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

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Courtesy OnLive

Know any serious PC gamers? The odds are sky-high that they’re also serious experts on PC hardware.

That’s because 3D gaming requires more sheer computing horsepower than any other home-computing task. Ardent game players, therefore, obsess over specs that most folks can safely ignore. They also plunk down serious money for machines outfitted with state-of-the-art processors and graphics cards, both of which help boost frame rates and 3D rendering. It all requires a level of dedication that not all of us can muster.

Take, for instance, me. These days, I can’t tell you much about the components inside my PCs. The prospect of tweaking them for maximum performance is alarming, not alluring. Come to think of it, my primary computer is a Mac, a platform that most big-deal games ignore–and I use that less these days than my iPad. As a result, I rarely partake in games any more demanding than Bejeweled, even though I’m intrigued by ambitious titles such as the gritty 1940s epic LA Noire.

(MORE: Top 10 Video Games of 2011)

And so I’ve been paying attention to OnLive, a service that aims to put no-compromises gaming at your fingertips on devices of all sorts. In June of 2010, the company released versions for Windows PCs and Macs. Later that year, it introduced a $99 “MicroConsole” the size of a slice of pound cake that put the service on HDTVs. And now it’s announcing apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Android tablets (including Amazon’s Kindle Fire). The company recently gave me a sneak peek at the new stuff, and let me try out a nearly-final version of the iPad edition in the comfort of my own home.

Founded by Steve Perlman, a veteran entrepreneur whose résumé goes all the way back to early-1980s gaming icon ColecoVision, OnLive was based on an audacious technological question: What if almost all of the computing power that games needed was relocated from players’ homes into the cloud? Starting in 2002, the company spent years developing a system for running games on potent servers. Its technology sends a game’s graphics over the Internet to the device a gamer is using, and relays that player’s keystrokes or controller clicks back to the server. It’s like playing games on a console that happens to be located thousands of miles away.

Because OnLive’s servers do so much heavy lifting, the service’s hardware needs on your end are modest. That’s why it works on wimpy PCs, Macs and, starting now, on tablets and phones. The company has also announced that it’s working with Vizio to build the service right into HDTVs and Blu-ray players.

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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.

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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For one thing, I had to worry more about my network than I’ve had to in a while. OnLive may not need much in the way of computing power, but it needs to shuttle all those graphics and all that user input back and forth in real time. It’s smart about adjusting itself to run as well as possible given available bandwidth–for instance, it’ll degrade the graphics if necessary and will even work on a 3G connection. But if the network’s sluggish or erratic, OnLive’s dream of streaming high-end games over the Internet can come to an abrupt end.

(MORE: Top 10 Smartphone Apps of 2011)

In theory, my cable modem and wireless network provided the iPad with more than enough bandwidth for reliable results (OnLive recommends 2-3 Mbps for tablet play). But when I first tried playing LA Noire on the iPad, the picture was blurry and the action was choppy. Replacing my aging Wi-Fi router with a newer model, which I did at the suggestion of an OnLive representative, helped enormously, as did experimenting with exactly where I sat in my home as I played. (Oddly enough, OnLive’s OS X version worked almost perfectly from the start, even though it supposedly requires more bandwidth than the iPad one.)

Once I’d beefed up my network, other nuisances remained. When the OnLive controller was connected to the iPad via Bluetooth, it sometimes interfered with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, which meant I couldn’t type. If I left the OnLive app–say, to check my e-mail–I couldn’t simply hop back in and continue playing where I left off. Instead, I had to sign back in, sit through OnLive’s intro sequence, and select and load my game again. (OnLive explains that it does this so its application doesn’t hog bandwidth in the background, and says that it  may come up with a more elegant approach in the future.)

Gamer-to-gamer voice chat, a major feature of the PC and Mac versions of the service, isn’t available yet; the company says it’s on its way. And on the iPad and iPhone, you can only play games, not buy them. Purchasing needs to be done on a PC or Mac, a minor irritation resulting from OnLive’s decision to opt out of iOS’s in-app purchase system, which would have required it to pay a commission to Apple.

The games themselves vary in tablet-friendliness. World of Goo, a game that’s available both in the OnLive PlayPack and as a native iPad app, is engaging in both versions. But its iPad incarnation is clearly superior, in part because it’s not constrained by network issues, and in part because it’s formatted to fill the tablet’s entire screen. (In OnLive, it and other games run in letterboxed mode, with black bars at the top and bottom.) If you want to play this game, you shouldn’t bother with OnLive: Just pay $4.99 for the iPad edition and be done with it.

LA Noire and Arkham City, however, aren’t otherwise available on the iPad. And with my Wi-Fi issues resolved, I had a blast playing them with the OnLive wireless controller. (The version of LA Noire reengineered for touch input wasn’t available in time for me to try it.) The gameplay was fluid and my input registered immediately. I forgot about the elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations that made it possible to play them at all on a tablet, which is as it should be.

Judging from my time with the iPad app, this initial version of OnLive for tablets and phones doesn’t fully live up to its potential for making serious gaming truly effortless. Even so, if it sounds the least bit interesting, I recommend checking it out. You can do so without spending a nickel, since the apps are free, and playable game previews are plentiful and instantly available. Rough spots and all, it’s still far closer to the future of gaming than buying a souped-up PC and stocking it with shiny discs from GameStop.

(MORE: Top 10 Gadgets of 2011)

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