Tuesday, July 6, 2010

OnLive Works! First Use Impressions

I've tried OnLive, and it works. At least for the games I tried, it seems to work quite well, with no noticeable lag and fine video quality. But I'm not sure about the bandwidth issue yet, or the cost.

OnLive is a service that runs games on their servers up in the cloud, streaming the video to your PC or Mac. I've noted previously that this could hurt the mass market for GPUs, since it 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 above: Lag, check. Video, check. I found no problems there. Bandwidth, inconclusive. Cost, ditto. More data will answer those, but I've not had the chance to gather it yet. Here's what I did:

I somehow was "selected" from their wait-list as an OnLive founding member, getting me free access for a year – which doesn't mean I play totally free for a year; see below – and tried it out today, playing free 30-minute demos of Assassin's Creed II a little bit, and Borderlands enough for a good impression.

Assassin's Creed II was fine through initial cutscenes and minor initial movement. But when I reached the point where I was reborn as a player in medieval times, I ran into a showstopper. As an introduction to the controls, the game wanted me to press <squiggle_icon> to move my legs. <squiggle_icon>, unfortunately, corresponds to no key on my laptop. I tried everything plus shift, control, and alt variations, and nothing worked. In the process I accidentally created a brag clip, went back to the OnLive dashboard, and did some other obscure things I never did figure out, but never did move my legs. I moved my arms with about four different key combinations, but the game wasn't satisfied with that. So I ditched it. For all I know there's something on the OnLive web site explaining this, but I didn't look enough to find it.

I was much more successful with Borderlands, a post-apocalyptic first-person shooter. I completed the initial training mission, leveled up, and was enjoying myself when the demo time – 30 minutes, which I consider adequately generous – ran out. Targeting and firing seemed to be just as good as native games on my system. I played both in a window and in fullscreen mode, and at no time was there noticeable lag or any visual artifacts. It just played smoothly and nicely.

I wanted to try Dragon Age – I'm more of an RPG guy – but while it shows up on the web site, I couldn't find it among the games available for play on the live system.

This is not to say there weren't hassles and pains involved in getting going. Here are some details.

First, my environment: The system I used is a Sony Vaio VGN-2670N, with Intel Core Duo @ 2.66 GHz, a 1600x900 pixel display, with 4GB RAM and an Nvidia GeForce 9300M; but the Nvidia display adapter wasn't being used. For those of you wondering about speed-of-light delays, my location is just North of Denver, CO, so this was all done more than 1000 miles from the closest server farm they have (Dallas, TX). My ISP is Comcast cable, nominally providing 10 Mb/sec; I have seen it peak as high as 15 Mb/sec in spurts during downloads. My OS is 32-bit Windows Vista. (I know…)

There was a minor annoyance at the start, since their client installer refuses to even try using Google Chrome as the browser. IE, Firefox, and Safari are supported. But that only required me to use IE, which I shun, for the install; it's not used running the client.

The much bigger pain is that OnLive adamantly refuses to run over Wifi. The launcher checks, gives you one option – exit – and points you to a FAQ, which pointer gets a 404 (page not found). I did find the relevant FAQ manually on the web site. There they apologize and say it "does indeed work well with good quality Wi-Fi connections, and in the future OnLive will support wireless" but initially they're scared of bad packet-dropping low-signal-strength crud. I can understand this; they're fighting an uphill battle convincing people this works at all, and do not need a multitude complaining they don't work when the problem is crummy Wi-Fi. (Or WiFi in a coffee shop – a more serious issue; see bandwidth discussion below.)

Nevertheless, this is a pain for me. I had to go down in the basement and set up a chair where my router is, next to my water heater, to get a wired connection. When I did go down there, after convincing Vista (I know!) to actually use the wired connection, things went as described above.

That leaves one question: Bandwidth. My ISP, Comcast, has a 250 GB/month limit beyond which I am an "excessive user" and apparently get a stern talking-to, followed by account termination if I don't mend my excessive ways. Up to now, this has been far from an issue. With OnLive, it may be a significant limitation.

Unfortunately, I didn't monitor my network use carefully when using OnLive, and ran out of time to go back and do better monitoring. I'll report more when I've done that. However, checking some numbers provided by Comcast after the fact, I can see the possibility that averaging four hours a day is all the OnLive I could do and not get terminated, since my hour of use may (just may) have sucked down 2 GB. This could be a significant issue, limiting OnLive to only very casual users, but I need better measurement to be sure.

