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Digital Foundry vs. OnLive

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


There's been a gradual, and some might argue rather insidious trend in preventing customers from actually owning the software that they pay for. It began with the concept of EULAs, essentially forcing us to agree that the games we play and the software we buy don't actually belong to us at all: we merely have a "licence" to use them. Fail to agree with the often voluminous terms and conditions and you can't install the software you paid for.

EULAs are often unenforceable and rarely tested in law, and they can't physically stop anyone from lending their games to their friends or reselling them when they're done with them. While games are still priced so highly that a purchase is actually more like an investment, there will always be resistance to platform holders attempting to stop us from clawing back some of the cash we outlaid for our games once we are finished with them.

Publishers and developers aren't so keen on this concept of consumers being able to redeem some of that initial investment in their game. They see a second-hand or pre-owned sale as being almost akin to a theft of their rightful revenue. Therefore, a system like OnLive sounds absolutely ideal: the user owns nothing, therefore he has nothing to re-sell or trade-in. Instead he buys a "pass" that gives him access to a game, and that's it.

In terms of the breakdown of the costs involved to the end user, OnLive in its current form simply doesn't make sense. The theory is that you're supposed to be paying $15 per month in subs fees simply to access the system (waived for early adopters). On top of that, a brand new game can cost you $50 to $60. The recent release of LEGO Harry Potter at $29.99 looks more appealing - until you realise that the physical copy of the game is $2 cheaper on Amazon.

The full price list for OnLive is as follows:

Game PayPass Options Rental Durations Demo?
AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity $9.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Assassin's Creed II $39.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Batman: Arkham Asylum $6.99 / $4.99 5 days / 3 days Yes
Borderlands $29.99 / $8.99 / $5.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 / 5 days / 3 days Yes
Brain Challenge $4.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Colin McRae: DiRT 2 Demo only N/A Yes
Defense Grid Gold $13.99 / $6.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 / 5 days Yes
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin $19.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Just Cause 2 $49.99 / $6.99 / $4.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 $29.99 / $8.99 / $4.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Madballs in Babo: Invasion $9.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Major League Baseball 2K10 $29.99 / $8.99 / $5.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
NBA 2K10 $19.99 / $8.99 / $5.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands $49.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 No
Puzzle Chronicles $9.99 / $3.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 / 3 days Yes
Red Faction: Guerrilla $19.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Shatter $8.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction $59.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 Yes
Trine Demo only N/A Yes
Unreal Tournament III: Titan Pack $19.99 / $6.99 / $4.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 / 5 days / 3 days Yes
World of Goo $19.99 / $6.99 / $4.99 Until at least 17th June 2013 / 5 days / 3 days Yes

Over and above the issues with ownership and the ability to lend games to your friends, there is one other element that makes digital distribution - and OnLive - a bad deal for gamers. Competition in the retail market makes games cheaper. A closed environment like this, or indeed PSN or Xbox Live, removes that competition and keeps prices high: a great many of the PSN games also available on Blu-ray actually cost less in physical form, and of course they are unencumbered by DRM.

OnLive was very cagey about pricing and little was known about the costs until the system launched. As the price list reveals, the value proposition isn't very compelling right now. On the flipside, OnLive talks about not having to upgrade your PC or buy new console hardware, but the performance level they offer can easily be approximated or even exceeded simply by adding a £80 graphics card to the base-level system OnLive requires to operate.

While prices are hard to swallow for full games, rental options are welcome and the chance to try the full game for 30 minutes is an inspired form of playable demo.

At the GDC 2010 media briefing, Steve Perlman promised that every OnLive server would feature at least twice the graphical power of the Xbox 360 graphics chip, but this counts for nothing if the performance is so variable in terms of both controller response and picture quality. It was interesting to watch Perlman make this claim while Burnout Paradise played on the screen near to him, clearly running at a lower frame-rate than the Xbox 360 version of the game.

However it would be churlish to write off OnLive completely. As the performance and video quality tests prove, there are some games where the system works - by core gamer terms - tolerably. They are clearly playable. As a system for trying out games and renting them while accepting the limitations of the system, it could find its niche. This in turn may make the platform holders reconsider their own limited support for game rentals and digital distribution in general. It's unfathomable that Xbox Live will happily let you rent a 6GB HD move but won't let you hire a 6GB game.

Perhaps it is simply the case that OnLive isn't for us committed gamer types. A less discerning type of audience will probably be happy with the whole offering as it stands now. Maybe they don't want to buy a console. Maybe they can't fathom gaming PCs. Maybe poor video compression simply isn't an issue for the YouTube generation. Maybe they just want to plug and play with the absolute minimum of fuss. In this respect OnLive presents PC gaming in a manner that removes all of the aggravation and just works.

But even if that is the case, it's clear that changes need to be made. Prices for full game purchases need to be lower, with rentals and playable demos mandatory on all games across the board.

They will also need to work on that $15 subscription cost. Unless OnLive can introduce value in terms of a superior choice of newer games, the Arena and multiplayer functions simply aren't enough to justify the cost - especially when the overall experience is of a lower quality than the existing options and when the price of software is unappealing, to say the least.