OPINION: The OnLive Revolution?

Today is an important day that I have no doubt represents a true change to how we consume games.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the rise of cloud computing will, in the fullness of time, come to dominate our digital lives. Browsing, working, playing – the cloud is a logical evolution in all of these sectors.

Two big questions remain, however. When? And How? When will the UK’s somewhat feeble internet infrastructure be stable enough to cope with it? And When will the public come to accept cloud services as equals or even superiors to current technology? And How will consumers want to consume this tech?

In truth, I’m not sure the first point is as big an issue as some might believe. My Virgin Media 20MB connection is more than up to the task. And non-cable connection speeds are rapidly improving. Unless you live in the country, of course.

BT’s all-you-can-eat three month OnLive offer is great news for both OnLive and consumers. How well it will sit with BT’s tightly regulated data usage rationing is a bigger question. If OnLive catches on, how long until BT’s network begins to groan under the pressure?

A bigger question, though is when will the public come to accept cloud computing as the norm. You have a dodgy internet connection? Then be ready to be locked out from your OnLive games until it’s sorted. Again, not a problem for me – my home internet is rock solid. But I wouldn’t fancy trying it at the office. Obviously that’s because I’m too busy working to play games. But in a hypothetical world where I do nothing all afternoon on a Friday, I’m not sure if our current internets – which struggle to stream a 720p video – are up to the task.

At the moment all of my cherished data – photos of my daughter, my music and movie collection, my unfinished novels – sit safely on my PC’s hard drive. They’re also backed up on an external drive. Would I be prepared to entrust that information to a remote server controlled by a faceless corporation? That, as we know now better than ever, is vulnerable to hacking and cyber attacks? Hmmm.

But here’s the biggest question. How. How are consumers going to take to OnLive’s business model?

I should say here that I think OnLive’s current proposition represents genuinely good value. Membership is free, and with it access to demos for dozens of games.

The PlayPack bundle, usage of which is available via a thoroughly reasonable 6.99 per month subscription, includes a lot of very decent games including the likes of Borderlands, FEAR 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum, LEGO Batman, Homefront, the original Deus Ex, FlatOut, Just Cause 2, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Frontlines: Fuels of War, BioShock, STALKER, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, Hitman: Blood Money, Alpha Protocol, Mini Ninjas, Saints Row 2, Aliens vs Predator Classic, World of Goo, Puzzle Quest, Virtua Tennis 2009 and Unreal Tournament III.

Premium, recent releases, however, will cost 39.99, with a 30 per cent discount for subscribers, bringing prices in line with the High Street. Roughly. This isn’t quite a clear-cut as it sounds, though.

In truth I never pay 39.99 for a game. In the interests of honesty, I’m lucky enough to be in the position where I get sent a lot of games. But I do buy games as well. Which are expensive, as you might have noticed. I honestly can’t remember the last time I simply paid 40 for a game without either using Gamestation store-credit or taking advantage of a supermarket promo or High Street trade-in offer.

None of which is possible with OnLive. It goes without saying that you’re never going to recoup some of that 39.99 by trading in your OnLive titles or selling them on eBay. Consumers are all too aware of this.

Arguably though that isn’t even the biggest problem. That is the question of ownership. Paying 39.99 to stream a game that exists on a remote server, the only connection to which you have is down your telephone line, is very different to paying 39.99 for something your physically own – be that on a disc or as 1s and 0s on your HDD.

Even if the OnLive tech is completely flawless and your internet connection as solid as a cast-iron statue of an elephant plated in super-strong diamonds riding in a tank, this is the obstacle that OnLive must overcome. Are punters ready to pay premium prices to access rather than own a title?

In truth I find it hard not to come to the following conclusion: OnLive tech does represent the future, but its business model does not.

I’m really not convinced that the full price retail model is suited to this type of delivery system. And as much as the subscription market in sectors like the MMO is falling massively out of favour, in the cloud gaming field I think it’s a natural fit. Imagine a 9.99 per month deal for unlimited access to all of OnLive’s games. Even 14.99 a month. That’s a tempting offer, as long as OnLive can offer every title available on the market.

Still, that’s not the future I see for cloud gaming. OnLive is still held back by another very important factor – consoles. All the PC games in the world will always struggle to compete with triple-A console offerings.

Can OnLive ever hope to deliver these? Not in its current form. But what if OnLive tech were integrated into Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network? What if for an additional 10 a month or so gamers were granted access to every titles on XBL or PSN? Now we’re talking about revolutions.

Remember today. In years to come when you’re an abandoned pensioner left to rot is a poorly funded NHS retirement home and your grandchildren begrudgingly pay you a visit, you can tell them about the day cloud gaming first arrived in the UK. Then you can tell them about games consoles and discs and memory cards and VHS and petrol and pens and they can laugh at your nonsense.

The revolution will be televised. On an internet enabled TV.

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