OnLive and I have a very strange relationship. In the beginning I thought it was a potential money winner that would be hamstrung by the company’s desire to monetise their service from the get go. 9 months later I changed my tune somewhat when they announced that they’d be offering free trials to a decent handful of people and believed that the service could survive as a niche service for city dwelling casual gamers. I started to come around to the idea in its entirety when one of its competitors demoed World of Warcraft running on the iPad, something which I thought could easily be a common use case for their target market. With almost one and a half years separating my first post on them and today’s entry I have to say back then I didn’t expect them to come as far as they have today, nor for them to go in the direction they have.
My initial complaints about the service having a monthly fee were probably the biggest sticking point for many potential users. Having to pay US$15 per month to access the games (which you also have to buy) is something people just aren’t comfortable doing when digital distribution platforms like Steam do it for free. They won my approval when they offered quite a few people free trials that extended past a year which I believed would help get them that critical mass of users they needed in order to be attractive for their investors. In reality the opposite was true since free users won’t necessarily migrate to a paid product but paying customers are paying customers, ensuring that you not only have a viable product but also a viable market.
I really hadn’t heard anything more about the service until yesterday when I stumbled across one of their blog posts that detailed something quite extraordinary:
It’s official: There will be no base monthly fee for the OnLive Game Service going forward. WOOT!
Free Instant-play Demos, Free Massive Spectating, Free Brag Clip™ videos, messaging, friending.
No credit card needed, unless you decide to buy a 3-day, 5-day or Full PlayPass. And ongoing access with no monthly fee. Of course, we’ve had a promotion waiving the monthly fee for the first year, so this announcement is confirming what we had hoped—that we can continue without a monthly fee beyond the first year. Although we wish we could have confirmed no monthly fee from the get-go, pioneering a major new video game paradigm is hard: we had to first grow to a large base of regular users before we could understand usage patterns and operating costs. Now that we’ve reached that stage, we can confidently say a monthly fee is not needed, which deserves a double WOOT! WOOT!
I must say it really took me by surprise when I read that. Knowing that video streaming services are extremely bandwidth intensive and highly unprofitable (YouTube still isn’t profitable) I struggled to see how they could make a decent amount of money without charging monthly access fees. OnLive of course knows their finances better than anyone and it appears that the monthly fees were just a temporary measure to get them over that initial hump of users required to get them a steady stream of funding from their primary market: games sales. I hadn’t really looked into how they were doing this but having a quick look around their website I can see where the potential revenue is coming from.
For most games there’s 3 different purchase options. The 3 and 5 day play pass let’s you play the game in question for their amount of time from the day you purchase it. This isn’t game time mind you so it’s more like you’re renting that game for 3 or 5 days. The last option is the full play pass which allows you to play the game for as long as it is available on OnLive’s servers. They state in their support section that all games will be supported for at minimum 3 years from the point they’re first available so in essence even the full pass is still a rental, just one with an uncertain end date.
The 3 and 5 day passes seem to be reasonably priced with the most expensive of their being $6 and $9 respectively. For many throw away games that you’ll only ever play once this is a pretty reasonable price and would open up quite a few games to those who’d traditionally shy away from them because of the price. It’s akin to Netflix’s idea of taking the pain out of renting rentals by letting you conduct the entire process from your home. In my opinion this is where OnLive will draw most of its sales as that’s the area where the service shines. The full play pass however is riddled with problems.
For starters the cost of full play passes aren’t universally cheaper than their digital download counter parts with many of them being the same price or higher, for example:
This also doesn’t take into account any multi-pack sales that Steam is famous for.
Sure I can understand the point that you’re paying for the ability to play a game anywhere and thus the costs aren’t really comparable but for anyone with a machine less than 3 years old (my current one is 2) you could easily play any of these games without needing OnLive anyway. This is due solely to the consolisation of PC games and won’t be changing for anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus whilst you do gain flexibility from buying these games in OnLive you can only guarantee them to be there for 3 years and once they decide to stop supporting it you’re sweet out of luck. There’s no way to download your purchase once they’ve decided to flip the kill switch, effectively ending your ability to use your purchase forever.
This is the one aspect of OnLive that I absolutely detest, it’s the ultimate DRM that games publishing companies have been salivating over for years. Users of OnLive can’t trade their games with friends nor sell them to a used game shop in order to buy additional games. Effectively this turns all game “purchases” in OnLive into rentals under the control of the games publishers and the OnLive service, stripping away any freedom the end user might have once had. It is purely based on this fact that I will never, ever buy a full play pass from OnLive and will be extremely hesitant to use it for anything save reviewing the service itself as I can not condone this kind of behaviour from any corporation.
