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James Peter
26 Mar, 2009

OnLive – Fact or Fiction?

PC Feature | A technical analysis.
Our first reaction upon hearing the announcement of OnLive this morning was to cry scam. Ideas for similar services have been thrown around for years, with the appropriately named Phantom gaming system being a notable example of this. After its unveiling at the May 2004 E3, it is yet to see the light of day in any form.

What OnLive purports to do is deliver a virtual game system to wherever you want to access it. All the graphics processing is done in the cloud (a fancy word for a random computer inside a data-center) which means no expensive hardware is needed to use it and sessions can easily be transferred across any device – pause a game on your TV tonight and continue playing in your browser at work during lunch.

Cool! So why hasn't anyone done it yet? The reason is that there are some important technical limitations, namely the speed of light. If the graphics processing isn't done in your home, then a tonne of data has to be moved great distances. To do that fast enough to not appear as though the game is lagging is hugely difficult. If you press a button to shoot your gun and two seconds later a bullet comes out you aren't going to last very long in most games. Our previous experience developing online applications has given us an understanding of dealing with internet latency and its limitations for response time.

With that in mind we put on our berets and sat down with a pen and paper to see if we could bust this myth.


The OnLive micro-console and controller for TVs.

The OnLive micro-console and controller for TVs.
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Response Time

Our first stop was to analyse what response time would be necessary to make a seamless gameplay experience. A general rule of thumb on this for computer interfaces has been around since 1968. Any response up to 0.1 seconds (100ms) is considered instantaneous by most people. Anything above that and the user will notice the delay – it will feel like the computer is doing the action, not you.

This follows on fairly well with what you experience with most gaming systems. Gamasutra has a fantastic article on the response time for recent games. Here are some numbers they found for response time for various games:
  • PS3 system menus - 50ms
  • Guitar Hero III - 50ms
  • Ridge Racer 7 - 67ms
  • Virtua Tennis 3 - 67ms
  • Ninja Gaiden Sigma - 67ms
  • PixelJunk Racers - 67ms
  • Genji: Days of the Blade - 100ms
  • Tony Hawk's Proving Ground - 133ms
  • BlackSite: Area 51 - 133ms
  • Halo 3 - 133-167ms
  • Skate - 167ms
  • Grand Theft Auto IV - 167ms
  • Heavenly Sword - 117-300ms
In the article they mention that games around the 167ms mark start to feel sluggish – Gamasutra was particularly unimpressed with GTA IV's response times.

"This is rather a long response time, and correlates with people reporting the game being sluggish and unresponsive. The delay in firing the gun after pulling the trigger is quite noticeable," they said.

The 300ms response in Heavenly Sword is noticeable too, as shown in this video Gamasutra produced.

In conclusion less than 100ms would be the sweet spot, but up to 160ms is acceptable.


Network Latency & Bandwidth

The two important factors that need to be considered when moving the console into the cloud is the latency (time it takes for a signal to travel from your TV/PC to the remote computer & back again - also known as ping) as well as bandwidth for the data to be transferred.

Typical network latencies are well documented. They depend on several factors including the physical length of the cables as well as the number and speed modems and routers in-between. On cable and DSL connections they are generally less than 100ms to a computer in the same country. In their GDC press conference OnLive CEO (and David Hewlett look-alike), Steve Perlman said the service will work with a data-center up to 1000 miles (1600km) away. Typically, you would expect up to 30ms latencies for this distance.

On the bandwidth front, the issue is video compression. You can't send a raw HD signal over the net without compression otherwise the bandwidth usage would be too high for most households. Video compression helps reduce this data, however traditional solutions have been rather slow – 500ms or more latency to compress HD video. This appears to be the area where OnLive has made a considerable technical achievement. They have custom built a network card that can compress HD video in less than 1ms. This almost wipes out the impact that compression has on the latency and has significant implications for other video processing applications to boot.

Finally, there will be some additional latency to consider at the client end involved with decoding the compressed video, but this could be expected to be less than 5ms on most machines.


The OnLive dashboard.

The OnLive dashboard.
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The Result

It's possible. Just.

Moving the console to the cloud under OnLive's architecture could be expected to add under 40ms to the response time. This is 25% of our maximum acceptable response time (160ms) and 40% of our "good" response time (100ms). Clearly some games could get away with this additional response time without too much trouble, but some of the high-end console games would have problems.

OnLive appears to be using entirely PC hardware in their architecture. High powered PCs (and optimised game code) could reduce this latency even further. From the analysis above plugging in existing consoles to the OnLive network probably would not work for many games, even if the manufacturers agree.


Questions Unanswered

The main question we have from looking at their current architecture, is how do game states get preserved? From the demos they've shown, games appear to be resumed instantly, but even in cloud computer, some time is required to boot a game into a playable state on the server. It would be impossible to keep machines in a state ready to play all previously paused games when this is released in a public beta. There must be some delay when dropping back into an existing game.

