a game; OnLive does that for you by patching the games on its servers.
It’s pretty much everything that OnLive chief executive Steve Perlman promised. For the first 30 days of service, OnLive is offering one year of service for free to its “founding members,” or those lucky enough to get into the service, as well as one free game. The second year of the service is available for $4.95 a month. You still have to pay for games, which cost as much as $59.99.
Over time, the service is likely to improve as it adds more games, features, and irons out all of its rough patches. We thought that OnLive was a big deal from the start. To be sure, there are rivals out there such as Gaikai and Valve’s Steam. For now, OnLive is doing what it said it would do. I have no way of telling if it is working for everybody else. But it’s working fine for me.