Possible Gaming Revolution: OnLive Gaming Service Announced [GDC 2009]

’Most Powerful Game System In The World’ set for winter release. Full details below.

Your gaming console is yesterday’s technology. Your blazingly-fast gaming computer is an unneeded expense.

That’s the message from Steve Perlman, founder of the newly announced OnLive gaming service, which is set to transform the way video games are purchased, delivered and played. In a press release today, he described it as “the most powerful game system in the world.”

The service is being officially unveiled today here in San Francisco at the Game Developers Conference.

OnLive may not be what many gamers were asking for. A new console? A new gaming service? Something that plays PC games?

The demand for such things seems debatable in a world crazy for the Wii and rich with Xbox 360 and PS3 gamers. But Pearlman and the 100-person company that has been working on OnLive for seven years imagines that gamers simply couldn’t yet imagine the cutting-edge possibility that OnLive represents.

This is what the service is set to offer when it launches in the Fall:

-A user downloads a 1MB application to their PC or Mac, using a computer that simply must connect to the Internet over broadband. No graphics card required. OR The user hooks up OnLive’s “MicroConsole” to their TV with an HDMI connection, negating the need for a PC. The MicroConsole is the size of a little larger than a Nintendo DS.

-Through their computer or MicroConsole, the user winds up with access to games from a wide range of publishers: Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two Interactive Software, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, THQ, Epic Games, Eidos, Atari and Codemasters. The offerings from publishers won’t be back-catalog. They are intended to be new releases, timed day-and-date with their console and PC releases.

-The games are booted up in a matter of seconds (single-digit seconds). Nothing is downloaded to the user. Nothing has to buffer. It all instantly streams visually to the user’s computer monitor or TV. Most of the processing is done back at the OnLive server farm. A small remainder of it is performed in the user’s computer or micro-console. There are no game program files to download, no hard drive memory required. The game just starts.

-The gamer plays the game with keyboard and mouse, with a generic USB-connected game controller or with OnLive’s proprietary wireless controller (generic wireless controllers don’t work, Pearlman told MTV Multiplayer, because they introduce too much lag). The MicroConsole supports up to two wired controllers or four wireless controllers.

-Gamers will have access to the service via a monthly subscription or have the ability to try free demos, virtually purchase a game or find some middle range for multi-day “rentals.” Prices will be announced at a later date, but OnLive reps guarantee that the cost of entry to this service will be significantly lower than buying even a Wii or bare-bones Xbox 360.

-Users will be able to expect the OnLive servers that are spitting their games out at them to be upgraded regularly, in essence improving the specs of the service so that it can run more and more powerful games. No upgrade is needed on the users’ end, because all they are seeing and hearing is the video and audio signal of the games that are being run back at the OnLive servers. This is called cloud computing, where very little of the processing occurs on the users’ end. In essence, this frees the user from ever needing to buy a new console or upgrade their PC, because their viewing and playing device just serves as the window to experiences being powered elsewhere.

-A few weeks ago in New York City, Perlman allowed me to try the beta version of the service. I played “Burnout Paradise” and “Crysis” using OnLive’s laptop and MicroConsole set-ups, respectively. “Crysis” ran at a high spec, though not the highest. “Burnout Paradise” ran as smoothly as it does on my PS3.

-What OnLive won’t have is exclusive games, as the current model only calls for publishers to develop an OnLive version of their game in conjunction with their PC and console releases. Pearlman said that converting a PC release to an OnLive release takes just a few days. Nevertheless, OnLive appears to be a service that will launch without exclusive games.

-OnLive will also present users with a heavy amount of video content streamed over the same network, including a service-wide feature called Brag Clips — these are video-captured clips that players can grab of anything they’re doing in a game and then share with friends.

Those are the basics of OnLive. Check back shortly for our in-depth interview with OnLive founder Steve Perlman in which I press him on my biggest concerns about this service.