As cloud gaming service OnLive works it way through a closed Beta and prepares for a winter launch, a journalist named Ryan Shrout obtained a user log-in ID and password from “a friend of a friend of a friend” and gave it a try for a few weeks. His verdict? It worked well for two games (Burnout: Paradise and HAWX) but was unplayable for a third (Unreal Tournament 3). However, a blog post from OnLive CEO Steve Perlman explained that Beta testers who use the service from a different location will suffer playability problems because of speed of light limitations.
OnLive Beta testers have been asked to sign NDAs, so very little real-world feedback about the service has surfaced online, making Mr. Shrout’s report a hot topic on the Internet. He goes into considerable detail explaining how the OnLive client works, noting that it had a minimal footprint on his computer. He also noted that current Beta testers must use hardwired Ethernet connections, although he said a rumored Beta update may add Wi-Fi support.
Of course, the biggest issue with OnLive is lag, which is why hardwired Ethernet connections are mandatory. In addition, Mr. Shrout noticed a slight performance improvement when using a wired Xbox 360 controller, rather than mouse and keyboard, which add a bit more latency into the data loop. In addition, he found that his netbook wouldn’t run OnLive at all, despite the company’s claims that it will be compatible with just about anything. However, he admitted that support options will probably be expanded at some point. There's no evidence, for example, that anyone is Beta testing the service on an iPhone, but Mr. Perlman has admitted that support for such mobile devices is in the works.
Mr. Shrout said that his experience with Burnout: Paradise was the best of the three games he played. He even sat someone else down to play it, without telling them it was running over OnLive, and that person said it “seemed to run and look pretty good.” Mr. Shrout noticed some lag, however, and he compared the graphics against a copy of the same game running locally and found they weren’t as nice. However, he said, “if you don't have the other version to compare it to, the OnLive version of Burnout: Paradise would meet most gamers' needs.”
Mr. Shrout came to a similar conclusion when playing Tom Clancy’s HAWX. He posted screenshot comparisons and even had YouTube videos of side-by-side graphics for Burnout and HAWX, but he had to remove the latter because of copyright complaints. However, he is now hosting the clips on his own server.
He ran into the same problem with his video clip for Unreal Tournament 3, a game he deemed unplayable over OnLive because of the keyboard and mouse’s input lag. “I often found myself overshooting the mouse movement by half a screen, moving well past my intended target because the cursor didn't stop when I did,” he wrote. As with the other games, though, a wired Xbox 360 controller improved performance a little.
Mr. Shrout found the overall graphical quality of Unreal Tournament 3 to be worse than the other two, writing: “To make matters worse, because the game was constantly shifting views much more quickly than either HAWX or Burnout, the image quality we were seeing seemed to be much worse. As you know with video compression, existing algorithms tend to produce much better images when the picture is mostly stable and just a bit of the screen is changing on any given frame. If a lot of the image is changing quickly then less image quality can be sustained using the same amount of bandwidth.”
In the end, however, Mr. Shrout’s entire commentary needs to be looked at in the context of Mr. Perlman’s recent blog post. While he didn’t reference Mr. Shrout’s commentary specifically (OnLive was aware of it, though, because Mr. Shrout was later asked to blur out the company’s logo), he did say that all OnLive Beta testers must play the games through the configuration used when they first signed up. They can’t, for example, close their laptop, hop on a plane, and expect to be able to use the service in a hotel room hundreds of miles from home.
Why? Mr. Perlman writes: “The reason location is so critical is because of the speed of light. If you are more than 1000 miles from an OnLive data center, then the round trip communications delay ('ping' time) between your home and OnLive will be too long for fast-action video games … So, if you are assigned to our West Coast data center and then try your Beta account from the Midwest or East Coast, you’ll find the lag impaired to the point where most games are unplayable. And, depending on how your Beta account was configured for the characteristics of your home ISP, you may see degraded image quality or controller/mouse performance on a different ISP.”
Mr. Shrout updated his commentary to reply: “While I understand Perlman's intent here, that is a blanket statement that just can't apply 100% of the time. In a world where my computer has to talk to 14 different systems before it reaches pcper.com, any of those could cause a delay even if I am 100 miles from the physical server. The same is true for OnLive customers. Does being closer tend to help Sure. Is it a guarantee of great performance (or bad performance outside 1000 miles)? Nope.”
He also said that he has been locked out of using the OnLive Beta anymore, but he did note: “And again, as I mention throughout this preview, I actually have been more impressed with the performance and experience OnLive has provided that I expected going into the testing period - I would call that a win for the service in this early state.”
Regarding the distance to the data center issue, Mr. Perlman explained during a talk at Columbia University last November that each of the three OnLive data centers (the Bay Area, Dallas, and Washington, DC) cut deals with multiple ISPs, rather than one, to route data more efficiently. He used the example of a gamer in Las Vegas who might find his Internet data routed through Seattle while using the Bay Area server. The OnLive service chooses the ISP that offers the most direct route between the data center and the gamer, which will help cut down problems with lag. Unfortunately, the video clip of that talk is now private, but I did have the opportunity to view it at Christmas.