GDC 09: 6 Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust

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Are Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in deep doo-doo when you can click an "on" button and instantly play the latest video games through a browser or set top box near your TV? That's the promise entrepreneur Steve Perlman (WebTV, Contour) is making with his new "microconsole" service. The idea? Take the processing and configuration headaches entirely out of your hands, then beam pictures at you over your broadband hookup, those pictures amounting to streaming interactive images of the latest top-end games. No muss, no fuss. You tap "Start Crysis" and presto, you're playing the every-bit-as-sweet-looking version as your online compadres.

Pipe dream? Reality. As of this week, that is, when Perlman's Rearden Studios debuted its "stealth development" response to the recent so-called "cloud computing" vogue. It's called OnLive, and its proponents are hoping to capitalize on the rise in broadband usage and commensurate surge in video gaming, while leading the charge in "displacing the limitations, cost and complexity of local computing."

I've hoisted the cloud computing flag twice in 12 months. Back in March 2008, I noted former Xbox Europe honcho Sandy Duncan's suggestion that consoles were set to die "in 5 to 10 years." According to Duncan

...there is a definite “convergence” of other devices such as set top boxes. There’s hardly any technology difference between some hard disc video recorders and an Xbox 360 for example. In fact in 5 to 10 years I don’t think you’ll have any box at all under your TV, most of this stuff will be “virtualized” as web services by your content provider.

And again in January this year, I rapped about AMD's Fusion Render Cloud, which the company claimed would

...transform movie and gaming experiences through server-side rendering -- which stores visually rich content in a compute cloud, compresses it, and streams it in real-time over a wireless or broadband connection to a variety of devices such as smart phones, set-top boxes and ultra-thin notebooks. By delivering remotely rendered content to devices that are unable to store and process HD content due to such constraints as device size, battery capacity, and processing power, HD cloud computing represents the capability to bring HD entertainment to mobile users virtually anywhere.

I know something about cloud computing, or at least something about it before someone employed the phrase to rebrand the old mainframe vs. client/server wrangle. In my other life, I was actually a systems engineer working on enterprise-grade mainframe vs. thin client R&D...essentially studies gauging the plausibility of running client-server applications using Microsoft's Remote Desktop and Citrix's ICA technology, e.g. running apps like Microsoft Office on central server farms and beaming screen data out to cheap "dumb terminals." I've run packet capture studies and composed tedious white papers celebrating the power of the paradigm (yes, it's worthy of that word).

And I tallied this user-friendly list of pros about it in January.

Streaming video games upend gaming as we know it. For starters, the technology challenges the need for offline retail sales, eliminates lengthy software downloads (instant "on" play), removes spiraling local storage requirements, jettisons messy/intrusive digital rights management (DRM) malarkey, obsoletes expensive computer components, and generally speaking fully equalizes the end-game experience.

You'll suffer fewer bugs. For the same reasons that benefit consoles, one-stop central-style gaming reduces hardware and driver compatibility quirks, wipes away the distinction between "PC" and "console" games entirely, and allows patches to be instantaneous. Everyone shares the same problems, and therefore benefits from the same solutions.

Every game, a demo. OnLive's already touting this in its FAQ. Try before you buy, whether for a small demo fee or with a time limitation metric. No more sardonic grumbling on message boards about a developer's "mendacity" because they couldn't be bothered to chisel a try-before-you-buy chunk of code off their product.

It's pirate-proof. Really? Really. Because it eliminates the very thing bootleggers need to do their dirty work — physical media — and adds an online requirement in the bargain. At best, you'd have a nominal number of illicit accounts in circulation, but we've already seen how simple it is for companies like Blizzard to wave a digital wand and topple thousands of felonious players like tenpins.

That wraps my list of ad hoc pros. Now hit the jump and marvel as I upend my own arguments with "Six Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust."

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