Cloud gaming service OnLive launched in the US in June, following much speculation as to the feasibility of streaming games hosted on remote PCs as controllable video to any PC or Mac with a fast enough internet connection. While the service has yet to launch globally and for now still requires a wired (rather than wireless) connection, it appears to have broadly met its promises.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down with OnLive's softly-spoken executive producer Tom DuBois, and as well as witnessing a genuinely impressive demo of the tech on an iPad, talked about the firm's future plans, the perception problem it's suffered, the possibilities of rival systems - and on rumours that the company is valued at $1.1 billion.
Q: So you've started demoing OnLive on iPad...
Tom DuBois: [Brings it out] This is really nothing more than a tech demo, we've added these controls but they're not very playable to actually play a game. That's really the only barrier.
Q: Would you look at a physical controller add-on?
Tom DuBois: Yeah I think for each game it needs to be aware of the device it's on. Basically a lot of the ideas in the OnLive interface... basically all we're sending to the devices is video, we use video as much as we can. So this area goes into the arean. It's really just a place where you can watch other people play. I think this is going to be an interesting way for people to find games that they want to buy and we're seeing on our servers in the US a lot of people who just enjoy spectating.
Q: Almost like a ChatRoulette for games, then?
Tom DuBois: Well, We have privacy settings so you can turn it off, you don't want to be watched. We're also adding rankings so if you want to watch a really good player play a game you can pick up some tips. Another thing is we're building a lot of social features into the platform, because you have to be online to play. We also have this idea of brag clips. Everythng you do is being recorded TiVo style, and if you do something cool you hit a button and it captures the previous ten seconds of play. You can do ratings and these show up on your profile. In the US it's getting pretty large, you can sort it by views and things.
Q: Is any of this actually installed on the system, even the menus, or is it all video?
Tom DuBois: As part of what we're showing is this very rich interface that you couldn't possibly run on any of these devices. So what we shipped in June is PC and Mac, but a lot of people are playing a lot of these games on little netbooks they're playing Assassin's Creed or Splinter Cell. We also have a lot of trailers, and they're all HD you don't have to download the trailer, it just starts playing. When you look at a game that you maybe want to buy, we show you trailers, maybe people playing it live, brag clips of that game, Metacritic...
Q: Do you have a window of release for the iPad version?
Tom DuBois: Not really. The next thing that we're launching is really the Microconsole, at the end of the year here.
Q: You must feel you're at the point where all the people who criticised you and said this can't happen don't mean anything to you?
Tom DuBois: Well, yeah. I mean two years ago we were in stealth mode and nobody knew who we were. We just appeared at GDC and said "hey, we're going to do this cloud gaming thing." Everybody was pretty sceptical. My job is to work with publishers and developers to get games on the system; it's the same thing. There's nothing like walking into a meeting and firing up the demo first, and it usually gets people pretty excited. Then it's usually a pretty easy discussion.
[Loads well-received indie tower defence title Defense Grid: The Awakening on his iPad]. We have a lot of interest from major publishers, and we have these indies. We had a good experience working with these guys. To get games up on OnLive, there's some effort, you basically have to create an OnLive SKU of your game. But it's relatively small, it's about 4 man-weeks worth of effort to integrate our SDK. Some people think you just take a piece of your game, put it in a data centre.. it's a little bit more involved than that, but it's not super-involved. It's not like you're making a PS3 SKU. But we do want the game to run well in a data centre and behave, and respond well to messages and startup and shutdown, that sort of thing.
Q: Does it require any optimisation of assets, or is that academic when it comes to the on-the-fly encoding?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, we do all that on the fly. We're kind of in between a console and a PC. If a game has been developed for a console it seems to be even easier, in that we want it to use a known amount of storage, you kind of want clean startup and shutdown, we remove some of the video settings we don't want the users to be able to tweak those to optimise it. And then we have this overlay menu that's part of the SDK the game pause, read your messages, jump into another game...
Q: What's the top tier of resolution and fidelity possible if you're as close as possible to the server farm with a high bandwith?
