How “On-Live” Can Change MMO Gaming

Yesterday, June 17, 2010, marked the launch of one of the most significant technological advances to ever happen in the gaming industry.  Not since the advent of consoles and home PCs have we seen such a monumental shift in the way games can be enjoyed by the masses.

Before reading this article, it’s probably a good idea to have a basic understanding of the concept behind the On-Live service.  At it’s core, it is a streaming and communication technology that allows for remote gaming and socializing, via a new type of video compression.  They use terms like “cloud computing” and “games on demand” but the true advantage that On-Live offers, is that the game you are playing is not on your computer (or console) — it’s on a server cluster at a data center.  The interaction the end user has is like a window into that data center.  This means that programs that were previously unplayable on your aging PC, may now be available at high-resolution full-quality graphics, because you no longer have to render them locally.  It also means true cross-platform compatibility, as Macs will be able to access PC titles, and vice versa, and there are even hints that console exclusives might eventually make it onto this service.  Put simply, this has the potential to replace the need for powerful home PCs.  The only requirement seems to be a high-speed internet connection.

For a more thorough explanation of the concepts and technology behind this, I’d encourage you to take a look at On-Live’s original Press Conference from GDC ’09.

Now, MMO gamers are not newbies to this concept of remotely accessing game data, but the technology behind a typical server/client architecture is quite a bit different than what On-Live is offering.  We’re all accustomed to accessing our avatars, inventories, achievements and more, through a portal on our computer (the client) while the data is stored elsewhere (the server) so that much of this is nothing new.  But the big shift here, is that instead of having to download and install a several-gigabyte client, where all the art and user interface resources are kept, it is all stored remotely.   And rendered remotely.

Let me try and nail that last point home.

I play Star Trek Online, and I currently have an older computer.  I also have a real-life buddy that plays STO, and whom I visit frequently, AND who happens to have a monstrous gaming machine that he sometimes lets me play.  Now, even though the gaming experience is theoretically exactly the same on both systems, I happen to enjoy playing at my friend’s house a lot more than at my own, because the game simply looks astonishingly better.  But what if STO was offered via OnLive?  Then we could both have the same gameplay experience, regardless of the specs of our home systems, and I could enjoy the game that much more from the comfort of my own office.

But let’s take that a step further.

The servers that On-Live run on are said to be extreme bleeding-edge technology, capable of not just playing the latest gaming titles, but also exceeding expectations on every front.  In fact, in their original press conference they even hinted at the concept of developing titles or ports exclusively for the On-Live service, as the quality of those titles could potentially exceed technology that would be available for the average consumer.

So what if an MMO entered into this market?

System requirements in the world of MMOs have historically been kept relatively low when compared to their stand-alone counterparts, in order to allow for a wider potential audience, and keep the barrier for entry very low.  As a result, MMO graphics and gameplay are often looked down upon by the more cutting-edge gamers, as they are typically a generation or more behind in terms of polygon/particle count, lighting effects, and more.  If an MMO company was able to incorporate the technology used by On-Live to stream gameplay directly from data centers, they could put themselves into a coveted Cake-Have-Eat scenario, and allow cutting edge graphics and gameplay available for even the lowest-end gamers.

Want to play SW:TOR next year in full graphical detail, but can’t afford a $2000 PC upgrade?  Done.

Have a group of friends that play EVE every weekend, but your low-end Mac laptop can’t support the emulation?  No longer a problem.

Running low on hard drive space, but want to try out LOTRO’s new Free-to-Play beta without having to trim your music library?  No local installs = no storage necessary.

Going on a road trip, but don’t want to miss your next WoW raid?  Pop the microconsole in your pocket, and play your character from any TV in any hotel room.

It’s not just a game-changer, it’s potentially a device and a technology that could change the entire landscape of home entertainment.  Obviously, there are issues with the concept, and with On-Live’s service architecture.  But these issues are primarily business/infrastructure/support problems, and not technological shortcomings.  This technology must be embraced and exploited.  It’s the revolution we all want to see.

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