Thursday, July 15, 2010

OnLive Follow-Up: Bandwidth and Cost

As mentioned earlier in OnLive Works! First Use Impressions, I've tried OnLive, and it works quite well, with no noticeable lag and fine video quality. As I've discussed, this could affect GPU volumes, a lot, if it becomes a market force, since you can play high-end games with a low-end PC. However, additional testing has confirmed that users will run into bandwidth and data usage issues, and the cost is not what I'd like for continued use.

To repeat some background, for completeness: OnLive is a service that runs games on their servers up in the cloud, streaming the video to your PC or Mac. It lets you run the highest-end games on very inexpensive systems, avoiding the cost of a rip-roaring gamer system. I've noted previously that this could hurt the mass market for GPUs, since OnLive doesn't need much graphics on the client. But there were serious questions (see my post Twilight of the GPU?) as to whether they could overcome bandwidth and lag issues: Can OnLive respond to your inputs fast enough for games to be playable? And could its bandwidth requirements be met with a normal household ISP?

As I said earlier, and can re-confirm: Video, check. I found no problems there; no artifacts, including in displayed text. Lag, hence gameplay, is perfectly adequate, at least for my level of skill. Those with sub-millisecond reflexes might feel otherwise; I can't tell. There's confirmation of the low lag from Eurogamer, which measured it at "150ms - similar to playing … locally".


Bandwidth, on the other hand, does not present a pretty picture.

When I was playing or watching action, OnLive continuously ran at about 5.8% - 6.4% utilization of a 100 Mb/sec LAN card. (OnLive won't run on WiFi, only on a wired connection.) This rate is very consistent. Displayed image resolution didn't cause it to vary outside that range, whether it was full-screen on my 1600 x 900 laptop display, full-screen on my 1920 x 1080 monitor, or windowed to about half the laptop screen area (which was the window size OnLive picked without input from me). When looking at static text displays, like OnLive control panels, it dropped down to a much smaller amount, in the 0.01% range; but that's not what you want to spend time doing with a system like this.

I observed these values playing (Borderlands) and watching game trailers for a collection of "coming soon" games like Deus Ex, Drive, Darksiders, Two Worlds, Driver, etc. If you stand still in a non-action situation, it does go down to about 3% (of 100 Mb/sec) for me, but with action games that isn't the point.

6.4% of 100 Mb/sec is about 2.9 GB (bytes) per hour. That hurts.

My ISP, Comcast, considers over 250 GB/month "excessive usage" and grounds for terminating your account if you keep doing it regularly. That limit and OnLive's bandwidth together mean that over a 30-day period, Comcast customers can't play more than 3 hours a day without being considered "excessive."


I also found that prices are not a bargain, unless you're counting the money you save using a bargain PC – one that costs, say, what a game console costs.

First, you pay for access to OnLive itself. For now that can be free, but after a year it's slated to be $4.95 a month. That's scarcely horrible. But you can't play anything with just access; you need to also buy a GamePass for each game you want to play.

A Full GamePass, which lets you play it forever (or, presumably, as long as OnLive carries the game) is generally comparable to the price of the game itself, or more for the PC version. For example, the Borderlands Full GamePass is $29.99, and the game can be purchased for $30 or less (one site lists it for $3! (plus about $9 shipping)). F.E.A.R. 2 is $19.99 GamePass, and the purchase price is $19-$12. Assassin's Creed II was a loser, with GamePass for $39.99 and purchased game available for $24-$17. The standalone game prices are from online sources, and don't include shipping, so OnLive can net a somewhat smaller total. And you can play it on a cheap PC, right? Hmmm. Or a console.

There are also, in many cases, 5 day and 3 day passes, typically $9-$7 for 5-day and $4-$6 for 3-day. As a try before you buy, maybe those are OK, but 30 minute free demos are available, too, making a reasonably adequate try available for free.

Not all the prices are that high. There's something called AAAAAAA, which seems to consist entirely of falling from tall buildings, with a full GamePass for $9.99; and Brain Challenge is $4.99. I'll bet Brain Challenge doesn't use much bandwidth, either.

The correspondence between Full GamePass and the retail price is obviously no coincidence. I wouldn't be surprised at all to find that relationship to be wired into the deals OnLive has with game publishers. Speculation, since I just don't know: Do the 5 or 3 day pass prices correspond to normal rental rates? I'd guess yes.

Simplicity & the Mac Factor

A real plus for OnLive is simplicity. Installation is just pure dead simple, and so is starting to play. Not only do you not have to acquire the game, there's no installation and no patching; you just select the game, get a PayPass (zero time with a required pre-registered credit card), and go. Instant gratification.

Then there's the Mac factor. If you have only Apple products – no console and no Windows PC – you are simply shut out of many games unless you pursue the major hassle of BootCamp, which also requires purchasing a copy of Windows and doing the Windows maintenance. But OnLive runs on Macs, so a wide game experience is available to you immediately, without a hassle.


To sum up:

Positive: great video quality, great playability, hassle-free instant gratification, and the Mac factor.

Negative: Marginally competitive game prices (at best) and bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. The cost can be argued, and may get better over time, but your ISP cutting you off for excessive data usage is pretty much a killer.

So where does this leave OnLive and, as a consequence, the market for GPUs? I think the bandwidth issue says that OnLive will have little impact in the near future.

However, this might change. Locally, Comcast TV ads showing off their "Xfinity" rebranding had a small notice indicating that 105 Mb data rates would be available in the future. It seems those have disappeared, so maybe it won't happen. But a 10X data rate improvement wouldn't mean much if you also didn't increase the data usage cap, and a 10X usage cap increase would completely eliminate the bandwidth issue.

Or maybe the Net Neutrality guys will pick this up and succeed. I'm not sure on that one. It seems like trying to get water from a stone if the backbone won't handle it, but who knows?

The proof, however, is in the playing and its market share, so we can just watch to see how this works out. The threat is still there, just masked by bandwidth requirements.

(And I still think virtual worlds should evaluate this technology closely. Installation difficulty is a key inhibitor to several markets there, forcing extreme measures – like shipping laptops already installed – in one documented case; see Living In It: A Tale of Learning in Second Life.)


Ryan said...

The obvious win for OnLive is to partner with ISPs, and put their servers inside the ISP's server rooms. Then there's no bandwidth issues to speak of.

That's relatively cheap compared to massive bandwidth costs. They might even be pursuing a model where the ISPs pay them for the useful and distinctive service for their customers.

If OnLive can prove the system works and that they're not hopeless at running it, the bandwidth problem can probably be made to go away.

J said...

Crytek is on top of the future and they think server rendering is the way to go so it will get there I'm sure..

Greg Pfister said...

Hi, broc.

Thanks for the link to that presentation. Lots of really interesting stuff there, and not just on this subject.

It's interesting that they tie server-side rendering to 4G networks, and not broadband. That has a whole additional layer of implications. Possibly a country difference.

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