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Plugged In

OnLive $99 Game System: The future of console gaming?

Plugged In

Chocolate Collector

About six months after it first began streaming high-end PC games to
tiny desktop clients via broadband, OnLive is poised to unleash its
Game System package: a game controller bundled with a compact, Wi-Fi-
and HDMI-equipped console that'll stream games like Batman: Arkham
Asylum and Assassin's Creed II to your HDTV, all for less than $100.

Set to start shipping Dec. 2, the $99 OnLive Game System comes with a controller that looks pretty much like the controller you get with an Xbox 360. But the so-called MicroConsole is something else: Instead of a big box juiced with a high-powered GPU
and loads of RAM, the MicroConsole is a little more than a
paperback-book-sized conduit for the OnLine streaming game service,
which is powered by a series of data centers across the country.

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OnLive

Plug the MicroConsole into your HDTV's HDMI input, connect the console to
your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, power on the wireless game controller,
and (OnLive promises) you'll be ready to start gaming—in 1080p and
surround sound—in seconds. (The miniature console also comes with a pair of USB ports for gaming on mouse and keyboard.)

The OnLive Game System represents a fascinating if controversial alternative to owning a $300-ish PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

And make no mistake—it's not for everyone.

As I explained in my hands-on review of OnLive
for PC and Mac several months ago, the service does an impressive—but
not perfect—job of streaming games with high-end graphics to midrange
and even entry-level systems that normally wouldn't have a prayer of
running, say, Assassin's Creed II at 60 frames per second.

That's because all the heavy lifting is done at OnLive's various server farms,
which are stuffed with bleeding-edge PCs that run the games themselves.

The OnLive desktop client—or now the MicroConsole—is simply streaming the
audio and video of the game to your system or HDTV, with the help of a
proprietary compression algorithm designed to keep latency (that is,
the lag between your pulling a trigger and seeing your game character
fire a weapon) to a minimum.

Of course, an "in the cloud" gaming service like OnLive comes with plenty of pluses and minuses.

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OnLive

On the one hand, those who don't have the hardware or the money for a
red-hot PC gaming rig or an Xbox 360/PS3 could enjoy high-end games
with eye-popping performance on even a low-end desktop or laptop (I had
no trouble playing Batman: Arkham Asylum on my low-power MacBook Air,
for example), with all the installation chores and software updates
handled on the server side.

On the other hand, while the lag in OnLive games is minimal (and playable, as I
discovered), it's still noticeable, and visuals look softer than you'd
expect on a cutting-edge gaming PC or console. That's just ... well,
the name of the game.

And then there's the issue of pricing, ranging from 30-minute free demos to $5 for a
three-day pass or all the way to $49 for a "full pass" for games like
Mafia IIâ€"almost the same price as a retail disc, except you're only
getting full "access" to the game rather than outright owning it.

Still, the good news is that OnLive recently announced that it would not impose any monthly access fee for its service, meaning you'll pay only for the games you actually
play. (It also means that if you have access to practically any PC or
Mac, you can try OnLive gaming for free.)

Also, CEO Steve Perlman says the company will roll out a flat-rate plan for all-you-can-eat
access to all of its games (about 30 titles are currently available).
In other words … we could be talking a Netflix-like streaming deal for
games. Interesting.

Would an in-the-cloud
gaming service like OnLive ever replace a super-charged gaming PC or a
latest-generation console for hard-core gamers? Nah, I doubt it.

In the future, though, will casual gamers go for a cheaper, server-based
system like OnLive rather than a $300 or $400 gaming console?

You tell me. (The discussion will be more interesting if you
try OnLive first; the desktop client is a free download, and plenty of
30-minute demos are available.)

Related:

Introducing the OnLive Game System [OnLive Blog]

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News

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