Hands-on with OnLive: Is this the future of PC gaming?

For high-end PC gamers, OnLive won't replace your turbocharged, water-cooled quad-GPU gaming rig and the insane screen resolutions it can pump out, but for casual gamers who are interested in sampling the latest PC games, get ready to have your mind blown.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home | Windows PCs | Cooking (sometimes) | Woodworking tools (getting there...)
Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Rich Brown
Dan Ackerman
9 min read
OnLive could be one of the most disruptive gaming technologies since Steam.
OnLive could be one of the most disruptive gaming technologies since Steam.

The much-hyped OnLive PC gaming servicehas soft-launched to a limited preview audience, and we've spent the past several days putting the streaming service through its paces. OnLive allows nearly any laptop or desktop to play high-end PC games, by offloading the CPU and GPU-intensive tasks of actually running the game software to a remote render farm, then beaming the gameplay back to you as a streaming video.

As unlikely as that scenario sounds, in practice the system actually works quite well, at least at these initial stages. The game selection is decent, the hardware requirements are very flexible, and the overall image quality and gameplay experience runs from acceptable to very good. The big question mark in OnLive's future is how well the system will scale for a mass audience.

For high-end PC gamers, OnLive won't replace your turbocharged, water-cooled quad-GPU gaming rig, and the insane screen resolutions it can pump out (OnLive is currently limited to 1,280x720 pixels), but for casual gamers who are interested in sampling the latest PC games, there's a lot of promise here.

Watch this: Hands-on with OnLive: is this the future of PC gaming?

My first hands-on experience with OnLive at the 2009 Game Developers Conference was a mixed bag. The online gaming service felt like an overly ambitious idea that was sluggish in execution, with plenty of unanswered questions about its technology and business model.

The final version of OnLive is finally, well, live, and Rich Brown and I have spent the past several days testing it across a wide range of laptop and desktop computers, with overall very satisfying results.

The main interface is very widgetlike, almost easier to navigate with a game pad than a mouse. One of OnLive's only onerous requirements is a hard-wired Internet connection, and the software wouldn't even install on a Wi-Fi network (OnLive says good-quality Wi-Fi connections can theoretically work, and may be implemented in the future).

The built-in game store offers recent games such as Splinter Cell: Conviction and Borderlands, alongside a handful of casual games, including World of Goo. Demos give you time-limited access to the full games, and paid access options vary by game, but generally offer three-to-five-day access for a few dollars, or the full game at its current retail price (up to $59.99).

Note that, unlike Steam, you're not actually buying the game, but just the right to access it via OnLive's servers, "while it is available on the OnLive gamer service," which the company says will be until at least June 2013 for the games currently listed.

I tried several games (Borderlands, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, FEAR 2, Unreal Tournament III, etc.) on a variety of systems, including a 13-inch MacBook, a standard Netbook, and a high-end gaming rig. Being able to play Borderlands on a MacBook (one with Nvidia's basic GeForce 9400 graphics) was great, and any of the OnLive games will work on either OS X or Windows 7/Vista.

Image quality was generally good, but could look soft at times, almost like watching a YouTube video of a game. The onscreen image is running at 1,280x720 pixels, which is well below what enthusiast gamers go for, but well-matched for most laptop screens. Lag wasn't a problem in the games I tried, but frame rates, though never stuttery, weren't as smooth as what you'd get from high-end gaming machines. Interestingly, all the games had essentially customized menus that eliminated any display, graphics, or resolution options--as all that is presumably handled remotely, with games set to 1,280x720 pixels and details that look set to medium at best.

A welcome feature is that the games keep your save files in a kind of online cloud. For example, when I loaded up Borderlands on a second laptop, the game resumed right where I left off. Steam has promised cloud saves for some time, but the implementation there has been very limited.

My next test was on a Netbook with an Intel Atom N450 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Starter. This Toshiba NB30 did not meet the minimum hardware requirements of OnLive, because of its single-core CPU, according to a warning message that popped up during the install process, but the installation was allowed to proceed (unlike when using a Wi-Fi connection, in which case the client software would not install at all).

FEAR 2 played via OnLive, compared to the same game played on a high-end gaming PC. Note the level of detail on the statue, as well as the lighting bloom missing from the OnLive version.
FEAR 2 played via OnLive, compared with the same game played on a high-end gaming PC. Note the level of detail on the statue, as well as the lighting bloom missing from the OnLive version.

Borderlands actually played fine on the Netbook, and looked even better on the smaller display than it did on bigger laptop screens. This is a potentially killer app for Netbooks, as long as you're near a hard-wired Ethernet cable (and it certainly expands the library of games appropriate for Netbook users).

Any kind of connected gaming experience today really needs to take advantage of the social media proclivities of its target audience. OnLive feels like its halfway on the right track, and the platform's most impressive social feature is a section called the Arena. There, you see a scrolling gridlike view of other players' game screens, and can zoom in on individual sessions as a spectator (in the privacy settings you can choose to only allow friends to see your games, or opt out of the Arena altogether). Your interest in watching strangers play games may be limited, but it's a fascinating window into other people's computers. The Arena grid unfortunately doesn't list how many players are currently online, but we saw that Borderlands, Assassin's Creed II, and Just Cause 2 were by far the most popular games.

It's also worth noting that most gamers already have more than enough friends lists to connect with, and some kind of implementation of Facebook Connect could be a killer app.

The handful of issues we ran into included touchy support for Microsoft's Xbox/PC USB game pad, and online multiplayer support that's limited to others playing the OnLive version of these games (which could be a major issue for popular online shooters such as Call of Duty).

