March 25, 2009 by Tim

So obviously OnLive is causing a pretty big stir in the video games community, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating concept that could revolutionize gaming. However it also stirs up a lot of fears and concerns and doubts that are all perfectly legitimate.

The implications and possibilities (and possible failures) of a system like this are too numerous to explore completely here (at least within a reasonable amount of time), but I do want to share some of my thoughts on it, as well as concerns and what I’ve heard.

When it was first announced, my initial reaction was “Wow, that’s amazing” followed immediately by “But I don’t want to give up that much control over my games.”. And I don’t. I don’t want to rely on so many X factors to access and enjoy my games. I don’t want to rely on the OnLive service functioning, as well as the internet service to deliver it. What if I wanted to travel somewhere that doesn’t have internet? I could take my console. With OnLive I’d be completely cut off.

I don’t want to not “own” the game I’m paying for. I know more and more things are going digital these days, but there’s still a lot of comfort in owning a physical copy of something you paid for. You know it’s there when you need it. I imagine it’s the same reason people purchase the Ctrl+Alt+Del collection books even though all of the comics are available for free online. Sometimes you want tangible stuff that you know can’t disappear with an internet outage or a corrupt hard drive.

I also don’t like the idea of losing control over a game that I’ve bought. While I cannot honestly think of a time in recent memory where I chose not to patch a game because I didn’t agree with the patch changes, I’m not sure I want to relinquish that option. I’m not sure I want to start playing a game, and then have it disappear because the developer decided it wasn’t selling well enough.

So those are some of the things, right off the bat, that turn me off about the idea. They mirror some of the general concerns I’ve heard murmered about the concept.

“What about lag and internet/service outages?” Exactly. OnLive says they’ve developed new tech that all but obliterates latency but… honestly, haven’t we all heard that before? The bottom line is, the service will be prone to hiccups and lag. Now most of us have come to accept this as a fact of life when we play multiplayer games online. But do we really want to introduce this variable into our single player experiences as well?

Additionally, not everyone has great internet speeds, and not everyone has uncapped bandwidth. These are additional speedbumps the service has to deal with.

However, there is incredible potential for a service like this. It’s huge for people who can’t afford the top-end gaming PCs, or who can’t afford three different consoles just to play all the available games. That would be a fantastic advantage. Imagine it, having all games available through one service. How convenient would that be?

But who says there’s only one service? Yes, OnLive is the first, but does anybody honestly think that, if this actually works, that other companies aren’t going to launch their own versions of the service? Of course they are. And then this idea of a utopian, console-free, one-stop video-gamescape goes right out the window, because we’re back to different services competing for subscribers, and competing for exclusive rights to various games. Want to play the new Call of Duty? Sure thing, it’s on this network. Oh, but you want to play the new Starcraft? Sorry, it’s exclusive to this other service.

And that’s not even mentioning all of the companies who have built their business around asking us to purchase new hardware every few years. I cannot see nVidia or ATI lying down while a service says “Hey everyone, you don’t have to buy a new graphics card, we’ll run the game for you!”. I can’t see Microsoft saying “Sure, don’t buy our console, we don’t want the revenue from XBL, etc anyway.”

I won’t pretend to know the architecture of the intricate web of licensing and exclusivity deals that ensares the entire games industry, but I do suspect that some pretty strict arrangements would start popping up between developers and the console manufacturers. And I also know that a lot of development studios are owned by console manufacturers, or other publishers. I doubt Microsoft spent so much time and money acquiring a lion’s share of the industry to turn around and let Bungie’s new Halo game show up on a service that costs them console sales.

And Nintendo… Nintendo shits money and they’ve had an incredible case of explosive diarrhea for the last few years. What incentive do they have to license their titles to a start-up service that, once again, doesn’t sell their hardware?

I agree that OnLive is a really novel idea. A streaming version of the all-in-one console we’ve all dreamed of. But it’s an idea whose fate ultimately rests entirely in the hands of developers, and there are a lot of considerations and loyalties (and legalities in some cases) some of these developers have to come to terms with before they license their games to the service.

And the console manufacturers aren’t just going to pack up shop, either. If anything, all OnLive will accomplish will be adding a fourth “console” option to the market. Which is actually really great, because as mentioned, some people miss out on some games because they don’t have top-end PCs, etc.

However a lot of people seem to see this heralding a complete overhaul to the gaming industry, practically overnight. The “Death of the Console”, and I just really, really doubt that. To be honest with you… I’d be surprised if it gets past being the Netflix of gaming. A great service, a great alternative… but not the end-all of gaming platforms.

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