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Gaming in the Cloud with OnLive

There are many skeptics out there saying that an online, cloud-based gaming platform like OnLive wouldn’t work. Well, apparently it can, it does, and I’ve been playing with it for close to 30 hours and having a ball. Let’s talk a bit about OnLive this week.

Playing Crysis on a Netbook

OnLive is gaming in the cloud. You don’t download the game, rather you actually play it on OnLive’s hardware through your enhanced browser. While this may sound lame, it actually works rather well if you have enough bandwidth. Generally, you need a fairly good high speed connection to make this work right; using this service over any wireless network is currently not an option as its blocked right now. However a DSL connection, according to a friend of mine using one, is acceptable, while my high-end Comcast connection works surprisingly well.

Since you are running the game on OnLive’s hardware, all you need in order to play it is a PC running a current-generation browser and dual-core CPU or better. Some connected netbooks can even run Crysis. Also, since you are running the game centrally, the system remembers where you saved your game so you can log off mid-game on one machine and log back in on another and pick up just as if you had been playing on the same machine. So if you’ve been blasting away at home and have some free time at work you can pick up where you left off and continue your adventure. It’s actually kind of cool.

The OnLive Experience

The experience is better than I expected. The company tunes your connection to limit lag, and I haven’t noticed any significant game degradation. It is dependent on your network connection though, and if you have issues you’ll likely lose your connection. You won’t be playing this on a plane anytime soon, for instance.

I played a wide variety of games. They have around 20 and up at the moment, ranging from A-list titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum to independents that I hadn’t heard of. It turns out it is a great way to demo games as well, because you don’t have to download and install them, just play the demo on the service.

Installing the client takes around 2 to 3 minutes, depending on how fast your computer is. Loading the actual game takes around 15 to 20 seconds on average, so you are gaming fast. You are playing the game remotely, and they are streaming a compressed high-definition image back to you real time, so there is some slight degradation in image quality when taken against a high end gaming machine. For instance, on my nine-screen Eyefinity rig, it would only expand to about 80 percent of the overall screen area. But these are six 22-inch screens, and a massive display that I rarely can see all of anyway, so that wasn’t a problem.

If a virus scan or other process starts up on your PC, the game continues without a hiccup, and it was interesting to note that I could play in Windowed mode and not have any visible impact on anything else that was running.

You buy a game much like you would buy a movie from a streaming service. As with those services, you actually are buying the right to play the game, and you don’t get anything you can sell or physically hold. For me, the tradeoff of being able to play on any PC that had a wired connection anyplace was worth it.

Peeping Tom

The arena function was surprisingly interesting. This is where you can drop in and see the stream from someone else’s game. This is not only kind of fun to watch, but a great way to see if you wanted to buy a game without actually working through a demo.

I found I could open an arena window and leave it running with the RTS game I’m playing, and see if anyone was having luck with a level that was giving me difficulty. Granted, the farther I got in the game, the harder it was to find anyone close to my level, but still it was fun to look up every once awhile and see someone dealing with the massive waves of alien invaders that swarm on the defended positions at the end of each level. You have to be a bit careful, as this can suck up a lot of time.

A Streaming Future

I’m hooked by this service, but realize this is only the beginning of something that could easily grow to be even more amazing. Apple iTunes didn’t have many titles when it started, and my first cable service was OnTV, which was only one channel of movies without even the concept of on-demand. If you can pass through a great gaming experience, why not performance applications that won’t run on your PC, or rather than having to buy a software package you may only use every few months, why not allow you to rent it for a day and run it remotely? I think we are seeing a small glimpse of what OnLive will become, and by the end of this decade we’ll wonder, much like many of us do with cable, how we ever accepted running software or connected games any other way.