Rolling out OnLive to other countries is also going to raise some interesting challenges. Given that Australia is 4000km wide you would need to roll out at least 3 data centers for full coverage. Australia's high data costs and bandwidth caps would also come into play. If you played 60 hours in a month on a 5Mbs connection, you would use about 100GB – more than most bandwidth caps in Australia. It would require significant infrastructure changes before OnLive could be rolled out here.


Brag Clips of Mirror's Edge anyone?

Brag Clips of Mirror's Edge anyone?
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The Cool Stuff

If it succeeds, OnLive could have some significant impacts to not only the way we play games, but also the web as we know it. Here are a few salient ideas:
  • It could revolutionise the way we play online games. Being able to see anyone else's game in progress and jumping right in transparently is a huge step, not to mention the ability to play a game on any PC, Mac or TV (and no periodic hardware upgrades!) is a holy grail for gamers. It could mean the end of console wars as we know it – third party publishers would love this system, not only for its ability to effectively drive out piracy, but also because it takes away the cost of developing for multiple platforms.

  • It could revolutionise virtual worlds which are currently hugely limited in their ability to download high & render high res textures on-demand. Imagine a version of Second Life where you could create and visit worlds rendered with the fidelity of Gears of War.

  • Finally it could revolutionise the web. Websites currently rely on your computer to display their graphics and respond to your mouse clicks. If this could all be performed on a server, web content could be delivered in a HD game-like environment regardless of the device you are using.
OnLive still has a lot it needs to show, but it does look like it has the ability to live up to the hype. Its possible impact on gaming over the next 5 years can't be understated.

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44 Comments
5 years ago
Great article. Has definitely helped me understand some of the behind-the-scenes issued related to this idea. Look forward to seeing how this pans out. It's kinda scary to think that we might not be buying consoles one day as it's all any of us have ever known.
5 years ago
Very interesting feature icon_smile.gif My main worry is how much this will cost Australians.
5 years ago
Awesome feature!

And yeah, Aussies will pay faaar more for this than we do for other platforms, unless the govt finally comes through on Fibre. Hell, they could probably afford it if they dropped the damn filters...
5 years ago
I must agree with the article, although it sounds fantastic, and people have been demoing it, how will it handle at full capacity? And also what DO you do about other countries, because broadband in Australia isn't even real broadband
5 years ago
Excellent article, very informative.
However, can't see this taking off in Australia without some serious infrastructure upgrades.
Also low population density and our huge landmass may simply make it impractical and unprofitable. Odds are this will be something our bros in the US will be enjoying long before us.
5 years ago
What about the science of the video encoding? 1ms video encoding lag. What? I mean, if they've done that, colour me impressed. Obviously it would have to do away with the conventional key-frame / motion encoding we use currently, since it can't have a buffer (huge lag) so that would mean every frame has to be sent individually wouldn't it? The claim is 5mbps will get you 720p at 60fps. 5mbps ~ 625kb/sec. That gives each frame about 10.5kb, in which an audio stream, presumably 5.1 channel, also has to be included. The math implies that they can compress a 1280x720x24bit image down to under 10kb in 1ms, and it will actually still look good, and decompress super-fast at the other end too. For comparisons sake, a jpeg of the same dimensions at around 50kb is starting to look "a bit dodgy".

If they've genuinely got the technology for that, then I'll believe it could be possible. Of course, Australia still stands next to no chance of getting anywhere with it under its current Internet infrastructure.
5 years ago
All these latency talks, why do I get a feeling its too good to be true though? Sounds like one of these in theory this, in practice that.

Plus, needing 5Mbs connection, this is just for a non-shared connection right? The way the future is heading, streaming movies, IPTV/Internet TV etc... insanity I tell ya!!! (I'm on a 512kbps, go turtle connection!)

If it support keyboard and mouse, then it can really kill PC gaming.
5 years ago
TBH I still doubt the plauseabillity of this, to support 1,000,000 simultanious users it'd probably cost around 1.5 BILLION dollars since hardware to run games at 1280x720 at 60fps in games like crysis and other future games would cost ~$1500 per user, especially since they'll need to be custom built so that a single server can serve games to multiple users.

How many years would it take to recoup losses of that magnitude given most people probably wont pay more than $500ish for the console, the store prices for games and ~$100 per year in subscription costs? And remember that at the rate PC hardware advances the whole system will need to be upgraded at least every 3 or so years, so every 3 years they'll probably be needing to sink another $500 million. Sounds like a black hole for money IMO.

And lets face it the graphics quality will be completely shit with a res of only 1280x720 (seriously, games 10 years ago were REQUIRING higher resolutions than that as a minimum, see railroad tycoon 2 from 1998) and there's going to be compression artifacts on it too, especially in fast action games.

Not to mention that in peak times you'll probably need to wait in line for your turn because lets face it, if they do get it going it's highly unlikely they'll get enough servers for peak demand, they'll focus on average demand because it's MUCH cheaper.

All in all this is going to fail hard IMO, if it even gets going in the first place.
5 years ago
I waited on their website yesterday for the end of the countdown to their site "going live". At the end I got a bad gateway request error, then spent the next 5 minutes timing out, then got something, then got more gateway related error messages, then started to stream their promotional video and it stopped buffering at 14 seconds and wouldn't go any further.

