OnLive: Assessing the UK Launch

Digital Foundry analyses OnLive - is this really the future of video games?

In its first launch outside of the USA, OnLive has finally arrived in the United Kingdom, capturing the headlines on all the mainstream news outlets and effectively monopolising TV coverage of last week's excellent Eurogamer Expo.

The superb promotion was also backed by a relatively robust offering for those looking to give the service the once-over. Over 100 games at launch is clearly superior to any other platform launch, plus the ability to buy your first game for just £1 is an irresistible opportunity for gamers to put the system to the test. On top of this is the notion of the £6.99 a month subscription offering access to a vast range of catalogue games, including some genuine, recent classics such as Borderlands and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Positioning itself as a low-cost on-demand games service for the less hardcore, more casual gamer is clearly the way forward for OnLive. Where it scores highly is in terms of convenience and in offering a friction-free portal to "full fat" gaming without having to worry about installs, patches, DRM, system updates or any of the other hundreds of annoyances that have crept into the gaming lexicon. What it isn't is any kind of direct replacement for the current generation consoles or the PC, and the experience it offers simply does not stand up to scrutiny in terms of a direct comparison.

OnLive is nothing short of a technical miracle... the basic notion of being able to stream a 720p video stream and actually make it interactive is nothing short of phenomenal

And yet this is exactly the message that OnLive continually gives us: that cloud gaming is the future, that it is more cost-effective than console gaming, and that the performance of the platform is a match for the current console generation - and beyond. OnLive's approach to interviews continues to be to implement an almost NLP-like approach to get their message across: define the reality through relentless PR and play down or even completely ignore the obvious limitations of the platform.

The thing to make clear is that in terms of the reality of the service on offer, OnLive is nothing short of a technical miracle - even with all the caveats we're about to attach to that. The basic notion of being able to stream a 720p video stream and actually make it in any way recognisably interactive is nothing short of phenomenal. I also share 100 per cent in the platform holder's viewpoint that it is a viable revenue stream for publishers, and provides additional cashback in the development of PC versions of their titles. I also believe that it is now inevitable that cloud streaming in some way, shape or form (not necessarily video streaming) will be the norm for our business within a decade, or at the very least form a key part of it.

However, having now spent much more time with the UK service after analysing the US launch, equally clear is the fact that the platform in its current form almost comes across as a service in waiting. The groundwork has been laid, but it is up to the technology and surrounding infrastructure to catch up - right now, the best that can be said is that it's playable and looks passable - in most cases.

In my initial analysis of the US service, I sought to test the system in a best case scenario - I connected up with a fibre-optic 25mbps connection well within the 1,000 mile range OnLive recommends. With the UK service, I was able to test the system on a number of connections and probably the nadir was a basic 8mbps TalkTalk ADSL line. OnLive complained about high latency and video drop-outs - surprising bearing in mind that the service apparently has a London datacentre and I wouldn't have been more than 40 miles away from it. [ OnLive's PR company has confirmed that there are no datacentres in London, they are in Luxembourg but in an OnLive presentation seen by Eurogamer staff, there was definitely a UK server indicated]. There was no additional devices on the connection, meaning OnLive had 100 per cent of the bandwidth available.

Upgrading to a 50mbps Virgin fibre-optic connection gave me exactly the service I was expecting - ie. a carbon copy of the experience from the US launch. The only difference this time was that we'd traded up our PC for the bespoke OnLive micro-console, a seriously nice. well-designed piece of kit. On our benchmark latency test - Unreal Tournament 3 - we got exactly the same lag measurement of 150ms, but it's fair to say that just as with our US experience, the latency tests were all over the place, with the worse case situation being over 200ms on DiRT 3.

Factoring in additional latency from flatpanel displays of anything up to 50ms and beyond, it's fair to say that the situation is "sub-optimal" in many cases, but the more you sit down and play with it, the more you adjust. It would be great for OnLive to be able to zero in exactly on why Unreal Tournament 3 is so close to the local experience and filter out that expertise to other developers, because the difference is quite extraordinary.

In terms of what Unreal's 150ms latency actually means, let's compare it with some local lag measurements from the Xbox 360: the same game weighs in at 100ms, so feels significantly better, but Bulletstorm and Mirror's Edge give us 133ms - so effectively in these situations, OnLive is just 16ms - or one frame - "slower". It's actually on a par with Killzone 2 running locally on PlayStation 3, which is remarkable. Unfortunately, on the other titles we've tested, the parity simply isn't there and lag remains an issue to differing degrees. How impactful it is on actual gameplay changes on a game by game basis. Inconsistency of frame-rate is another contributing factor that seems to affect lag.

