An evening with OnLive’s cloud gaming service

You’ve heard about the cloud, right? No, not the one that’s spitting a pitter-patter of raindrops onto the roof of my home office. I’m talking about cloud computing, which allows users to access applications, data, and even games with little more than a low-end PC and an Internet connection. Google Docs has become the poster child for cloud computing applications, and services like Dropbox have popularized cloud-based storage. But cloud-based gaming?

Yes. Really. And with real games.

That’s the premise behind OnLive, a cloud-based gaming service that promises to let PC and Mac users access a library of recent titles from anywhere with at least 3Mbps worth of Internet connectivity. The speed of one’s net connection is the most important thing here because the games themselves run on OnLive’s servers. On the client PC, the OnLive app is merely a portal to what I imagine is a datacenter packed tightly with rows of rackmount gaming rigs. As a result, OnLive’s hardware requirements are practically nonexistent. You can use systems as anemic as 10" netbooks, although the recommended spec calls for a dual-core CPU and at least 1280×720 pixels of display resolution.

OnLive’s current catalog includes recent titles like Assassin’s Creed II, Borderlands, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, all of which require a reasonably competent GPU to run at playable frame rates. Ion-equipped netbooks certainly can’t handle them, and neither can my CULV-powered ultraportable notebook, whose Intel integrated graphics only has enough grunt for casual games like AudioSurf and Darwinia.

Despite featuring what I suppose must be called a more formal selection of games, OnLive’s pricing model seems more geared toward the casual crowd. Three- and five-day rentals are available for those who looking for a quick fix or a multi-day binge, and a user’s favorites can still be purchased outright. If you just want a taste, 30-minute demo sessions are available. Like the downloadable demos you’d encounter online, these are free of charge. They’re not cut-down versions of the full title, though. You get an unrestricted half-hour with the real deal.

Although initial plans called for OnLive to charge users a monthly fee for access to its service after a free first year, the user base has grown rapidly enough that there’s apparently no need for the subscription. OnLive will remain free to download and demo, no credit card required. With the prospect of lighting up Skags on my notebook too tempting to resist, I took OnLive for a spin last night.

To give cloud gaming the best shot possible, I treated this like any other gaming session. Out came my Xbox 360 controller, and a Rat 7 gaming rodent replaced the tiny Bluetooth mouse that usually accompanies my notebook. OnLive’s Wi-Fi support is still in beta, so I settled on a wired connection to my router, whose broadband link offers 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up, at least according to my ISP.

After a couple of minutes and no fewer than three terms-of-service dialog boxes, I was in. First impression: OnLive is a very nice place to be. The tiled interface is slick and responsive, and the selection of recent releases is as impressive as advertised. Everything loads quickly, including the games, which fire up seemingly no slower than they do on my desktop. Unlike with Steam releases or traditional demos, there’s nothing to download or install. Hopping into a new game takes no longer than loading up one you’ve played before.

The OnLive Marketplace is pretty well designed, offering users a peek at each game’s Metacritic score alongside a smattering of trailers. Users can also tap into the Arena, which provides voyeurs with a real-time window on others currently playing the game. There are Brag Clips, too—little snippets recorded by OnLive users looking to show off their mad skillz.

Not content to watch others runs rampant on Pandora, I fired up Borderlands for my first taste. Right away, I noticed latency. Exactly how much is hard to say, but there was enough that playing as a sniper probably wasn’t the best idea. I’m used to precision with first-person shooters, and headshots are a lot harder to line up when there’s a noticeable delay.

Latency isn’t an issue if you’re dumping a backup into your Dropbox or loading up a spreadsheet in Google Docs, but even a little is a detriment for serious gaming. This wasn’t just a Borderlands problem, either. Latency was noticeable in every game I tried, and it was particularly annoying in Unreal Tournament 3 and DiRT 2. Splinter Cell: Conviction, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Just Cause 2, and NBA 2K11 were more forgiving. All the games were easily playable once I got used to the lag, although I did encounter brief and infrequent moments of more serious stuttering. Those bursts of lag were usually accompanied by audio and video glitching and a warning icon indicating an issue with my network connection.

