OnLive delivers streaming console games to the tablet masses

by George Jones

December 7 2011

Talk about disruptive. Competition in the console gaming market is heating up as OnLive announces that its streaming gameplay service and library of games are now available on iOS and Android tablets, including Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle Fire.

CEO Steve Perlman unveiled this new tablet- and smartphone-oriented dimension of the company’s service in a demo for TabTimes at his company’s San Francisco office. Perlman called the release a “milestone moment for gaming.”

OnLive allows gamers to play the latest PC and console titles across the PC, Mac, the diminutive OnLive Game System, and now tablets and smartphones with surprisingly low latency. Gameplay is streamed directly from the company’s servers to the player’s screen, and proprietary (and heavily patented) lag-reducing input management allow the player to play the game with a controller, keyboard/mouse, and now touch as if the game were running locally. No discs or game installs are needed.

As currently implemented, touch gaming through OnLive’s service consists of three different possible controller/input schemes.

The most sophisticated control scheme allows game developers to directly write specific controls for their games. Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series, is doing this with its high-profile detective adventure L.A. Noire, which will release in coming months. “I think of my parents—they like Phillip Marlowe, but they’ll never pick up a controller that has an X and Y and A and B buttons," said Perlman, who noted that every major games publisher is working with them on the new approach. 

Some titles will use a series of genre-specific touch control templates developed by OnLive. Racing games for example, will give players a small virtualized gear stick they can use to shift gears.

Older titles (and titles which have touch-controls enabled in either of the two schemes described above) will be playable with the company’s new tablet-compatible Universal OnLive Wireless Controller. This controller automatically syncs with a tablet or smartphone in the most appropriate and lowest-latency fashion via Bluetooth. A special 2.4GHz wireless dongle also allows the controller to work with laptops and tablets that accept USB plug-ins.

In his demo, Perlman showed the controller and the service running on multiple devices using all three kinds of network data – WiFi, 3G, and 4G LTE. Tablets presented a particular challenge for the company’s latency-minimizing technology. “Tablets are not only on wireless, but they cram their receivers into a small space and aren’t optimized,” Perlman said.

TabTimes was able to spend time playing Virtua Tennis on an iPad with touch and with the controller, and we were surprised at the minimal amount of lag and latency as we played. To emphasize the service’s cloud-based nature, OnLive VP of engineering Joe Bentley looked up our game on the OnLive central service on a Kindle Fire and watched us playing in real-time. (it’s worth noting that the Kindle Fire version of the app has been written to account for the devices low performance processor.)

On WiFi, Perlman says that 2.4GHz networks run fine, but that 5.0ghz networks will deliver improved frame rates and visual clarity. He went on to say that because AT&T is an investor in OnLive, the two companies have been discussing low latency mobile networking for a long time. He also indicated that while HSPA+ networks are faster in terms of data rates, they still have much higher latency than LTE infrastructures.

Pricing for the service doesn’t change with this new addition. Full purchase of games will range from $1.99 to $49.99, and 3- and 5-day rentals are available at lower costs. A flat-rate Netflix-style subscription is also available for $9.99 a month. Just like Netflix, this permits anytime access to a back catalog of games, and also grants a 30% discount on any new game purchases. Subscribers have access to all their games and can save and resume across multiple platforms.

Perlman declined to give out the exact number of subscribers, but said that the number is “in the millions”, and that the service’s growth in its first year mirrors that of the first year of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console gaming system. If accurate, this would put OnLive’s subscriber number right around 2.5 million.

“Ultimately, I think this will probably be a larger market [than service on existing platforms],” Perlman said. “Here, we’re the only game in town.”

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