Image quality is equally variable. In motion, there is almost always a detail-killing blur, which scales up to full-on macroblock artifacting depending on the amount of movement on-screen and the colour schemes employed. Batman: Arkham Asylum favours the encoding scheme and looks good by the standards of the service, LEGO Batman generally looks fine in-game but looks poor on the cut-scenes, while in-game action on Warhammer: 40,000: Space Marine is mired in artifacts and it's difficult to describe it as any kind of high definition experience.

At the end of the day, OnLive is what it is: a lo-fi alternative to console gaming, offering significantly impacted visuals and often muggy response from the controls. There are types of game that will work fine with it, there are others which really don't suit the system - whether it's down to lag or visual complexity being lost in the video encoding process, or both, the result can be disappointing if you're used to traditional games consoles. When it works well, there's an almost magical edge to it, but when gameplay is compromised owing to technology, it's an immensely frustrating experience.

So will OnLive find a significant audience? Firstly, while the price of games is generally too high by whichever yardstick you care to measure it against (console retail games, Steam etc), I do think that the £6.99 PlayPack has much to offer - it'll be interesting to see how well the platform holder can manage to keep it stocked with decent games. By addressing gaming as a subscription service in the same way that people sign up with Sky, or for their broadband, OnLive has made a canny move. The price is right too, and subscribers get 30 per cent off the price of full purchases, which helps to address the price-competitiveness problem a little.

There are types of game that will work fine with OnLive, there are others which really don't suit the system - whether it's down to lag or visual complexity being lost in the video encoding process

I also think that while picture quality can be really rough, pitched at the right audience, gamers probably won't care on all but the most extreme cases. This is the generation that has grown up with YouTube quality, that watches TV on Sky or Freeview where picture quality (HD channels apart) is generally rather low. Core gamers though definitely be able to tell the difference, and I suspect that only a big boost in bandwidth will get this encoder up to scratch.

In terms of the overall package, while I can see a great many game designers (not to mention artists) upset at how OnLive compromises the quality of their work, the fact is that the service functions and it is playable. Control might not feel 100 per cent "right", but in the absence of a "correct" reference, it's playable enough to feel authentic.

Where the company needs to improve is in terms of the robustness of the platform. If it doesn't work properly on all broadband providers, there's a big issue that desperately needs to be resolved. I also found that the quality and consistency of service took a nosedive if WiFi is utilised, even if I was right on top of the router. Unfortunately for OnLive, if it's going to pitch for a casual audience, it really needs to have both of these issues licked.

It's also clear that game publishers need to step up to the plate too in making the overall offering more attractive. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Tropico 4 and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine are the only stand-out titles that are recent. The rest of the launch line-up comes across very much like a dumping ground for games that have enjoyed their sales spikes on other platforms. The mentality here is puzzling: at the very least OnLive is a superb means by which to sample games that may actually end up being bought on other platforms, but in some cases it almost looks as if publishers want to sabotage the whole sampling concept.

A good example of this is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where the system offers no rental or demo options, just a price-point that is actually more expensive than it is on competing digital platforms. It's ultimately self-defeating and also serves to make OnLive's offering look inconsistent. I cannot help but think that it is not the fault of the platform holder: there's certainly no technical reason behind it and the only reasonably explanation is publisher intervention. The bottom line is that either publishers support the new platform and all of its features, or they don't. Half-in or half-out doesn't really cut it.

Another example is Electronic Arts: there's no Battlefield or Need for Speed heading to OnLive: instead, the best game it offers is Bulletstorm (coming soon, unfortunately we couldn't test it). It's a fine title, but probably not one ideally suited to the limitations of the platform. EA does seem to have embraced the Cloud concept with its recent Gaikai deal, which suggests that EA prefers to invest into the Cloud as a means of providing a demo - a sampler designed to get people out to the shops and buying boxed product. Certainly, in this case, it's very easy to forgive the foibles of the set-up and nobody can deny that Cloud gaming is a superb mechanism for supplying almost instant game content. But as a gaming platform charging full sticker price? Whether it's down to limitations of the system itself or in the surrounding infrastructure, perhaps the kindest way to put it is that OnLive is years ahead of its time.