Tom DuBois: Today we're running at 720p. This is a tech demo that runs on wifi, and what you see there [the pixellisation of the image] is as bandwidth shrinks down thecompression is adapting, and when it shrinks down far enough you actually see the pixelisation. We are getting pretty close to releasing our wifi for the regular service. We've been beta testing it. Really we've been running wifi internally for a long time, but we didn't want to ship with our first product... we wanted people to have a great experience. So even today we have most people when they sign up, there's a little test that runs, you need about 5 megabits per second to get into the service. We can actually run much slower at a lower resolution, but we wanted that initial launch to be high quality HD.
Q: The obvious question seeing this on iPad is whether it'd work on 3G?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, actually it runs over 3G too. And sometimes people ask about movies if we can do games, we can obviously do movies. One of our core technologies is this low-latency video compression, but it's actually very high quality. [Loads up a video] You can't really tell on a screen this small, but this trailer has a lot of black, a lot of cuts and it handles it very well. So if you notice, again there's no buffering, it just plays right away.
Q: How's the uptake going now? I know you've said in the past it exceeded your launch expectations, but how much have they changed and been met?
Tom DuBois: It's been pretty managed. We had a lot of people pre-register and then when we launched at the end of E3 we've basically been letting groups of people in, and monitoring the service, making sure it doesn't fall over. We've had 100 per cent uptimes. So we've let more people in than we forecast, and we'll continue to do that. But I think we're going to manage it as pretty steady growth.
Q: It's not open access yet, then?
Tom DuBois: Today it's not. We're actually talking about moving to that fairly soon, so there's a little bit of a waiting period still.
Q: Do you perceive there being competition out there, whether direct by another cloud service or indirect in terms of other instant-access systems such as Gaiki or Google Chrome Web Store? Or do you feel you're too far ahead to worry about those guys?
Tom DuBois: I wouldn't say it that way. [Laughs]. I think Gaiki are a very different business model right now. Again, we're trying to build a platform, we're aiming at the consumer, there's kind of this core video codec but to really launch a platform there's a lot of heavy lifting that we have to address.
We're trying to build this customer service platform that handles consumers calls, billing systems, we have a big operations team building up these data centres... Y'know, if somebody buys a game from us and they can't get to their savegame file or can't log in, it's a big problem. So we're really making a consumer-grade service. Gaiki is selling to a publisher for a demo if you can't play the demo today but it's there tomorrow it's not a super-big deal. It's not the same kind of mission-critical focus.
Q: Could you imagine yourself licensing out the tech, as a middleware option for companies who want to stream content be it games or otherwise?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, absolutely. We picked games as kind of the next media that really needed to move to digital distribution; even with Steam you've got to download a pretty big piece of code before you can start to play.
Then I think the other thing that not a lot of people are talking about yet is the focus on the television and the living room, building the Microconsole... It's about this big [mimes very small box], you plug the Ethernet in, you hook it up to your TV...
Q: What's in the box is it essentially just a video decoder?
Tom DuBois: Pretty much. There's no fan, very low power. And then we have greater data centres, the capabilities continue to increase. The consumer doesn't have to go out and buy a video card or buy another piece of hardware. So we really see that as part of our value, getting people to stop focusing on the hardware and think about the software, really spend money on the software.
Q: Presumably the end-game is a television with the decoder built-in?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, the TV and some sort of controller, and you're good to go.
Q: Have you been able to prototype that yet, or is it still drawing board territory?
Tom DuBois: It's pretty much what the Microconsole is, kind of a reference design. It's a pretty small box with not a lot going on in there.
Q: Have you seen changed responses from the console makers now you're out there with that being a reality?
Tom DuBois: To be honest, not necessarily. But they're not necessarily coming and talking to me either [laughs]. But if you step back from OnLive, it's about technology trends, it's been a long time since a major console shipped. They're all kind of refreshing now, with Kinect and Move and so on. But what are they going to do next? We're gonna get another box, but after that, do we need boxes anymore? The bandwidth at homes gonna be there, the cost of computing continue to decrease...
Q: At the same time, you are doing the opposite to the other trend in gaming at the moment, where everyone's chasing Facebook games small, instant-loading titles that don't require high bandwidth anyway...
