GDC 09: 6 Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust

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Reason #1 - "Fair Access Policy." It's your ISP's new euphemism for "Did we say unlimited? Kidding!" While ISPs stand to lose lawsuits leveled by bitter consumers over false or misleading advertising, the short term reality is that many "unlimited" broadband providers cap your bandwidth if you hit your head on their fine print data ceiling. If you've ever been FAP'd, you know the drill: The ISP will claim they've throttled you to a more "reasonable" speed, but in reality, even browsing the web can be a slideshow. If OnLive's to really succeed, it'll have to contend with the mismatch in consumer adoption of broadband and ISP lag lighting (or laying) sufficient pipes, resulting in increasingly restrictive "hidden" strictures.

Reason #2 - Real vs. Test Lab Performance. Our hands-on time with the kit at GDC 2009 is a best-case scenario, as it was playing Crysis on "luxury" detail levels at the Crytek booth all those years ago running on beamed-back-from-the-future PCs to ensure no one griped about performance. Riddle me this: How's Crysis run at maximum grandeur on your PCs these days? For a relative few of you, the answer may be "not bad." For the rest, you're probably still dialing things down considerably.

OnLive promises to make the prettiest settings a collective reality, but sending true 720p pictures across a 5Mbps minimum broadband link in realtime isn't possible. The solution? Compression, which blurs the picture slightly. Microsoft and Sony do something similar with their on-demand digital movie services. Oh sure, the picture runs at 720p resolution, but it's like the difference between a 44.1KHz MP3 ripped at 128Kbps vs. 320Kbps. Watch a 720p movie on a Blu-ray disc and compare with the download version. You'll instantly see what I mean.

What's more, OnLive claims "any time, any where" access, but it won't be. Not really. You'll have to have dedicated broadband access for starters, which isn't everywhere. And while the local coffee shop or library or airport may be offering, you're sharing those nodes with who-knows-how-many others. What OnLive needs to work is what I'll dub "deterministic broadband," i.e. guaranteed, non-shared, uninterruptible speed. In short, it needs the reliability you expect from a hardline TV signal. Broadband isn't there yet, nor are ISPs willing to offer performance guarantees.

Reason #3 - "My Internet Connection's Fallen and It Can't Get Up." When your read/write stream's entirely over a network connection, you need perfect, low-latency, uninterrupted online access. If the connection so much as blips or the latency jitters, it's Game Interrupted (and in the most twitchy games, where microseconds separate you from messy bullet tattoos, it's also probably Game Over). What happens in OnLive if your ISP hiccups? Does the game "freeze-save"? What's the delta between the service's "last known good packet" metric and some sort of emergency fail-safe routine? OnLive has to have this stuff tied up if it wants to woo more than casual gamers content to fiddle with stuff like Luxor Mahjong and Bejeweled 2.

Reason #4 - R.I.P. Mod Scene. If the creative content's locked up on the back-end, what about enthusiast mods like skins, levels, vehicles, alternative roles, etc.? Would OnLive put up "development" servers that allow tinkering with publisher code for potential deployment on specially designated servers? How well do you suppose the notion of playing on OnLive's terms will go down with independent mod-scene gurus?

Reason #5 - Privacy Issues. You sign up for OnLive and you'll find you've also agreed to allow the company to collect and mine your personal play habits. Question is, do you care if a company's silently accreting data about your play habits and passing it along to third-party vendors and/or using it to pester you about their Next Best Thing? I'm not saying you should or shouldn't, just putting it out there.

Reason #6 - You Don't Own Anything. Buy a standalone game today and you pay for it once, can play it as many times as you like, and still go back to it in a decade or three absolutely free. Buy a streaming game from OnLive and what do you get? The game outright? Rent time based on a subscriber fee? Say the game's an MMO — what happens if a publisher like Blizzard (World of Warcraft) goes under? And what happens if OnLive itself goes kaput?

For PC World's GDC 2009 coverage, park your RSS feeds here, or hook your micro-blog readers around twitter.com/game_on.

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