INTERVIEW: OnLive's second life

James Batchelor
INTERVIEW: OnLive's second life

What a difference a year makes.

In September 2011, OnLive was the literal centre of the Eurogamer Expo, handing out thousands of microconsoles to mark the launch of its games streaming service – giving users access to a healthy library of titles without the need for discs or downloads.

Fast forward to the 2012 event and OnLive has no presence, save for two optimistic execs eagerly reassuring the press that the firm is still thinking big.

Of course, the first questions they face are about last month’s news of emergency bankruptcy, reports of debts as high as $40m and the loss of founder and CEO Steve Perlman.

New CEO and former operations chief Charles Jablonski doesn’t shy away from this grim reality.

“I’d never minimise both the emotions and the pain when you go through a transition like that,” he tells MCV. “But our people are now focusing, they are committed to doing what we do best.

“The mood is pretty good, but it’s been an interesting few weeks with the transition of size, scope and management. It’s not the first and it certainly won’t be the last time this happens to a company.”

UK general manager Bruce Grove adds: “If anything, this has caused everyone to make sure they focus. We know that we’ve got a product, so let’s make it a real business, and let’s really develop this so that it works well for everyone.

“This time next year, you’ll have seen some shifts, some transition as the business develops. We have a road map for how soon we start with certain things, what the focus is, what we’re going to be doing, what the next 12 months will be.

“And that’s a big shift for the company: having a 12-month plan. That’s something that’s going to show how we’ll build this into a long-term sustainable business.”

ONLIVE EVERYWHERE

Central to that will be OnLive’s partnerships, whether with publishers, digital distributors, platform holders or firms that the gaming service has yet to approach.

In the US, the company has just launched OnLive on Co-star, a set-top box from TV manufacturer Vizio. It is also available on all Android devices, is being worked into a number of Google TV packages and is even heading to the crowd-funded Ouya console. And that’s just the beginning.

 “We are working with a large collection of partners to see how we can possibly enable features and parts of our service into their products so we both succeed,” says Jablonski.

“That’s one thing that’s a little different now. I won’t say that we’re chasing but we’re more ready to embrace partnerships because with our sharper focus, we can’t do everything. So rather than having to get our hardware in front of a customer or into retail, somebody who does that for a living is managing that part of the business and we get to focus on delivering games.”

Grove adds that getting OnLive onto these platforms will also help grow the service’s audience: “When we launch on a device, having that awareness makes a big difference.

“In the past, we’ve been very focused on OnLive being the driving force of wherever we’ve gone. Now, it’s much more about engagement with our partners and the people that we’re delivering onto the platform so that we become part of those products. That’s going to be one of the biggest ways to reach the new customer market.”

The company is also taking this opportunity to start afresh with its publisher partnerships.

“We’ve gone back to all of our partners, going through all of those relations and making sure that we’re all ready to move forward,” explains Grove. “The reception has been very positive and very supportive. Everyone still backs the technology; everyone still backs cloud gaming so that’s just great for us.

“With other partnerships, we’re talking to everyone. We’re back out there, we’re on the road, and we’re approaching and open to all and everyone.”

CLOUD PLEASER

Crucially, the team believes advancements over the past year in technology has made OnLive a far more viable proposition.

In a world where the likes of movie-streaming service Netflix is becoming widely accepted, Grove expects demand for gaming in this form to grow.

“We’re moving into a world of on-demand, whether it’s catch-up TV or films on a mobile device,” he says.

“Something that is just delivered to us as a service – without the hassle of ordering, buying and installing – is very compelling to a large audience, even though it may not necessarily sit well with the traditional gaming audience.”

Looking back on OnLive’s first year, despite the bitter way it ended, Grove and Jablonski maintain the company achieved its primary goal: to prove cloud gaming could work.

Says Jablonski: “When we first launched at GDC a couple of years ago, we literally had people looking in the booth to see where we had hidden the servers to do what we were doing. That amount of scepticism is normal.

“When we came over here there was similar reservations – and now nobody talks about ‘if’ for cloud-delivered services such as gaming, they just point at ‘how’.

Grove adds: “We’ve seen a lot of new players enter this space over the last year; a lot of companies announce that this is a viable business. And we’re now in a place to say ‘yes it is, and we have the most expertise’. So we’re going to focus and prove to everyone this can be the viable business we set out to be.”

NOT?FOR?SALE

Driving this new growth will be no small task, particularly when OnLive is determined to retain its independence. While rival service Gaikai was scooped up by Sony, Grove insists streaming companies in any form of media can survive without relying on acquisitions.

“Look at the other technologies in the space, whether it’s music or video – it’s taken a while to get there but there are now standalone services that are able to build business around it,” he says.

“We’re following those models and we’re saying it can be done; we can follow down that path.”

Jablonski adds: “We emphatically believe we can do this. It’s my job to make a business out of this, which effectively is possible, and that means working with these partners to solve these problems co-operatively.

“And, of course, continuing to build upon innovation because if we don’t keep innovating, a company like this will die. Our job as a company is to make consumers’ life easier, cheaper, faster and better, and to make it easier, cheaper, faster for publishers to get to consumers. If we’re not doing both those things, then what the hell are we here for?”

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Tags: cloud , gaming , interview , OnLive , life , second , jablonski , grove

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