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MMObility: OnLive might just be perfect for MMOs


I sat in my bed last night, wanting to play something. I had already been playing my staple of browser-based MMOs. I had already crafted a bunch of arrows to grind on in RuneScape, ensured something was being built in Illyriad, and made note to try some of the new content in a few more of my favorites. I wanted to try something single-player, though, but my desktop was in the other room. It was chilly, and my dogs had weighed down the covers.

So I pulled up my laptop and actually plugged it into my router instead of going wireless. I fired up OnLive, the miracle service that streams games to your device. Within a few minutes, I was shooting, exploring, and leveling in games that my little laptop would probably have had a very hard time running on its own. This got me thinking about OnLive's recent announcement about working with MMOs to stream them to players all over the world. Would it work? How would it work?

Click past the cut and let's discuss it!

OnLive banner
For those who are not familiar, OnLive is a service that streams games to your device of choice (PC or Mac) so that the device does not have to do the work of running the game. This means that a basic laptop, and even a netbook I am guessing, can play games that would normally prove too much for its system abilties. How does it work? Let's keep this simple, mainly because I would muck up the names and processes badly. Essentially, OnLive hosts the game, squishes the images and sounds down, sends them to your device, and then responds to your input. If you have ever seen a YouTube video with those blocky areas in the background that happen at a certain time, that is part of the compression process. Well, the scientific term is the "squishification process."

Anyway, years ago this would have seemed like a magic trick or as something "from the future." (It sounded too good to be true to this guy in '09.) Well, it works, and it works wonderfully most of the time. While certain games or scenes in games appear more muddied than others (perhaps due to similar colors or patterns on the screen), most of the games I have played look great. The more action on the screen, the less detail. So in a shooter like Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, the backgrounds can sort of blend in a bit and make it hard to pinpoint shots. Generally, though, this is not an issue while you're playing. And while you can play games wirelessly, a direct connection is always preferred. Even with the compressed signal, there is a ton of information moving through those pipes. It's best to plug in directly.

Now we come to the idea of OnLive potentially streaming MMOs to players so that some college kid on a netbook can jam on some RIFT or Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. While it seems like OnLive has already delivered its share of magic, bear in mind that it has already promised a few things and has yet to deliver on them. Playing such games on an iPad, something that has been promised for a long time now, is still not possible. I think it will eventually, but obviously the kinks aren't all worked out yet.

How would OnLive work with an MMO developer to stream the latest release? Why wouldn't the MMO company just host its own streaming server? First of all, an MMO is different in many ways from a console shooter. The game still needs hardware to run, and OnLive could run that game for us just like it does the current titles on offer. Does this mean OnLive would basically act as a third party, as a middleman between you and the server? Perhaps OnLive would connect to the official server, then take the information from that server and stream it along with the compressed video and audio.

OnLive information picture
While I can see this streaming technology becoming the norm within a few years, it would make sense for an MMO developer to get its game out to as many people as possible. Hardware requirements are often a roadblock for many, so a studio's partnership with an already-established streaming service makes sense. The MMO developer could charge the same amount, if not a slightly reduced one, and still offer the same security.

What about lag? As was pointed out in a recent comments section, wouldn't the lag from OnLive just add to the lag from the MMO? Well, remember, the lag from an MMO comes from many, many sources. Many times it is graphical lag or lag that is caused by your PC and its hardware. Then there is the lag caused by communication loss with the server or with a burp in the stream. I'm sure there are many other types of lag as well. OnLive truly is mostly a lag-free experience. I personally found that running an MMO through the service did not cause any significant amount of lag. At the least, it didn't create extra lag. Also remember that many of our most popular MMOs are not first-person shooters. They do not require that split-second timing that is often required in a game that literally asks players to aim and shoot. (I can hear the raiders grumbling about split-second timing now.) I don't mean to push this point, but most of the MMOs I have played are sluggish beasts, and even combat is just a series of turns -- hardly actions that require split second timing. Anyway, OnLive already handles games that do require that sort of timing. (I would like to add that I have pretty robust internet, and it costs me around 140 dollars per month with cable television. Your OnLive results may wary.)

One of my current goals is to reduce the amount of hardware required in my household. So far I have switched most of my MMO gaming to the browser or minimal-spec gaming. If anything, I have played more than ever before and have found more games that feature more depth than I have for a long time. The restrictions of lower requirements seem to often force developers to become very clever in their gameplay design. Along with ensuring I rarely touch my gaming desktop, OnLive is making it possible for me to neglect my console too. Frankly, I couldn't be happier about being able to use one device for everything in my digital life.

While I can afford to get an amazing gaming desktop or even a much better laptop, I have found that I am trying to keep things minimal to show people who cannot afford a $1000 desktop or laptop a way to play with the rest of us. I'm doing this for the poor college student, the kid with the hand-me-down laptop, or the mother of three who does not have the time to mess with upgrades. I think that MMO gaming is a great teacher and can bring people together. Yes, I am very serious.

A service like OnLive is just another great tool in my pursuit. Will it work with MMOs? I think that the hardware and service could handle an MMO perfectly. The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, will be silly licensing or fee issues. Those can be worked out in time. Until then I will continue to subscribe to OnLive. It really does work like magic.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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