Despite the latency, the in-game visuals were fluid. According to Fraps, the OnLive app ran at a pretty consistent 30-40 FPS when playing games. The graphics themselves leave much to be desired, however. Although in-game detail settings don’t appear to be set at their lowest levels (you can’t access graphics options from the in-game menus), the OnLive feed is compressed. Heavily. The end result’s image quality is about on par with a standard-definition YouTube video, which is quite a step down. For a closer look, you can browse a bunch of in-game shots in the gallery below.

Graphics aren’t everything, but it’s hard to get immersed in such low-fi environments. The loss of detail will be especially apparent if you have experience playing the same games locally on a console or competent PC. Of course, none of the games I played look any better when played natively on my notebook, which can’t run them at all.

OnLive feels very much like cloud gaming—that is, playing games on a platform that’s off in the distance and somewhat obscured by haze. For me, the combination of increased latency and reduced image quality makes gaming less enjoyable. I still had fun, probably in part because my expectations were low for what was ultimately a free session, but I wasn’t left wanting to pay for more.

Those 30-minute demos aren’t completely free in the strictest sense, though; they’ll cost you bandwidth, and quite a lot of it. While playing Unreal Tournament 3, the Windows Task Manager reported network utilization of around 5% for my 100Mbps Ethernet connection. Assuming most of that traffic is associated with OnLive (I had nothing else running at the time), you’re looking at around 38MB per minute, or more than 2GB per hour. Depending on your monthly bandwidth cap, that could be a problem.

In the end, my feelings about OnLive are mixed. I like the premise and am impressed that games are so playable on such weak client hardware. At the same time, it’s very apparent that you’re not getting the full experience, which I much prefer, even if it means I have to trade my notebook for a desktop. Casual gamers who don’t have a desktop alternative may be satisfied with what OnLive has to offer.

I can say with certainty that I’ll use OnLive again, though. The 30-minute preview sessions are a great way to sample games before making a purchasing decision, and I much prefer them to traditional demos that take longer to download and install. However, you won’t catch me shelling out for multi-day passes or full OnLive releases. If I’m going to spend more than half an hour on a big-name release, I’m going to want to enjoy the real thing—at full resolution and detail, and with local latencies that don’t make me feel at arm’s length from the experience.

Comments closed
    • d0g_p00p
    • 12 years ago

    This will never take off for FPS, RTS or “twitchy” (like Shank) games. Even with high bandwidth you cannot overcome the latency issue unless you are sitting in their datacenter. For casual games, RPG’s and turn based games I can see this service really shine. I would love to play Civ or Mass Effect 2 on my Android phone.

    I am wondering if their hardware solution will fix the latency issues. Somehow I doubt it though.

    • thesmileman
    • 12 years ago

    it does vary. I have absolutely zero issue with lag. Which i was 100% sure would be a problem. I don’t care for the graphics that much though.

    • thecoldanddarkone
    • 12 years ago

    Yea, I couldn’t get it to run and that was with 18/1 cable at my house (closer to 15/1, but still respectable). I assume it’s because I live in Montana.

    • designerfx
    • 12 years ago

    that’s correct, and thats why the latency issue will never go away.

    • Chrispy_
    • 12 years ago

    125ms to east coast servers from Sweden is respectable, but that doesn’t make your connection special in any way. Client lag, as reported in multiplayer games is how far you are behind the server version of events. That’s the one way trip which I’m saying is made up of three 15ms hops. If you connect to an online gaming server and see less that 45ms ping time, That is what I class as “very good”.

    Client prediction on all clients and the server make even 200+ ms of server lag far more bearable than they would otherwise be. As long as your client movement is lag-free (almost all online gaming is because movement is handled client-side) you don’t notice too much.

    The problem with the Onlive service is that this lag is doubled (it’s a two way trip) and then rendered twice, once on the server, then again on the client. Each time you render at a framerate, you introduce an average delay equal to half the time it takes to buffer all the frames in total: Since it’s a /[

    • Aphasia
    • 12 years ago

    Gee, I guess my line is built on upobtanium then, because I get a 125ms ping against bad company servers on the east coast from sweden. It is just a tad bit worse in game, but that is still playable with a full client. Of course, I only have to contend with the client-Server lag, not control-client lag which would be much worse. As along as you stay on the same coast and a decent enough connection, latency shouldnt be that much of a problem.

