OnLive is live. The game streaming service is now available for the first time outside the US, here in the UK.
It's already come a long way from the 18 games it launched with some 15 months ago. The UK launch line-up is very close to the current American service, with some 100 games freely available on the flat-rate 'PlayPack' offering, and a further 50 premium 'PlayPass' games - typically newer releases - available for purchase or short-term rental.
Our announcement story has the full details of the UK launch, but here are the headlines: PlayPack costs £6.99 a month, but BT is offering three months for free to its broadband customers. PlayPack also gives you 30 per cent off the price of PlayPass purchases. OnLive is offering your first PlayPass purchase for £1, and setting up an account, with access to the game viewer and demos, is free from the OnLive site.
At the Eurogamer Expo at Earl's Court in London this weekend, OnLive will be giving away its £69.99 Game System - more commonly referred to as the 'micro-console' - which includes a decent-quality wireless game pad and HDMI connection for HDTV sets. You can also play OnLive on Mac and PC, with support for Android tablets and iPad (including some custom touch-control versions of games) coming soon. Slightly further off, TVs and Blu-ray players will be shipping with OnLive support built in.
We'll bring you two detailed reports on the UK service in the coming weeks: a technical analysis from Digital Foundry and a Eurogamer review, looking at it from a real-world, gamer's perspective. In the meantime, I met with Steve Perlman, the CEO and founder of OnLive, in London this week for an interview and a demonstration of the service.
First impressions are pretty favourable. The visuals aren't as sharp as your console or PC's, but they look fine; control response is harder to judge from a quick go on Virtua Tennis, but it's certainly playable. The real selling point, of course, is the extreme ease of access to the catalogue of games, with virtually non-existent loading, buffering or downloading times. As home consoles get further and further away from instant-on gaming, OnLive is bringing it back.
Eurogamer: Is this your first launch outside of the US?
Steve Perlman: Yes... One of the key things about OnLive that a lot of people don't quite recognise is that the hardest challenge we had to overcome was not making it low latency - we did that many years ago. It was making it run reliably through millions of different types of connections all around the world.
At this point we have over a hundred different algorithms we use to overcome the various impediments that we run into - lost packets, jitter, different types of congestion and so on. So it's a little slower than we'd like in terms of the full rollout.
The make-up of the internet, the backbone of the internet is different in different territories. In the United States, the internet actually has several backbones which are different large ISPs, and they peer with each other, they have points of connection. In the UK, BT is really the backbone and then they wholesale to different providers, but because of that, the different providers have different kinds of packages of connections they sell...
So all that had to be unravelled. Because, of course, the latency for a website or a streaming video - if it takes a very roundabout route, it's not an issue at all. But for us it's a major issue, because the speed of light through fibre figures into the equation. So we've had to design the system to accommodate that.
Eurogamer: You've demonstrated your own facial animation tech in CG film sequences that look very much like live action, and claimed that, since there's no limit on the computing power in your data centres, you'll be surpassing home hardware and "delivering experiences which really blur the boundary between games and motion pictures". Can your servers handle that kind of thing now?
Steve Perlman: We have a variety of different systems at different levels. The higher-end ones absolutely can. Plus, we have the ability to group them together, so if you wanted to have a game that has 16 servers tied together... There's various ways to divide up a 3D problem.
Because we have this arbitrary capability, you can expand it to whatever degree you want, and all those servers are hooked up together on a gigabit LAN with sub-millisecond latency between them. So we're able to do extremely sophisticated games.
The thing is, you just need to get to a certain audience level. The audience is getting large enough, the publishers are confident enough... We've crossed all those bridges now.
Eurogamer: We've heard from developers that you're asking them to work to a single, particular PC spec. Is that a hard limit for what you have at the moment, in terms of hardware?
Steve Perlman: No. It's because, what we're working with the developers on is a game that they probably started two years ago, that already was designed for PC. So we had to give them some sort of a PC specification to work toward.
With developers that are doing new games that are just for OnLive, the tables are turned. What they're saying is, "We need this level of performance to do what we're going to do."
We have different tiers of servers. Virtua Tennis is running on one of our lower-end ones, as is Lego Harry Potter and so on, whereas Deus Ex: Human Revolution is running on one of our higher-end servers. And Batman: Arkham City will be, and we have a number of games that are coming out that are pretty high-performance - LA Noire and so on.
So we will track PCs in terms of performance in terms of games that are written for PCs. But at some point you begin to break away.
Eurogamer: Can you share the spec you're using for a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution right now?
Steve Perlman: We haven't published any of that information. Um, I'm trying to think exactly how we express it...
You have different time frames. When you're first approached by the developer, they're not done with the game, they think this is what they need, and we say OK, here's the machine we have. They design for that machine, and they find that, you know what, it's not quite running at the frame rate they'd like it to. And so what we do is we work with them to move to another device.
We have taken games where we just said, I don't think this is really running as tightly as we'd like it to, the developer agreed and even though it's been out there, it gets better. And [players] will say, "No no no, it's the placebo effect." [Laughs] "You just think it's better." And we're just sitting back thinking, "Yep, it's better."
You see that with the latency too. [People say] it's the placebo effect, but in fact, as we improve the algorithm, it gets tighter and tighter.
Eurogamer: You've got solid publisher support, but what about the really big boys? I noticed EA in your list of partners, but I haven't spotted many of their games on your service. [EA has a partnership deal with rival streaming service, Gaikai.]