OnLive at its heart is a brilliant idea to bring gaming to those who can’t afford the time or monetary investment to stay on the cutting edge of gaming but still have a desire to. However every time I find something to love about the service I find yet another thing to hate about it and as it stands today I can not recommend it for anything past renting a throwaway game. The core ideas are solid and should OnLive make an effort to improve their service through say letting you download full purchases through their client then I’d have no trouble recommending them. For now though I’ll have to abstain from what is the worst form of DRM I’ve ever encountered and hope that everyone else will do the same.
Nearly every device that happens to make its way into my home ends up being modified in some not-intended-by-the-manufacturer way. Usually this is because there’s some cool feature I can unlock by doing so and the process of modifying the device is usually quite enjoyable, for an engineer like myself at least. There are of course two notable exceptions that have managed to avoid the mod stick and they are my PlayStation 3 and my iPhone. Both of them were expensive pieces of electronics to purchase and whilst the former has long been out of warrenty the iPhone is still good for another 8 months. Additionally I haven’t had a compelling reason to jailbreak the iPhone yet and probably won’t since I’ll be fiddling around with at least 2 other handsets very soon.
The PlayStation on the other hand has been immune to any attempts to modify it for a long time. You could up the hard drive size (with instructions directly from Sony) and even run some homebrew in the form of Blu-ray Disc Java that allowed people to use emulators for a short time. Sony eventually clamped down on it limiting the functionality only to actual Blu-ray discs but you can still run the emulators should you have the inclination to burn a disc for the experience. Such behaviour is typical for any company wanting to protect their systems from piracy as these small chinks in their armour eventually lead to cracking the system wide open, but it was still a long time before we heard anything about the PS3.
Early in the year we saw the first steps towards a full blown system hack of the PS3 in the form of an incredibly complicated bus glitching memory allocation attack from GeoHot, the prolific iPhone hacker. At the time I dismissed the ideaof pirating PS3 games as doing so would be quite an extravagance considering the cost of discs, burners and bandwidth. In the time between then and now my ISP upped my cap not once, but twice to a grand total of 240GB/month for the exact same price I was paying before. Suddenly the notion of downloading a PS3 game didn’t seem like such a waste of bandwidth, in fact I’d be struggling to use such an immense amount of data without downloading a few massive files like Blu-ray disc copies.
However such an idea was still curtailed by the fact that there wasn’t any way to actually backup or play backed up games on the PS3. Sony managed to get a lot of people off side when they removed the Other OS functionality triggering GeoHot to work towards fully cracking open the system (and thus enabling the piracy nightmare that Sony had thusfar avoided) but many months passed and we heard nothing from the hacking scene. It seemed that the PS3 would be one of the first platforms to resist all attempts to crack into it.
That was until just recently.
The hack was met with a healthy dose of skepticism when it was first shown by the guys over at OzModChips and rightly so, the system has been unhackable for quite some time and every hack that we’d seen so far turned out to be fake. Still they assured us it was real and further reports showed that it in fact was the first legitimate hack of the PS3 to make prime time. The fact that it required no physical modifications to the console made everyone even more curious as to how the hack actually worked as just plugging in an USB stick seemed far too easy.
As it turns out whilst it isn’t a direct clone of the JIG module used to enable the service mode of the PS3 it does in fact contain parts of the JIG code in order to enable the hack. The device itself, whilst looking like a USB stick, is in fact just a USB controller board. Plugging this into your PS3 and then powering it will first establish a connection to your console. Shortly after it begins to load the JIG code which then enables it to load a custom application under the games menu part of the XMB. Once this has been installed you can then rip games to the internal hard drive or an USB storage device. This is exactly what Sony had been fighting against for a long time and now the walls that once stood so tall are crumbling underneath them.
Sony’s initial volley against this hack is to stop the distribution of the devices in Australia where thanks to a small loop hole in the law such devices are in fact legal. There are a multitude of them already out in the wild and Sony has picked up on this and begun banning those who are using the device. No doubt the next firmware release will stop this hack in its tracks and the game of cat and mouse that Sony has been playing with the PSP will begin in earnest on the PS3. I believe that this hack shows a missed opportunity for Sony, one that would’ve struck a major blow against the true pirates whilst rewarding their real customers.
To me: a loyal Sony fan, avid gamer and part time device tinkerer I’ve always wanted to have my large trove of games available on a hard drive, just like I do on my PC. Whilst the beginnings of this are starting to show with online stores like the Xbox Marketplace and the Playstation Network store they still charge me for the privilege of doing the format shiftingfor me. I’d happily pay for a backup application and/or emulator in order to cover for the costs of development and would even accept DRM in the form similar to that of what Steam has so that I could keep my purchases safe on an external drive. This also has the side effect of dismissing the backup excuse that is often used to legitimize the hacks used to pirate games in the first place. Sony could then argue their point from a moral high ground, although the homebrew scene would probably still kick up a stink.
