Autopsy: “On-Live”

(for an explanation on the terminology used in our Autopsies, visit the following LINK.)

On-Live first caught our attention at GDC in ’09, promising us incredible high-speed video compression that would allow for streaming video gaming under a term called ‘Cloud Gaming.’  No longer tied to a console or single platform, this service would open doors for a new era of gaming to take root.

Now, after almost a year of patiently waiting, On-Live has officially launched (albeit to a limited number of subscribers).  We were able to get our hands on what On-Live is currently offering, and are happy to share our thoughts and impressions with you.

Although this software is not, strictly speaking, an MMO of any type, the reason for this in-depth look at the technology is explained a previous article on this site which you can read by following this link. To summarize: The tech used to stream On-Live‘s service could revolutionize the MMO market, if properly adapted and embraced.

So, without further ado… let’s cut this sucker open!

Y-Incision:

First let’s talk about the installation process, which blows my mind.

From the moment we received our email invitation, to completing our registration, downloading and installing the client, launching it and logging in, and landing on their main menu within the software’s interface … this entire process took under 5 minutes.  Think about that for just a minute … when was the last time you installed anything that was completely ready to use in such a short timespan?  The client itself is incredibly small and seems to include nothing but the video codec and compression algorithms, and a window in which to view the streamed media sent from On-Live‘s service.  The rest is all remote.

On-Live Options Menu

No matter where I navigated within the interface, I felt like I knew exactly how to do what I wanted to do.

This lightning-fast install also had a psychological effect on me.  Instead of making an end user feel like they are stepping into this vast, overwhelming world of high-speed media streaming, it feels much more simple and easy to access.  On-Live‘s menu system further enhances this feeling of ease, by showing you all of the options available to you at a simple glance.  Even when cycling through the many options screens, the menus are presented in such a way that you never feel as though your options are being hidden from you.  That said, they could use some visual polish as the menus themselves are quite bland.  It’s possible that this is on purpose, as a way to set them apart from the many streaming videos presented on different interfaces.  No matter where I navigated within the interface, I felt like I knew exactly how to do what I wanted to do.

And what did I want to do?  Play video games!

But before we get further into the actual meat of the service, I did want to pick apart a few of the negatives that I had already run into at this point.

The first of these is a big sticking point for a huge portion of On-Live‘s existing nay-sayers:  Bandwidth.  The On-Live client runs a speed check on your lines upon being launched and if you do not live up to their standards, it refuses to connect you to the service.  This happened to me when attempting to run it at my parents’ place which has a service rated at 3mb/sec (the On-Live website lists a minimum 5mb/sec connection as a requirement).  Although this speed is theoretically available to the majority of Americans, it comes at a higher price tag than many consumers are currently willing to pay.  After all, unless you’re regularly in the habit of streaming media or downloading large files, you rarely need more than whatever is the most basic speed that your Cable/DSL can provide.  Even MMO gamers aren’t necessarily pushing their limits in this area, as even the wildly popular World of Warcraft originally had a minimum internet connectivity requirement of only “56k or better” — a requirement overcome by more than 40x on my parents’ sub-par DSL lines.  To add another monkeywrench in the gears of this requirement, it has become a trend in the US Gov’t to seek out ways to further limit and/or tax the services we rely upon for our high-speed internet, and most of the proposed bills that float through Congress end up with a bottom line that would either eliminate the availability of, or drastically increase the price of, high-bandwidth services like those required by On-Live.  Then there’s also the caps on monthly bandwidth, put in place by the service providers themselves.  It is likely that bandwidth issues will remain the #1 stumbling block for entry on this software for quite some time.  Perhaps forever.

The other hot-button topic that always comes up for discussion, is licensing and ownership.  In addition to On-Live’s monthly fee*, you have to pay to access any of the game titles available on the service.  Prices varied from just a few bucks for the “indie” titles, up to regular retail shelf price for new releases.  But the prices aren’t the issue here – it’s the ownership, and the combination of a pay-to-access service.

(* note: The first year of On-Live‘s service has been sponsored by AT&T and is therefore free to subscribers.  After that it will be $4.99/mo.)

As an example, let’s say you have been dreaming of playing Borderlands, but you own a Mac.  Using On-Live, you can now make that dream a reality, but it will cost you $29.99 to purchase a “Permanent PlayPass“.  This does not buy you the game.  “Say what?” you ask.  According to the EULA, no transaction facilitated by their service will ever result in a transfer of ownership rights.  Meaning that they own your games, your account, the videos you capture while playing, your friends lists – everything on their service belongs to On-Live, and you’re paying various service fees to access it.  This also means that even though you bought a Permanent PlayPass to play Borderlands whenever you want to, you can only maintain access to that PlayPass by continuing to pay your monthly On-Live subscription fee.  Harsh!  Furthermore, the price of this title (and several others that we checked) is the exact same as you will find at Amazon or Steam, but both of these other options actually give you ownership of the game, with no additional membership fees.  But, neither offer a Mac client, and both rely on the performance of your hardware … so there’s a give-and-take, and you have to decide if it’s worth the price.