    So if 125ms + in game lag is from sweden to east coast, I sure hope you can get to half of that locally.

    Personally, ineffiency in how they handle control schemes from client -> server and congestion along the way or even last mile for bad connections would be issues that outweight the pure latency issue.

    That said, as the control is done remotely, anything more then 100ms is probably too high. So localized services like akamai-nodes present at each major ISP / peering would almost be a requirement for decent gaming. Such services shouldn’t give more then a 30ms + game lag, which should be playable.

    • djgandy
    • 12 years ago

    And if we had the hardware to do this well, then the hardware we’d have in standalone machines would surpass this greatly.

    Sending images over network is only good if resolution stops growing. At some point you’ll reach a cross roads where all computation is put towards increasing image quality, thus the network load does not grow but the computation load does.

    But I still fail to see the point. It’s a problem with a solution, rather than a solution to a problem.

    • fyo
    • 12 years ago

    The latency issue is unsolvable with anything close to the technology we have today. Even if you had dedicated fiber all the way, it would still be very, very noticeable.

    The video quality, of course, is easily solved by throwing bandwidth at the problem. And hardware at the other end if we’re talking upping the rendering quality as opposed to reducing the compression defects.

    • Bensam123
    • 12 years ago

    Why I’d rather have remote desktop that lets you play games. My gaming computer is setup for all the games I want to play, I don’t need to pay a subscription plan to myself, it’s on my network which means a lot lower latency, and I wont ever try to gouge myself with micro-transactions. It’s win-win.

    • Unckmania
    • 12 years ago

    I was really impressed by Onlive trying it from Mexico. I expected total unplayability but with my 5mb connection(which is a luxury out here) I think i got almost the same experience as USA, except for the latency which was only slightly noticeable.

    We don’t have bandwidth caps, so i wouldn’t mind playing it because of that, but the resolution totally kills it. Most text is so blurry that it’s hard to read, and it does feel like an uncomplete experience. I found myself trying out games i don’t own to get to know them which was the nicest part as everyone has pointed out. This seems like the perfect platform for demos.

    But besides that… games on the PC are awesome for many reasons, one being because we play at high resolutions. 1680×1050 at the least, 2560 x1600 for the awesome. I hate consoles becuase they won’t give me that. Why would i play with Onlive if they give me less resolution than a console. It doesn’t add up.

    Onlive is a great service for a niche… that i don’t think exists.

    • Chrispy_
    • 12 years ago

    That’s what this is! The problem is latency:

    Something happens on screen. You react by clicking the mouse.
    That mouseclick gets sent to the ISP of the network you’re on (+15ms)
    …out into the web and to the ISP of the remote machine (+15ms)
    …and then another hop to the LAN with the machine running the game (+15ms).
    The game running at 50fps is another +20ms, double-buffered, so let’s generously call that only +30ms of game lag. The entire process of returning that packet is repeated, then you have the client, running at a single-buffered 50 fps on your machine – which adds an average of only 10ms of lag (somewhere between 0 and 20ms).

    So, on an almost-unattainable /[

    • Chrispy_
    • 12 years ago

    I thought I’d give this a try on my desktop with a 20Mbit connection in the UK.

    1) It doesn’t work for gaming
    2) It’s bloody impressive
    3) It’s *[

    • Skrying
    • 12 years ago

    I doubt they offer service in those countries. Besides the latency and bandwidth issues there is the licensing issue.

    • yogibbear
    • 12 years ago

    Pretty much pointless in soooo many countries around the world. E.g. Australia. You will never get this service working there. Games will continue to out-pace internet services here purely because of distance issues in regards to laying down cables/fibre etc.

