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GDC09: Rearden Studios introduces OnLive game service and 'microconsole'

Kevin Kelly

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Rearden Studios introduced a gaming service and "microconsole," called OnLive, at GDC today, and we're still trying to wrap our heads around everything. If we had to describe it in one sentence, we'd call it a new way of playing games online without having to buy titles, but that sounds a bit too much like the vaporware Phantom console. Plus, there's another new "console" called Zeebo making a debut at GDC, which adds more confusion to the issue. Luckily, we have more than a sentence to work with here, so bear with us.

OnLive, as a company, a service, and a console, is being spun off from Rearden, and is run by Steve Perlman (founder & CEO) and Mike McGarvey (COO). The entire company is structured around a new way to stream video that the company has created -- "interactive video compression" -- which, according to the official line, has extremely low latency, and brings video lag down to "about a millisecond." Using that technology, the complany plans to have five servers across the country that will host your games completely, and it'll be streaming the video from the game to your Mac, PC, or television. Sound ambitious? It is.

Read on to find out more. If you're at GDC, you can check out the press conference on Tuesday evening at 7:15 p.m. PST, or give the system a spin at Booth #5128. We'd been working on this story after getting a sneak peek earlier along with a scant few other journos, but Variety broke a major embargo. Translation: you get it early.

Gallery: OnLive: Microconsole and Game Service | 20 Photos

OnLive has been seven years in the making, according to Perlman, and the easiest thing to compare it to is video on demand. If you've ever used Showtime's VOD service over your satellite or cable, you know how easy it is to select, say episode five of Dexter, Season Two, and "bingo," you're watching it. You can do this with music instantly, and with movies and television fairly quickly -- but there's no gaming equivalent. That's the gap that he hopes OnLive will fill.

The unique part of the company's concept is the fact that you don't need a high-powered PC gaming rig to play something like Crysis Wars, because, in effect, you're upstreaming your controller input to the company's servers, which is a tiny fraction of bandwidth, and they're streaming the game back down to you in real time. It's a strange concept, to be sure, but if an idea like this can work, imagine never having to upgrade your hardware ever again.

The OnLive Microconsole, which they call "the world's most powerful," is only needed if you plan on gaming on your television, and it includes optical and HDMI out (via an adapter), ethernet in, and is powered by a micro USB cable. It can also power up to four wireless OnLive controllers, and sync with four Bluetooth headsets. There are also two USB ports for plugging in a mouse and keyboard, or for using a hub to power four wired controllers. Plug in the power, connect your home ethernet cable into it (no Wi-Fi in the unit, although it supports wireless bridging and other options), then wire it up to your standard or high-def television, and you're good to go. Gaming on your Mac or PC will only require you to download a browser plug-in that's less than a megabyte in size.

Once connected to the service, you fly in over a globe full of tiny video thumbnails that eventually fill the screen, peppered with real-time, streaming gameplay videos from other OnLive users. The basic userspace has a square surrounded with options: Arena (get your game on, multiplayer); Profile (pimp yourself, yo); Games (well... games); My Stuff (not sure what this is yet); Friends (you gotta have friends); Brag Clips (15 second videos you can record inside the game at the touch of a button to show off); Last Played (there's a whole menu item for this?) and Showcase (which again, sounds redundant, but who knows what's in here, as we didn't see it).

Gaming on your Mac or PC will only require you to download a browser plugin that's less than a megabyte in size.

The game selection menu looks like a vertical version of Apple's Cover Flow, and the demo we saw (run on a private server) was extremely responsive. Mike and Steve were playing multiplayer Crysis Wars on different stations (one running Vista via BootCamp on a MacBook Pro, the other using the Microconsole hooked up to an HDTV), while another person simply spectated on their game from another MacBook Pro running Mac OS X. The game was just being shot down the pipes to each computer, and looked pretty darn snappy. Although when we were handed the controls (a mouse and keyboard; the HDTV was using a plugged-in USB controller), it seemed to lag for a brief second or two. We've also never played Crysis Wars before, so it could be that we just weren't familiar enough with it to know how it would normally feel.

You're probably asking, "Well, what games are in there?" OnLive doesn't want to be another GameTap, so it won't be offering a backlog of titles. It promises to have the same games (PC) that are on store shelves at that moment also available to play in OnLive. We were shown GRID and Crysis Wars, and got glimpses of Mirror's Edge, Burnout Paradise and World of Goo. Its struck deals with nine publishers: EA, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Eidos, Codemasters, Epic, Atari, WB and 2D Boy, and, according to Perlman, it only requires minor modifications on Rearden's end to get titles to run on the service.

As far as pricing goes, Rearden wasn't releasing numbers. It did mention that the microconsole will cost less than the lowest-priced dedicated console and the OnLive subscription-based service's price will likely be comparable to Xbox Live. That's just to access the service, however. Once inside you can either buy or rent games, and that price point will be left up to the developer. You can instantly demo any game on OnLive, but it's doubtful you'll be able to swap titles with a buddy once you're both done playing them. It's touting "no second sales" and no piracy, which probably means no "Hey, I'll trade you BioShock for Prince of Persia!" amongst friends. Bummer.

The microconsole will cost less than the lowest-priced dedicated console and the OnLive subscription-based service's price will likely be comparable to Xbox Live.

So what does all this mean? Is the Cloud really here, and we'll all be going sans high-end PC rigs and game consoles soon? Maybe. It's certain that it won't happen anytime soon, but OnLive is hoping to be the first out of the gate with its offering. The fact that it can run on any television and older computers is promising, and it would be refreshing not to have to buy a new system every few years to keep up with new technology. But will the latency stay low once the service is populated with hundreds of thousands of users, and the servers start to get taxed? Rearden Studios plans on a winter 2009 launch, and are right now running an internal beta, which should be opened up to outside users this summer.

One downside of the latency issue is that you can't live more than 1,000 miles from a data center. Rearden's hoping its initial five-server launch will give it a large enough footprint, but we'll have to check in with someone remote to see how their mileage varies. Another downside is that it might suck up your entire bandwidth when gaming: OnLive requires 1.5 Mbps for standard def gaming, and 5 Mbps for high def. Again, it's entirely unclear how well this will work once the pieces are all fitted together. Does this keep us from wanting to try it out? Not at all. We'd welcome a portable game system that doesn't care if your computer doesn't even have a GPU.

We'll have more hands-on time with OnLive later this week, so look for more coverage as we continue spooling through GDC.

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