As always it comes down to an argument of perceived value. The product being provided by this hack is perceived as being a higher value than the legitimate product provided by Sony. Indeed it is as it allows you to back up your original media and keep them in storage whilst you reap the benefits of faster game load times and the knowledge that should the media fail you have a backup ready to go. It’s quite possible that the next generation of consoles will end up being entirely digital but until then we’ll be privvy to these games of cat and mouse that the console giants play with the hackers and history shows that they’ll always end up being the loser.
I readily admit that I’m a bit of a tinkerer. There’s something really enjoyable about taking something you bought and squeezing extra functionality out of it, especially if it unlocks something that no product currently fits. I remember after having my PlayStation Portable for a while that I heard of the many great things that could be done with it, so I set out to mod it. A couple days later I had it streaming live video from my PC over our wireless network which was quite an impressive feat back in those days. Today the device hacker scene is alive and well on almost any platform that can be exploited leading to a game of cat and mouse between the creators of said devices and those who would seek to exploit them.
Now I’m not going to be naive and pretend like there aren’t nefarious motives behind parts of the hacking scene. Indeed the main motivator for quite a lot of hacks that enable people to unlock certain bits of functionality is usually done in aid of pirating legitimate software. In fact for the Xbox 360 the only hack available is arguably only for pirating software, as Microsoft’s hard line on banning users who do it shows. Still the never ending game of cat and mouse that companies play with the recreational hacking crowd doesn’t appear to make much fiscal sense on the surface as the man hours required to try and protect such systems always appear to fail with little more than a couple weeks from a few skilled individuals.
Probably one of the platforms where this kind of behaviour is almost encouraged would be Android. For starters the entire system is open source so if you were so inclined you could write custom packages for it to unlock almost any functionality you wanted. It also seems that the vast majority of Android handset manufacturers only put mild roadblocks in the way of those seeking to gain root level privileges on the devices, akin to the CD in the drive checks of games of yesteryear. Still it seems that the trend may be shifting somewhat with the recent Droid X, touted as the best Android phone to date, employing some rather drastic moves to prevent end users from tampering with it:
Motorola has apparently locked down the phone to the point where any modification attempts — including “rooting” the phone to install unauthorized apps, or changing its firmware — could render it completely inoperable (or “bricked”). The only way to fix it is to return the phone to Motorola, reports the Android fansite MyDroidWorld.
The company is using a technology called eFuseto secure the device. It runs when the phone boots up, and it checks to make sure that the phone’s firmware, kernel information, and bootloader are legit before it actually lets you use the device. Here’s MyDroidWorld’s explanation:
If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to “blow the fuse” or “trip the fuse”. This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.
Us device hackers know the risks when we go into them, it’s part of the fun! I remember when I was hacking my PSP for the first time I had to find files from a not-so-trustworthy source, a random I met on an IRC channel. Knowing fully well I could end up with a $400 paperweight I went ahead anyway and, luckily enough for me, it worked. However the trend towards vendors actively seeking to brick the phones should the user try to tamper with them feels like a kick in the teeth to me. Realistically it’s my hardware and what I do with it is my business and putting barriers in place just seems like a waste of both our time.
The argument can be made that they don’t want the average user attempting to do these kinds of things with their devices. There’s some logic to that as stopping the casual hacking crowd means that a good majority of the other nefarious activities will be thwarted as well. Additionally in this day and age the originators of the hack usually make it exceptionally easy to use like the Twilight Hackfor the Nintendo Wii which merely requires loading a save game, something everyone is capable of. Still most users are bright enough to know that what they’re doing is akin to taking a chainsaw to their device, something which the manufacturer will likely not appreciate nor cover under warranty.
Coming back to the piracy issue I still feel that this comes down to the perceived¹ value that customers are placing in the products being offered. The customers who are pirating your product aren’t the kind who are just going to up and pay for it if they can’t get it for free. Really you should be looking back on yourself to see why they’re pirating it as if it’s wildly successful with the pirates but not with legit customers it’s quite possible your product is priced too high or the channels you’re offering it through are too restrictive. I’ve been researching these markets for months now and it seems no matter how hard you try to ensure no one pirates your product you only end up hurting your paying customers, driving even more of them to those dastardly corners of the Internet where they pilfer your product for free.
In my mind there’s no question that the steps taken to thwart these would be hackers is not worth the time that’s put into them. For a platform like Android I actually believe these kinds of people actually help a great deal with the whole ecosystem of the platform, ensuring that power users get what they want whilst everyday users get dedicated experts to call upon at no cost to the original company. Who knows maybe I’ll change my tune when I start trying to extract money from the markets based on these platforms but if I do feel free to point at this post and lambast me for being an idiot, as I’ll be far too detached from reality at that point 😉
¹I have a habit of re-reading my old posts when I link to them and just noticed that I praised Ubisoft for taking the right direction when trying to combat pirates. After their last DRM farce I can’t really support them anymore, but the ideas in that post remain solid (I.E. increasing value with things that can’t be pirated).