The Hidden Benefit of OnLive

One of the biggest stories to emerge from GDC 2009 was the emergence of OnLive, a server-based gaming platform which would allow any PC or Mac, including bare-bones ones, with a fast network connection to play any game by running all the code – including the graphics rendering – on the server instead of on the local machine. In many ways, this service is a return to the “dumb terminal” model of the ’70s where no calculations were run on the user’s computer itself. So far, reactions have been mixed. Osma Ahvenlampi argues that, due to network lag, this model could never work; Adam Martin claims that it could work if the servers are located intelligently. Keith Boesky points out that the actual business model is simply acquisition.

I don’t claim to know if OnLive’s specific tech will work or not, but I would like to talk about the implications of this potential shift to server-based games. (Even if OnLive doesn’t make it work, clearly this technology will arrive at some point.) Of course, we already have server-based games – World of Warcraft runs on numerous servers spread around the world, with appropriate bits of game info set to thin clients running on local machines. However, a client is still a tricky piece of software, and as Raph Koster like to remind us, “The client is in the hands of the enemy.”

With OnLive, the client is so thin, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate even to call it a client. It’s more like a video-player. In fact, while the phrase “YouTube for Games” always refers to user-generated content, one should recall that YouTube had a second, perhaps more important, innovation: regardless of how a video was created, as long as the viewers had Flash, they could watch it immediately. The same concept hold for OnLive – as long as you have their app, you can play any game capable of running on their servers.

The implications of this change are huge – simply put, it spells the end of client-server architecture. Developers no longer need to optimize what data is sent to the client and what is kept back. Or worry about cheating. Or piracy, for that matter. While these advantages are huge, of course, what really interests me is that making a game multi-player is now, essentially, trivial. Put another way, the set of developers making one-man MMO’s will now be larger than just Eskil Steenberg.

Writing multi-player games is very, very hard. Trying to keep everything in-sync between servers and clients in a safe, responsive, fair, and accurate manner is no small challenge. With a system like OnLive, these issues evaporate because there are no clients anymore. Developers simply write one game, run it on some server, and update it based on user actions fed in from the network. If such a technology existed when we made Civ4, not only could we have saved man-years of development time and testing, but we could have easily implemented advanced features (games-of-the-day, mod sharing, massive player counts, asynchronous play, democracy-game support, etc.) with very little effort. Of course, I don’t know if OnLive will be the one to do it, but – from a developer’s point-of-view – the importance of this change cannot be overstated.

14 thoughts on “The Hidden Benefit of OnLive

  1. Unfortunately this will never happen as in order to provide an adequate level of quality (ignoring the ridiculous infrastructure required) you will only be able to play those games against people using the same datacenter as you. IE only people within 1000 miles of the datacenter.

    All OnLive will achieve is to provide a substandard experience that is in fact worse than what we currently have but gives publishers a choke hold on game prices.

    If a service like OnLive (and it might not be OnLive it may be somebody else) becomes a dominant platform the consumer ultimately loses.

  2. Love the concept, but I can’t see it occuring without a major change in infrastructure.

    Take Australia for instance:
    Most of the technology still runs over old copper wires, with 80% of the country still only able to get ADSL1 (and a fair chunk of area that can’t even get that!!!!). There are LOTS of areas in the metro cities that are stuck on old technology too, such as RIMS, rusty copper, or whatever.

    For OnLive to truelly work you would need at least ADSL2, and good speeds through that too. Imagine how much traffic you’ll generate from an FPS, running at 60 FPS against 5 other opponents???

    I just can’t see it working on today’s infrastructure. When you consider that over 80% of Australia’s landmass can only get satellite broadband, with all the massive inherent latency that is natural in a satellite link.

    I mean hey, I live in the middle of Melbourne and can only get ADSL1 because Telstra went the cheap option and plugged this area into a substation instead of expanding the local exchange. I won’t be able to play OnLive, so I can’t see 75% of Australians either.

  3. People said that Steve Perlman would fail in the past and he succeeded. I’m giving the man the benefit of the doubt. Let’s wait until the end of the year and see if Onlive materializes or not. Perhaps it won’t but I have faith 🙂

  4. I think to bet on this company would be to bet on the idea that bandwidth will increase faster than hardware requirements. And that could be true, but I’d have to see charts and stuff.

    I do think this could be a silver bullet for cable companies or phone companies rolling out FIOS, or whatever. But every couple years the industry declares the death of the fat client, and every couple years the industry is proven wrong.

  5. I think you forgot to mention the major drawbacks this system could have : if the onlive system spread out, I fear that it we never have the client anymore, so that mean the end of modding for instance.

    Take Civilization or Half Life for example, they are plenty of mods available because of the huge work of the community. If people don’t have the client in their hand, this will never happen.

    Streaming when it comes to video or music (even game, see QuakeLive), is good because it’s free in most case. But I will never pay for a game i don’t own.

  6. If I’m understanding this correctly, bandwidth will have to greatly increase before it will be viable. From a purely physical perspective, longer wires mean longer delays. Sure, it’s just milliseconds, but it all adds up. I’m not saying it won’t be successful, but the technology will have to meet some very high expectations.

  7. I’m not sceptical of this model just for latency reasons. It’s a combination of things that make me highly doubtful. Primarily, pushing all rendering to a server farm is ignoring the immense computational capacity at the client end (where technology is also developing) and latency+bandwidth will be deeply problematic, especially as more and more of gaming is handheld/mobile and thus dependent on radio networks. I’m approaching this from the web games standpoint, though; it may look entirely different from the vantage point of PC/console gaming.

    Keith Boesky does have pretty good argument, though. I wrote more later:

  8. Pingback: Game Tycoon»Blog Archive » Articles of Interest

  9. Pingback: cobalt » links for 2009-04-07

  10. “This would also be the end of the best thing in gaming: mods.”
    This was my first thought, and being a modder this is huge to me. It would be nigh impossible to allow modding on a server-based game, and even if it could be done it would pose huge security risks (execution of arbitrary code…?). So modding is right out.
    Also, in order for the servers to remain in service the game would have to be continuously profitable (presumably requiring either subscriptions- another downside for some- or sustained “sales”) and thus classic games with a small devoted cult following would no longer be a possibility. As soon as the company pulls the plug, it’s literally Game Over for everyone.
    I don’t think this is a good option for games other than MMOs that obviously require such a system.

  11. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  12. I just can’t see it working on today’s infrastructure. When you consider that over 80% of Australia’s landmass can only get satellite broadband, with all the massive inherent latency that is natural in a satellite link.

  13. Pingback: The hidden benefit of OnLive | The Cloud Gamer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *