When is a video game digital distribution service not a digital distribution service? When it is OnLive, the new cloud-based video game streaming service that recently launched in the UK at the Eurogamer Expo. Barely 24 hours after OnLive’s official UK launch we sat down with John Spinale, OnLive’s VP of Games and Media, to talk about OnLive’s UK launch, what we can expect from them over the coming months, and how OnLive may have changed the future of gaming.
How would you describe OnLive to someone that has never heard of it before?
OnLive is a cloud gaming platform, so unlike the platforms of today, where you have a bunch of kit in your living room connected to your television, what we’ve done is move all of the hardware necessary for that to a data centre. That allows us to, over any broadband connection, deliver super high end gaming experiences without any additional hardware in your home.
You’ve made the decision to partner with BT in the UK, what made you decide to go with BT over other internet providers?
As a gamer you don’t necessarily need to be a BT subscriber to work with OnLive, any ISP or broadband provider works. However, BT was a great partner for us because they obviously know an awful lot about the internet plumbing in the UK, as well as how to package up up well formed consumer offerings. And, you know, they really get gaming. You’d be surprised, for a big Tele-Company, they really are passionate about gaming, and are dedicated to providing a good experience to our mutual customers.
Once of the things you’ve been doing at the Eurogamer Expo is giving our OnLive boxes to registered customers. Do they have to have the box to get involved with OnLive?
No, if you have a PC or Macintosh connected to the internet just go to www.onlive.co.uk, download a tiny browser plug-in, which takes a few seconds, and you’ll be playing OnLive right then and there, no hardware required. It’s the same if you have a tablet, an iPad or Android Tablet, go to the App Store, download the OnLive client and you can be up browsing the experience. If you want to connect through your telly though, then you’ll actually need what we call the Micro Console, which is a tiny box that connects to your television.
Is there any difference in quality between the browser and the box? Is one faster than the other?
They’re all identical. That’s the benefits of cloud-based gaming, the game is actually running on a big server in a data centre somewhere else, in this case Luxembourg actually, streaming the game down to you quickly enough that you don’t really notice the fact that it is far away. This allows us to get exactly the same experience on every platform. So we get tablets, PCs, and laptops playing very high end games that would, obviously, never run on those types of devices natively.
How would you get people that are heavily invested in the current generation of consoles, the people that have massive gamerscores, to move over to OnLive?
Everybody has a different reason for why they try OnLive. The first reason right now is the value, which is fantastic – your first game costs £1 – so why not try it out? But what you find is that everyone has a different reason in the States as well. We have 150 games on the service, every one of them has a demo available, so you can be playing a demo of a massive portfolio of games in a matter of seconds. If you want to try something before you buy it, even for your existing console, OnLive is a great place to experiment and go play. And then what you find is that the benefits of the platform really start to sink in, and a lot of people actually stick around and start migrating off of existing platforms. At the end of the day we all have our favourite platforms to play games on, and I think we (gamers) will probably stay with them for the rest of this console generation.
It’s fairly well known that UK infrastructure is not quite as robust as the in USA. How do you combat low internet speeds over here?
Oh you’d be surprised, we have a pretty big country over in the States, and a lot of it is not that well plumbed either. What we developed the service on is the fact that the internet is an evolving medium, and it wasn’t ever originally designed to support all of these real time data systems. Today OnLive works on all systems with broadband over 3 megabits downstream, and that is the vast majority when you look at gaming households around the UK. But, with that said, that’s why we’re partnered with BT, and AT&T in the States, because they are the people that are building the massive fibre infrastructure to allow the internet to get faster and faster, both on the backbone as well as to the home.
When the next generation of consoles comes out, will OnLive be able to keep up graphically and in terms of the size of the games?
Sure. When you think about what we are able to do with a cloud-based platform, we already have rendering power, hardware, and CPUs, that are already faster than this generation of consoles today, so your gaming experience will be better than it is on Xbox or Playstation. What we also have the ability to do is rev the hardware in our data centres. We just released version 2 of our hardware a few weeks ago, where the gaming experience in the background just keeps getting better and better. This allows us to turn on more switches and nobs, and up the fidelity of the games, and so higher performance games are coming to OnLive that are impossible in today’s console and PC world. I think rather than a step function, which is how consoles have worked in the past, every five or six years, what we’re able to do is bring a linear growth element to it. So your experience just gets better and better over time and you never have to switch out your next kit to buy your next one. I think that, as the next gen consoles come out, we’ll see what they look like, what differences they have, and the consume is going to have a choice, do they want to buy the next piece of hardware for £300 or £400, or do they just want to connect to OnLive, which is very low cost, if anything.
