Digital Foundry vs. OnLive

At stake: the fundamentals of gaming as we know it.

OnLive. Hands-on. Away from controlled conditions, in the public domain, out of beta, and no longer covered by non-disclosure agreements, this article has been a long time coming.

This service is a revolution in the concept of how we buy our games and play them and for a lot of people with vested interests OnLive is scary stuff. Gameplay is transmitted over the internet to a dumb terminal in your home that decompresses audio and video, relaying your gaming inputs back to the server hosted many miles away.

This means that you won't need to buy a new console in future and you'll never need to buy fresh gaming hardware ever again. All technology is upgraded server-side. Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony plus a bunch of PC hardware vendors have every right to feel threatened by this.

But it's not just the platform holders that are a tad concerned by this "cloud gaming" concept. OnLive is piracy-proof because no game code ever leaves the datacentres housing their servers - great for the publishers and developers, but perhaps not so appealing to the customer.

In practical terms this means that you won't be buying your games from bricks and mortar stores any more. You won't be ordering them online. You'll only be able to buy them from OnLive itself, and that means that competition between different suppliers to offer the best deal and to drive down prices simply won't exist. Clearly, a radical and forward-thinking approach to pricing is required here, but does OnLive deliver?

As we're looking at what is essentially the birth of a whole new platform, completely divorced from the current methods of delivering gameplay, OnLive deserves to be subject to the same kind of comment and criticism as a new hardware launch. That being the case, we've spent a lot of time with the system and put it through the same level of scrutiny as we would the latest console.

In this mammoth feature we'll be dissecting the OnLive service across a range of different areas.

Away with the small talk. Let's get started.

The Front-End

OnLive is currently available as a small plug-in that, once installed, adds a shortcut to your desktop. Double-click on that and you're seconds away from connecting to the service. This kicks off with an impressive intro sequence featuring a range of background gaming video feeds that transitions into a functional, if perhaps rather ordinary looking front-end.

From there, you're able to buy games, adjust personal information, check out what's coming to the system soon and also to review your "brag clips". This is one of the unique advantages that the video-streaming nature of the service offers: a buffer of gameplay is always retained server-side and you're able to snip out clips and share them with your friends: a very cute feature.

More impressive still is the Arena. The front-end gives way to a series of picture-in-picture gameplay feeds and each of them presents an actual OnLive player: just select the stream you want to view in more detail and you're able to beam yourself into their session and watch the proceedings. The player himself gets an on-screen notification that this is happening, along with a tally count of viewers, while spectators can rate the player's performance with "cheers" or "jeers". An option to add this person to your friends list is also included.

OnLive's player-spectating arena.

The Arena is possible because while playing, OnLive is actually generating two distinct video feeds. The first is the direct connection with the player/client himself. The second output is known as the "media stream" and is used internally by OnLive precisely for activities like the Arena. Most likely using something along the lines of the MJPEG compression scheme for distribution on the internal network, the media stream is then re-encoded into whatever form the spectator requires, be it the 720p video required by the standard OnLive client or something more exotic like an iPad or iPhone encode.

The Arena is also built into the Marketplace, which is a very nice touch. While reviewing the games you might want to buy, you can get real-time video feeds of OnLive players actually in session. Brag clips are also available to watch, which should in theory present you with a sizeable range of great gameplay moments from the title you're thinking about buying. This is all really intelligent use of the system and simply couldn't be integrated into an existing set-up like PlayStation Network or Xbox Live. It helps to give you a closer relationship with actual gamers and real gameplay.

Checking out OnLive's games marketplace.

Also creditable is the fact that the Marketplace trailers are based on candid gameplay snippets as opposed to professionally cut together promos which probably wouldn't be based on the OnLive version of the game. Publisher-supplied trailers are available, but they tend to be used on the "Coming Soon" area of the site, flagging upcoming games.

Once you're ready to play, you can access your list of titles via the "My Games" button or else click on "Last Played" to return you to your previous game. In both cases, OnLive brings up a stock video clip while the game is loaded up and prepared server-side, in a process that looks like this:

The process of OnLive game-booting.

As an overall introduction to the OnLive system, the front-end works well: it's very easy to navigate and the video compression system doesn't overtly impact the quality of the experience at this point. The effortless use of actual game video throughout, and the dynamic name of its use in the Arena section in particular, really is genuinely new, fresh and interesting.

The process of booting a game is also clearly superior to the existing PC methodology of spending ages waiting for the installation to complete and dealing with DRM activations, and it's a touch faster than booting the same game on your Xbox 360.

All good so far then. Now the fun can really begin: can gameplay streamed over IP really hold a candle to the local experience? Have they really overcome all the doubts about latency in particular?

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