INTERVIEW: Steve Perlman

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Steve Perlman

Yes, but does it work? OnLive CEO Steve Perlman hopes, and maybe even believes, that he’s heard that question for the last time.

Actually, that’s not true, he may one day ask it himself, about rival – but yet to be launched – cloud gaming service, Gakai, possibly yelled mischievously from the back of a press conference.

For now, though, a year after going live in the States and a few months before hitting the UK, he’s happy to look beyond that most fundamental issue and concentrate instead on the growing userbase, the burgeoning game catalogue and the ever-increasing feature set.

The technology has been proven, now it’s the offering that needs to woo players and the business model that must pass muster with the industry.

Unfortunately, the company doesn’t issue figures regarding player numbers, but Perlman certainly seems happy with the progress so far: “It’s growing faster than we expected. Each month has been a new record in terms of revenues and in terms of peak useage. May was no exception.”

Confidence is certainly high enough for the firm to make its first move outside of the US and it is busily recruiting key personnel for a UK office ahead of launching in the autumn. It’s not just the first foray outside the States, but this will be “the first full launch”.

He explains: “In the US we unfolded features as the year went on. We launched with wired connections, because we wanted to verify reliability without complication, then we added Wi-Fi, then the OnLive Game System, then we added the flat-rate play pack, then iPad and tablets.

“Plus, on the games side, we were largely playing catch-up, trying to build a library. We started out with 19 and we had a couple of games day and date. But now we have over 100 games and we are now getting, for the most part, every new game from our publishing partners day and date with console release.

“In the UK, we want gamers to see OnLive as a whole from day one. It will arrive as one complete package. In that sense the UK will be the first fully-fledged launch of the OnLive service.”

As with the US, UK consumers will be offered two pricing models. One is what OnLive calls a PlayPack bundle, basically a subscription model that gives you access to some titles, but mainly catalogue, not premium releases.

In the States a payment of $9.99 provides unlimited access to over 50 games – including things like Just Cause 2, LEGO Batman and FEAR 2.

The other model is ‘a la carte’. In this case gamers select specific titles and buy them individually. They can either pay one ‘full’ price, or, for some, rent for three or five days.

Right now, Duke Nukem Forever is available as a complete package for $44.99, whereas Split Second is $4.99 for three days, $8.99 for five days or $19.99 for unlimited.

There are also, of course, plenty of free demos.
OnLive hasn’t announced its prices for the UK as yet, but it has confirmed that all purchase options will be available. Perlman is also hopeful that the Game System hardware will be available through games retail in the UK at launch.

“We expect it to be, yes, but until we can say exactly where it will be sold and how much it will cost, we’re not going to make any official announcements. We also hope to have it on sale through US retail soon as well,” – currently it can only be bought via the OnLive website.

Another hint from Perlman suggests that OnLive will also be available at UK launch built into TVs and blu-ray players. “In the States we have that with the Vizio models, but there are other manufacturers that will have OnLive built-in and it is our expectation that those will be available in the UK from launch.”

OnLive is a thoroughly modern hybrid of retailer and format-holder. It takes publishers’ games, packages and promotes them to consumers, sells it on and passes back a pre-agreed percentage. But it also provides a unique platform which can be specifically ‘written to’ – and, according to Pearlman, will soon boast exclusive, OnLive-specific versions of multiformat releases and, eventually, dedicated titles.

Perlman says: “This year will see the release of the first game that has OnLive specific features. It’s from a major publisher, but we haven’t announced it yet.

“Publishers have started to recognise that they can do things for OnLive that they can’t do on other formats – and they’re beginning to decide that that’s worth doing.

“For instance, high-end games can be played on tablets, so what you’ll start to see are games that not only work through a controller but also work through touch.

“The important point is that we’re talking about games that are far too high performance to be actually powered by any tablet on Earth, so the only reason they have touch is to run through OnLive on tablets.”

A similar argument applies to Facebook. OnLive will, Pearlman says, bring core gaming into a social space currently dominated by casual content.

“The thing about FarmVille and Mafia Wars is that they work on every device for every user. So when you invite someone to help you or play with you, they’re immediately there. With core games, you can’t do that.

“With OnLive you can do that. So what’s really exciting was actually buried in the initial press release, and that’s the fact that all the Facebook interaction is exposed in the SDK, so developers can make games that are social games but are still high performance core games. You’ll see the first of these round about the time of the UK launch.”

LIVE... AND DANGEROUS?
We asked Perlman about the ‘threat’ OnLive poses to the trade

If you were a retailer, what would you think about OnLive?

SP: I would see it the same way that traditional entertainment retailers are looking at online movies and online music. They’re realising they need to adapt their business to embrace what is inevitable.

Over here in the States, Tower Records, which at one point seemed invincible, went bankrupt because it didn’t adapt. It didn’t realise the world was changing.

Now, thankfully, because retailers have largely learned to work with music and entertainment companies rather than kick against them, when we go and talk to them, we’re not evil incarnate. They don’t waste time trying to stop us, they want to get ahead of the curve and be amongst the first to do something with us.

For instance, in the States we’re setting up OnLive systems to not only show off our service but to demo all the games. If a retailer has  a console set-up, they can only show one game, so they love the idea of being able to have all these games loaded up.

They’re also tying us into their own websites. So there are lots of ways we can partner with traditional bricks and mortar retailers – and you know what, these are the smart guys, these are the guys that are going to survive.

If you were a console manufacturer, what would you think about OnLive?

SP: It depends which one. Sony, for instance, is a big company. They make movies, they make TVs, they make PCs and they make mobile devices – as well as PlayStations. So they’re going to have different ways of interacting with OnLive and they’re going to have a different attitude.

Microsoft like the fact that we’re buying all these Windows licences and they like the fact that people are playing games on PCs. I think both those companies will have mixed feelings about us.

I think at first you’ll find we’re an adjunct, but then, as the 2005 architectures that are in place begin to look pretty old compared to, say, 2013 server class gaming, well, then you have the situation where we’re not offering the same games on consoles via a different delivery method, it’s us offering games that just can’t be played on consoles. At that point you begin to see the old ways winding down.

I believe the cloud will become the dominant way of playing high performance video games. There will be no way to have sufficient computing power, locally, to run something like that in real time.

It will be a steady drift. People won’t give up their PCs and consoles overnight. When they introduced the iPod they didn’t expect people to suddenly stop buying CD players. It took five or six years or so.

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