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20 Features

OnLive is back, but is it any better?

By Rob Crossley on Wednesday 5th Mar 2014 at 5:00 PM UTC

Confession: Back in 2010, after the OnLive service opened up to the masses, several esteemed journalists and I held a private sweepstake guessing the day the company would go bust.

It was always a matter of when. If you went beyond the debate on cloud gaming latency (and, granted, some people never did) what remained was a disaster-prone business model built on chutzpah, ego and ignorance.

None of us predicted the corporation would survive until August 2012, which was the turbulent month its employees were made redundant, its CEO stepped down, when the company effectively closed and its assets were sold to a (legally speaking) new company, also called OnLive.

The crestfallen cloud gaming firm, purchased by venture capitalist Gary Lauder, hired former staff to keep the service running, commenced plans to reform its leadership team and - until today - crept into the background.

The problem

Bruce Grove, the general manager of OnLive UK, is the only member of the new executive team who was with the company from the start. He pulls no punches in his analysis of what went wrong.

Bruce Grove joined OnLive back in 2007. He now manages the UK business

"Everything we had done created channel conflict. As a user you didn't truly own the game, and people weren't sure what would happen if their internet connection went down or if the company goes away. Plus, people had to choose to either buy a game on OnLive or on a console or PC, which is a difficult idea to put to someone.

"Also, the idea of giving away bundles of older games is like offering a nice family pack, but it's not going to drive adoption of the technology."

It wasn't just consumers that were faced with dilemmas. As Grove details, OnLive's business caused friction across the industry.

"From the game studio's point of view, these teams reach the end of a development cycle and they discover they need to do a bit more work to ensure the game works properly on OnLive. That wasn't always convincing for them.

"Then there's the publisher, who suddenly discovered they needed to market their game for another platform. They were understandably suspicious that the sale of a game on OnLive only cannibalised the sale of a game on an established platform. Their thinking was - why pay the extra marketing costs for a sale they were going to make anyway? And to top it all off, we couldn't establish retail partnerships because we were a retailer ourselves.

"We set ourselves up, basically, against everyone" - Bruce Grove, OnLive UK GM

"We set ourselves up, basically, against everyone. Everything about it was the proposition of 'OnLive or nothing else'. It was essentially us against the rest of the industry. At the time we were taking a lot on - new hardware, new server hardware, all the software platforms too."

The new solution

Now, eighteen months after that humbling day, OnLive has returned with a reshuffled leadership team and two new business models in tow.

Its new flagship offering is called CloudLift - a subscription service that essentially allows Steam customers to access their games on other devices. At least, that's what it will seem like.

CloudLift is a service that allows users to stream already purchased Steam games to multiple devices

What's actually happening is that CloudLift can stream a game (that you have already bought on Steam) from its powerful server farms, and also sync it with your Steam cloud-save file.

In theory, it means you can play Batman Arkham Origins on your monstrous home PC rig in the evening, then at work the next day, can pick up where you left off on your modest office Mac.

Or, if you're visiting a friend who has an Android micro-console (like an Ouya), you can access your PC games through that device and play on the TV.

The idea is that CloudLift mobilises your games library so it is theoretically playable on any Mac, Windows or Android device. As long as you have a robust internet connection (2Mbps minimum, 5Mbps recommended), and a games controller, you can play many of your Steam games.

You won't be streaming these titles directly from your PC, but from OnLive's servers, which have proven to keep latency reasonably low providing the user has a fast enough bandwidth.

OnLive's new business model is part of a partnership with Valve, and a signifier of how the cloud gaming company now defines itself as an enabler.

"Fundamentally, we felt the business needed to change and we needed to look at new business models," says Grove.

"Say, for example, you have a triple-A game you're playing on Windows PC, but then you have to travel for a few weeks with your MacBook Air. With CloudLift, you can play your Windows PC game on your MacBook hundreds of miles away through our servers."

The new problems

CloudLift comes with a heavy price tag, however, at $14.99 and £9.99 per month.

Though OnLive executives compare the service to Netflix and Spotify, those services come with thousands of films and millions of songs. CloudLift offers no games, just access to the ones you already have bought on Steam.

The matter is complicated further because every single publisher of those Steam games will need to agree to allow CloudLift to stream them. Grove is upbeat that this will not be an issue, however.

"My favourite quote, in our first meeting with a publisher - which I admit was a little nervy because of everything that had already happened - was; 'Well why wouldn't I want this?' He looked at this and said, well it's obvious we should support it. The reality is the cost to the publisher is minimal."

Companies on board so far include Warner Bros, Codemasters and Deep Silver. However, Activision, Ubisoft and Bethesda are not yet part of the service. Just for clarification, I ask Grove whether any company has outright refused to partner with them, to which he said "absolutely not".

Along with this is the problem that not all Steam games come with cloud sync, meaning they can still be streamed but won't allow players to pick up where they left off.

OnLive is also promoting this as a service that allows gamers to access more than their Steam library. But which ones?

Sony won't partner with OnLive because it owns Gaikai and provides a similar service with PlayStation Now.

"No, we haven't spoken to them," Grove tells CVG.

"Obviously, with PlayStation Now, they are our strongest competition. We feel we're ahead of them from a technology standpoint."

Wii U games, meanwhile, are too dependant on proprietary controllers to be accessible on platforms like netbooks and Ouya. That leaves Xbox, which Grove says OnLive has not begun discussions with yet.

The problem with massaging Redmond executives into some kind of deal is that OnLive wants CloudLift to bring triple-A games to a multitude of micro-consoles - a move which once again puts it in competition with the Xbox firm.

Throughout his pitch Grove cites devices such as Ouya, Google's Chromecast, Smart TVs, GameStick, Nvidia Shield, a Linux client and Amazon's upcoming mystery box.

"CloudLift can work on any console, but those platform holders need to be motivated to work with us," he adds.

But by the end of the meeting, it's hard to see which company other than Valve will sign on as a platform partner.

Scattered clouds

OnLive is nevertheless spreading its bets by offering two alternative businesses.

The first is its existing game streaming service, which the corporation has decided not to close down. In what is indicative of the bizarre situation the company is in, Grove both backs the service and plays down its importance.

"We still sell games, and we still offer a subscription to our entire library, but we no longer mind where you buy your games from. CloudLift is going to be what drives adoption of this platform."

He adds that any game bought through OnLive will receive seven days of CloudLift service for free. But when asked whether he thinks this additional feature will lift sales, Grove is non-committal.

"If we push hard on that, we'll end up having the same competition problems as before," he says. "We'd rather have a partnership with other people, where both of us gain."

"PlayStation Now is our strongest competition. We feel we're ahead of them from a technology standpoint"

Meanwhile, the company is also offering a business-to-business service, which effectively fills in the space that Gaikai left behind when it was acquired by Sony. Publishing partners can use OnLive to stream their game demos, but it'll be a white-label service, so the publisher is free to name it something else like Sega Go or EA Now etc.

For this there are already partners on board, such as War Thunder developer Gaijin Entertainment, and Grove believes the partnership model "is going to be increasingly important to OnLive going forwards".

Taking into account the company's strategies as a whole, it's hard to know what to make of the new OnLive. The diversified business models, its partner-competitor hybrid model and its premium subscription for games people already own is utterly bewildering, but perhaps crazy enough to work. This time, all bets are off.