I’ve been a fan of OnLive’s cloud-based gaming service since it first launched last year. That was version one, which should have been titled "A New Hope."
It promised, and generally delivered, a PC or console gaming experience on your Windows or Mac system without the hassle of installing an actual game. As such, any patching, software management, or hardware compatibility became, for the OnLive user, past history.
Version two, or "Consoles Strike Back," was the introduction of a tiny little set top box that would bring the same experience and a controller to any TV for a nominal fee. In effect, this was OnLive's "Universal Game Console."
Now the company has moved on to phase three - "Revenge of the Tablets" by showcasing the platform's capabilities for iOS and Android devices.
Interestingly enough, Robby Bach, the former head of Microsoft’s now collapsed Entertainment Division, previously went on record as saying that OnLive was impossible - which tells us two things. One, I've definitely watched Star Wars way too many times. And two? The next step, which is putting a full PC desktop in the cloud for the masses is going to be amazing.
The Problem with Tablets
Tablets are at their best when connected and generally don’t boast anywhere near the performance of the classic laptop we’ve learned to both love and hate. However, lightweight tablets do offer users a simple, sleek interface along with a relatively long battery life. Yet, you still have to carry both a tablet and laptop if you want the advantages of one and require he capabilities of the other.
Gaming is typically one of the areas where tablets tend to fall a bit short. They are fine with casual games but playing anything more complex often makes you feel likely stepped back nearly a decade from what you were used to on a PC.
The Problem with PC Games
Some of the best PC games are quite resource intensive and don’t even play well on most laptops as a result. Yes, you can get a big honking gaming laptop PC but they suck on battery life. Plus, you'll undoubtedly end up looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame in just a few short months. In addition, PC titles are massively pirated, with some studios claiming that up to 90% of their users don't actually pay for games - something which has prompted some companies to reduce their activities in the once lucrative PC space.
The Promise of OnLive
Piracy is virtually eliminated by deploying OnLive games as a service, while titles run on anything that can handle OnLive’s relatively skinny client. In the end, OnLive offers the promise of a solution that fixes the performance overhead of great games, while addressing PC piracy issues plaguing game developers.
This allows devs to price their games lower, which translates into nominal monthly rental charges for an all-you-can eat service at about $10 for 100 games - which basically makes OnLive the Netflix of games.
OnLive on Tablets
OnLive's shortcomings are generally connected to issues users typically have little direct control over. For example, if you have a small relatively low resolution display on your tablet, regardless of what OnLive can do in the Cloud, you’re going to get a small, relatively low resolution experience. So, yes, IMHO, display quality makes a big difference.
Of course, low latency networks are also critical. So if everyone in a household jumps on a network at once to watch a new Netflix movie, your performance can plummet to unacceptable levels which is initially heralded by a drop in resolution and then a game error. Fortunately the service retains state, but if your network sucks, well, you probably won’t like OnLive. For example, there are quite a number of hotels that I've stayed at where the network truly sucks.
Only a handful of OnLive games have thus far been converted to work with a touch screen; however, additional titles will be rolling out over the next few weeks.
The Magic Bluetooth/Wi-Fi Controller
One of the most interesting aspects of the latest OnLive iteration is the Bluetooth Wi-Fi controller. Initially, at least, it is essentially a Bluetooth device that pairs with the tablets. Yet, OnLive also demonstrated a Wi-Fi capability that will eventually allow the controller to work with products like Amazon's Kindle Fire which doesn't support Bluetooth.
So one could very well imagine a future in which the controller speaks directly to the game system in the cloud and bypasses the client completely - allowing for virtual matchups between players using movie screens for huge tournament play. For now, though, it is simply a great way to get a full console experience on an iPad or compliant Android tablet. The controller weighs in at $49.
Wrapping Up: Windows on your Tablet
Essentially, any game or content that runs on a PC is a potential candidate for OnLive. So yes, this means movies and even a full Windows desktop, or workstation desktop experience.
Need to review and edit an important report but only have an iPad? No problem, just log into your Windows desktop which is waiting for you in the cloud. Need to peruse an architectural rendering and edit it? Well, now you can, right on your tablet.
Personally, I think the capabilities offered by OnLive will both drive higher resolution tablets and the average user to a place where we will never again worry about backing up our files, patching systems, or buying hardware for anything but how cool it looks. So just like Star Wars, this isn’t over with the first three versions - not by a long shot.