OnLive’s Gaming Service is Live! Streams High-End Games to Low-End PCs

Today, I played Unreal Tournament III on an iPad, thanks to OnLive. It was impossible to control, of course — it’s just a proof of concept that’s not available in the App Store — but it worked, proving that OnLive’s cloud gaming service can stream modern PC games to just about anything — but just Mac or PC for now.

Today, the service goes live, and at a price that’s making me eat my words.

Thanks to a sponsorship from AT&T, the first year of OnLive will be free. After that, it’s $50 annually. Now, that doesn’t include any full games, just the community features — spectator mode and friends lists, mainly — and the ability to try every game for 30 or 60 minutes. Still, $50 per year is the same as Xbox Live, a service that I happily pay for every year.

Games can be bought, for prices comparable to downloads through Valve’s Steam service ($10 for some indie titles to $60 for top-shelf games), or rented for three or five days at $4 to $10, depending on publisher. You can suspend service for up to a year without losing your collection. There are 23 launch titles, including hits like Borderlands, Just Cause 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Other developments are on the horizon. A standalone unit, which acts as a soft of home gaming console, is in development but probably won’t be available this year, according to Joe Bentley, OnLive’s director of games and media development. OnLive’s also working on a system for swapping players in and out of games, so you can get a remote friend to help you through trouble spots. Bentley also explained that OnLive owns Mova, a facial rendering company. The idea is that some day, OnLive will be able to perform powerful face rendering on its servers, allowing for a level of reality that home consoles and PCs just aren’t powerful enough to handle.

So, now you can lump me in with all the other critics who are impressed, but curious whether OnLive’s services can meet demand. During my play time today, I noticed a bit of choppiness during movement in first- and third-person shooters, and just a tiny bit of lag, but OnLive said the Internet connection they were using at the convention center could be partly to blame.

Fortunately, we’ve all got a year to find out for ourselves, in the real world. After I recover from a week of pulsating lights, thumping subwoofers and virtual explosions galore, I’ll get right on that.

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