Us gamers tend to be hoarders when it comes to our game collections with many of us amassing huge stashes of titles on our platforms of choice. My steam library alone blew past 300 titles some time ago and anyone visiting my house will see the dozens of game boxes littering every corner of the house. There’s something of a sunk cost in all this and it’s why the idea of being able to play them on a current generation system is always attractive to people like me: we like to go back sometimes and play through games of our past. Whilst my platform of choice rarely suffers from this (PCs are the kings of backwards compatibility) my large console collection is in varying states of being able to play my library of titles and, if I’m honest, I don’t think it’s ever going to get better.
For the current kings of the console market the decision to do away with backwards compatibility has been something of a sore spot for many gamers. Whilst the numbers show that most people buy new consoles to play the new games on them¹ there’s a non-zero number who get a lot of enjoyment out of their current gen titles. Indeed I probably would’ve actually used my PlayStation4 for gaming if it had some modicum of backwards compatibility as right now there aren’t any compelling titles for it. This doesn’t seem to have been much of a hinderance to adoption of the now current gen platforms however.
There does seem to be a lot of faith being poured into the idea that backwards compatibility will come eventually through cloud services, of which only Sony has committed to developing. The idea is attractive, mainly because it then enables you to play any time you want from a multitude of devices, however, as I’ve stated in the past, the feasibility of such an idea isn’t great, especially if it relies on server hardware needing to be in many disparate locations around the world to make the service viable. Whilst both Sony and Microsoft have the capital to make this happen (and indeed Sony has a head start on it thanks to the Gaikai acquisition) the issues I previously mentioned are only compounded when it comes to providing a cloud based service with console games.
The easiest way of achieving this is to just run a bunch of the old consoles in a server environment and allow users to connect directly to them. This has the advantage of being cheaper from a capital point of view as I’m sure both Sony and Microsoft have untold hordes of old consoles to take advantage of, however the service would be inherently unscalable and, past a certain point, unmaintable. The better solution is to emulate the console in software which would allow you to run it on whatever hardware you wanted but this brings with it challenges I’m not sure even Microsoft or Sony are capable of solving.
You see whilst the hardware of the past generation consoles is rather long in the tooth emulating it in software is nigh on impossible. Whilst there’s some experimental efforts by the emulation community to do this none of them have produced anything capable of running even the most basic titles. Indeed even with access to the full schematics of the hardware recreating them in software would be a herculean effort, especially for Sony who’s Cell processor is a nightmare architecturally speaking.
There’s also the possibility that Sony has had the Gaikai team working on a Cell to x86 transition library which could make the entire PlayStation3 library available without too much hassle although there would likely be a heavy trade off in performance. In all honesty that’s probably the most feasible solution as it’d allow them to run the titles on commodity hardware but you’d still have the problems of scaling out the service that I’ve touched on in previous posts.
Whatever ends up happening we’re not going to hear much more about it until sometime next year and it’ll be a while after that before we can get our hands on it (my money is on 2016 for Australia). If you’re sitting on a trove of old titles and hoping that the next gen will allow you to play them I wouldn’t hold your breath as its much more likely that it’ll be extremely limited, likely requiring an additional cost on top of your PlayStation Plus membership. That’s even if it works as everyone speculating it will as I can see it easily turning out to be something else entirely.
¹ I can’t seem to find a source for this but back when the PlayStation3 Slim was announced (having that capability removed) I can remember a Sony executive saying something to this effect. It was probably a combination of factors that led up to him saying that though as around that time the PlayStation2 Slim was still being manufactured and was retailing for AUD$100, so it was highly likely that anyone who had the cash to splurge on a PlayStation3 likely owned a PlayStation2.
Ah the cloud, it seems to be the catch all for any problem that you might have had with your computer since the day it was invented. Need your files wherever you go? Put it in the cloud! Want to sync your personal data across all your devices? Put it in the cloud! Does your hair not have enough body and lift? Get some better shampoo, since the cloud probably isn’t the answer to that one. Still there are some interesting ideas that just so happen to be cloud based and one of those, that I’ve covered a couple times previously, is OnLive. A curious service that aims to bring high end gaming to those on a budget, all for the low low cost of $14.95 per month (plus game costs).
