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GDC09 interview: OnLive founder Steve Perlman, continued

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You didn't think that was it, right? Following up on part 1 of our interview with sounds-too-good-to-be-true cloud gaming platform OnLive's Steve Perlman from yesterday comes ... part 2! In our final installment, we ask about bandwidth caps, cable box integration, DLC, server cost, privacy concerns, second-hand sales, classic games, and more! Don't believe us? We know, Steve Perlman wants you to be skeptical, but read on!

Joystiq: So you're working with developers. Say you're working with Ubisoft on Prince of Persia, is that Prince of Persia the same exact Prince of Persia that would be on the PC? Are they changing parts of the game and if so what are they changing? What are the differences?

Steve Perlman: It's the exact same Prince of Persia and the only things that are being changed are really externalities like, you know, if you pick up a controller we've got to recognize the buttons the right away. For example, you can't change the resolution to anything other than HD, but even if OnLive figures out that your speed or your connection is too low and they've got to make it small screen, it still runs in HD and anybody who's spectated you sees you in HD; or if you do a Brag clip it saves in HD. So, we don't want you to changing the resolution. So, there's a couple of switches to turn off. We don't want you to bring up the Windows dialogue box for saving games. I don't know about that particular game, but some games, it actually shows the Windows so that you can navigate through the hierarchy for saving games. You know, we've to disable those kinds of things. The actual gameplay is the same.

Then you were talking about something like FIOS for example, that really improves the experience?

It doesn't improve the experience; it just lets you go further away from the service center.

Gallery: OnLive: Microconsole and Game Service | 20 Photos

Have you talked with cable companies or data centers like Akamai about getting more integrated access to their data networks, like Comcast?

Yes, so we've spoken to most of the major US ISPs because one of the things we want to make sure is that there's nothing we are doing from a statistical point of view, you know, is inefficient for their network. You know, one of the things that's been tough, I think a lot of the services that work through the net have been kind of knocking heads with the ISPs. There's a lot of P2P things that consume all of the upload bandwidth which is really really hard for them to manage from a statistical point of view, whereas OnLive's running in real-time, it's following the connection constantly and we are measuring it every couple of milliseconds. So, you know, there are peaks so if it's HD, we got it up to 4 megabits a second. But most of the time, it's down at a lower rate, you know, and those who have openings if you will with bandwidth allow other traffic to go through, it allows e-mail, to download a webpage or what have you. And the other thing is, our upstream bandwidth is a trickle, its controlled input and it's constant network measurements that we are sending out. So, if you look out from the point of view of a DSL or a cable modem or a fiber operator, we are like one of their friendliest customers because we never swamp through channel and we sort of encourage people to upgrade to a higher speed connection. So, so far their reactions were very very positive.

Comcast has a 250GB per month bandwidth cap. We did some quick math: if you are talking about 5 megabits a second connection for HD, which is theoretically maxed out, that gives you something like 3.5 hours a day of gaming time per month. And that's just for gaming.

"I suspect that Comcast may probably be a good thing for your social life if they put a cap at 9.5 hours, 30 days a month."

So, if you look closely at what we explained on our website, the 5 megabits that we list is the marketing number you are probably going to need because what we find is most 5 megabit connections will deliver probably 4 megabits. The actual system needs about 4 megabits peak, not average. On average, we are running much lower than that. If you are really playing something like a driving game – driving games have constantly changing video, right? – so, we are pretty much running the system pretty high there. If you are running a game like that non-stop, you are probably averaging around 2 megabits a second. They may peak up to 4 and then it's below, but you know, that's assuming also that you're not taking a break, checking a leaderboard or doing something else. Let's just say that you're one hell of a non-stop, never take a break to go to the bathroom gamer, then you'd be using 2 megabits a second and, at 2 megabits a second, that's about a gigabyte an hour, okay? So, you'll then be able to play on Comcast for about 250 hours a month. Now let's say there's about 30 days a month, so it's about 9.5 hours a day. So, if you start playing games more than that, I suspect that Comcast may probably be a good thing for your social life if they put a cap at 9.5 hours, 30 days a month.

But the other thing about it is, I mean, so what's the worst case scenario there? Well, you've got to go to something less than HDTV. Now, the other thing that we talk about specifically is standard definition TV which will be, you know, say Wii resolution but we also handle resolutions in between like 1024 across; 800 across; and then all the way down to 600. If it's below that, we are going to say you don't have a fast enough connection. For the standard definition resolution, we're talking 1.2 megabits a second. Well, at 1.2 megabits a second, if you were running 24 hours a day, 30 days a month, you would not consume 250 gigabytes. So, for, I don't know -- if you are a person who never needs to sleep, never needs to eat, do anything else other than play high performance games and you need to run 24 hours a day for 30 days a month and you had a 250 gigabyte cap, then what you need to do is run it in standard definition. So, long story short, I think the bandwidth caps are not a major issue for OnLive.

How about getting the OnLive microconsole, or software, embedded into a cable box? That seems like the most obvious place for it.

We are not making any announcements at this time. There will be some other announcements this year. It's very inexpensive and the chip that we've designed in the microconsole is very low power and has a bunch of other functions in it that might apply to other types of devices.

I see, very interesting! In terms of purchasing options for consumers: are they purchasing, are they renting? If purchasing, is all the DLC unlocked as it becomes available? How many options will they have for the titles that will be available?

