OnLive Thoughts: Wow, it works!!


When I first read about OnLive, the streaming video game system, I was more than skeptical. It just seemed impossible - playing videogames online without downloading any software!? No way. I was sure that what I saw was just a technology demonstration, and that it'd never see the light of day. "Yeah, that's interesting," I thought, "but it's not like it'll ever work."

Wow, was I wrong.

I was amazed when I saw a month or so ago they went live and you could actually order the system. Seriously? It's real? Interesting! Then I was amazed at the price point - around $100! My initial thoughts were a low price would be the only way they'd actually be competitive against Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo and lo-and-behold that's what they're doing. Then I thought, "Well, the games will suck, or be weird PC-Only versions of 5 year old games..." Borderlands? UnReal Tournament? Lego Batman?! Batman: Arkham Asylum?!?! Holy crap! I just bought the last one for my brother for Christmas, so that's pretty damn new to me.

Then OnLive released their free iPad app a couple weeks ago which has the same "Arena" video portal they have on their system, where you can view live games as they're being played on the network. It's a very, very cool app - and supposedly they're going to be expanding it to actually play games as well (awesome!). In hindsight, I realize that's how they got me to sign up for a username/password, which was a brilliant marketing idea on their part. Targeted exactly the sort of early adopters they're looking for. Once I saw the live videos actually streaming to my iPad, I was pretty convinced this was something definitely worth checking out.

Then a couple days ago OnLive announced a price drop for CES - $66 for the system, plus a free game. I couldn't resist any more. For the price of a new XBox game, I could get a whole new gaming system which my brain still says should be impossible. Bargain! Despite the fact that I already have an XBox and a Wii, and barely any free time to play either of them, I handed over my credit card info and got the system in yesterday.

It's amazing.

The system itself isn't much bigger than a Roku box or an Apple TV box (though heavier). I mean, it's *tiny*. OnLive need to put pics of the box next to some pencils or something on their website, because even though I saw its size compared to the controller, I just mentally enlarged it to the size of an XBox or PS3. It's half the size of a Wii, if not tinier.

To get it working, I plugged in the power, HDMI and network cables, synced the controller (which is *very* nice btw - it feels solid. On par with an XBox 360 controller in terms of quality, not like the cheezy Nintendo or MadCatz plasticky ones) and then I was good to go. I actually just swapped out my Roku box, as it fits in the same spot and needs the same connections. (I could use WiFi also, but obviously I get better quality with a wire).

I logged into the system, it did a quick system update (expected), and then I was able to start checking out the menu system, and - incredibly, astoundingly, impossibly, playing games instantly. I played Lego Batman, Prince of Persia, a little bit of Borderlands and Unreal Tournament, and they all worked perfectly.

You can definitely detect a bit of the compression going on in the images - but even with a tiny bit of fuzziness, the resolution for these games was *still* better than what you get out of the Wii.

Maybe if I think about the technology - the realities of the increase in broadband speeds to homes, the lower cost of creating a data center, more powerful CPUs, GPUs, the massive leap in data storage, and that we've been able to use similar technologies like Windows Remote Desktop for years - then maybe, I shouldn't be so surprised. But for some reason I am. It just seems absolutely amazing to me they were able to get this all organized, working, shipped to market, and it has that "just works" consumer-level of friendliness and price-point.

One of the first things I learned when I started using the system is that the front of the OnLive console has two USB ports, but unlike the XBox, PS3 or Wii USB ports, these are made to be used with PC-compatible controllers or a mouse and keyboard. This is great as I have a Logitech USB controller already that I used to play emulators with, saving me the cost of having to buy Yet Another Proprietary Console Controller [Update: Actually, my old controller didn't work... not sure why, it's supposed to. Wireless mouse was laggy too...]. But in fact, you can use all the games available so far with just a mouse and keyboard (most likely, they were all PC games to begin with).

This shows where the system comes from, and also where it's going. Having the extra box is handy, I can bring it into the other room, connect it right where my computer normally is, and start playing games away from the TV without any setup hassle. I could bring it on the road during vacations or business trips. But I could probably already do that with my normal PC, but I don't - especially since my laptop is over a couple years old already, and would definitely not be able to handle the graphics of something like Batman: Arkham Asylum.

This can't be understated, in my opinion. Rather than having to upgrade to a better laptop or desktop machine, I just spent $66 and have a gaming system anywhere I want it. Or better yet, OnLive has a PC/Mac version of their client as well.

Thinking about it this way, it suddenly makes me realize that running PC versions of games isn't the liability that I thought it was initially when I was thinking of only console gaming. Yet another misconception on my part... Imagine if OnLive is able to sign up Blizzard and get World of Warcraft and StarCraft on their system? Or the games in Valve's Steam? There are insanely good games for the PC that have millions of users, but also require some pretty decent hardware to run. With OnLive though, running on their console box or an old PC or hey, even a mobile phone or tablet, that cost goes away. Pretty awesome. This is what they've been trying to tell us, but I finally realized it wasn't bullshit.

That said, the OnLive box itself will most definitely disappear. OnLive just announced deals to integrate the system in various consumer electronics. This is fine with me, I mean, I've already run out of spots to put electronics boxes around my TV - a PC for playing downloaded videos, a streaming Roku box, XBox, Wii, Cable/DVR... Gah! Having on demand, high-end gaming built right into my next TV or cable box (next to video streaming on demand of course) is fine with me.

Very cool stuff. I love seeing new technology move so fast, and see something work that I previously didn't realize was possible. And hey, it also involves video games too, win-win!


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