    • TheBob!
    • 12 years ago

    I use Onlive on my netbook. I bought Batman on it. Which is nice. Being a stealth game the latency is not as big a deal as say UT3. Regarding the bad video quality. I have noticeably better quality at home on my cable connection than at work on the free wifi DSL connection being used by 20 other people. To be far though they do recommend every time you start the program on Wifi that you use a hard wired connection and say that wifi is still beta. When you do lose connection to the game it pauses it which is nice.

    Over all though I share about the same opinions as the writer. It’s cool to play these games on a year and a half old single core netbook, but it doesn’t beat my desktop local games any day.

    • dashbarron
    • 12 years ago


    • dashbarron
    • 12 years ago

    I assumed this was the case. They want all their users to have the best possible experience because it is basically a new concept, a new service, and nothing like it at this level has been tried: they want the good word to be spread. Nonetheless, seeing as I’m the one being restricted, it leave a particularly bitter taste that I’m not a allowed to give it a shot, based primarily on some automated-authenticator denying me. I could be wrong, but I think it is the nature of my ISP technology (wireless) and the natural pulses, waves in the service, that I’m being automatically denied on purely false positives.

    In addition, because they will not even give me the oppertunity to try the service, and it has left a bitter taste in my mouth, I am a lot less likely to endorse this as a solution to others. At least if I could have tried it and even if it was laggy and unenjoyable, I could have noted that it was probably my connection prohibiting my experience.

    • Skrying
    • 12 years ago

    Because OnLive may want to keep the impression of your service at least moderately high. There’s also the simple chance it won’t work at al. If they don’t think making the bit rate low enough is acceptable or if they know the latency will cause constant stutter then that seems to me a good reason to not let those people try it out.

    • dashbarron
    • 12 years ago

    Couldn’t do it. I tried the demo when I heard about the service and it reports that there are too many drops in my connection or some rubbish, and it won’t even let me try it.

    I have a 3MB service, and I can play any online game with relatively low ping (60-200) and even in FPS not enough for me to worry about. The fact that the auto-checker won’t even let me attempt to play (and give me some warning or such if they wanted to) screams of failures to me. If someone is willing to pay for bad service even if their internet sucked, why not let them? More aggrivating that I have 0 problems playing other games and it won’t even let me try their service.

    I hate these auto-authenticators.

    • rootheday
    • 12 years ago

    If the target resolution is 12×7 at locked/reduced settings, this seems like a non-starter on desktop. This leaves mobile users as the addressable market – but only if they have a high bandwidth (maybe wired?) connection.

    It seems upcoming Sandybridge and Fusion laptops will offer enough horsepower to drive many games locally at 12×7 resolution with medium settings with decent framerates and they won’t have network lag or compression artifacts. Maybe not the most demanding titles (Just Cause 2, Metro 2033), but quite a few.

    The network bandwidth could be an issue too – although partially offset by not having to download several GB for a game/demo just to find out you don’t like it. Its basically a question of the how many hours of gameplay you expect per title and how close you were to your ISPs cap due to other reasons (movies,…)

    So… OnLive seems like it really is limited to:
    1) high end games that you absolutely must play at high framerates on your laptop even though the experience will be so-so.
    2) People who want instant gratification – e.g. don’t want to have to wait to download a game to run it.

    #1 may have bigger legs than you’d expect once you factor in tablets which will be hamstrung for GPU power for a long time due to battery life/thermal considerations.

    • Bensam123
    • 12 years ago

    Definitely cool, but ultimately not something I’d do.

    I’d rather see a piece of software that lets you play games across the network. Like remote desktop, only lets you play games.

    • unclesharkey
    • 12 years ago

    Just get steam……it rocks!

    • Skrying
    • 12 years ago

    It wouldn’t run. If you do not have sufficient bandwidth or a high latency the program tells you that your connection does not meet the requirements.

    • HisDivineShadow
    • 12 years ago

    People concerned about not having the games should they cancel their service fee will mostly be the same folks who don’t want to pay for something they don’t have the ability to back up in case the service shuts down altogether.

    Those people won’t be interested in OnLive either way.

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    I’m guessing impressions of this is going to vary quite a bit depending on your distance (in latency terms) from the nearest server and the nature of your internet connection.