So, there will be a lot of different purchase options. We show two on the floor, just as an example, which is purchase or rent. Other people are talking about subscriptions, packages, where you maybe get all the sports titles or all this kind of title, whatever. There'll be promotions. You see with iTunes now where you get this many dollars on iTunes. So all those kinds of things are now possibilities that were not really feasible with package goods kind of model for business. We can expect the pricing of these games to be competitive with retail. Nobody's announcing pricing at this time. But obviously they're going to want the games to sell. And they're also not going to want to undermine the retail business. So I would be expect the prices to be competitive with retail.

How does this effect DLC. Will a user be able to go in there and make specific purchases on a title? I assume the installation of that title will be shared with other users ...

You know, I don't know. We haven't gotten into that level of detail. One of the things that we have looked at, it's maybe not exactly answer your question, which is: suppose I've got a micro-console. Then I go over to my friend's house and I want to play on his PC there. Can I do that? Yeah. We'll set that up so you can go and move around. Your account will not be tied to a piece of hardware. Micro-console, hit "Pause". Okay, so you're in the middle of a game, "Pause". Go fly to visit Grandma across the country and you have your laptop with you or something hook into her DSL connection. Boom, "unPause", right where you left off.

So, that whole time, that customer is taking up the resources of one of your systems?

No they're not. What we do is, none of these servers have disc drives. None of them have optical drives. We have these big RAID arrays. So the minute you get off the server, the machine state, everything that is storing your game, moves off to a RAID array and stores there. If you will, frozen in time.

You're running virtual machines then?

We're running virtual machines, that's correct.

Is all that technology proprietary? Is it VMware?

Some of it's proprietary. If there is something available that we can license, we license it. There's lot of pieces of technology in it. The servers themselves are very non-standard servers. We would have loved to go and find servers out there, like Amazon's EC2 or something, that we could just rent or something like that. But servers out there do not have GPUs. And they don't have GPU slots. They don't have the bus needed to hook up the GPU. So we had to go and work with server makers to design a custom server. And if you look at the motherboard they look different than any other server you've ever seen before. In fact, it looks closer to an extreme gamer motherboard.

I imagine the cooling has to be different too, if you've got GPUs in a server rack.

We do. Yes. The cooling's different but you have the benefit, of course, being in a big air-conditioned colo, a co-location center. So we have enough slots for a couple of GPUs, for example, if we're doing SLI or Crossfire. Then we also have a slot for a custom board that we designed. And a lot of the magic's obviously on the board. There's some silicon, there's some special software and so forth. And what that allows us to do is take the PC version of the game and we trick it, really, into thinking that what's happening is it's running in your home. And instead it's being picked up by this card and distributed with our very, very tight-looped, low-latency compression.

And, and this is the really cool thing: there are actually two compressors on it. The second compressor is not for you. It's not the live stream. We call it the media stream. It gets circulated back through the network for anybody who's spectating and for recording brag clips. There are two very different compression techniques we use because the live stream may go up and down in quality as your connection speed goes up and down, that kind of thing. Maybe the quality, the little grainy thing or whatever happens for one frame time and your eye can't see it because it goes swimming by. But suppose that you did an awesome thing and you rewind the brag clip to look at it. We don't want if you stop on that frame to see that kind of crunchy image that was sent to you because that's all your connection could take. So the media stream records gorgeous, full-quality HD things every single frame no matter what happens with your connection.

How long does it store it for?

It depends on what it is. For a brag clip, we'll keep it with your profile as long as you're a subscriber.

So if you're scrubbing back can you scrub back for every game you've ever played on On-Live since the history of the service? Or is it 10 minutes back? An hour back?

"We could record every game for every minute of game play if we needed to."

Well right now we're recording everything because we're beta testing. If someone said something happened we may want to go back in time; "Okay, why did this crash? What led to it?" This is part of what we'll learn from external beta. How much do people want? Here's one of the things I'll give you an example. We're talking to some folks that have strategy games. Kind of Command & Conquer sorts of things. Brag clips are for like a racing game when you cross the finish line or a spectacular crash. 15 seconds works great. But a game like Command & Conquer you may want a brag clip so to speak or you may want a recording of a couple hours of game play to go and see what the guy had to set up in order to finally win this battle, a real expert player. So we may do it by game. The thing is: storage is cheap. We're just recording compressed video. The main thing we're interested in is what do people want? The capability is there. We could record every game for every minute of game play if we needed to. But obviously that would be vastly wasteful. So we'd rather figure out what is really needed.

This media chip, it's sending out this signal. People can come in and eavesdrop on your game or jump into your game. Privacy concerns! Is there going to be settings for users to disable that broadcast so that if you don't want somebody to be looking at your game they can't?

No, no, no, no, no. There will be settings for users to enable the broadcast. We assume that you want privacy. If you want to go and let other people watch you then you have to actively go and do it. So it's an opt-in, not opt-out.

So opt in?

Yeah. I mean forget that. For one thing, I don't have anything private I need to do but my gameplay is probably so bad it's an embarrassment. (laughs) So there'd be that.

Maybe anonymous viewing so nobody knows it's you.

(laughs) That's right. Or you could go and say just my friends can see me. The other thing that is built in is different levels. A lot of focus has been on the extreme gaming. Crysis Wars type of stuff. But we got Lego Batman too. This is a great thing for families. So if you set the E rating you can't spectate an M game obviously. You can only spectate E games. For example, even if you're spectating an E game you can't listen to what the person's saying. Cause we don't know whether the guy, if he's using voice over IP, we don't know whether he is saying very colorful things about Lego Batman while he's playing. But if you're an M-rated player than you can not only watch Lego Batman but you could listen to it and maybe he's got very colorful things to say that you want to hear.

In this article: gdc, gdc-2009, interview, OnLive, steve-perlman
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