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Hands On: OnLive's cloud synced revamp is a tricky bet

Mark Hachman | March 6, 2014
OnLive, the cloud gaming pioneer that essentially vanished in 2012, is back--but with a new goal of enhancing online distribution services like Steam, versus competing with them.

OnLive, the cloud gaming pioneer that essentially vanished in 2012, is back — but with a new goal of enhancing online distribution services like Steam, versus competing with them.

Under its new business model, OnLive is asking gamers to pay $14.99 per month to play games they've purchased elsewhere, but using the cloud service that OnLive pioneered. OnLive will also continue the separate, $9.99/month PlayPack, a subscription to more than 250 last-generation and casual games. 

The idea, executives said, is that gamers will be able to play games they've previously purchased, own a physical copy, and play them on any platform OnLive supports: phones, tablets, PCs, the OnLive console, and smart TVs that support the service. OnLive will no longer sell PlayPass games that are locked to its service, but users will be able to continue playing any games they previously purchased through OnLive; at least until their licenses expire — whenever that is.

As you might expect, there's a catch — and an unexpected bonus. Not all games purchased through Steam and other online services will be cloud-enabled. The cloud service, known as CloudLift, will initially be available only with a few top-tier games: Batman: Arkham Origins, Saints Row IV, The Lego Movie Videogame, and Type:Rider. Support for "dozens more" games is planned, according to the company.

In addition to the various platforms OnLive supports, the service provides the peace of mind that comes with the ability to buy a supported game for an older PC, play it immediately, and then download it from Steam or a similar service when you buy a new PC. All that, however, costs $14.99 per month.

OnLive's gaming service works by abstracting the keyboard, mouse and display from the actual compute hardware. Imagine sitting hundreds of miles from your PC, mouse and keyboard in hand; that's the way OnLive works. As you move the mouse and tap the keyboard, those signals are passed through your broadband connection to the closest OnLive data center (these are in Virginia, the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, and Luxembourg, plus new facilities in Chicago and Seattle). OnLive executives tell us each data center has been upgraded with new CPUs and GPUs to provide the best experience possible.

OnLive's experience, therefore, will vary from user to user, which is why the company previously offered the ability to "try" each game it offered for an hour at no charge. That offer has been withdrawn, though, leaving fewer avenues for new customers to try the service. Games purchased through OnLive do come with a free CloudLift trial for 7 days.

OnLive also previously developed complementary pieces of technology that aren't going away: OnLive Desktop's virtualized Windows desktop is being revamped, and its technology is being put to work to improve the visual quality of Second Life and Gaijin Entertainment's War Thunder. Over time, executives said, they hope to use OnLive technology to provide "instant access" to MMOs, downloading them locally in the background. (OnLive calls this OnLive Go.) But you'll pay big bucks for the Second Life viewer, SL Go, for Android tablets, smart TVs, and low-end laptops: a whopping $3 per hour.


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