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Hands On With OnLive: On-Demand Gaming Scores, but Still Clouded With Issues

OnLive
Although, for a time, the video game industry valiantly staved off the recession while other enterprises suffered, console game sales did eventually stagnate before precipitously dropping. Online gaming currently thrives, though, particularly with enormously popular titles like Zynga's 'FarmVille' and 'Mafia Wars.' Other services like Xbox Live, which reportedly generates billions in revenue, also demonstrate that certain aspects of gaming can experience resounding success while still producing absurd profits.

Given the colossal audience of social networking sites and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, the adoption of such financially sound models by the video game industry represents a boundless and untapped gold mine. Enter OnLive, a service that seeks to provide video games instantly to users (on an array of devices), while also enabling trash-talking friendly networking. Currently experimenting with an invitation-only, pre-release program, OnLive showcases industry veteran Steve Perlman as CEO, and claims stalwarts like AT&T and Warner Bros. among its supporters.

The cloud-based game service, which also plans to release a MicroConsole in the fall, won't require lengthy, storage-sapping downloads. But will it provide seamless, uninterrupted gaming at a competitive price? That question, as well as numerous others, remains to be conclusively answered.

Construction

OnLive Welcome Screen
The smooth welcome screen features nine selections (Arena, Profile, Marketplace, Coming Soon, Service/Exit, My Games, Last Played, Brag Clips and Friends). With Profile, users can adjust their privacy settings (if they're -- ahem -- shameful cowards), as well as choose a motto, style and personal animation. The Arena serves as an ever-changing map of current OnLive activity. By wisely offering a tantalizing glimpse into gameplay and graphics, the Arena offers a form of window-shopping, so that users can select future rentals or purchases. The Marketplace awesomely provides a wealth of comprehensive, game-specific material to shoppers, including trailers, detailed background information, ESRB ratings, industry-standard metascores, controller options, multiplayer capabilities, a publisher, release dates and genre listings. With Brag Clips, OnLive allows players to record, store and share 10-second clips of their glorious gaming accomplishments, or their dismal and hilarious failures.

Platforms (and Prices)

OnLive Platforms
For now, the library features a scant 21 titles, although they do present a powerful and seductive allure for Mac users. Certain blockbusters, including 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' and 'Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands,' may be available for download at sites like Steam, but they're typically only compatible with Windows. Despite its limited content, the catalog does feature a diverse selection of genres, including driving ('DiRT 2'), puzzle ('World of Goo'), sports ('Major League Baseball 2K10'), first-person shooters ('Unreal Tournament 3') and games for all ages ('LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4'). The Coming Soon section also touts the future arrival of 15 more titles, including monumental releases like 'Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood,' 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,' and the awesome (looking, at least) 'Homefront.'

One of the uncertainties in regard to OnLive's future success unquestionably rests on its "PlayPass" prices, since the existing numbers don't appear particularly enticing. Even with an as-yet-undisclosed subscription fee, users must basically pay the same rate for games as in-store shoppers (who actually have access to discounted, used copies). Subscribers are also only allowed to play purchased titles for a temporary period (initially until 2013, although that could be extended). While 'Arkham Asylum' evoked unprecedented critical acclaim, its OnLive PlayPass still costs $39.99, despite the game's year-long market presence. However, rental fees ($4.99 for 3 days or $6.99 for 5 days) closely resemble prices for on-demand movies, and implementing special deals and free-play periods would alleviate some monetary concerns. (Go ahead and cross this off the to-do list. From July 30th until August 1st, OnLive offered a full PlayPass for 'Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands' for an attractive $24.99 -- half the normal price.)

Role Playing

OnLive Role Playing
Users can quickly find friends, brandish Brag Clips, and send and check messages from the Profile screen. The real-time Arena lets voyeuristic gamers anonymously observe others in action, and -- since talking smack serves an integral role in gaming endeavors -- "cheer" or "jeer" their exploits. If spectators don't alienate scrutinized players with constant jeering, they can even choose friends from this area. In a rare and possibly apocalyptic amalgamation, OnLive also facilitates multiplayer cohabitation, regardless of OS. This intermingling, melting pot of PC and Mac gamers certainly doesn't have to be peaceful or amicable, though.

Action

OnLive Action
Gameplay is no different than typical computer or console gaming, as long as a player's controller is supported. For keyboard n00bs, adapting is nearly effortless since OnLive provides easy and instant access to control guides. But, with live-streaming, users are -- and will be -- at the mercy of their networks. Getting booted while engaged in a firefight or during a coordinated multiplayer attack proves infuriating. Thankfully, most games provide an autosave feature, so not all progress is lost after a connection failure.

OnLive's existing exclusionary system requirements and lack of wireless capabilities also provoke a significant amount of gamer angst. But, wireless access will supposedly be available when the service becomes official, as will availability for slower computer models. Aggressive gamers could also find fault with the current lack of live-chat (which is essential for certain multiplayer games), the 720p resolution and the somewhat limited controller support. In an exhaustive and enlightening interview with CNET, though, Perlman repeatedly reminds and reassures wary gamers that the company plans to address all of those needs prior to the official premiere. He also purports the service to be 3-D ready, and will be compatible with various smartphones and tablet devices -- depending on certain proprietary regulations, of course.

Science, Strategy and Success

OnLive Science, Strategy and Success
Numerous issues obviously inspire doubts about OnLive's potential for widespread success, but naysayers seem to forget that the current version serves as an introductory test model. The official launch date still remains months away. Most of the concerns present minor obstacles, as well, although the subscription price could be a deal-breaker. Early conjecture indicated a daunting $14.95 monthly fee, which -- unless upgrades materialize and the catalog rapidly and dramatically expands -- seems exorbitant for serious gamers.

On July 16th, OnLive did initiate a free "Founding Members" program (for which you should definitely apply), which grants selected participants a free year-long membership, as well as the option to renew for a more-than-reasonable $4.99 per month. The service already seems worth that price for the aforementioned Mac owners, and for casual gamers who may not own an expensive console. For those folks, it provides a perfect and unique medium for playing with friends, while staying current with trendy titles and technical advancements. OnLive could at least carve an indelible niche with those frequently alienated and isolated markets.

Although the issues may seem intimidating, if OnLive accomplishes its objectives -- and enables universal, cross-platform gaming -- the service should revolutionize the industry. A multifunction and affordable (or, ideally, free) Roku-like MicroConsole could also sway consumers previously discouraged by the $300 price tags of other devices. With networking, demos, previews, rentals, purchases, and both new releases and classic titles, OnLive bridges a gap between serious, hardcore gamers and casual, infrequent players who may just browse the site for weekend entertainment. Others may only utilize it to purchase gifts for friends or kids. If that universal attraction blossoms, OnLive could absolutely relegate consoles, portable gaming gear and rival download services to a Sega-like status of obsolescence. While the market may not have been prepared for Perlman's '90s WebTV venture -- which numerous heavy-hitters now seek to imitate -- his generous new creation may go live at exactly the appropriate time.

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