Why cloud-based gaming is still a dubious prospect

Okay, I'm not going to make any categorically damning statements here, because I don't know everything about OnLive's tech, and I don't know how well it's going to work in real-life practice. From what I hear, the beta tests and press demos have gone pretty well. But again, my eyebrow is somewhat raised until I see the system running on a mass-scale as well as a standalone PC or console does.

Above: OnLive's current server coverage map. I may have made additions

It seems that you need to be playing within 1000 miles of a data centre, or the delay between your input reaching the host machines and the video feed getting back to you makes the game unplayable. As long as there are enough data centres worldwide (they've already been announced for the UK and Europe), that sounds okay, but I can't help wondering what the drop-off will be like on the way to that limit.

As for the quality of pipes you'll need, it seems that a 1.5 Mb connection will do standard-def gaming, while4-5Mb will be needed for HDTV standard resolution. No word on whether that's 720p or 1080p.

Above: Don't gamers do enough unneccessary queuing already?

OnLive's machines will be able to run multiple instances of less demanding games, but titles needing a lot of grunt - surely the sort of horsepower-hungrygames that justify OnLive - will need a graphics processor per game. I've suddenly got horrible visions of queuing up to play a game you 'own', on top of paying a subscription fee to keep owning it.

As for the video stream these machines will render, there will be two. One will be a full HD version, stored server-side for spectators, and for gamers to create gameplay video clips with. The other will be the one the player gets, which will be 'optimised' for real world connections. I might well be wrong, butthat sounds likean earlyindicator that throttled, lower-res video feeds are going to be a necessity from time to time, even if not a regular occurence. With HDTV resolution actually being lower than what a lot of hardcore PC gamers are using to start with, I really can't see a dynamically 'optimised' version going down too well.

Above: The future of gaming?

And speaking of throttled connections, there's the ISP issue. OnLive has made good headway by signing up for official bundle-deals with service provider BT in the UK, and is doing the same in Belgium. Thatshould mean solid connections and happy gaming through the ISPs in question, but will others be so accomodating when they see potentially millions of users streaming several hours of HD video a day? Reserving the right to limit bandwidth on the fly is a standard part of an ISP contract, and I fear OnLive might turn out to be just too much bait in terms of making providers flick the slow switch.

Basically, I have my doubts, I have my doubts that the sevice will fulfil the needs of either PC or console gamers. I have my doubts it will provide an inviting enough alternative to retail to instigate the move away from the high street the industry so clearly wants. I don't doubt that a more online-focused model is the future of game-buying, but I do doubt that either technology or gaming culture will be overly receptive to OnLive, at least right now.

But I could be very wrong. I'm always ready to accept anything cool and new that makes life easier, and if OnLive can do that and convince me to put aside my personal issues, then I'm all behind it. But I want to know what you think too. So let me know in the comments, or via our throbbing social spots onFacebookandTwitter.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.