I've still got plenty of unanswered questions about OnLive. How well will it scale if millions of users sign up? Will game licenses (that you've already paid full retail price for) expire on a regular basis? Will gamers be willing to pay $4.95 per month (early adopters get their first year of service free) just for access to the OnLive network, then pay for games on top of that?

Despite these very important questions, OnLive was an overall very impressive experience, and several minds around the CNET offices were officially blown--a difficult task among this jaded bunch.

Like Dan, I spent a large part of the weekend with OnLive. The experience was surprisingly good. I tried demos for most of the A-list titles, but I spent most of the time with Just Cause 2, which I'd been meaning to play. I tried it on both my laptop and my wife's two-year-old Dell budget desktop, and in both cases the games ran flawlessly. The only problems came down to the Internet connection (thank you, Time Warner Cable of NYC). That's not the fault of OnLive, but it does suggest that bandwidth limitations are a real issue to its business model.

Although I had a positive experience with OnLive this weekend, I'm more interested in its future. On paper, it has the potential to become the most disruptive force in gaming since Valve reinvigorated the PC game retail market with its Steam download service. Just don't expect the rest of the gaming industry to stand still.

For gamers, OnLive overthrows the tyranny of system requirements. Almost any modern computer can become a gaming system thanks to OnLive's streaming capabilities. PC gaming enthusiasts will still run their games locally for the higher-resolution graphics and more-granular image settings (unless OnLive catches up), but for everyone else, you no longer need to think about whether your hardware is fast enough. With a fast enough connection (OnLive recommends 5Mbps or better), the service just works.

OnLive's game library is off to a good start, but adding popular titles will be crucial for its success.
OnLive's game library is off to a good start, but adding popular titles will be crucial for its success.

For game developers and publishers, OnLive offers all kinds of benefits. Streaming games eliminates piracy and the need for customer-aggravating DRM. By offering free 30-minute trial-play for each title, OnLive also makes the traditional game demo unnecessary, thus saving gamemakers time and resources, and giving gamers a potentially more-accurate sense of gameplay before they buy.

OnLive could also make development and technical support dramatically easier. If developers only have to consider the specs of the OnLive host computers, they no longer have to worry about coding for, and supporting, an infinite number of PC configurations.

Those who might have some concern about this potential disruption include graphics chip vendors, game console makers, and game retailers.

OnLive could seem like AMD and Nvidia's worst nightmare. After all, why buy a 3D card when all the rendering happens in the cloud? Hard-core gamers will continue to buy 3D cards, but the bulk of sales go to more-casual gamers, arguably OnLive's primary target.

The good news for Nvidia and AMD is that OnLive says its host hardware needs one GPU for every gamer using its service. If OnLive achieves Steam-like popularity with a couple of million concurrent users, that would be quite a GPU contract. You can expect that Intel, Nvidia, and AMD are all watching closely.

Game console makers should have similar wariness. OnLive will need to be resilient before it can legitimately challenge Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in your living room. OnLive plans to offer a set-top box to bring its service to your TV, but given its humble local hardware requirements, it's not too difficult to image someone selling a TV with the OnLive service built in.

The Arena view lets you watch other players as they game.

OnLive has also launched with some big-name gaming titles from the likes of 2K Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, and Atari, among others, but I suspect it will need more clout by way of a large user base before it can offer a truly competitive gaming library.

On the retailing side, it's not so much the brick-and-mortar shops as it is Steam and the other direct-download services that seem to compete most directly with OnLive. Valve has built an enormous stockpile of goodwill among PC gamers for both its Steam service and the games it develops, which include the Half-Life series, Portal, and Left 4 Dead. Steam boasted almost 2.5 million concurrent users over this past weekend, and such loyalty is part of the reason Valve was able to build Steam's large library of downloadable games.

As successful as Steam has become, OnLive boasts some significant advantages. By streaming gameplay, more people can play the games OnLive offers. Because it hosts games remotely, OnLive can also offer more flexible pricing than Steam, which it does for certain games with a three-day trial for $5, and a five-day trial for $7.

We don't know how pay-as-you-go pricing might shake out in terms of long-term revenue for game developers. It could reduce the number of people who are willing to pay $50 or $60 for a full game. It could also open the door to subscriptionlike pricing for more-popular titles. Just ask Activision Blizzard for how well that model can work.

The challenges for OnLive are many and varied. In the short term, OnLive must demonstrate that it can consistently offer a responsive, visually pleasing gaming experience as its membership grows. That comes down to rendering headroom and connection bandwidth, over which it has little to no control on the user end.

In order to attract and retain users, OnLive must also offer compelling content, which means continually adding new games, if not other services as well. The social aspects of its service, including the Arena feature for watching others' OnLive sessions, will be important here.

We haven't seen any mention of 3D gaming from OnLive (meaning "popping out of your screen" 3D), and we also have no indication that motion control is in the offing. It will also need to contend with the resources of the established PC gaming services like Valve's Steam and Activision Blizzard's Battle.net. We wouldn't put it past either company, or past Electronic Arts' or some other large publisher, to offer streaming services of their own. To that end, OnLive might even look like a tempting acquisition.

Despite all of those questions, so far OnLive does exactly what it's supposed to do. It makes playing games on your computer far more accessible than it was previously. The rest of the gaming industry must now react to OnLive. We look forward to those reactions, as well as to seeing how well OnLive holds up as it adds users.

>>Check out additional live gameplay footage from OnLive on this week's Digital City video podcast.