A new system called OnLive plans to take advantage of "cloud computing" to deliver on-demand gaming without the need for expensive console and PC hardware and upgrades.
Developed over a seven year process by Steve Perlman and Mike McGarvey, the Onlive service works by handing off the work of running the games to high-end servers, which handle rendering, AI and other gameplay issues separately from in-home hardware. User input is transmitted to the servers while video is streamed back over broadband networks to customers who can access the service through conventional PCs including laptops and netbooks, or with a "MicroConsole" provided by OnLive. As a result, the need for high-end gaming hardware, even for resource hogs like Crysis, is eliminated.
"This is the last major console cycle," Perlman said. "If not this one, then definitely the next one."
Keeping things simple is the client software, which offers the same interface across all platforms. The goal is to have games on the service load "nearly instantaneously," and Perlman claims the latency is at least as good as, and usually better than, playing on a LAN. OnLive works thanks to a proprietary system of on-the-fly video compression which will require a minimum 1.5 megabit connection for standard definition (480p) and a five meg connection for hi-def (720p or 1080i) resolutions. Support for 1080p and higher resolutions is expected in the future.
OnLive has already attracted several mainstream publishers to its platform, including EA, Ubisoft, THQ, Eidos and others, offering benefits including a simplified development process, reduced production costs and of course the virtual elimination of piracy. For their part, users get simple, on-demand gaming they can access without the need for costly hardware, although hardcore gamers may be put off by the loss of things like mods and performance tweaks.
Despite the optimism, there are downsides, the most obvious being the need for a reliable fat pipe in order for the thing to work. Questions about privacy are unavoidable, as are concerns about the loss of games and data should the service fail. There's also the healthy skepticism that follows (or at least should follow) every "too good to be true" story, which this certainly qualifies for, particularly in the minds of those who remember The Phantom. But with the eruption of mainstream videogaming and the popularity of services like Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, which themselves represent a half-step toward an OnLive-style environment, it's hard to argue that this service or something very much like it won't loom large in the future of gaming.