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Gaming In The What?
Cloud computing has been all the rage in Silicon Valley for some time now, but answering the basic question of "What is a cloud?" is rather difficult. Not long ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about cloud computing and the lack of consensus about what the cloud really is. The problem with nailing down a definition is that cloud computing is an idea, not a device or even a implementation. When a company claims that they're purposing to have a task done in the cloud, what they mean is that the task will be done not by an individual local machine, but rather by multiple outside machines. This means that the idea of cloud computing has probably been around for a shorter time then what actual actions and implementations the term refers to.
Despite the lack of agreement on what is or is not cloud computing, it has become massively popular. Many services have sprung up branding themselves as cloud computing solutions. Some of them, like Gmail, are services you have probably always used without knowing anything about cloud computing. That, really, is one of cloud computing's selling points. A good cloud computing solution should feel as seamless as possible, as if it were actually on your computer - but the data-center containing the actual hardware and most of the software is located somewhere else.
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It was probably only a matter of time before PC gaming was hit by cloud computing phenomena. After all, services like Steam and Impulse, as well as websites like Direct2Drive, are making strong cases for the idea that computer games should exist as a purely digital form of media, with no physical counter-part. Steam, in fact, has already offered its own cloud service called Steam Cloud, although the cloud which Steam Cloud promotes has nothing to do with running game content off-site, but rather with storing game settings on off-site servers, allowing a user to save their settings for various games on the cloud and then use their games on multiple PCs without having to adjust settings for each individual computer.
OnLive, announced at the Game Developer's Conference, bills itself as a full-service on-demand gaming network. What this means is that OnLive does not merely store games in the cloud, but plays them, too. That's right - your computer will no longer be responsible for crunching the data required to get the game onto your screen, and you don't have to have a local copy of a game installed at all.
Instead, OnLive will do all the work, streaming the data directly to you. The potential for this is obvious. Gamers would have instant access to a wide variety of titles. OnLive has not disclosed pricing yet, but gamers would probably not have to purchase games but rather purchase play-time. OnLive is also promising that gaming across multiple computers, and even on your TV, will be simple. This means that you should be able to play a game in the park on your laptop during a nice sunny day (provided the park has WiFi, of course...) and then play the same game using the same settings and save files on a different computer when the weather turns rainy. Gamers wouldn't have to worry about hard drive space, graphics capability, or processor speed.
OnLive indicates that they believe their technology could make consoles literally obsolete. Although that is a stretch, particularly since it seems unlikely that OnLive will have access to any console content, there is certainly a reason to believe this kind of technology could change the face of gaming in the future (as well as computing in-general).
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That's The Spin
This all sounds very nice, but don't get too excited yet. While OnLive obviously will not expand upon whatever hurdles it may face, there are many potential obstacles in their way.
The elephant in the room is, of course, bandwidth. Most gamers do not play at small resolutions. A 19" monitor is common these days, and 22" monitors are also typical. Streaming native resolution content to monitors of this size seems unlikely. If you'd like to see why, then go to the website for ABC or NBC and attempt to run some of their content at 720P. Chances are good that you won't be able to stream video at that resolution all the time, and that the players will occasionally downgrade the video quality to compensate. This is particularly true if you're on wireless, as reliably streaming 720p video over wireless networks is nearly impossible. The OnLive FAQ even speaks to this weakness, saying that you'll need a 5Mbps connection to generate 720P video - which is only a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, or not enough to fill a 19" monitor with the standard native resolution of 1440x900.
And while OnLive does do the heavy lifting of rendering the game off-site on what is almost certainly some very special and very capable hardware, that doesn't mean that your experience will be as smooth as they claim, or that the PC you own will not matter. Discounting the possibility of stuttering or quality issues due to lack of bandwidth, your computer is still going to have to work to display the image that comes to your screen. It will be compressed and encoded, as any normal stream of video data would be, and your computer will have to work to make that stream of data into the image displayed on your monitor. As many people with Intel IGPs know, even Youtube videos can seem sluggish if your PC's hardware is not great for dealing with video content. Take, for example, my laptop - it uses an Intel IGP, and as a result it struggles to run most online videos without dropping frames. Were I to use OnLive, I would have the same problem.
Issues with input devices also abound, since running the game off-site adds a new level of complexity to input devices. If I am using a 9-button mouse with custom functions on 5 of those buttons, how does the hardware running the game know this? The existence of an OnLive controller makes me particularly suspicious of the possibility that OnLive's input support will be limited.
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Color Me A Critic
I'll call it now; I think OnLive is a dud. The general rule in technology is that the more a company is talking, the less they actually have. Given that OnLive is claiming that their technology will make game consoles obsolete, it is almost certain that the OnLive service is going to have short-comings. More likely than not, OnLive is making a big splash in hopes that a bigger company will see its unique technology and buy OnLive out. If OnLive truly has the ability to stream video games, then that would be a revolutionary technology by itself, even if the games could only be streamed at limited resolutions. The technology could immediately be applied to services like Good Old Games, or any other situation where the game being played is well suited to low resolutions. But the idea that OnLive is going to allow players the ability to play a game like Crysis at high resolutions on a terrible PC is, well - in the clouds.