Look Ma, No Media
Allow me to begin this article with a disclaimer: I don’t feel comfortable with video game consoles that lack honest-to-goodness physical media. Blame it on a cynical nature or perhaps the fact that I’ve been burned in the past by companies like Tiger Electronics with NetJet and Tectoy with Zeebo; when server and cloud-based game companies go belly-up, usually so too does their hardware’s functionality. And we have a name for consoles that can no longer play games: very expensive paperweights.
Bearing this in mind, logic would suggest I should despise OnLive and, while I’m not too happy with their having gone out of business and liquidating their patents to Sony, I was actually an intermittent fan of their hardware. In fact, and I don’t let just anyone in on this little secret, their Microconsole Adapter stands as the single piece of video gaming hardware most purchased by yours truly. I bought 4 of these things between 2010 and 2014! That works out to one a year for four consecutive years. We’ll get into that bizarre statistic momentarily but first let’s talk a bit about OnLive.
The concept can technically be traced back to the early 2000s when companies were seemingly locked in competition to see who could (not) create the best piece of vaporware. Budget DVD player maker Apex came up with something called the ApeXtreme, a start-up called Indrema proposed a Linux-based console called the L600, and most people know about the most famous of the lot – Infinium Labs’ Phantom. The one thing all these systems had in common (besides the fact that they never saw the light of day) was that they attempted to bring the PC video game market into the living room in an era well before PCs started coming with HDMI outputs and Steam Machine was a slang way of describing a locomotive.
The one thing all these systems had in common (besides the fact that they never saw the light of day) was that they attempted to bring the PC video game market into the living room.
Additionally, most of them hinted toward a then-unthinkably high tech concept: broadband internet could theoretically eliminate the need for physical media altogether. Games could be purchased, delivered and played right over the net. Things happened fast, as such things usually tend to, and by the time the 7th Generation of home consoles was released a few years later, internet connectivity and its influence on purchasing and playing games had become an integral part of the television video gaming experience. Further lessening the gap between PC and console gaming was the addition of HDMI inputs on high-def televisions and HDMI outputs on most desktop and laptops. Suddenly the idea of playing computer games on the living room 60” was as simple as connecting a single cord.
A Unique Approach
During all of this, a Mountain View, CA company calling itself OnLive had been quietly developing its own take on such concepts only theirs was a model not quite like any other before it. Rather than just deliver games over broadband internet, they had the notion that games could be stored, run and played via their own servers and only the audio and video streams of the game in action would need be sent to the TV or device. Compression would allow these data streams to travel as quickly and effortlessly as say, a Netflix video file. It seemed too outlandish to be true, but the company maintained
Compression would allow these data streams to travel as quickly and effortlessly as say, a Netflix video file.
that the lag in pressing a controller button on the other side of the country, its signal then being sent to the server, the server performing the in-game action, and the video of this being sent back to the user would be negligible. The company announced (and demonstrated) the concept in action at GDC San Francisco 2009 and the service was taken to market by mid-2010.
A lot of its appeal stemmed from the fact that any device that could handle the small client could theoretically play top-of-the-line games as the actual processing and graphical demands were being performed by OnLive’s powerhouse servers. Running compressed video streams was something most phones, tablets, and outdated laptops could handle. I had been more interested in the concept of playing PC games, that were slightly beyond my PC’s ability, with a console-style controller and on the big screen. For such ambitions, OnLive offered its $99 MicroConsole TV Adapter on November 17th, 2010 and I placed my order the moment they would accept my credit card digits.
The unit arrived and in early 2011 I experienced the concept in all of its glory for the first time. When it worked, it worked pretty well. When it didn’t, well there was pixelization at best, completely unresponsive controls at regular intervals and total lock-ups at worst. Never could I sit down and attempt to play a game without worry of network trouble and, after a few such sessions, it was off to eBay to part ways with the system.
Accepting that my home network simply didn’t have the chops to do the OnLive experience justice, I tried to forget about the concept as best I could and use the funds from dumping the hardware on some games for the PS3. Of course the moment I upgraded to a faster cable internet bundle, it was off to eBay again, this time to buy another MicroConsole TV Adapter. A few lock-ups later and off it went via Priority Mail to its next hopeful owner. This process would repeat several more times as advancements in internet speeds (“Oh you just got FiOS fiber-optic internet, hold on while I swing by eBay”) coupled with ever-falling MicroConsole prices. The last one I purchased in late 2014 was new (minus the original box) and came with all of the original hookups, controller, rechargeable battery pack, even the HDMI cable and pair of Duracell batteries for a smooth $17.44.
I had intentions of traveling to friends’ houses with this one in the hopes of locating that one perfect zone where speeds were adequate, the network stable and latency non-existent. Sadly, this one would never even leave its packaging as the company immediately announced it would no longer be offering its monthly game packages and that it would be shutting down all services on April 30, 2015.
A look at the books reveal a very ugly downward spiral for the OnLive balance sheets- having narrowly avoided bankruptcy in August of 2012, being sold off for pennies on the dollar, then trying to make a go of it on borrowed funds for two more years. In the end, Sony picked up all of their patents for a small fraction of what the company owed its creditors and I ended up with a pair of brand new, fairly expensive paperweights.
Picking Up Where OnLive Left Off
I’d like to tell you that with the closing of OnLive, the remote streaming game concept was finally laid to rest but perhaps you’ve heard of a company called flarePlay and their console? Released in late 2013, the flarePlay cloud-based
I’d like to tell you that with the closing of OnLive, the remote streaming game concept was finally laid to rest but perhaps you’ve heard of a company called flarePlay?
service opened with a deal where if you paid for 3 months of service ($29.97 total for unlimited play), they gave you the Microconsole Adapter, controller and hookups on the house. A similar deal can still be had today though their primary audience seems to be slightly younger than OnLive’s (they offer a Disney game bundle for $9.99 a month in addition to an adult Premium package for $9.99 a month. Of late there is a bundle option for access to every game they offer for $14.99/ month).
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson but I’ve ordered the 3-month package with the hopes of locating that perfect zone where speeds are adequate, the network stable and latency non-existent. I’ve since gotten an email from flare stating they were having some difficulty shipping the console to me and may have to cancel my order. Perhaps I should leave it at that and simply thank them for saving me the hassle of having to deal with eBay next week.