Why play a game on one computer when you could use hundreds instead?
OnLive, the service that streams games to you from the cloud, Netflix style, had a tough 2012. It laid off many of its staff, and was acquired by a new company - also called OnLive.
Yet if you were using the service to pipe high end PC games through to your netbook, tablet or your telly, you wouldn’t even have seen a blip: through it all, the servers stayed on. OnLive’s here to stay, and it’s thinking big with its vision for cloud gaming, general manager Bruce Grove tells Red Bull UK.
Last year’s shake up “was a very traumatic time,” he says. “[But] we now have a feeling that here we are as a company, we have a huge amount of experience with this business model, we can point to the things we have seen don’t work...we have a positive feeling that we can take the leadership here.”
The team at OnLive’s already aiming high. For one thing, they’re looking ahead to a time when we don’t just play a video games that need one machine to run them, but dozens.
“One of the things we look to ask is how will cloud gaming grow? When we talk about the cloud, we mean far greater access to computing power than you’d normally have,” says Grove. Take Spotify or YouTube - you couldn’t store all those albums or all those cat videos on your own laptop’s hard drive, but with a web connection, you can still summon them up in an instant.
“Gaming is the same. If you can imagine that in the background we have rafts and rafts of GPUs and CPUs [graphical and central processor units, the tech that makes computers tick], as a game developer I can start to think about what can I do with all that power,” Grove explains. “Does this mean I can start to create applications that were never really created for the level of consoles?”
It’s a tempting idea. Microsoft and Sony are working on next-gen consoles right now with souped up graphics for us to Ooh and Aah over, but imagine what you could create with twelve PlayStation 4consoles lashed together to power one game: lifelike graphics, huge worlds to play in - and since it’s all streamed over the internet you could play from anywhere, on anything with a screen and Wi-Fi.
“Look at how CGI has changed cinema over the last few years,” Grove says. “You can do CGI essentially realtime. It could completely change what a video game looks like. That leads us to new technologies. Then game designers say ‘What could I really do with a computing platform that is so powerful but also available across so many devices?’ You’re no longer constrained by computing power - that has tremendous opportunity.”
It sounds far fetched, but not perhaps as far fetched as OnLive itself did back in 2009 when the company announced its ambitious plan to let you stream entire games over the web: the video of what you see is sent from OnLive’s bank of servers, your controller’s movements are sent back to be processed, and it all happens in realtime.
Except everyone was convinced it didn’t. Pundits claimed OnLive’s tech demos were a sham, Eurogamer even ran a piece with the headline “Why OnLive can’t possibly work”. All of which left Grove amused - if the article was true, he knew the company must be defying physics, because it definitely did work. He had signed on when he was shown the graphics-sucking shooter Crysis running on a tiny netbook, a feat that turned an internet meme (‘Can it run Crysis?’) into reality.
In his previous job at Dell, he couldn’t even get liquid-cooled desktop towers to run the game on max settings. “It was amazing: all of a sudden I’m seeing it running on this silly little laptop - the thought that went through my head is this changes everything.”
OnLive launched in the US in 2010, and in the UK in 2011, and rolled out an Android app just over a year ago: all of a sudden, you could play Assassin’s Creed on a Samsung Galaxy, so long as you were in range of Wi-Fi.
“That conversation [Can it work?] has gone now: people now understand cloud gaming is here,” says Grove. “We’re now part of the group that have experience of this.”
Though it ran into financial trouble, service never dipped - and the streaming tech itself is here to stay. OnLive’s rival, Gaikai, was snapped up by Sony in 2012: the Japanese gaming giant’s expected to roll out the streaming tech with its next PlayStation later this year.
Grove doesn’t see Gaikai or Sony as competition though: if anything, he’s hoping OnLive is finding new gamers, not stealing them away from the big names.
“We’re seeing a big shift in what we define as gamers. Everyone had their mind what a gamer was, it was someone who played Halo,” he explains. “All of a sudden we had mobile devices that were very powerful gaming devices - all of a sudden 60 seconds of interaction made you a video gamer. Cloud gaming becomes another part to that - many different devices, many different ways.”
To introduce gamers to instant gaming on demand, OnLive’s worked hard to bring its service to web-connected tellies. It’s already in LG smart TVs in the US, as well as Vizio’s little Apple TV rivals running Google’s TV software, and it'll run on Ouya, the tiny Android console due out in March.
The shift has also lets OnLive concentrate on what it does best: sending the games to you, not building the hardware you need to play. “Having hardware programs as well, you start to take on too much as a start-up,” says Grove. “LG is really good at making TVs - let’s use them as the path to the user.”
“The biggest shift [to cloud gaming] I’ve seen help is that four years ago we were looking at internet connected TVs but they were very clunky. When you look at them now the interfaces are becoming very slick - what I think we’ll see is the living room device becoming a naturally connected medium.”
Though it’s looking ahead to tomorrow’s games and systems, OnLive’s still forging ahead streaming today’s titles: getting as many new games on the service as possible is the top priority. “We have a good working relationship with many publishers,” says Grove. “You'll be seeing some new announcements soon.”
With any luck, one of those might just be a massively multiplayer online game (MMO). Imagine playing Star Wars: The Old Republic or World of Warcraft from anywhere: Grove believes they’ve now cracked how to do just that.
“The MMO one is interesting, there’s some technical challenges doing that - but we believe we’ve mostly resolved for those now.” The only problem? Making it profitable. Many MMOs charge a monthly fee, and since OnLive has to charge too, there’s not an obvious fit - who’s going to pay twice?
“We run large farms of servers and we need to be able to run that business and so it’s about finding the right balance and the right business model that allows you to have enough users online to make an MMO worthwhile as well as being able to operate the service cost effectively."
"Some of that - never say never - may include - maybe we bring portions of an MMO to the service, maybe if you bring an MMO to OnLive it’s not exclusive to OnLive for example."
Now a massively multiplayer online game so massive it can only run on OnLive - that could be a gamechanger. Grove is sure that’s the sort of game we’ll see in time.
“Once the right number of people are there that’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen,” Grove says. “I don’t know how quickly that will happen, but it’s something I'm fairly certain will happen.”
Whether it’s OnLive that pulls it off or not, it’s coming: your next console won’t just be one machine, but hundreds.
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