Pundits will have you believe the next generation of games hardware won't arrive until 2013 or later. However last week, at 12.01am on September 22nd, a fifth home gaming format was activated: cloud gaming service OnLive.
At its most basic form this one needs no hardware, no discs, no physical retail element.That alone is enough to prove the potential revolution OnLive can herald. But OnLive is more than just being a clever innovation for today. OnLive is posing questions about the future of the games business – about the way it sells content, distributes content, promotes content… even how content is created and owned.
IT'S A LIVE
The launch feature set of OnLive available today and in the near future is certainly impressive.Built around a bespoke video streaming technology, OnLive runs all games from dedicated data centres. At its simplest, you can log on from a PC or Mac and play games with a click of a button. The dedicated ‘microconsole' (a cheap but polished box smaller than a 3DS containing a handful of memory chips, video processor, plus ethernet, USB and HDMI ports) is available for piping it straight into your TV. Soon, an app will launch letting you stream games to iPad or Android tablets. It's even being built into TVs and Blu-ray players.
The games themselves are games in the ‘traditional' sense to most of us – expensive-to-make stuff from big boys such as THQ, Ubisoft and 2K, down to mid-tier publishers and smaller developers. A mix of the triple-A, glossy family and indie titles.
But OnLive's video-centric approach adds unique features including an Arena mode so you can spectate and watch people play, while gamers can save Brag Clips (the last 10 seconds of play) with a press of a button to show off to other users.
PRICE IS RIGHT
OnLive is wrapped in a fairly flexible pricing structure, too. Actually signing up and browsing the library of games is free, as are 30-minute demos of most titles, plus multiplayer for those supporting it. In the UK, an inaugural offer means first time customers get any game for 1.
The RRP for most games on the service is in-line with retail RRPs, at 34.99. Older titles are 19.99, and some games can be rented starting at 3.99 for three days.
However, a special PlayPack, available at 6.99 a month provides unlimited access to over 100 games on the service. This doesn't include new ones – but new games are 30 per cent cheaper to PlayPack subscribers, bringing prices closer to the bargains on the High Street.
BT, which bought a stake in OnLive last year, is hoping to make the service even more attractive – its customers get the PlayPack free for three months, no contract. BT is promoting the service alongside its others such as high-speed Infinity broadband and Vision video on-demand. Over here, OnLive is very much a BT product: it's using the brand to sponsor consumer events and more. It's an added push that something like Xbox Live and PSN have never really had.
READY TO SERVE
But the immediate innovation of the cloud isn't OnLive's real talking point.
Cloud gaming is an inevitable part of games' future, and it has been for ages. Most of us are used to having data or digital possessions stored on a remote server somewhere. Email, music, video; these mediums have had cloud counterparts for ages. Gmail, Spotify, YouTube. Amazon has been selling cloud storage to businesses for years; Social networks are based in the cloud; PSN and Steam are just two games services already offering cloud storage for save files.
For OnLive the obvious next step is widening out the service to include music and movies. That's a given, and only a matter of time, either through partnerships with things like Netflix or LoveFilm, or simple viable alternatives.
But think about the foundation OnLive's growing network of servers is laying. The collective might of them servers can run content much more detailed than that on a ‘normal' home console. Technology from sister firm Mova, which helped animate CG faces in movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Incredible Hulk, is already built into OnLive, promising ‘a level of realism that is indistinguishable from live action'.
In that sense OnLive is building up, in plain sight, what could amount to the next-generation of gaming – high-end visuals rendered in real time, but created on data centres. No console needed, except maybe a cheap box to stream the data to, or a pre-existing device. Who needs 2013's next-generation when it arguably already exists, and won't require the manufacture of expensive consoles?
RIGHTS & OWNERSHIP
Another issue OnLive is challenging isn't technical – it is emotional and conceptual: the issue of ownership.When you buy a cloud game, what do you own? Nothing physical, not even the centimetre of space the gigabytes are etched onto. But you are buying the right to access them.
In the US, OnLive and Square Enix tested this with free codes for the OnLive version of Deus Ex in the boxed PC game. It famously upset GameStop, but conceptually was a turning point. Here was the biggest games retail release of August, but when you bought it you got more than the disc.
While common in movies, where ‘triple-play' packs of Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes code are commin, this is an issue not even that readily applied to music (where it's easy to rip a physical purchase into something digital). It's even rarer in the games industry, which is plagued by paranoia about piracy and enforces IP protection at times to a preachy extreme.
Yet these are issues our industry – an industry built digitally, not originated in analogue like vinyl, film, or print – needs to face. By acting as advocate OnLive makes us address these thorny conundrums. Because you can bet Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft aren't yet brave enough to do it themselves.
So far reactions to OnLive can be split into three very specific and opposing camps.
There's the cynics, who since the technology's surprise unveiling at GDC 2009 have said that this just can't work as well as claimed. Poor internet latency, they say, will cause lag between controller inputs and the video relay. They also purport that video compression can't render at decent HD resolution.
Then there's the sceptics. They buy into the technology, but not the commercial element. They don't see how the business model works with a catalogue of games that are already available elsewhere – often cheaper – and with no physical component.
Lastly, there's believers. They're impressed with the tech and have signed up and paid for a game. They tolerate the valid criticisms from cynics and sceptics (one specific point being that there is clear visible video artefacting at times).
The people in charge of rival cloud services – Gaikai, or the GameStop-owned Spawn – will be watching how people discuss and dissect the service. How the reaction settles down, and the debate over whether consumers will themselves settle for what OnLive has to offer, signals the next step not just for OnLive, but its competition, and anything else that might spring up from Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft or an unknown format-holder in the making.
For the rest of us, the real issues to watch are those technical and philosophical ones. Many say OnLive's introduction signalled a revolution. But chances are the biggest changes it heralds are yet to be realised, and could run deeper than the introduction of a ‘fifth console'.