This also points to a reason for not initially allowing Wifi that they didn't mention: I doubt your local free Wifi hot spot in a Starbucks or McDonald's is really up to the task of serving several OnLive players all day.

Finally, there's cost. What I have free is access to the OnLive system; after a year that's $4.95/month (which may be a "founding member" deal). But to play other than a free demo, I need to purchase a PlayPass for each game played. I didn't do that, and still need to check that cost. Sorry, time limitations again.

So where does this leave the market for GPUs? With the information I have so far, all I can say is that the verdict is inconclusive. I think they really have the lag and display issues licked; those just aren't a problem. If I'm wrong about the bandwidth (entirely possible), and the PlayPasses don't cost too much, it could over time deal a large blow to the mass market for GPUs, which among other problems would sink the volumes that make them relatively inexpensive for HPC use.

On the other hand, if the bandwidth and cost make OnLive suitable only for very casual gaming, there may actually be a positive effect on the GPU market, since OnLive could be used as a very good "try before you buy" facility. It worked for me; I've been avoiding first-person shooters in favor of RPGs, but found the Borderlands demo to be a lot more fun than I expected.

Finally, I'll just note that Second Life recently changed direction and is saying they're going to move to a browser-based client. They, and other virtual world systems, might do well to consider instead a system using this type of technology. It would expand the range of client systems dramatically, and, even though there is a client, simplify use dramatically.


Rachel Blum said...

I doubt data usage will be an issue for you - I regularly use Netflix (which should have similar bandwidth requirements) and download a ton of other stuff, and I rarely break 100GB/month.

What I could see, however, is traffic shaping kicking in if you continuously max out the bandwidth allotted to you. While cable companies are good at promising data rates, actually using the promised rate seems only to work for so long.

Crappy ISPs (Hi, Time Warner!) in general I see as a huge issue for OnLive. If the ISPs screw up - and they regularly do - the average user will blame OnLive for that, not the ISP

Anonymous said...

"My ISP is Comcast cable, nominally providing 10 Gb/sec; I have seen it peak as high as 15 Gb/sec in spurts during downloads."

Are you sure that's not Mbps?

Greg Pfister said...

Ack! Embarassing typo. Thanks for the catch; I'll fix it.

(Not that I wouldn't mind 10 Gb/s...)

Anonymous said...

The issue with someone like Second Life moving to server-based rendering is that they would have to pay for a lot more computing capacity than they currently have. I don't know how things are for them these days, but at various points in SL's history a lack of servers has been a problem in various ways.

An economic model that might really make sense would be to carry the divorce between components even further: separate 1) the IO device (display, sound and input), 2) the player processing device (graphics rendering and some gameplay), and 3) the shared world processing (multiplayer interaction and some of the player processing). We'd have a common standard for this sort of thing of course so that we could have different vendors for all of these systems. Those of us with high-end systems at home could do 1) and 2) on the same machine; those of us without could do just 1) on our home machine and rent something to do 2) from someone running a server farm. (Ideally, it would be someone nearby.) 3) would remain with the game/software vendor, of course.

Of course, I wouldn't want to be the one to try to design such a beast.

Greg Pfister said...

Who am I to argue with someone involved in the "Tokyo Society for the Application of Currying"! I used to teach a course in Lambda Calculus when I was an Instructor at MIT back (way back) in the day. MIT EECS has always been goofy for Lisp & Lambda Calculus. When they weren't doing Dataflow, that is.

Frans Charming said...

Thanks for the review.

Btw, I think your issue with Assassins Creed II is likely a issue of the game. A lot of games nowadays are designed for consoles first and then are ported to the PC, often still using the console iconography. You would have to look in the options/key binding menu to see what those are. Depending if those are available on onLive.

Did you check for those? I wonder what would happen if you changed the screen ratio, or some other graphics settings.

I really hope Second Life will use technology like this, it will higher end graphics available to more.

Earlier today, it was mentioned in a meeting with SL devs, that 60% of it's users only have basic Intel motherboard graphics. Showing clearly that people with interest in SL are not hardcore gamers with corresponding hardcore machines. They could benefit greatly from tech like this, if it was cheap enough and/or is included in a premium account.

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