You have the support of a lot of the big publishers, such as THQ and Ubisoft, are there any publishers that you aren’t working with yet that you’re aiming for?
When you look at the variety of people that we have, we have about 75 different publishers, from tiny indie guys that are a two man shops in Sweden, making great software, all the way up to the big publicly traded companies, Ubisoft, Take-2, and THQ. Everyone’s experience is different in terms of how quickly they embrace the platform, but what you’re seeing now is an explosion of content on the system. We went from, when we launched in US a year ago, 18 games to now having over 150 games, and growing very rapidly. Those are the big release AAA day-in-date release content, like Deus Ex came out on OnLive at the same exact moment as it came out in retail stores. One of the benefits of having it in a cloud system is that people can start playing it at 12:01am, on the dot, and doing all the things that they like to do in terms of quick run-throughs and what not.
It seems that gaming is one of the hardest things to steam. Would you ever consider streaming music or movies as well?
The answer is that we would certainly consider it. We need to say what the real value is to the consumer. Right now we have disrupted the way games are built and delivered by taking hardware out of the equation, which was always a big expensive purchase for consumers, so that’s the biggest value right now. There are plenty of ways to get your music, Spotify does a wonderful job, and I think the same thing with LoveFilm in the movie world. I think strategically, where we can add small bits of value, we might stick our toe in the water. But in the end I think we might end up partnering with the big guys.
How are you quantifying success with the UK launch? Is it in terms of sign ups, or the number of set top boxes?
We take an odd approach with this, but it is consumer happiness really. It is how many people come on board and have a great experience. Whether that’s a small number initially, or whether it’s a large number, we’ll see, but it seems to be going really well so far. We’re actually a little surprised by how warmly we are being embraced, which is great, it feels really good. But at the end of the day I want everybody that logs on to have a great experience, because that is how you build long term customer loyalty. Thus far we’ve had some really great reactions, one day in and we’re getting plenty of buzz on Twitter and what not, so we’ll see how it goes.
Do you think that OnLive has effectively replaced the need for a console, and in the future do you think that there won’t be any consoles at all?
I can’t necessarily say that it will definitely be OnLive, but I think that, the way the world is going, cloud-based services are here to stay. You know, you don’t want a big computer in your living room if you don’t need one. I think that it fundamentally makes sense that media is delivered over the internet on demand in real-time. We are the first, and presently only, cloud based platform, and so I think that gives us a really good position to continue to build out the market and educate people. In the end any robust market usually has multiple players, so we’ll see what it looks like in a couple of years’ time. For now we’re pretty optimistic, and we’ve got a really good opportunity right now. Again, one gamer at a time, we’re letting people see what the experience is like, and we’ll let them vote with their time and wallets every time they buy a game on our platform as opposed to others.
We also announced a really big relationship with (UK retailer) GAME at retail because, still, a big part of the gaming experience is getting some professional advice, being able to touch and hold things in your hands. And, especially in the UK market, GAME is a big part of the gaming world, and so we said ‘hey, that’s a great way to still extend the experience out into the real world’, you can pick up a Micro Console, touch it, see how it works, look at the portfolio of games available before you commit to the platform. So far it’s working out really well for us.
How quickly is your game’s portfolio expanding?
I think we release probably three or four games a week, and that’s growing. It’s a collection of AAA day-in-date releases, we have Saints Row the Third coming up soon as well as Batman Arkham City, which are the big AAA highly marketed titles. Then we have a huge library of smaller titles that you wouldn’t necessarily see unless they were put directly in front of you. We searched the world over for high quality indie content, like a game called Limbo that is coming out really soon, which is a fantastic title. I think it has already got a lot of publicity for an indie title, but it isn’t something that you would necessarily see in stores.
In terms of big titles, like Arkham City, are they available at the same time on OnLive as they are on consoles?
Absolutely, the same exact second in fact. But OnLive players can get on a little sooner because they don’t have to wait for retail stores to open up, or have to wait for a big eight hour download or something. We absolutely have the same titles that you would hope to have on a new platform day-and-date.
Finally, how can people get involved with OnLive?
If you want to try it out on your PC or Macintosh go to www.onlive.co.uk, download our little browser plug-in, and if you want to jump in on the telly as well the you can buy our Micro Console… or you can come here to the Eurogamer Expo and get one for free!
Need more persuasion to sign up with OnLive? Why not read our full review of OnLive by clicking here. Spoilers! We really like it.