    For example, I wonder how it would play on my mother’s 256K (yes, K) cable connection. {Yes, she has cable, and that’s what she gets. Fortunately she’s not paying for more than that; in fact, she told the cableco she didn’t want more and somehow got a tier so low I didn’t know it existed.}

    But I’m guessing there would be some, uh, issues. Unfortunately, there are people out there in the fly-over states that get similar service whether they want it or not.

    • HurgyMcGurgyGurg
    • 12 years ago

    Geoff where was this connection tested? Quality scales drastically depending on where you are in the country along with connection speed it seems.

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    And on the other side are people who refuse to “rent” games, and don’t want to have all their games evaporate as soon as they stop paying that monthly bill. There may be fewer of those than there used to be, but they’re still around.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 12 years ago

    The biggest flaw IMO is the fact that you still have to buy games. I don’t want to buy a version of a game that I can only use with OnLive.

    They should have done a service where you pay X dollars per month (say $14.99) and you get unlimited access to all the games in the library. Basically a version of gamefly except that its all streamed to you. That type of service is something I would consider using. I refuse to buy a game that is tied to a closed platform. I am okay with steam because I can play all of my games offline and I am confident that if steam gets shut down they will enable me to get all the games I bought. By definition OnLive cannot offer that protection for the buyer.

    • Suspenders
    • 12 years ago

    OnLive sounds pretty good – provided you live in Europe, Japan,South Korea, or some place other than North America, where lack of competition/lack of regulation in the ISP business has left most consumers with some combination of either crappy internet connections or abysmal bandwidth caps.

    • tikrjee
    • 12 years ago

    I’ve used the service on a couple different setups to see how it compares across the board. First off, on a gaming rig with wired connection, it looks nothing like you’d expect if the games were actually installed to the drive. Suffice it to say, this service doesn’t really seem like it’s meant for this set up.
    However, playing it on a low-end portable, I can’t be more thankful that it’s paving the way. I’m able to play games on either a decent netbook or sub-$600 laptop that I otherwise wouldn’t even dream of bothering to install. Sure, graphically, it’s not as pretty as it can be. But on a small enough screen (15″ wide or smaller), it doesn’t look half-bad. Seriously, Mafia II or Just Cause 2 on Intel integrated graphics is unplayable. For that matter, games built on the Unreal engine are hit and miss. I found Borderlands to be playable (though, sniping as mentioned isn’t precise), and UT3 ran about as smooth as it does when running off the drive (that one I had installed on a laptop).
    It’s a start, and with time, the service has quite a bit of potential for improvement. Maybe after a couple server upgrades? Give it about 6 months to mature for the big FPS titles, but enjoy some of the indie titles till then. Defense Grid is great this way!

    • adam1378
    • 12 years ago

    I tried it on my Macbook. Played the demo for Fear and it was decent and i did not have huge issues with latency. I liked how i could play any games on the laptop using wireless. But I don’t think I will ever pay to play the games with the cut down graphics, goes against what I believe in.

    • designerfx
    • 12 years ago

    The comments are exactly what I: felt when I played too.

    The issues are latency and quality, same as they have always been, and this (for most people with a rational mind) was predicted before onlive was even released.

    solution is simple: we need drastically more bandwidth and much improved latency, and we have neither currently at a feasible price for people at home.

    If this were 1920×1080 resolution, onlive would have a much more substantial cost and so would the consumer, but guess what? it’d be a hell of a lot more fun and interesting. However, what’s the bandwidth for 1080p? Substantially more.

    • spuppy
    • 12 years ago

    Considering I can’t even use a wireless mouse and keyboard to play games because of latency, I can only imagine how horrible it is to play OnLive

    • tay
    • 12 years ago

    I will check out the demos before game purchase. I thought that the lag would be unbearable, and it seems not to be the case, so I want to try for myself.

    • sweatshopking
    • 12 years ago

    it’s ok. I have used it on my wife’s ultra portable. Made me want to try darksiders.

    • Meadows
    • 12 years ago

    Most of the screenshots look fit for portable (or ultraportable) gaming, but many of them show symptoms of /[

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