First Look: OnLive’s Cloud Gaming Service Comes to Tablets and Phones

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Courtesy OnLive

Gaming, of course, is all about the games. OnLive currently has close to 200 of them, including major new releases such as Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row: The Third, and Harry Potter: Years 5-7. The selection has steadily improved in quality and quantity since the service’s launch, but it’s nowhere near comprehensive: There’s nothing from big-name publishers EA (although titles from it are on their way) and Activision, for instance. Logically enough, you won’t find games published by console manufacturers/OnLive competitors Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, which is why megafranchises from Mario to Modern Warfare are absent, and probably always will be.

Despite all the omissions, OnLive will fill a need by bringing high-profile PC and console games to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Both platforms are already in good shape–especially iOS, which has 100,000+ games and entertainment apps–but most of what they’ve got are smaller-scale, lower-key titles, not the blockbusters whose budgets sometimes run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Over half of OnLive’s games are included in a subscription option called PlayPack, which costs $9.99 a month for unlimited gameplay. (Think of it as a rough equivalent of Netflix’s all-you-can watch streaming video service.) Other titles–especially new, big-name ones–are sold on an a la carte basis. They’re offered for individual purchase at prices similar to what you’d pay if you bought them on disc; 3- or 5-day rentals are sometimes also available. PlayPack subscribers get a 30 percent discount on these offerings, helping to compensate for the fact that there’s no such thing as a used OnLive game. In all cases, one payment gives you access to the games on as many OnLive-enabled devices as you’ve got, no discs required.

One thing that all of OnLive’s games have in common is that they weren’t designed to be played on tablets and phones. The service deals with this conundrum in a variety of ways, on a title-by-title basis. Some titles, including Defense Grid Gold, LA Noire, and World of Goo, will be available in versions that have been modified for touch input. Others use a virtual-controller setup that overlays buttons on top of the game. Still others require OnLive’s $49.99 wireless controller, which resembles the two-fisted ones that come with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. And some don’t work at all on mobile devices for now.

Dirt 3 on OnLive, with the virtual-controller overlay.

So what’s it like playing PC games on an iPad? I eventually had fun, but I encountered some pitfalls along the way.

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