Tom DuBois: In some way it's pretty similar there's that ease of use thing. Again, we have just the very beginnings here, but also the idea of building social aspects into the platform. We have the spectating and the brag clips, we're going to be adding more and more social features. We want to people fairly open as a platform so actual connections to YouTube and Facebook. I just think people are going to expect that in their gaming. They don't want the isolated experience anymore. I think somebody here [GDC Europe] yesterday said comment about OnLive and Gaiki replacing social gaming. I wouldn't go quite that far, I'm not really sure what point they were trying to make. I think versus very casual games you see on Facebook...
We showed core games because we had a lot of doubters. You're going to see us broadening out, adding casual games, a greater variety of games. But I think the Facebook games are rapidly maturing, like the production values and the costs are going up. They're having to spend money on advertising now, it's not viral anymore.
Q: You don't think it'll be flash in the pan and everyone will go back to core games afterwards, then?
Tom DuBois: No, I think all this stuff's additive. You're just going to have more platforms and more games.
Q: How would you feel about OnLive being plugged into Facebook just click a button to load a game?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs]. It's a browser plugin at the moment. Basically any PC can use OnLive. So a lot of these games are available on the Mac too, through a web browser you can play these games on a Mac today. It's actually pretty entertaining that there have been a lot of reviews coming out of Mac games, and at the bottom it says 'available on OnLive.' But that game is actually running on a PC in a data centre, but the reviewers are reviewing it like a Mac game, and giving it good reviews.
Q: I was talking to Valve recently about their Steam for Mac stuff they were saying there's going to be a lull of a year or 18 months while all the publishers got their games ready for OSX. Do you think platform's going to become academic and that kind of thing won't be necessary?
Tom DuBois: I think that's the real power of cloud gaming. Game designers have been constrained by the platform and the hardware; if you think about a game designed for the cloud, it's a different exercise. Today we're running these existing PC games, but you could design a game that run on multiple servers, used tons of memory, RAM storage, could be 500-person multiplayer... The constraints are removed. And then think about designing that game and have it be displayed on any kind of broadband display. Maybe you do have to support lots of different input devices touch control, keyboard and mouse, game pad... Today we try to get developers to support both keyboard/mouse and gamepad.
Q: Do you have a rough sense of when someone might make a game specifically for the cloud?
Tom DuBois: Uh, no- but I'd love to see that game. If you think about MMOs, there's really just 40 people on some of the larger quests at any one time... If you think about multiplayer for us, really it's a very different thing. All the machines are running on the same backbone, they have like 3 millisecond latency between them. So you really could do 200 or 300 people in a multiplayer match.
Q: Can we expect OnLive gamers to be able to play console or PC gamers in the same game?
Tom DuBois: So far it's only OnLive. We've had that conversation with publishers, but... We're not opposed to mixing, but most of it's been a question of fairness. I think what we would like to do is keep gamepad players playing gamepad players, keyboard versus keyboard...
Q: How much are you still up against a perception that broadband connections all-told aren't good enough, that it's still a bit too soon for cloud gaming?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, I think we've just got to get our message out, and show people that... I think today, if you look at broadband penetration in most of the countries of the world, there's already a good chunk of the market that can use OnLive. That trend's not going the other direction people are already getting faster and faster access.
Q: But you think OnLive could be everywhere, if you wanted it to be, if only people knew or believed that most connections are fast enough for it?
Tom DuBois: Yeah, I do. For any one individual, if they sign up for OnLive today, it's like signing up for a broadband service, there's a little test it runs. And if you don't have enough speed, we don't want people buying the Microconsole, coming home and not being able to use it. So I think, depending on where you are and what kind of connection you have, it may say sorry you need to upgrade your internet connection.
Q: So, how much truth was there to the recent report that the company's worth was estimated at $1.1 billion?
Tom DuBois: [Laughs.] I don't think I can answer that question, but we do have some pretty impressive investors. They're all strategic investors in that venture, and so I think strategic investors invest differently. Maybe they're less valuation sensitive and they're more about getting into new markets. We have Warner Brothers, Autodesk, AT&T, BT... The telcos are really interested in offering combined services which include games. We use a lot of bandwidth, they want to sell more bandwidth... I think they see us as a good service.
Q: Whether it's true or not, it can't hurt to have people think you're worth over a billion, right?
Tom DuBois: Yeah. But it's a valuation. It doesn't mean we have a billion dollars in the bank.
Tom DuBois is executive producer at OnLive. Interview by Alec Meer.