Steve Perlman: You'll see Bulletstorm in the list, and a bunch of Harry Potter games. You know, the thing about publishers... EA's been on our list since the day we've launched. We've had a relationship with them. It's just... they have different priorities and different things that take up their time.
But now, we've become a mainstream platform, in the States anyways. We've bubbled up in the priority list. If you think about it, the larger the publisher, the least they had to gain by being first.
Eurogamer: I guess that's why Activision's is the name that's still conspicuous by its absence.
Steve Perlman: Well, we've been happily in discussions with everybody. Despite what you sometimes hear in the backchat, at the end of the day, the publishers are there to sell games, right? And they view us as a platform. And so, if the platform's selling and people are buying the games, well, they'll make their games available.
Eurogamer: Are the purchase prices equivalent to what you'd pay for a boxed version?
Steve Perlman: I think, more appropriately, they're more competitive with... the PC digital version, which is generally a little cheaper than the console version.
Eurogamer: Can you share any figures on the number of active users you have in the US?
Steve Perlman: No. This is where we get into being a distributor... Although we have users, think of a user who's just coming in to demo a game, or who's just using this coupon. [He indicates a coupon for a free OnLive copy of Deus Ex that was shipped in the US PC retail version of the game.] Arguably, that's Square Enix's customer. So our agreements don't quite allow us to give aggregate data.
What we can say is that our chief operating officer's the COO of Pandora, which has had very rapid exponential growth. And that's what we're seeing right now. We've had weeks where the userbase has grown by five per cent.
Eurogamer: The state of broadband in the UK isn't what it could be, it's arguably not as good as it is in the States. A lot of our ISPs have bandwidth restrictions and complain about media streaming services such as the BBC iPlayer. What are you doing to make OnLive ISP-friendly?
Steve Perlman: What we found in the States, where there are bandwidth caps as well, is that we haven't really run into them. We tend to be very friendly with [ISPs], we work with them in trying to figure out ways to minimise congestion, rather than just trying to overload them. And they've mainly been going after folks who've been doing things like BitTorrent, where they've been gobbling up their upstream bandwidth, which is actually the most precious commodity, not the downstream. Our upstream bandwidth utilisation is very, very low. It's mostly the controller and status information about the channel.
The other thing is, BT, one of the things they're doing because they really want to encourage people to go and use OnLive, is that they're lifting caps for OnLive through the end of the year. So that's a good percentage of the UK population right there.
I think it's one of those things that will eventually wash away. Canada just ordered Rogers Cable to release their bandwidth caps. You know, if you looked at IP telephony a decade ago, it seemed like an extraordinary load on the internet, right? Today, it's a joke.
I think that our bandwidth is not going to increase; once you reach HDTV, you're there. So we don't need more bandwidth as the games get more complex. I think we'll have that covered.
Eurogamer: At GDC last year, you talked about 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second being possible. Do you think it still is, and on what kind of time scale?
Steve Perlman: We have it working in beta. The OnLive micro-console supports it.
You're talking about 10 megabits a second. What we've found, now that we've had a chance to test connections throughout the States, is that there's just not a large enough percentage of users out there yet to support it. There are some, we have some fibre, but cable systems generally won't allow connections that fast on a sustained basis. They actually will end up limiting you down to about 6 or 7 Mbps. Until we see that ceiling rise up there... It doesn't make sense when only five per cent of your users would have access.
Eurogamer: So it's about waiting for the networks to catch up?
Steve Perlman: Yeah. So for example, we could deliver movies at 1080p24, no problem. That's about 5 Mbps. 1080p60, that's a lot of bandwidth. I think what you'll see before that is 3D games, which would be 720p60, but in 3D - two views. 1080p60? The servers will do it, and the technology delivers it, it's no different than what we're doing today - it's just more bandwidth.
Eurogamer: Would you charge extra for it?
Steve Perlman: I don't expect so, the servers are the same cost to us, and the bandwidth keeps coming down for us, exponentially, in price. Remember, we're talking about a peak data rate of 10 Mbps, we don't always run at that rate. If the scene's not changing very much, we use a much lower data rate. If we could just get the networks to handle that peak, then we'd be OK. But they're just not set up for that right now.
Eurogamer: Video compression fundamentally favours scenes without much motion, and control latency is more important for some games than others. Accepting those facts, is it fair to say that some games are more suited to playing on OnLive than others?
Steve Perlman: It depends on the type of compression you're doing. We compress different types of games differently. Literally, when you go and play Borderlands, it's using a different compression algorithm than if you're playing Lego Harry Potter. The different algorithms favour different things.
We wish there were a silver bullet: one approach that would solve all problems, all games, all ISPs and all internet impairments. But we weren't able to find that.
If we see a game that does not perform well, then we work on it. We go and tune up the algorithm. The hardware that we have that does the compression in the data centre is programmable, and it's very, very flexible. We made it that way. it's the only way we could ever get this darn thing to work.
I wouldn't say there's any one particular [type of] game... The biggest thing you're going to see that happens in the next couple of years... is you're going to see the game pipelines changing to be more optimised to use state-of-the-art hardware. Right now, games are designed to be a little bit mushy, where they can work all the way from an Xbox 360 and PS3 through to a mid-range PC. Now you're going to see games move up to the very high end, knowing that that capability's always available - and then they can tune for things like latency and other characteristics.
Steve Perlman is the chief executive officer of OnLive. Thanks to Rich Leadbetter for his help with this interview.