Video games have come a long way since Mario helped to win over a generation of (almost exclusively) boys in the 1980s. Titles like Modern Warfare 3 are more profitable than most blockbuster Hollywood movies. The complexity and depth of games like LA Noire or the Bioshock franchise lend a cultural weight to an industry that was once seen as the domain of bored teenagers. But the actual consoles have changed little – rectangular boxes that you feed discs in exchange for games; on the face of it, the PlayStation 3 isn’t much more than a Nintendo Entertainment System on steroids.
Cloud gaming company OnLive wants to change that. In theory you can plug into its virtual hub from whatever device you happen to be using, be it an iPad, laptop or your TV. Millions of gamers can gather on its servers to watch each other play, jump in and out of the action and share clips of their best moments.
In reality it feels like something of a work in progress, despite having been live in the US for a year. But that’s not to say it isn’t very impressive.
To run OnLive through your TV you will need a set-top box (inset), which is remarkably small – once it’s nesting under your TV you won’t even notice it. The wireless controller, which can be used with any wi-fi enabled device, is a slightly less ergonomically pleasing version of the Xbox 360 control pad. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Microsoft should be very pleased indeed.
Setting up the system is surprisingly easy, with the entire process, including registering a new account online, taking less than 15 minutes.
Once you’re up and running, the interface is easy to navigate, if a little clunky. If you’re happy to pay full price for games you can jump straight in with the latest titles, although if you don’t mind waiting a few months, the £6.99 a month “PlayPack”subscription gives you access to hundreds of games with no extra charge.
My main concern was that my broadband would collapse under the weight of streaming high quality graphics like those in Batman: Arkham City. I have a standard BT copper-wire connection with speeds of up to 20MB (although being in central London it can fall far short of that at peak times) – and it ran without a glitch. I brutally assaulted my way through the first half hour of Arkham City without any lag, even in the midst of the lightning-quick fight sequences. The graphics, while perhaps a few shades weaker than the console equivalent, are very impressive.
It is only a matter of time before cloud gaming really takes off. OnLive proves the technology is already there – the problem will be convincing people. Without a physical connection to a game, it can feel a little bit like playing on an arcade machine, where your money could run out at any moment. Console ownership is very tribal – letting go altogether is a big psychological barrier to overcome.
But people said the same about e-readers, and they aren’t doing too badly at all.
The OnLive set-top box is available for £69.99. BT is offering its customers free access to the PlayPack subscription service for three months. Visit www.bt.com/onlive for more details.