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MMObility: MMO streaming services have a long way to go


I've been a huge fan of streaming technology for a while mainly because it gives players an opportunity to access more powerful and flexible devices from the convenient location of their hand-held tablets or phones. The tech has come a long way even since I started reporting on it, and it continues to impress me. What's the point, you might ask? Why not just sit down at a desktop to play MMOs like everyone else? Well, the truth is that moving around is sometimes more relaxing and can definitely be better for your health.

Being able to get up, walk around, check in on a game from different locations, and just be mobile isn't just a neat gimmick. Some MMOs also work much better with a touchscreen device, especially MMORTS titles and games that require only a button press to perform an action. There are options for those who need a fully functioning joystick or control scheme, but they are not yet available to everyone. Let's go over the options we do have. Be sure to try out one or two on your tablet... you just might find that playing on a smaller screen is really fun.

Splashtop GamePad THD screenshot
Splashtop Remote Desktop

I've covered Splashtop before and continue to use and enjoy related products. The coolest of those, like the Splashtop GamePad THD, is not yet available for any of my devices (the HTC Inspire, iPad, and Nexus 7 tablet). But in demonstrations (and according to comment sections), the app appears to work pretty well. The advantage of the control pad is that players can play games relatively normally, replacing WASD controls with a left-side control pad. There is even a series of hot buttons that will help with shortcuts, and players can always touch hotbar buttons as usual. The developers give the example of playing Skyrim on a tablet, but I'm sure it would work even better with games like World of Warcraft or Wurm Online. Unfortunately, the older version of the "normal" Splashtop remote has taken away the arrow keys that helped with movement, so I must wait until the GamePad version is available for my device in order to test it out. Without that direction pad, games like Mabinogi and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes don't really work. Camera controls are so wonky that I gave up. The developers did place a nice zoom bar that works to zoom in and out of the screen, however.

"Really, the streaming desktop uses beyond gaming are for those people who might be chilling on their back patios and wanting to access a music library or take a look at a project."

I've actually showed how to play games like Wurm Online using Splashtop before, but the basic version has changed. Where the Splashtop products shine -- until the GamePad version is released for more devices -- is when playing browser-based touchable games like Glitch or Evony. These titles were built with a simple click interface in the first place, so the transition to virtual desktop is pretty much flawless. The on-screen keyboard also works much better now. Before, it would cover up much of the screen, and you could not see the text input area; now the screen focuses on the part of the screen where a player is typing. No more blind guessing.

There are also many non-game-related uses for a virtual desktop. You can stream videos, especially those pesky Flash-based videos that come on many websites. Sure, on most tablets, you already have a YouTube service to look the video up, but sometimes it's just more handy to have a real browser available. You might not want to type up an entire paper on your tablet, especially the seven-inch ones, but if you need to gain access to a blog or site that requires a different setup than a tablet provides, a remote desktop might work. With Splashtop, you can have access to your standard PC with no problem. The service also works while mobile, allowing someone to log in using her Google account. This means that the PC in question has to be awake and running. Once the PC is asleep, attempts to connect to it are fruitless. I'm a bit confused by the reality of this situation; surely it's a rare person who leaves her house for any long period of time while her PC is still in normal "awake" mode. When I leave for a few days or even for several hours, I either shut it off or at least put it to sleep. Really, the streaming desktop uses beyond gaming are for those people who might be chilling on their back patios and wanting to access a music library or take a look at a project. Other than that, expect to use these remotes mostly for gaming from the couch or bed.

OnLive virtual desktop screenshot
OnLive's virtual desktops

OnLive has still not opened up its more trusting virtual desktop service. Right now (and only on certain devices), you can have access to a couple of different levels of virtual desktop service. OnLive intrigues me the most because users are literally using a virtual desktop, not just streaming one of their own. On my iPad II, the service works about as well as you would expect from the OnLive gaming service: If you have a great internet connection, you'll have pretty great performance. If not, then you might be seeing more fuzzy screens than it is worth. Remember that higher-speed internet is spreading and reaching into more locations every day. It's possible that we'll eventually see free, high-speed internet access all over the country. That's the dream, anyway.

The virtual desktop is more limited than the Splashtop streamer because OnLive has decided that for right now, it will limit the types of downloads and access that might cause harm to the virtual service. Flash- and browser-based MMOs usually do pretty well, but many others require access to certain ports that OnLive has blocked. So RuneScape and Battlestar Galactica Online do not install on the virtual desktop browser, but you can play other Flash-based games to your heart's content.

There will soon be a newer level of paid access that promises to relax the security restrictions and allow the installation and download of a wider variety of games. You can imagine OnLive's concern if you think about the potential security risk that comes with allowing a user to have unlimited access to a virtual desktop. OnLive wants to keep it clean and bug-free, and allowing users to do the same things on this virtual PC as they do on their real-life ones just doesn't make as much sense.

So both services still have some work to do until they truly become a viable enough alternative to a large desktop that players are encouraged to abandon their heat-generating behemoths. I, for one, cannot wait for both services (especially the OnLive suite) to be fully available. I'll gladly avoid sitting at my PC anytime I can.

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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