If yesterday they couldn't even stream a website, how much will they have to step up to reliably stream hi-def games?
5 years ago
Very cool idea they've got there. But it won't work Down Under without a massive overhaul of our communications infrastructure.

Even if it does go live here, I think the only games that will work well on it are non-time-dependant games. Things like turn based RPGs and tactical games will do great, FPS/Racing/Music games won't fair so well.

Oh and what about online play? You'd have to deal with input lag from you to the OnLive backend, and then the latency in the online match.

Very skeptical. Even if it does sound really cool.
5 years ago
rufati wrote
Oh and what about online play? You'd have to deal with input lag from you to the OnLive backend, and then the latency in the online match.
Well presumably the ideal would be that the multi-player server would be on their network. So if all players are connecting to the same game-streaming server, and connected to the same multi-player server, it would do away with that part of the lag.
5 years ago
Excellent article James. That certainly cleared up a lot of confusion I had about the service.

The info about response times was also very interesting. All this time I was thinking that anything above 7ms is unexceptable and here I am playing games with over 160ms and not complaining. That gives me hope that Onlive can deliver a perfectly acceptable gaming experience. I think I'm really starting to warm to this idea.

Now if only the government would stop trying to censor the internet and maybe concentrate on bringing it up from 3rd world status instead.
5 years ago
Skiller wrote
And lets face it the graphics quality will be completely **** with a res of only 1280x720 (seriously, games 10 years ago were REQUIRING higher resolutions than that as a minimum, see railroad tycoon 2 from 1998) and there's going to be compression artifacts on it too, especially in fast action games.
Keeping in mind that most people will be playing on their TV's?
5 years ago
doofus wrote
Keeping in mind that most people will be playing on their TV's?
Exactly, it should be outputting at least 1920x1080p, not some stupid low resolution that only a handfull of obscure and extinct TVs run at.
5 years ago
Skiller wrote
Exactly, it should be outputting at least 1920x1080p, not some stupid low resolution that only a handfull of obscure and extinct TVs run at.
Very, very few PS3 & 360 games run at 1080p. It's basically only a few downloadable games on the PS3. The rest are 720p or less.
5 years ago
James wrote
Very, very few PS3 & 360 games run at 1080p. It's basically only a few downloadable games on the PS3. The rest are 720p or less.
Which is why if you look through my other posts I'm pretty pro-PC/anti-console, 90% of my console games I'd enjoy more on my PC but they don't offer PC versions of those games so I usually just put up with playing them on consoles. They are still great fun but in the back of my mind I can't help but be dissapointed that they weren't as good as they could have been if they were on PC.


Back to topic:
I've been thinking about the fact that if all online players use onlive for a game it'd be alot better than current online play since the servers will really be playing a lan game so people will be seeing a much more accurate game world than with normal online play.

I still think the whole thing will fail but there'll probably be alot we can learn from it.
5 years ago
As if this whole think isn't a joke !?

The idea seems impossible technically and the supposed "real footage" looks like a project put together by some motion graphics students.

There is also an interview video floating around which looks and sounds completely fake.


I was shocked to find people taking it seriously.
5 years ago
Quote
As if this whole think isn't a joke !?
Cause I know I like to sink thousands of dollars into apperances at the GDC, interviews, advertising, graphic design etc for a bit of a laugh.
5 years ago
It's only coming to America, at least at first, no world wide rollout icon_sad.gif
5 years ago
Benza wrote
Cause I know I like to sink thousands of dollars into apperances at the GDC, interviews, advertising, graphic design etc for a bit of a laugh.
That doesn't make it any less ridiculous.
5 years ago
Why is it ridiculous? In this day and age technology is amazing, so it is perfectly reasonable for something like this to come out.
5 years ago
Maybe my mind would have been more open initially if we had decent internet connections. But with the state of our country's communication infrastructure, I instantly found the concept ridiculous.

I also can't see how this could be a seamless and enjoyable service even if they built a data center here and you had a good connection.

I don't doubt they could stream a game via video while it's being rendered on a remote server, I just can't see the control working.
If I'm playing a game and hit a button which sends a signal pinging all around the country to the game server, then the game server registers it and send the frame back down, there is surely going to be some lag involved.
If there is any lost or laggy control in my game then there is no way I would use the service. I'm sure I'm not alone.. Am I crazy ?
5 years ago
MAXp0wr wrote
Maybe my mind would have been more open initially if we had decent internet connections. But with the state of our country's communication infrastructure, I instantly found the concept ridiculous.
what about for those countries with extremely fast internet? is it still ridiculous?
yes we may not see it here for years, decades even for that reason but that doesnt mean it cant work where those connections are good enough.
im sure when they are talking about it they arent talking about Australia, im sure they are talking about America or somewhere along those lines.
5 years ago
Yes, I was blaming our internet speeds for not even considering/remembering countries with good connections.

Even still, it's going to be a miracle if they pull it off as well as they say even on fast connections.
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