OnLive has been around for some time in the states but the end of September saw the launch of the service here in the UK with the giveaway of thousands of consoles at Eurogamer’s annual expo.  So what is OnLive and why does it deserve our attention?  We’ve put together this article to answer some of the questions we think you would like answered and to explore this new development in gaming.

What is OnLive?

OnLive is a cloud-based gaming service and for some… it might just be the future of gaming itself.  As opposed to the traditional platforms such as consoles and PCs – OnLive streams the games over your broadband connection. It does this by installing and running the games on machines at its data centres and then compressing the video data and sending it to you whilst sending your controls back to the data centres.

How Can I Play?

At the moment there are a few ways to use the OnLive service: with a Micro-Console, and a PC or Mac application.  The PC and Mac application are free to download and will run on most machines, because the game is processed and stored at the data centre there is no need for a powerful graphics card and a big hard drive, however there are minimum requirements and it won’t run on some netbooks. The app itself works very well and you have the choice of using the keyboard/mouse combo or a windows wired Xbox 360 controller. Very soon there will be a third option for OnLive play in the form of iOS and Android apps meaning that you will be able to play games on the move.  These are however still in development and we’ll bring you more as we get it.

The Micro-Console will set you back around £70 and ships with all the cables that you need plus a wireless controller.  The console is compact, around the size of your hand and is built well.  It has a HDMI connection (a component adapter is available separately), an optical out for audio and two USB ports for input devices. It requires an Ethernet connection as OnLive do not recommend using Wi-Fi, it can however be bridged which requires an altered set-up.  In order to play on the console you will first need to register on the company website, the same goes for adding billing information, this is a slight annoyance and I would have liked to see these integrated through the console itself.  Like the PC app you have the option to use a keyboard/mouse or a wired Xbox 360 controller instead of the controller supplied.  This option is great as some styles of game really do suit one or the other.  The wireless controller that ships with the console however is very good and is based on the Xbox 360 controller design which feels good in your hand.

What About The Games?

As it stands there are over one hundred games available for OnLive ranging from strategy games, such as Tropico 4, to FPS’, such as Homefront, indie titles and everything in between. A lot of users especially love using OnLive in conjunction with their WoW accounts. Who knows, you may just end up going rogue, in which case I’d recommend a World of Warcraft rogue guide so your not left in the dark.  While a big chunk of the titles on offer are indies there are some AAA titles available too; like Batman: Arkham City and the brand new Saints Row 3.  All of these games have been optimized for OnLive and are not simply PC copies so much as they are ports. For example you can play a game at home, save your progress as normal then play at a different location and pick up where you left off thanks to the cloud saving. This is great as it doesn’t feel like you’re gettinp;og short changed in terms of quality.

When it comes to accessing games you have a few options: Trials, Rental, Full Pass, and Playpack. Most games allow a trial of 30 minutes which is fair and gives enough time to give you an initial impression. All the big games have a rental option of 3 or 5 days for a price comparable to high-street chains, albeit with the bonus of being playable immediately, I feel this could be a great draw.  The Full Pass is OnLive’s equivalent to buying a game, however, this does not guarantee that you own the the game so much as has access for so many years.  While this doesn’t have the same security as owning a hard copy it’s not a deal-breaker.  Finally there is the PlayPack which allows you access to a set list of over one hundred games for a monthly fee.  This seems to be OnLive’s main draw and while it doesn’t include a lot of the popular or newer titles there is plenty there to keep you interested for the foreseeable future. Considering the cost saving it’s hard to believe that more developers/distributors wont flock to the service.

Does it Support a Community?

OnLive has a community much like it’s competitors with friends lists, messages, and voice chat all available. OnLive’s ace in the hole in community terms though is it’s Brag Clip and Arena systems.  The Brag Clip is very simple; during the game at anytime, if you do something that you feel the world needs to see then, all you have to do is hit the record button on the controller or keyboard and the system will record a 10 second clip of events preceding the press of the button.  Couple this with the Facebook integration and you can post your best clips online in seconds.

Arena allows you to view whatever anyone on OnLive is playing at anytime, taking advantage of the streaming set-up of the system, meaning if your not sure about a game you can check out over people in action to help decide.  This also means you can watch a friend play through a game and offer advice or simply watch a random player to blow off some steam. These options are a great addition to the system and really feel new and innovative and they work very well.

What’s the Quality of the Stream?

The major worries of a streaming service are the quality and latency and thankfully OnLIve doesn’t disappoint.  In order to get around the previous limitations of HD streaming OnLive have come up with a brand new form of encryption which allows the service to operate seamlessly.  This means the user does not need an amazing connection to achieve good gameplay.  A 1-2Mb line will ensure play back with lower res images but a fairly standard 5Mb line will ensure HD visuals and low latency.  It’s not perfect just yet though, if you have a line with a bad ping say, you might see the occasional graphics blur.  The system is also going to test those of you with low ISP download limits as you may use around 2GB of data per hour, although it’s worth noting that BT customers who sign up through the ISP are exempt from this until January.  Ultimately the quality of the stream is amazingly good, lets not forget that this is an HD game streamed live to you at the push of a button, this is not something to be scoffed at.

Final Thoughts

OnLive is a new, exciting, and innovative approach to gaming; bringing the console market into modernity.  Despite being new, the system delivers well with very few limitations and is truly a viable system which can stand up in today’s games market.  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Onlive is what it could mean for the future of the service and gaming in general. In terms of its current generation soon we will see the release of the tablet/phone apps and considering the nature of the system I would be shocked if movie streaming didn’t make an appearance.  In terms of the next-gen if it is successful could we see this become standard for all consoles? At least as an option, digital distribution is very popular with developers owing to lower costs and the absence of a pre-owned market.  Ultimately the question is ‘if OnLive can get it so right first time round then what will the future bring’?

Visit the OnLive homepage at onlive.com for more information and download the free PC client. Your first game purchase costs only £1.