A few years ago, a few friends and I queued up for the future. We were at the EuroGamer Expo at Earl Court in London, where a now defunct company called OnLive were demonstrating a new type of streaming technology. It allowed gamers access to a range of current and popular games, running at a graphical fidelity typically only experienced by those with top of the line gaming PC’s, without having to purchase or maintain the hardware themselves. It was Netflix for games, basically: all of the hardware and software was stored at centralised locations, all you had to do was pick what you wanted and away you went.
And if you already owned a computer capable of streaming HD video (as most people did), you wouldn’t even need to purchase any new equipment (besides a compatible controller, if mice and keyboards weren’t your thing). But on that particular day, they were also offering a micro-console that could be plugged directly into your TV – and also came with a dedicated controller – all for the princely sum of one English pound (reduced from an retail price of around £79.99). So we waited, quizzing the product reps and watching in awe as playable demos of games like Street Fighter and DIRT were beamed into the exhibition centre from some centralised server miles away from our location.
The future, ladies and gentlemen…
To be fair to OnLive, the experience was usually pretty… acceptable. The servers running the games opted for ‘Ultra PC’ graphical settings as standard. But the compression needed to get the resulting image to you quick enough to not negatively impact gameplay, lead to a much softer image than most were used to. Then there were the occasional bouts of macro blocking and lag that occurred whenever any point along the chain operated even slightly less than perfectly. But when it did work, it worked!
While the overall image was definitely softer, the detail contained within it was usually leaps and bounds above what the home consoles of the time could offer. Loading times were far quicker and you didn’t need to visit a shop or wait hours for gigabytes of data to download onto your system before you could play each game. They even had a decent pricing model worked out: full ownership of newer games was offered ala carte, with a monthly subscription available for a rotating selection of older stuff. Technical problems aside, the idea had potential. A potential that Sony has seen fit to pursue with there acquisition of OnLive’s only competitor, Gaikai1.
PlayStation Now uses Gaikai’s streaming technology to do the same thing that OnLive were attempting, expect instead of using traditional PC servers, they use bespoke blades derived from PlayStation hardware. At the moment the service is in closed beta in the UK, offering a selection of PS3 games (more than a hundred at the time of writing). Games can currently be streamed to your PS3 or PS4, with the eventual aim being the provision of the service directly to your television. All without the need for you to own any dedicated processing hardware.
Like OnLive before it, the PlayStation Now experience is usually… acceptable. The servers running the games use modified PS3 technology, so the image being produced on that end is about the same as it would be if you ran the game locally, as normal. And while average internet speeds have improved a little since the days of Onlive, image compression is still an factor – albeit a one that I’m sure will steadily recede with time.
At this point in time, I can only describe the controller responsiveness in the games I’ve sampled thus far (Batman Arkham City, Heavenly Sword, Ratchet and Clank, DIRT 3 and Skydive: Proximity Flight), as a bit suspect. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the service is lagging at all and missing inputs, or if I’m just not that good at video games. Sometimes it could be either, others its definitely both. But with slower paced games like turn based strategy, XCOM, or the more narratively focused adventure, Beyond: Two Souls, it didn’t matter either way. Even prolonged delays didn’t hamper the experience too much; serving only to remind me of the technical wizardry at work here. And it is impressive what they’ve accomplished, undoubtedly. But its by no means miraculous. It’s just not quite there yet.
The reason I described both OnLive and PlayStation Now as ‘acceptable’ rather than ‘brilliant’ or indeed ‘miraculous’ is because that is exactly what they are. They’re good enough for most people in most normal situations. I can’t ever imagine a world where a professional competition with money on the line would prefer to stream their game of choice in this fashion over hosting it locally. Even for something as relatively casual, like online gaming, I can’t see most gamers wanting to switch over any time soon: the complaints/excuses of ‘LAG!’ disrupting gameplay come often enough as things are without added a whole other layer of online traffic into the mix.
That being said: I do still believe in the potential of PS Now, not so much as a replacement for the traditional home console or PC, but as a supplementary offering to it. Even if the catalogue of games remained strictly rooted in the past, for some people that would be enough. For those who are new to gaming and/or just want to experience or re-experience something good, removing that several hundred pound box (which needs updating every seven to ten years, don’t forget) from the equation, game streaming might just be the key to opening the door, and pulling them away from the ever expanding mobile game market.
But the biggest issue Sony faces right now isn’t technical; its economic: they’ve yet to announce a pricing model for the UK and Europe, but in the US, the service currently costs $19.99 a month, or $44.99 per quarter, which is obviously some kind of sick joke. The interface for the UK service implies that games will be available to rent for individually, for either 48 hours or 30 days, which as far as increments of time go, seems fair enough to me. But that monthly price… Nah mate; not ‘appenin’…
1OnLive’s fate is a bit of a shame really: they were a small fish trying to go it alone in a very crowded pond. Rumour has it that Microsoft offered to buy them out, but they declined. In the end, Sony ended up picking them up for a song, for no other reason, it seems, than to stifle the competition. Frowny face.