Tuesday, 24 March 2009

GDC: OnLive Introduces the Future of Gaming

Ho—ly crap.

Sorry for the expletive, and apologies for the non BioWare/Star Wars/The Old Republic news, but this truly has me amazed.

As you might be aware the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is currently underway, and there are always some interesting things rising from that (particularly if you’re a game developer), but I didn’t see this one coming.

That is to say, I’ve been saying that it was coming for years. For example, when the controversy around online authentication for BioWare’s Mass Effect rose and people were decrying being treated like criminals I defended the system as a first step to an always-online situation. I predicted that online verification would be followed by more widespread digital distribution of games. After that I predicted that games would more and more move towards a system of streamed content (much like Guild Wars) where you only download specific content when the game you’re playing needs it. Until finally it would move to a system where the games run completely online and all you download ire the final, rendered frames. That, I predicted, would be the way forward for games as it would likely completely eliminate piracy.

But I expected it to take many years where now it seems we’re about to skip a few steps straight to the final one.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about OnLive, which was announced today at GDC.

So what is OnLive then? Simply put, OnLive is on-demand gaming requiring almost no hardware while giving you a top-of-the-line gaming experience. How this works is through cloud computing which, in simple terms, means that they have a lot of powerful computers that run a game for you online. Your input is sent online to them, they run the game, and stream the video back to you. This would allow you to run Crysis on your ten-year-old laptop or even on your TV (with a small “micro-console” that does nothing other that read your input, send it to them and then receive the video to display on your TV).

No more hardware upgrade, no more console wars, no more DRM, no more physical media that can get lost. Heck, not even download times anymore. You just log in and play the latest games at maximum settings.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this could revolutionize gaming as we know it. Heck, it could quite possibly revolutionize all of digital entertainment (television, movies, music, etc).

To read more on it see the articles at Gamasutra, IGN or Kotaku, or see the video interview at GameTrailers. Denis Dyack (of Silicon Knights) has an article at VentureBeat explaining as well how cloud computing will impact games.

Of course, there are some considerations as well before we get too enthusiastic. First and foremost is whether it really works. With all that data streaming a good, stable online broadband connection is vital. It would seem that any lag could potentially seriously affect the gameplay experience. Though they assure us that they’ve solved a lot of the latency issues (and according to one article linked above they’re even working with ISPs to improve their connections), I’ll remain cautious until I’ve actually seen it in action on my own system.

A second issue is that of “ownership”. Or rather, this is a conceptual problem to overcome in consumers. One of the big complaints one often hears towards online activation is that consumers feel that they ‘own’ the game. Personally I feel that this isn’t true; you pay for the experience of playing the game, not for owning it. People already seem to have an issue overcoming this hurdle with digital distribution (there is the need to have something physical in your hand for many), so this isn’t going to make it any easier for them. But I think that for the first number of years at least it can live happily next to traditional forms of acquiring games as people slowly get used to it. And think, it might at least be a quick and easy way to get to try a demo of games before you buy the disc.

A third issue is one I personally find much more interesting to see an answer to, and that’s the issue of user-created content. Right now a lot of games live on user-created content to various degrees. But with the game running completely in OnLive’s cloud that means that it’ll become that much more difficult to modify the game. Unless games have a built-in way to create and share content it’s going to be impossible to do, and even then only that which the game explicitly allows. Games like Spore and Little Big Planet would work, but will we ever see another Counterstrike? How about games in between like Neverwinter Nights and the upcoming Dragon Age? Questions of how custom content would work and how it would be handled is one I’d most want to see answered.

I’m sure people might have other issues as well. Pricing is one such for example; it’s likely that we’ll have to pay a monthly fee to subscribe to OnLive’s service and then have additional fees on top of that for the game purchases, though it’s quite possible to have a rental system too. If it costs too much and/or if the list of provided games is inadequate then it’s not going to be adopted very fast.

But, overall, this looks like very exciting stuff that could potentially change gaming forever, and put a stop to the rampant pirating.

And not just for gaming. I can also see television shows being added to the service where show makers add the latest episode to the service after which one can select to watch it (for a reasonable fee) whenever one wants. The same with movies, no more need for having your house filled with DVD cases. Then music, books, etc. It could quite literally become the new face of digital entertainment.

Will it do that? We’ll see; it’ll likely take years for the service to develop and spread, be adopted by more and more people. It’s also likely that consoles will try to offer similar services (as I understand the PS3 is already offering something similar, but that might just be PS3-to-PSP). They kind-of have o or otherwise they’ll be competed out of the game (who buys an expensive console if you can play online virtually for free). Either that or Sony and Microsoft become pure content developers.

I also have to wonder how quickly this will come to Europe, because at the moment I get the feeling that it’s a NA-only service to start (they’re planning to have a beta this summer and launch in the winter of this year). But if it does well there then it’s only a matter of time before it crosses the pond. As I understand Europe already tends to have better Internet connections anyway, so it’s more likely to take off here.

Anyway, exciting times. I’m much looking forward to how this develops.

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