My generous employer, Wahoo Studios/NinjaBee, gave each of us an OnLive miniconsole for Christmas and a coupon for a game. They are one of those rare workplaces that actually wants its employees to play games… albeit not actually at work (QA crew excepted, of course) for sensible reasons.
I’m on record as being… unimpressed with the concept of OnLive. I stand by my earlier reticence and my own preferences against online gaming in general. (Yes, I play online games still. They aren’t devoid of value, the pros just have to outweigh the cons.) Still, one should never sniff a gift fish, so it was time to dive in and see how well this OnLive thing works out.
Turns out… well… partially fudge, partially onion, and the two don’t exactly mix. (Apologies to the fudge-covered onion lovers out there.)
- I got Arkham City for $1 thanks to a promotion for new accounts they were running. Can’t argue much with that. Probably a fluke of timing, but hey, maybe they will do that again.
- A decent selection of older games for the $9.99/month subscription plan. For that, you can play any game on the list as long as you’re subbed. If you’re a fan of subscription services and games, it’s probably a pretty good deal.
- Speaking of the library, A Kingdom for Keflings is part of the library as of very recently, so go check it out! (I built many of the buildings for that game.)
- Small footprint. The games all run on remote servers, so the client is little and fast.
- Digital library. All the advantages and downsides of that, as with Steam and its ilk. In a nutshell, they track and host the data for you, but your data is in their hands.
- Nice tech crutch. You really only need a good internet connection and a screen to play on. The hard parts of staying on the cutting edge of gaming, the expensive hardware rigs, are covered by the OnLive guys. This is a pretty cool idea.
- You need a really good internet connection. As in, 3mbps minimum and low ping of 25ms or so. Those are somewhat pricey beasts, and if you’re in a remote area with third rate ISPs, you’re just out of luck. If you’re getting one just for gaming, the cost/value ratio changes a bit.
- You need a HDTV-capable display. I use my computer monitor since I don’t have a HDTV, and since it’s a plain old 4:3 screen, the widescreen HDTV content is bordered by black on top and bottom. (The bars don’t actually bother me, but they might bug some players.) Maybe you already have a spiffy HDTV, but if not, those are pricey beasts, too.
- Because it really needs another bullet point, you need a really good internet connection. Lagspikes will kill your gaming. Low speeds will kill your gaming. ISPs that are interruptable by phone calls will kill your gaming if anyone uses the phone.
- Demos only last 30 minutes, but they are time-limited, not content limited, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not, as I’ve noted before, so I list this as a con, tempered by the realization that you can play the demo over and over, it just resets your play.
- Somewhat underwhelming library. I suppose this will get better over time, so I can’t count this too harshly, but at the moment, they don’t seem to have a huge selection of games. It’s decent, but it’s not comprehensive.
I got Dirt3 with my gift coupon. It’s a solid, fun rally racing game, but about the only other one on the service that I even partially cared about. OK, Bastion is on there, and I will get that someday, but I prefer to get it on the XBox, ditto with the LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. The library of games they offer isn’t very big at the moment, but I imagine it will get bigger. Since I don’t buy or play M-rated games, that naturally cut me off from a quarter or so of what they offer, too, but that’s a limitation on my end, not theirs.
…but what about the performance? How does it play?
Well… it’s geared to make the play more important than the visuals. As in, if the lagmonster strikes and you lose some speed on your internet connection, the visuals degrade instead of the play response, at least, as much as possible. You’ll see artifacting that you’d see in a JPG still frame or MPEG videos; blocky, blurry, smudgy visuals. This will be flatly intolerable for some players, but I actually didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would. This is partially because of how I play and the two games I have.
Y’see, Batman’s Arkham City is a grungy, dystopic place, beautiful in its decay in a terrible sort of way, not unlike the photos of Detroit’s urban decay that I noted a while back. It’s great to just look at… but a lot of the gameplay of Arkham City is about moving from place to place and beating up thugs. A fair chunk of it is played in “Detective Vision” as well. As such, when I want to take a look at the scenery, I just stop and look. The system doesn’t need as much processing or communication power when you’re stationary in the world, so the visuals improve when you stop to look around… which is a nice confluence of circumstances. When I’m fighting, the important part is seeing the motion and UI cues for counters, and those are perfectly serviceable, even if the overall visuals degrade a bit. When I’m soaring around town looking for stuff, I’m sure I’m missing some details, but for the most part, the sense of motion is key, and that translates pretty well unless there’s a very strong and/or protracted lagspike.
Dirt3 has similar quirks. As in, the bulk of the play is in the middle third of the screen, and there’s a speed blur effect around the perimeter anyway. It’s all about control, and as long as that stays tight, the game plays really well. On the longer Rally races, you have a couple of assists in driving anyway, like automatic gearshifting, a radio caller to tell you what turns are coming up, and a ghostly green “optimal race line” overlaid on the track to follow. Of course, these are optional, and I’m playing in Easy mode, so I’m not sure how well a purist hardcore gearhead (I use that term affectionately, not derogatorily) would like it. For me, though, it plays about as smooth as slightly sugary butter, which is a key component of fudge, so I’m happy with it. When I’ve missed a turn or botched a move, it always feels like my fault, not the game lagging on me. (I’m still not really good at dirt track racing, and the Gymkhana thing, heavy on the drifting and precision control, is very cool, but beyond me at the moment. It’s like trying to steer a cinder block on ice with turbo-powered hamster wheels.)
So… color me at least partially impressed with what the OnLive people have been able to do with the tech. I do still think that the high speed internet requirement will make it a niche product, but with luck, as the tech gets better, it will be more useful to more people. It’s not a perfect system, but it really is playable, which is more than I expected initially.
And hey, I’m playing a sweet driving game, Dirt3, and the so-far-phenomenal Arkham City, and I’ve only spent $1, not counting the computer or internet costs (I’m not using the miniconsole, though, without a HDTV… maybe I’ll come back and review that someday). I can’t complain much about that, either. Yes, there’s still that blasted internet tether, but for the price, I’m pretty happy.
I actually wish MMOs would take a page from the OnLive pipeline, too. I don’t mind if the visuals compress a little bit as long as the play stays at peak. I know, the tech is different, but I can’t help but wish that there were a similar on-the-fly tradeoff in MMOs to allow play to stay sharp, even if the data transfer rate isn’t constantly snappy.
… in a late-breaking bit of news, apparently OnLive works on tablets and smartphones. At least, some of them. That’s an interesting extension of the technology, though I’m not sure I’d want to play Arkham City with touch controls. Dirt3 might work fine, and our A Kingdom for Keflings PC port was designed for single click use (so it should translate to touch nicely) but not every game can be converted well to the touch interface. (Random plug for a pair of great articles that enumerates many reasons I don’t like touch tech… A Brief Rant and Jobs’ Legacy)