Onlive Looks to Offer On-Demand, HD Gaming…Without a Console

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At this year’s Game Developers’ Conference, game publishers and developers are always looking to get eyeballs, mindshare, and ink deals that will catapult their efforts to the next level. This year, quite a lot of buzz is centered on OnLive, a startup that’s just slipped out of stealth mode but which claims to have been working on its product offering for seven years. And what is that product? The Onlive Game Service, which cleans to be an on-demand game platform that can offer the latest and most demanding game titles on any television, any reasonable PC or Mac, or their own inexpensive MicroConsole at a very low price. OnLive promises a world of gaming without No high-end computer rigs, pricey gaming console, discs—and major game publishers have already signed on to offer titles on the service when it debuts later this year.

“OnLive combines the successful components of video games, online distribution and social networking into one affordable, flexible platform that offers a new way for game fans to access and enjoy content,” said Onlive COO Mike McGarvey, in a statement. “With OnLive, gamers can play what they want, when they want, how they want. That level of freedom has never been possible until now.”

Here’s how OnLive works: instead of running games locally on a PC or console, Onlive gamers connect to games running on remote servers and merely stream the video results over their broadband connections: 1.5 Gbps is enough for standard definition games, with 4to 5 Mbps being enough for high-definition gaming. OnLive claims to have tweaked their video codecs to the point where came play is smooth even on entry-level PCs and Mac—imaging playing a game like Crysis smoothly on an Atom-powered netbook—and for folks who dont’ want to play on a computer, OnLive will offer its own MicroConsole that can hook up to a broadband network and a TV. OnLive will offer game demos, and users will be able to instantly sample and purchase top-tier game titles.

The OnLive service will also feature social components, enabling users to watch games in progress (and even join in!), share “Brag Clips” with friends (10 seconds of particularly triumphant video from a gaming session).

OnLive is pushing the platform as a winning proposition for game developers too, since they don’t incur massive development costs building for OnLive, and they don’t have to deal with retail fulfillment and inventory. OnLive says most games can be brought into the service with only a few weeks of work—and developers are listening with Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, THQ, Epic Games, Eidos, Atari Interactive, and Codemasters already on-board as partners. And Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 is compatible with OnLive, meaning the heap of titles which rely on the engine can port to OnLive relatively pain-free.

OnLive plans to launch as a monthly subscription service at the end of 2009—figure just in time for the holiday buying season. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but the company says OnLive service will be available in several different packages and tiers that compete favorably with retail game prices.

There’s no telling yet if OnLive will be a game-changer for the video game industry—we imagine the company is already looking at ways to expand to mobile devices and even to include those pricey consoles in its service. But on-demand games that run smoothly on everyday hardware…a lot of gamers could go for that, and OnLive is certainly turning heads.