Play Video Games Without the Console With OnLive
Boys playing video games.
Credit: dreamstime

The Internet's goal seems to be to make physical objects–whether they be snail mail, or books, or TVs–obsolete, but can it make the game console a thing of yesterday? The folks at OnLive sure think it can.

The venerable game console has been keeping us occupied for decades, and even though the Ataris turned to Super Nintendos, and the Sega Genesis gave way to the Xbox 360, players have always been inserting discs and cartridges to play games. The microconsole OnLive manufactures eschews physical media in favor of the latest gaming arena: the cloud.

With cloud gaming, all of the graphics processing normally performed by the console is done on remote servers. This means the entire program is streamed across the Internet, in the same way that music and video are now streamed across the Web. This allows complex, high resolution games to be played on less powerful and much cheaper devices than ever before. In a sense, players don't purchase the game, they purchase access to it. It's a subtle but important distinction.

TechNewsDaily got a chance to try out the OnLive Game System, and while it certainly makes great strides in advancing gaming technology, it may also be just a little too early to call it a total success.

Because games are stored and run apart from the console, a strong and reliable Internet connection is an absolute necessity. That means without a broadband connection, the OnLive microconsole is a why-bother. OnLive works best over an Ethernet connection, but it is useable over Wi-Fi. The OnLive console needs to download an update over a wired connection, though, before it will connect wirelessly, and it still requires awireless router to connect directly into the device.

Aside from the connection requirements, the OnLive system is deceptively simple. The box itself is tiny, about the size of the Nintendo DS handheld console, and the included wireless controller looks and feels like a standard third-party controller. There's a line out to the HDMI port on the TV, a power cord, and that's it. It's ridiculously easy to hide the whole assembly and avoid tripping over cords.

Upon logging in, users are greeted with the hub menu that allows them to view other players' ongoing games, play some of their own, watch trailers for upcoming games, modify their profile and communicate with friends. The menu is simple, straightforward and easy to navigate.

In fact, the OnLive system seems to be nearly flawless until you start playing games. That’s when the cracks start to show. 
Let's be clear, here. These aren't big cracks. Overall, the OnLive Game System works and it works well, but it suffers from the limitations of gaming on servers somewhere else in the country.

The main problem is lag. Every command, every thumbstick swipe and ever button press has to go out to the servers, be processed and the result piped back to your screen. Even at broadband speeds, there can be problems with this setup.

Most of the time, this lag is unnoticeable and gaming seems to go pretty smoothly (we tested the OnLive Game System on a high-speed broadband Ethernet connection), but every now and then things seemed to slow just a bit. For instance, play was normal until we tried to turn our character around, the game seemed to stall for the smallest fraction of a second and then when it caught up we had turned much farther than we intended.

The lag can also be more noticeable with some games than others. For instance, platformers aren't a problem, but if there is a point where precision timing of jumps is important, the lag can sometimes become noticeable.

OnLive acknowledges that cloud gaming can lead to lag but asserts that its technology reduces lag to 35-80 milliseconds. Separate, third-party testing has shown lag up to 150 milliseconds with the OnLive Game System, meaning that real world results may vary. Here's the interesting thing, though: even 150 millisecond lag time is not uncommon during networked gaming of any kind, and most people can play without noticing. That doesn't take into account problems with your Internet service provider. So while OnLive may keep the lag down, ISP troubles, especially during high-traffic times, can make the results worse.

Again, it's not universal and most people will likely play for long periods of time without noticing a thing, but it's also a little annoying to be at the mercy of your Internet provider. When the connection is solid, life's great, but if things slow down at all it suddenly becomes noticeable.

That's not to say it still isn't fun, and OnLive tries to add in plenty of features to make it even better. For instance, the service allows users to make Brag Clips; in other words, they can record the best bits of their playthrough and share them with others. While it doesn't have all the features to make it a fully fledged social network, OnLive still has plenty of ways for people to connect and communicate.

The selection of games on OnLive is one of the big bonuses to the system. It doesn't have obscure titles, but most major releases are available at OnLive, and there's sure to be something for everyone. We played Dark Void, The Maw, Assassin's Creed 2, H.A.W.X. and a few lesser known titles, and they all looked great on a large HDTV screen, even when sitting close to the screen.

Even better, the games themselves are cheaper on OnLive than they are when buying the disc. Most games have free trials, and a Full PlayPass (unlimited access to the game) is usually anywhere from $10 to $40 per game. For those who just want to play for a few days, OnLive also offers 3-day and 5-day passes to games for $6-$9.

There used to be a monthly fee to access OnLive, but the company decided to make the service even more attractive by getting rid of monthly fees. The microconsole itself will actually cost you $99, but it comes with access to a free game and all the accessories you need.

OnLive also has a new plan for $10/month that gives unlimited access to an entire backcatalog of 40 slightly older games and a few indie titles. New games won't be available, but access to anything in the catalog is unlimited.

Ultimately, that's the biggest draw of cloud-based gaming and OnLive itself: instant access to a wide variety of games. Not to mention it means not having to fool around with a bunch of discs and cases. Going forward, people want automatic access to popular titles and the ability to switch between games easily. OnLive provides for all of that.

While there are still some minor lag issues to iron out, OnLive actually does a magnificent job of paving the way for what will likely become a dominant gaming style in the future.