Now whilst I haven’t been a huge fan of the idea I did muse that it had its place, albeit in a somewhat niche capacity which limited its appeal. Still this hasn’t stopped them from inking deals with big names like British Telecommunications to bring their product to a much wider audience. From what I’ve seen there’s still a significant amount of work required before they hit all the platforms they were talking about (computing appliances, like the iPad) and there’s still some issues they won’t be able to innovate away (input lag for instance). Given time and their obvious sway with investors I’m sure any problem that can be solved will be solved eventually, hopefully driving up the market adoption they’ll need to keep their heads above water.
There really hasn’t been that much said about OnLive in recent months, most because the initial trials have been done and now the only thing people are interested in is when they can give it a go. Turns out that might be sooner than we thought, thanks to this little tidbit of news:
Smart move by OnLive today. The controversial streaming game service is offering to waive the $14.95 monthly access fee for a full year (originally it was 3 months) for anyone who enthusiastically pre-registered early — many of you we suspect. It’s even tossing in a coupon for a free game when you register for the offer. The only catch seems to be the credit card required to complete registration as proof that you’re over 18. If you didn’t pre-register then tough luck, no offer for you. But at least you can take comfort in knowing that a small army of gamers will be taking the service to task unencumbered by membership fees. In other words, we’ll know right quickly if OnLive can live up to its “ultra high-performance” streaming gameplay on entry-level PCs and Macs.
I’d previously criticized OnLive for attempting to charge for their service from the get go, saying it would stifle adoption rates. Whilst this offer is really only valid for a very small subset of people (read: those who can actually get the darn service) it does mean there will be 25,000 people on the service in its early days functioning as free beta testers. The offer of a free game confirms this since that means everyone will have at least something to play on the service for their free 12 months. It will be interesting to see what the retention rates will be like after the initial 12 months, since I’m pretty sure that if OnLive isn’t up to par it will be dropped completely when they start asking for your credit card.
My assessment of OnLive being suited to “casual, city dwelling gamers” still seems to ring true 4 months on and when coupled with some recent developments I’m even more sure of it. Whilst I’m aghast to point to the iPad as a potential source of innovation (ugh I feel dirty already) the casual gamer, to whom the OnLive service would be highly appropriate, is in my opinion much more likely to have a device like the iPad. The reasoning behind this is simple, for most casual games they don’t need a high end machine and most casuals would rather use a device like an iPad or netbook since they’re cheaper and far more portable. The iPad is the more likely of the mostly thanks to the brand power that Apple commands and the fact that it has been marketed directly as a casual computing device. If you then also consider that those who are buying a product like that are more likely to have the disposable income required to pay for such a service then the iPad becomes a pretty powerful gaming device for those that like to game but don’t want to bother messing around with a full sized machine.
I really hadn’t considered this viewpoint until I came across a recent article about one of OnLive’s competitors, Gaikai, who was mentioned in the same breath as World of Warcraft running on the iPad. Now whilst that might just seem like a pointless waste of time (and in fact I can’t confirm that it actually works) its actually quite a smart move by Gaikai. You see of the 12 million-ish subscribers to World of Warcraft the vast majority of them would identify themselves as casual players¹. For them playing on an iPad would probably be quite preferable to sitting on the computer and the bonus would be that they could play all the other games they have on there as well. So whilst OnLive might still be a niche, they might just have had a huge gust of wind put in their sails by Apple.
For me personally I’ll probably never have a use for a service like this. I get far too much enjoyment out of building up a really good gaming rig and then putting it through its paces, savouring the moments when I can crank all the slider bars up to “EXTREME”. Still I’m beginning to realise that even though a market might not yet exist for something there’s the potential for someone to create it, and OnLive seems to be doing a good job of developing theirs. Time will tell if they have enough staying power to be the best and fend off their imitators, but that’s what capitalism is all about right? 😉
Now I wonder how long it will take them to release it in Australia…. I’m not going to hold my breath over that one.
¹ I tried to find a good source on this as I remember a survey being done some time ago showing the breakdown of play times and amount of content completed. From memory it was something on the order of 6% of players identifying as hardcore players and the rest identifying with something along the lines of casual, semi-casual or casual hardcore. Doing some quick numbers there are approximately 6100 guilds that have “finished” the current content patch (I.E. defeated the last boss in the current endgame encounter) which gives you about 153,000 players I’d consider “hardcore”, which is about 1.3% of the total population. That’s a wild guess though and should be taken as such.