Hands-On With OnLive Streaming Gaming Service at GDC 09

A close-up look from the 2009 Game Developers Conference at Rearden Studios' up-and-coming game-streaming service, plus some random thoughts after playing the games, asking the game developers what they thought, and taking the pulse of the crowd.

The Games

It's good to see that OnLive takes its partners seriously. A pretty solid roster is forming, including EA, Take 2 Entertainment, THQ, and Ubisoft; and 16 or so games have been announced, all of them fairly high-performance titles. Around the booth, however, people noticed the absence of Activision games. And what about the possibility of playing World of Warcraft through the service? Is it feasible to play massively multiplayer online games through OnLive? According to spokespeople on hand, much remains to be determined.

[On a tangentially related topic, do you like games that give the gift of gore? If so, check out the spillage in our recent slideshow "The Most Violent Video Games Ever Made" for some precious memories and ewww moments.]

The OnLive Micro-Console

Testing out my chops as a hand model (and as a still photographer), I grabbed the OnLive set-top box and took a snapshot. As you can see, the box is way small. It's powered through a mini-USB adapter, so you can plug it into a handset charger or into the television itself (if the TV has a USB port). The crowd seemed fairly impressed with the box's design. But let's dig a little deeper....

The Competition

Here's a look at the Arena tab on the main service page. Each individual window represents a person playing a game. In this tab, you can select friends to watch as they play or to jump into a game with. In the photo, you can see a highlighted box with a small player ID attached to it. Now look at the neighboring kiosk--that's the other person's game.

The Friends Tab

Your player profile isn't much different from what you'd see in a block of player information tracked over Xbox Live. It just looks snazzier here because of the streaming video. I'm probably going to have to wait until I get into a beta version of the service myself to see whether there's anything more to it.

Buying Into OnLive

So here's the big question: Do you buy into the service? Well, Matt Peckham (in "GDC 09: 6 Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust") and I (in "OnLive: Will It Beat Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii at Their Own Game?") have already weighed in with our two cents each. But around the show, people seemed chiefly concerned about a couple of things: final pricing for the service, and the gnawing question of what happens if OnLive goes belly up. In that scenario, will early adopters simply be stuck with a game that they paid for but can't play anymore? Of course, the same question could have been asked about Valve's Steam service back in the day. Not that the outcome will necessarily be the same this time around...

The Power to Play?

Other big questions linger, as well. Let's consider two scenarios and the issues they raise.

1. You live in California and want to play a buddy in West Virginia. Will it work? Well, not only are you communicating with a server miles away, but you're going through a switch that in all likelihood hasn't been upgraded in about 10 years. And that's assuming that you and your friend are getting at least 1.5-mbps connections at each end.

2. You're playing a high-performance game like Mirror's Edge or Crysis. What happens if, at peak times, a whole bunch of people want to play a high-end game--like all the sweet stuff on display at the GDC 09 show? Spokespeople told me that it's a one-to-one GPU ratio. If I want to play Mirror's Edge, I'm using up that GPU at the data center. That being the case, the service had better have a Pentagon full of computers if it hopes to be successful and not leave folks waiting in a queue to play.

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