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Play High-End Games on Your Low-End Computer

OnLive Game Service The beta program for streaming gaming service OnLive started last week.  Not far behind OnLive is Gaikai.  Both services claim to bring high-end video games to low-end hardware, by streaming the graphics to you via your broadband connection.

Because all of the "heavy lifting" is done on OnLive or Gaikai’s servers, the system requirements for end users are low.  In fact, the OnLive website claims that "[a]ll you need is a PC running a current version of Windows XP® or Vista®, or an Intel®-based Mac running a current version of OS X."  Similarly, Gaikai’s site claims that "you can play the latest cutting-edge games anywhere there’s an internet connection – on any computer, even if it’s a few years old and misses 3D graphics hardware."  Such impressive claims raise more than a few questions.


1. Can the technology deliver?

As noted, OnLive and Gaikai work by streaming content to you.  For this to work, users will need fast, reliable connections.  I don’t know about you, but I still have trouble on occasion with buffering of YouTube videos on my Comcast cable broadband connection.  If that’s any indication, then these game services might expect too much of current broadband technology.

A more interesting technological hurdle concerns video compression.  Anyone who has dabbled in video editing knows just how long it takes to render a video (hint – a LONG time).  OnLive and Gaiki either have either figured out a new way to deliver video that doesn’t require it to be rendered prior to delivery, or they have a technology that many video editors would love to see in video rendering software.


2.  Will bandwidth caps hobble the services?

Hardcore gamers play for long hours.  Streaming video eats up bandwidth faster than any other activity.  Put the two together, and you have a recipe for the usage of massive amounts of bandwidth.  With most broadband providers now implementing caps of one amount or another, hardcore gamers could find themselves having to limit their gaming time.  Which brings us to the next question . . .


3.  Will hardcore gamers embrace an outside service?

Bandwidth concerns are one obstacle that these services will need to overcome in order to be embraced by hardcore gamers.  But many hardcore gamers are also tinkerers by nature, and take great pride in their rigs.  Will they give that side of the hobby up so easily?  Certainly, many gamers will gladly hold on to their money, but a segment of the gaming population will be loath to give up control.


4.  Will net neutrality get in the way?

With a consistent connection being so vital to these services, it is easy to envision a world where OnLive and Gaikai make arrangements with internet service provides to prioritize their traffic.  If this were to happen, a user of OnLive or Gaikai wouldn’t need to worry that a neighbor’s download of Transformers 2 would disrupt a session of Crysis.  But would the FCC allow this?  We’ve already seen the FCC tell Comcast that it can’t discriminate against Bittorrent traffic.  If I didn’t use OnLive or Gaikai, I surely wouldn’t be happy knowing that my traffic was taking a backseat to gaming traffic.


5.  Will this kill hardware companies?

Hardware companies like nVidia and AMD must be frightened by OnLive and Gaikai (although, interestingly, nVidia is listed on OnLive’s Partners page).  Although their products are used not just in the gaming world, gamers do purchase the most expensive hardware.  Why would many gamers drop $400 on a new video card, if it wasn’t needed?  Boutique PC manufacturers also must be casting a wary eye towards OnLive and Gaikai.  In 2008 I purchased a custom-built gaming computer from a great company, Digital Storm.  If OnLive and Gaikai had been around then, my purchasing priorities would have changed.


6.  Will this kill consoles?

OnLive also promises a console of its own, called a MicroConsole, that will allow users to access games from their televisions.  One of the biggest obstacles to PC gaming is its cost.  If OnLive can run on low spec computers, the MicroConsole almost certainly will have low specs as well.  Low specs should mean low cost, which could usher gamers away from traditional consoles.


7.  Will more high-end programs make their way to the cloud?

If the technology behind OnLive and Gaikai actually works, this will have huge ramifications for other applications.  Already, many basic tasks, such as word processing and spreadsheet editing, have made their way to the cloud.  Games are among the most hardware intensive applications that a computer will run, so it is not hard to imagine a floodgate of other applications, such as video editors and animation programs, coming to you via your broadband connection


 8.  Will Onlive and Gaikai kill the modding community?

"Kill" might be too strong a word, as modders will be around forever.  But any hobby needs new lifeblood.  Today, many games come with toolsets that allow users to design levels or otherwise produce content for games, or even modify those games.  Those users often graduate to more advanced modding tasks, such as creating their own 3D assets, and more.  Neverwinter Nights is a great example of this, where several members of the community were hired by Bioware and Obsidian on the strength of their work in the Neverwinter Nights/Neverwinter Nights 2 modding community.  There has been no mention of toolsets in any of the coverage of OnLive and Gaikai.  If gamers are never introduced to modding through a game’s toolset, this could stifle the influx of new blood into the modding community.


Are you a gamer?  Will you use these services if they actually work?  What other problems or issues do you see with OnLive and Gaikai?