Latest comments (20)

Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek6 years ago
OnLive is a great idea but it just feels to early, I gave it a go myself and it was easy to navigate and find what I wanted. But with a fairly horrible BT broadband connection the quality was fairly bad, but surprisingly the lag wasn't awful, it was defiantly playable. I was fairly shocked at how responsive it was considering I was technically just downloading a video, although its far from playing using a console etc...

In today's market I could never see myself buying anything on OnLive, I simply don't feel comfortable been totally dependant on them. At least with digital distribution once its downloaded you can generally play it when you want with no worries or nagging issues. With OnLive there are simply to many dependency's.

Where I found OnLive to really excel is with free demo's, the ability to pick up and try something is great. Even with the low quality and lag (all dependant on your internet connection) you can very easily find out if your going to like a game or not.

Demo's seem to have fallen of a cliff in popularity, with people focusing more on multiplayer betas and alphas to draw is crowds. But with the pick-up and play been instant, integrate that into any publishers web browser and they could show of there games instantly. This could easily draw in consumers to less marketed but still very strong titles.

Although I'm not sure how much money there is in free demo's possible advertising revenue? The go to place to try before you buy?
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Mark Raymond Gamer; Consumer; Blogger 6 years ago
Seems weird to me, a service that requires a super fast Internet connection and delivers a low-fi experience at a potentially higher cost. In the UK, at least, I think it's missing its market because of the current cable infrastructure. But maybe it's enough that OnLive has gone first, so that when broadband speeds do catch up, it will be well established?

In any case, it doesn't match my needs, and my connection wouldn't meet its requirements. In terms of sampling games, Gaikai looks more suited to that.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
I think the Eurogamer promo was a masterstroke. A lot of people have there reservations, but give them a nifty little gadget free and that counts for a lot. I would probably never have bought one, but I couldn't wait to try it out. And then a £1 game, I'd never have paid £35 for a game on there as a first move but I bought Space Marine, and now they have my details, it makes it a lot easier for me to impulse purchase. The £6.99 deal actually looks really good, there are some really good titles on there, again I probably won't sign up at the moment, but I believe the copy of PC gamer packaged in box has a month free coupon, so once you use that who knows.

I still don't know that I would buy a full price title, but either renting or looking for PC games with free OnLive copies isn't out of the question (I wouldn't usually buy AAA PC titles due to tech spec of my PCs, but knowing I could play on On Live until I upgrade may may me consider it).

My reservations haven't completely disappeared, but baring in mind they are a comparitively small company compared to other platforms, the launch I thought was very well played.
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Show all comments (20)
Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 6 years ago
I tried the service on a 7mbps Be Broadband line in Milton Keynes with Batman and I found no problems at all. The service worked flawlessly for me. It's worth bearing in mind that Talk Talk is the worst ISP in the UK and that may well have had an impact on the quality of the connection to the Onlive servers.

I need to try more of the games on offer, but my first impression was that this is absolutely the future of gaming. I was amazed it even worked, let alone worked this well.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Wesley Williams on 28th September 2011 2:19pm

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Paul Brown6 years ago
So far (for me) the service is totally unusable. Either it is impossible to login or login just produces a black screen.

From when I've seen it running it's been mediocre at best and is a long long long way from replacing even a Nintendo Wii.
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Thomas Grant Software / Game Developer 6 years ago
My experience with OnLive so far has been pretty good. Although I do feel that the pricing structure should reflect the service provided, i.e. you are basically renting the games indefinitely rather than buying them. £34.99 for a infinite rental, too much for my liking. £5(older)-15(newer) should be more like it.
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Roisi Proven Designer, Supermassive Games6 years ago
I'm honestly finding it a dream to use. It runs in full 720p on my home network connection, even with my partner playing WoW in the other room (we have 17meg Be Broadband). It also runs passably on my work internet connection, which I found surprising considering how clogged up it is.

However I, like many others it seems, wouldn't pay the prices that they're asking for newer games. I got Deus Ex simply because it was a pound, but I don't see the rationale behind charging £35 for a game that I could get up to £10 cheaper on steam.

