Cloud-based gaming service OnLive (already active in the USA) launched yesterday in the UK. For those not in the know, OnLive is a system which allows you to play any game on the service (a lot of the big publishers are with them) on any machine that can access it, regardless of how much memory it has or how good its graphics card. At the moment, any Windows XP or later PC, most modern Apple Macs and even a lot of tablets are compatible with the service.
How it works is that rather play a game on your computer, you play it through the computer, with the actual game itself being hosted on a remote super-PC elsewhere. This means that the game is not limited by the capabilities of your PC. I have a five-year-old, single-core machine which has not been able to effectively run any new game released in the last two years (apart from StarCraft II, and even that chugged a fair bit). With OnLive I can play brand-new releases at a high level of detail with no problem whatsoever.
It has the potential to be enormously revolutionary. Your £200 netbook is suddenly as formidable a gaming machine as a £600 tower from PCWorld. Mac users can play any game on the service without having to faff around with a separate Windows installation or wait and hope that a Mac version is released. Since game saves are held on the service rather than on your PC, you can also access the service from any computer and carry on playing from where you left off at home. You don't need to worry about installing, updating drivers, downloading patches or anything like that either. It took about two minutes to go from clicking on 'Sign Up' to playing Space Marine. Remarkable.
In addition, the service has a highly competitive pricing model. A lot of games have a free trial period on them, allowing you to play for a period (about 30-60 minutes depending on the game) before deciding to buy. If you do buy, the game picks up where you left off on the trial. This effectively means that demos - a dying breed for PC games - are suddenly back in existence, and developers don't need to spend time creating a separate demo for the game, it's just there. This is helpful even for hardcore, ultra-high-def gamers who probably wouldn't use the service for actually playing the full game. In addition, some games come with 'passes' rather than forcing you to spend the full retail price on the game. For example, aware from reviews that Space Marine's single-player campaign is only 6 hours long, I opted to buy a five-day pass for £4, which should be ample to play and complete the game. Newcomers to the service can also, for the next two weeks or so, pick up their first game for £1. I opted for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I now own for the lifetime of the service. I should get to playing that next week.
This may all sound too good to be true, and of course there is a catch. The service is massively dependent on how good your Internet service is. I have a 10mb service with Virgin Broadband which has virtually never dropped out in two years, my PC is plugged straight into the broadband (no router) and I live very close to the exchange (which massively reduces latency). In five hours of playing, I have experienced no discernible control lag at all. The game is as responsive as if it was running directly off my hard drive. How on Earth OnLive have managed to do this I don't know, but it's a staggering technical achievement, even given my very good broadband connection. However, I should note that other users have reported slowdown on some other fast-paced FPS games even with good connections. This is why the 'try before you buy' part of the service is vital. If you have a poor connection, or a good one which drops out regularly, or if your PC is a long way from the router, the service may not be viable for you (but again, you can test it without spending a penny).
Another issue is that whilst the games run at a reasonably high spec, they are not running at a level that hard-core gamers will find impressive. If you are running games at 1900+ resolution on an 8GB state-of-the-art graphics card which is cooled by liquid nitrogen or something, than the service will likely not blow you away. However, if you are in that position you don't really need the service for the games, but the demos will still be of interest.
A final problem, and one that is harder to overlook, is that since the game does not reside on your hard drive, you can't run or carry out mods on the game. If you want to play the Lord of the Rings or Song of Ice and Fire mods for Medieval II: Total War, you need to buy the boxed game, you can't run them through OnLive (and, though mod support of a kind is apparently a possible future prospect, certainly nothing copyright-worrying will be hosted on the service). To be honest, given how many games are moving away from mod support, this is not as huge a problem as it would have been a few years ago. Obviously the service also requires you to be online at all times; playing a game on a plane or in the middle of the countryside miles from the nearest WiFi zone is impossible. But again, given how many games demand this anyway these days, this is an annoyance PC gamers are used to.
If, on the other hand, you gave up on PC gaming due to the problems of ever-changing and increasingly expensive hardware, or you have a dirt-cheap laptop but still want to try out some of the latest games, than the service is nothing short of stunning. As a keen gamer, having to miss out on most of the major releases of the past few years has been disappointing, but thanks to OnLive I can now play them without having to upgrade my PC.
What will be interesting is to see how the service expands from here. Visual quality can only increase (especially given the government's commitment to upgrading Britain's broadband network) and ultimately I suspect we will start seeing rival services spring up. It's entirely possible that twenty years from now, this is how all games will be played. The prospects are genuinely exciting (unless you're a graphics card manufacturer, of course).