The Future of Console Gaming

So last week was GDC in San Fran (that’s right, I’m abbreviating) and it seems like the biggest thing to come out of it was the announcement and demonstration of OnLive. There has been loads of debate and speculation about what this means for the console market so I thought I’d pull my finger out, do a bit of work and throw my opinion into the ring.

Let’s start with a brief description of what OnLive is. Basically it is either a small (~1mb) download for your PC or Mac that allows you to browse and stream the games. Or it’s a little box that connects to your TV which does the same thing without the need for a home computer. The theory is that they send packets of data to their servers with your control inputs and stream back a video of the game playing on their machines.

You’re not playing the game in your living room, you’re playing it from your living room in their server farm and watching a video of yourself doing it. They have community features planned too which includes the ability to watch the stream of your friend’s game. They also plan to support online (obviously) multiplayer.

Oh, did I mention that these aren’t just “OnLive” games, they’re proper, full on, decent PC games like Crysis. In 720p on just a 2MB connection.

So, everyone was highly sceptical about this when it was announced but it seems like most people were convinced when they actually saw it working at GDC.

So there you go, end of story, industry types have seen it work and it’s the future. Consoles are dead and if you want a disc to hold in your hand then you’re living in the past grandad.

But wait. There are some conditions to this vision of the future which they aren’t hiding but they’re not exactly shouting about either. Firstly, the service will launch with around five server farms across the USA, two on each coast and one in the Mid West somewhere. The server for the GDC demo (which was not perfect but was, apparently, impressive) was just 60 miles away from the conference floor.

So it’s a gradual roll out, that’s a good idea because it limits the chances of the whole thing breaking when everyone logs on at once. So why the geographical spread? It has to do with proximity and ping rates. OnLive are saying that you have to be situated within one thousand miles of a server location to use the service. So it will be patchy. They also state that you need a ping rate of less than eighty to get decent responses. So, predictably, you need a decent, reliable and fast connection. I don’t know anybody who has an internet connection as reliable as the connection between their console and their TV.

Here’s the real kick in the balls though: If you’re connected to their Mid West server you can’t play multiplayer with your buddies who connect to the East or West coast servers. That means that if it ever launches in the UK we will only be able to play with other UK users and perhaps a couple of Scandinavians and The French. Might not be such a bad thing but it is massively limiting.

Another possible drawback is the cost. Of course it’s cheaper than buying a PS3 to pay for a little browser download or a plastic reciever box. How cheap is it when you have to pay a monthly subscription to the service and pay for each game you want to be able to play? Publishers will love the digital distribution aspect that defeats piracy and monopolises revenue streams but retailers will die almost immediately and that has massive knock-on effects for the economy as a whole.

How about we forget about our impending economic doom brought about by the death of entertainment retail by having a nice game of Street Fighter 4 with our buddies who live less than a thousand miles away? What’s that, an eighty milisecond ping rate makes frame-counting precision impossible? Well then how about another multiplayer FPS where I shoot an entire clip into your chest and you smile at me and kill me with a single pistol shot to the right ankle…

So, OnLive is a revolutionary idea which has the potential to change the industry forever. It’s not going to happen any time soon though. As long as the broadband infrastructure is as poor as it is and the limitiations on location and revenue-sharing exist then it will always just be a good idea with a lot of potential.

It made me think about fantasy industry shaking developments though. Remember when MS entered the console market? That was huge for the industry – it led to the death of Sega consoles and sent Nintendo back to making (hugely successful) toys. What would need to happen to recreate that sort of industry-shaking event?

My best idea was for EA to launch their own console and take all their titles as exclusives. Can you imagine if you could only get the FIFA, Tiger Woods, Madden and NHL franchises for one console? Now imagine that console is also the only place to get exciting original IP like Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space and upcoming exclusives like Dante’s Inferno. Throw in HD remakes and Virtual Console-like re-releases of their old titles as downloads. Imagine that console still getting all the multi-platform stuff. It would practically halve the software revenue for the platform holders overnight.

So what are your thoughts on OnLive and what fantasy games industry development most excites you?