The thing that has impressed me most though is the Arena. I love being able to go and peek at what other people are playing. That and the 30 minute demos are what sell it for me. Remains to be seen if it can compete, and come up with a more sensible pricing plan.
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Pete Thompson Editor 6 years ago
How many people have any kind of service above 8mb? Ive opted to try it out, and my onlive console is actually due to arrive within the next hour, So im going to give it a go, although I doubt that my rural location is going to be good enough to play without lag or issues.. But hey, i'll give it another shot :-)
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Thomas Crausaz 3d artist 6 years ago
I just played Batman: Arkham Asylum from Switzerland (buisness trip) and it was surprisingly responsive.
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Andrzej Marczewski Games Reviewer 6 years ago
I have tried the US and UK versions on the PC and I am pretty happy. I am using Virgin Media and my wireless connection clocks in at about 17mb. I have found the response times on every game I have played to be pretty good, from Arkham Asylum to Homefront Multiplayer. The biggest issue is image quality. Playing Homefront you can actually lose people in the background due to the compression and pallet! As for price, I agree. It would be impossible to justify full price for a game on there. However, in the US they do regular deals where you can buy top end games from $5, so worth keeping an eye on.

Only time can tell if OnLive will take off in the UK. At it's heart it is a fabulous idea, let down by the UK's crappy broadband infrastructure and a distinct lack of full publisher buy in!
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 6 years ago
Can someone explain a small thing for me... is the multiplayer cross platform? Or can OnLive players only play OnLive players?
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Andrzej Marczewski Games Reviewer 6 years ago
The multiplayer does not seem to be cross platform. When you go into Homefront, you only have about 10 onlive servers (and a few privately started servers). Also it is strange because some people are obviously plying with keyboard and mouse and some are on the joypad lol.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
I expect Sony and MS to fight Onlive with a bunch of zero lag USB controllers, then just ridicule them on the picture quality. Sort of how Razer does it on the PC to appeal to its crowd.

Without Fifa and Call of Duty, Onlive is as far away from being a mainstream system as it possibly can. 100 games can't change that. The lack of announcements boasting high numbers of subscribers and the lower price ($10) compared to the U.S. ($15) also do not bode well.
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Paul Baker Game Designer, Ubisoft6 years ago
Funny thing is, the more users, the worse the experience will become. And how cost effective will it be when the platform becomes popular, and your ISP charges you more for bandwidth, which they will. Hey, its more biz I suppose, but there are lots of problems that no one is discussing, like that your ISP relationship will become more expensive with potentially worse and worse performance. That why I play PC SKUs mostly when availible, they feel and look better. But, whatever - its the netflix of games :)
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Lee Burton Studying BSc Games Development, Southampton Solent University6 years ago
@Paul Baker Why will the experience become worse? Because of network congestion? Surely the more players, the more money they'll have to cash out for support of the service.

It is a little early for the UK due to our slightly lower bandwidth standards, but I see with the current cloud competition and the slowly widening gap in the console market OnLive need to strike when the iron is hot.

What casual gamer doesn't want to play a game without setting up his/her console? It's an impressive feat that might just catch on.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Lee Burton on 28th September 2011 11:11pm

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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 6 years ago
I bought Arkham City and got the console for free. That's a GOOD deal.
It is years ahead of its time. But here on the East Coast of the US I've not really had a problem other than latency. Not horrible, but it was far from ideal.
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Craig McIndoe Studying Computer Science, Newcastle University6 years ago
I tried it out on my 30mb connection and played a few demos. It's works well for the most part, the controls are a little sluggish which is to be expected. However the killer is that the video quality truly sucks, it's like watching a 480p youtube video in fullscreen.

Edit: Also paying full price for what is essentially a very long rental? No thanks.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Craig McIndoe on 29th September 2011 10:51am

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Kevin Patterson musician 6 years ago
I Think Onlive's interface and abilities are amazing, but fast action gameplay or high end graphics isn't its strong point, at least in my experience. It's kind of funny to me that the most fun I have with Onlive is running the IPAD app and watching others play games and brag clips. This is something that I would love as a feature in the next consoles, along with being able to take screenshots and videos of every game that you play. I'm not sure if that can be done unless its completely in the cloud like Onlive does it.
I hope it just keeps getting better. Having the Onlive built into a cablebox, DVR, TV, or DVD/Blu-ray will be huge for them i'm sure.
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Gregg Bayes-Brown Assistant Editor, Ask the Experts6 years ago
Say what you like about the quality, but OnLive is certain to revolutionise the art of having a cheeky gaming session at work.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
What's up with the "purchase" vs. "long rental" distinction here? It seems to me that console games are in the same category: at some point, the console will no longer be manufactured or supported and, once your old console inevitably breaks, you'll lose access to all those games you "purchased."

While the fourth and fifth generation consoles were simple enough and had weak enough DRM that emulation is an option, I doubt that's true of modern consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360. I believe that when my PS3 is gone, all those games I bought will be gone, too.
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