Heart Weight:  6/10

As a service itself, On-Live isn’t fun to use.  It is merely a means to reach a goal of playing video games.  However, it does an admirable job of not getting in the way of that goal.  Most of the time.

On-Live's Arena Gallery

From the Arena you can view live gameplay from any other On-Live user (provided they haven't changed their privacy settings)

Their social integration options are not innovative or particularly intuitive, and in fact are relatively difficult to use compared to the rest of the interface.  Adding a friend requires manual username entry from both parties, rather than showing a list of invites that you can accept or ignore.  Sending messages to and from one another can be laborious, and the total lack of voice or video chat tools has me confused.  After all, if you can stream video with ease, why not allow friends to truly connect and interact with eachother in this manner?  The Brag Clips are a nice touch, but I would only ever really care to watch the ones submitted by my friends.  So unless I come to On-Live with a large built-in community, its another feature that will see hardly any use from me.

The service itself also doesn’t currently offer any matchmaking, and any online matches you want to play with your friends will have to be set up using in-game interfaces.  This is where some titles will require reprogramming before being ported to On-Live, as many make use of existing matchmaking tools like XBoxLive and PlayStationNetwork.  However, for titles that have this functionality built-in, its seamless and very easy to use.  For example, my friend and I (who also received an invitation) were able to join the same Unreal match with ease, using the game’s built-in menus to host and join a game.  Furthermore, since both of our games were located on On-Live‘s server, our ping times on this particular game were phenomenal.

And that actually leads me to another of the primary concerns raised when discussing this service – the concept of command latency.  Since every command you send from the client has to be sent to the service before sending you back the results, there is a justifiable concern regarding the latency this could introduce, and the resulting lack of accuracy.  However, I can tell you in total honesty that even the most highly sensitive gamer would easily adapt to the feel presented in games like Unreal and Borderlands.  It doesn’t feel like lag, because it really is nearly instant.  Instead, it feels very similar to what might happen if your mouse sensitivity is set too low.  My favorite description from another reviewer’s comments is that it feels “just a tiny bit soupy.”  But really?  Totally playable – not a fun killer in any way.  And in games like Arkham Asylum and LEGO Harry Potter, it completely escaped my notice.

Brain Weight:  9.5/10

This service isn’t just smart, or well-thought-out — it’s is visionary and revolutionary.  The concepts behind the technology that allow for high definition (720p) streaming of remotely-playable video games is phenomenal, and could potentially dramatically alter the landscape of gaming, and home entertainment in general.  It is my honest opinion that the people in charge of On-Live are not reaching far enough with this technology.  By licensing out their video compression technology to services like NetFlix or UStream, the entire face of instant on-demand media could be changed.

And what about the MMO world?  Well, without the need to download and install clients, they could be developed, patched and improved in entirely new ways.  And without needing to cater to low-end PCs, game developers can push the envelope of visual/graphical presentation further than they’ve ever dreamed possible for the consumer market.

The possibilities for this technology are being squandered on a subset of gamers, when they could potentially benefit a huge array of consumers in every walk of life regardless of their pass-time of choice.

The only factor keeping this product from achieving a perfect 10 in this category, is the appearance of short-sightedness.  What it IS, is fantastic.  But it could be more than what it is.

DIAGNOSIS:

On-Live Main Menu

It could be so much more!

This is a powerhouse of technological innovation, and holds the potential to become a major player in the future of gaming.  There are still hurdles to overcome, but they honestly seem to be on the BUSINESS end of things (e.g., working out licensing agreements and service contracts) rather than the implementation of the existing technology.   On-Live has a hit on their hands, but they’re going to have to work to win people over, and convince them to give up their existing gaming habits.

A big leap in the right direction would be to eliminate the monthly subscription fee, by whatever means necessary.   And while we’re dreaming, how about the possibility of working out a deal with a major gaming distributor, where you can pay a shipping fee to receive a physical copy of whatever title you are purchasing via On-Live (where available)?  And what about voice and/or video chat?

I’m excited for where this could go.  I’m nervous that it could let me down and never achieve its entire potential, but for what it is right now, it’s a really solid service that is definitely worth a look.  Not everyone will want to use it, and not everyone will be able to access it.  But for those that can, I highly recommend it.

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