Since its 2009 announcement, the OnLive streaming cloud gaming service has given hope to wannabe gamers rocking outdated computer hardware everywhere. Its promise of high quality, next-generation gameplay for virtually any computer with a broadband Internet connection has proven tantalizing for many. While a fully featured, playable iPad client is not available, the company has released the next best thing, the OnLive Viewer app, which seeks to turn the service into a spectator sport.
Initial reviews of the full OnLive experience have been largely laudatory, but the service has still been plagued by issues of higher-than-local in-game latency, a prohibitively small and outdated game catalog, and occasional technical instability. As a result, subscriptions have not taken off the way the company had hoped, and the free iPad viewer app seems to be a result of marketing efforts to drum up new business. That said, we are not sure that the company is making the best case for itself.
We knew we were in for a rocky start when our initial login took more than a minute. Sometimes, the ‘connecting’ wheel of death spins ad nauseam, until you are finally let in; at other times, you are forced to quit the app and try again later. On the occasions when you do gain access, a host of other problems are there to greet you.
OnLive, both the viewer and the fully featured desktop player, requires a ton of bandwidth. This requirement is neither especially shocking, nor unreasonable, given what the service does. That said, our 20MBps Internet connection produced video and menus that felt like old, stuttering VHS recordings. If Netflix can stream near-DVD quality movies and TV shows to my device, why does OnLive have such a problem with its animated introductory splash screen? What should have played as a sleek, speeding, space-age planetscape of computer screens jerked by hesitantly before coming to rest on the main menu.
Additionally, since the menus are streamed, rather than stored locally, all button presses have latency to contend with. Depending on time of day and server load, menu selections ranged from speedy and responsive, to laggy or altogether ignored. This deficiency is especially noticeable in areas such as the Marketplace, in which you can browse the titles available for purchase with a coverflow-like interface. As you drag your finger down the screen, the animation lags behind noticeably.
In the Arena, the area of the viewer in which the actual game spectating occurs, the menu experience is not much better. There, you are presented with a full-screen collage of all the games currently being played. Dragging your finger across the screen shifts focus between play sessions and pops up a thumbnail with some information about the player and the game, albeit slowly. On selecting a screen in which you are interested, you are launched in to the action – a silent voyeur in another’s late-night killfest.
We should note that here, removed from the animated, streaming thumbnail screens, laggy controls, and phantom menus (some screens provide blank menus or ones in which functionality is not available), OnLive Viewer acquits itself fairly well. Apart from the intense bandwidth requirement and sometimes middling video quality, the app allows you to do what it purports. We were able to watch, first, as one player scaled the Venician rooftops in Assassin’s Creed 2, and second, as another gave Batman: Arkham Asylum baddies a proper beatdown. Plus, Arena viewing sessions consistently streamed at a higher quality, and with fewer jerks and stutters than the app’s menus.
While we were initially skeptical about the entertainment value of watching in silence as strangers went about their gaming business, we were soon hooked. There is something undeniably attractive about being able to pop from game to game, enjoying others’ electronic exploits–doing so hearkens back to marathon gaming sessions at a friend’s place, cheering him on as he beat Zelda for the first time.
That said, we wish finding a game we actually want to spectate could be an easier process. There is no way to sort play sessions by title, and, given the number of people we observed who seem to just spend hours on their computers staring at menus, finding the right game can sometimes be a chore, especially when the system seems hellbent on ignoring your touch.
Despite our mixed impressions of the service, we think that this an app with the ability to grow and to be both fun and useful (as a tool for discovering games). In order to meet its potential, however, OnLive needs to work out the technical kinks and to continue to develop its game catalog. Until that time, the OnLive Viewer, despite being a free download, will remain only questionably worthwhile.