March 27, 2009 Cloud computing is a concept that has been touted as the next generation technology for some time and with major players such as Google, Microsoft and Apple now heartily embracing the idea it seems its time has finally come. While the advantages of the approach have long been recognized, the Internet speeds required to make it feasible have meant that cloud computing has remained a blip on the horizon until recently. But with high speed connections becoming more and more available around the world companies are rushing to get on the cloud bandwagon lest they be left behind and miss out on the ‘next big thing’. And it’s not just the standard office applications like word processing, spreadsheets and databases that are making the move. The world of gaming could also be headed for a shake up as Palo Alto-based OnLive tests the water in providing on-demand games streaming over a broadband connection.
Both PC based and console gamers have embraced online gaming as a way to compete against players from around the globe and services such as Steam, Xbox Live and the PSN Store let people download games, but OnLive’s system seeks to take things one step further by handling all the computation on remote servers instead of on home-based consoles or PCs. This would allow gamers to play games across the network instead of shelling out cash for the latest console or high-end PC. OnLive claims to have developed a data compression technology that means games can be run on powerful internet servers and the data streamed over the internet instantaneously for display at home so that the latest resource hungry games can be played on a low end system as long as it has a fast internet connection.
The service was announced to be compatible with any Intel based Mac running OS X or Windows PC running XP or Vista with a 1.5Mbps broadband connection providing Wii level image quality while a 4-5Mbps connection is needed for HD resolution according to engadget. For console fans who prefer to do their gaming in the lounge room in front of a big screen TV OnLive plans to release a ‘MicroConsole’ complete with Bluetooth for voice chat and optical audio-out that can be connected to a HDTV via HDMI. The system includes the ability to join live games at any point, the creation of ‘brag clips’ that saves the last 10 seconds of game play for sharing, as well as the standard leaderboards and rankings.
While OnLive promises a lot, the service does rely heavily on an individual’s Internet connection speeds. For stutter free gaming users would need a guaranteed, uninterruptable high-speed connection, but there’s a reason ISP’s don’t offer such performance guarantees. Critics have also expressed reservation regarding the very high-end GPU serverside required for each gamer connected to the system as well as OnLive's claim of a 1ms latency in compressing 720p60 video while Matt Peckham from PC World has also highlighted concerns about the ‘mod community’ being unable to create and offer mods since all the game data will be stored on the OnLive servers. There's also the fact that any games bought on OnLive are not actually owned by the owner so if OnLive were to go under, all the user's games would also disappear with it. However that hasn’t stopped publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, THQ, Epic Games, Eidos, Atari Interactive and Codemasters jumping on-board and agreeing to distribute their titles through the service.
Obviously the success of such a service could spell big trouble for the three companies that currently dominate the console arena, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, not to mention manufacturers of high-end chips such as Intel, AMD and Nvidia. Although the blow to Nvidia would be softened by the fact that OnLive’s data centers use Nvidia’s high-end graphics chips in their servers since they have been a development partner in helping to create the server technology.
For such an ambitious proposal that, if successful, would have enormous repercussions for the existing games software and hardware industries I would personally be very surprised if there weren’t some serious teething issues. After years of groundwork cloud computing is only just gaining momentum in the office space where the cost benefits can be much bigger due to scale. Gamers in comparison might be a little more reluctant to say good-bye to the performance levels of their trusty console or PC, and even if the service works as well as promised, there's still the spectre of losing your connection. It will be interesting to see what happens when the next major upgrade is required or the next round in the console wars is fired - by then ‘cloud gaming’ could well be an idea whose time has come.
The service is currently in closed beta with 16 titles available but an open beta is planned for this coming summer with a planned US release in winter 2009 with monthly subscriptions available in a variety of different pricing packages and tiers. MicroConsole pricing has not been announced but it will reportedly cost less than a USD$250.