I’ve been seeing the implementation (or talk) of cloud-based gaming a lot recently. At the forefront seems to be companies like instant game purveyor OnLive. In theory, it seems like a pretty decent deal. You can play using a PC, Mac, or even your home TV and the OnLive system and controller. The system itself doesn’t look like much other than a broadband modem and the controller resembles the love-child of the 360 and PS3′s offerings. To be fair, I’ve not used it myself so I can’t pass judgement, but it just looks bulkier and more awkward than it should be.

Players have the choice of purchasing retail games through OnLive, or going with what is known as the “PlayPack Bundle” for $10 a month. This allows users unlimited access to more than 50 games for that month. A quick perusal of the selection show heavyweights like Bioshock and Borderlands, but most are older titles or are games that can be purchased through the Xbox LIVE Arcade. Maw and Trine were two I noticed immediately.

Clearly this service is set to sell full retail games to players and then stream them on demand. I like the idea of being able to access a collection of games from nearly anywhere, and not need anything more than a laptop or the aforementioned OnLive system and controller. That being said, however, I have major misgivings about the whole thing:

First (and most obvious), what happens if OnLive goes under? Will my collection of games do the same? Like the cloud-based music services that’ve been rolled out by Google and Amazon (iTiunes is working on their own as well), it would really suck to lose many years’ worth of collecting and gaming. I’d be quite upset if I lost my music on a cloud, but I’d have a backup here on my iMac. That wouldn’t be the case with OnLive.

What about connection issues? Granted, OnLive has a fairly robust internet throughput testing application that you need to run in order to be deemed fast enough for their service. But what if you live in an area that regularly has outages or experiences precipitous drops in speed? Granted, that isn’t OnLive’s fault, but it must be taken into account by anyone looking to use the service.

Lastly, the thing that also would be troublesome is if industry publishers decided to take this road as well. We already have some companies that are requiring a constant connection to the Internet in order to play their game. The most recent I’m aware of is Darkspore from Maxis and EA. I have no beef with devs and producers wanting to protect their IPs that they’ve worked so hard on for years at a time. Quite the opposite. I applaud their efforts, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the experience for gamers like myself who play by the rules. In a recent review for Darkspore done by Game Informer magazine, the reviewer lamented losing the connection with EA’s servers, and thus having to go back and re-play some of the levels he’d already completed. To some this might not be that big of a deal. To me, it could be a deal-breaker. I don’t have enough time in the day to get everything I need to done, let alone go back and re-play levels because of security issues.

The good news is that I’m not all acid and vitriol. Nope, I like to give the good with the bad. I think that while cloud-based gaming can definitely become a bust (Sega Channel anyone?), it has the potentiality to become something great for gamers and the industry alike. If I were in charge of things, this is how I’d implement it (this assumes all needed technologies already exist or can be realistically implemented):

- Get the major publishers together behind a single system like OnLive. We don’t need another Beta/VHS or HD DVD/Blu-Ray fiasco on our hands. Publishers who elect not to jump on board (Nintendo would be my first guess) won’t be an issue, just hope they see the growth there and jump onboard.

- Have the retail experience be ubiquitous, regardless if a game is bought at a brick and mortar retail location or through the streaming system. I liken it to the current Blu-Ray situation where you purchase a movie and still get the standard definition DVD and Digital Copy. The same could apply. Walk into GameStop and purchase Resistance 3, get a code that allows you access to stream it. Charge a monthly fee like you already have, and it will be up to gamers wether or not they want to pay the extra to use the service. On the reverse side, if a gamer purchases the title through the streaming service, after a designated period of time, they can have access to the physical disc. I’d guess somewhere between 6-12 months. That way the publisher isn’t risking the game being turned right around to be sold or traded in. Most fans of a game will have it and have beaten it long before the 6 month window expires.

- Make it as multi-platform as possible. An awesome example of this is a little iOS game called Shadow Era. It’s a card-based game like Magic that can be played on the iPhone, iPad, as well as through any web browser. That’s as close as I’ve seen any title come to gaming convergence. Now I understand that what goes into a game like Shadow Era and a game like Uncharted 2 are vastly different and that the latter probably just wouldn’t be possible through a web-based portal or on a tablet like the iPad. But hopefully it could be run over the streaming service through the proprietary box or even a decent PC/Mac configuration.

- Make it different. Unless there’s something value-added to it, I don’t see a lot of people wanting to fork over extra money in addition to what they’re paying for XBL or something to that effect. This could be another coup for a streaming service where entire communities of like-minded individuals could get together and game, hang out, chat, whatever really. Friends lists would be implemented day one, but I’d like to see a real doozy of a profile analyzer there. Like Internet dating sites, but to find gaming buddies.

- Make it affordable. I know it’s a double-edged sword. You want to give gamers hardware that will power their games through the lifespan on the current generation, but keeping costs down are tough. Look at the PS3. As an avid gamer and home theater enthusiast, $500 for a launch 20GB system was a no-brainer to me. But to “Joe Six-
Pack,” it wasn’t happening. At the other end of the spectrum we had the Wii. Granted, its motion-based gameplay and charming interface (as only Nintendo seems to be able to pull off continuously) were a huge reason that it was popular. But I’d posit that the price-point at which it was originally marketed at was also a huge boost as well. With our pretend venture, all the heavy lifting is done on the server side. No reason why new systems can’t be implemented every few years, or even yearly if the cost is low enough. To use that old trope, “If we build it, they will come.”

- Make devs want to develop for this platform. Even though the gaming industry is showing unprecedented growth, we’re still in the middle of a nasty recession. Talk to any number of teams and at least one member has been, or knows someone who laid off or had to switch companies. Plan it right and hit it out of the park, and the industry will have such an influx of both hardcore and casual gamers that there will be enough to go around. And everyone gets to keep making money doing what they love.

Now for the wet blanket portion of our programming…I’m under no delusions here. I know this is all pie-in-the-sky stuff. I know that competition is good and there are inherent risks with going with a singular platform/delivery service. And most of all, I know that getting the big 3 to cede some control to a central delivery system is about as likely as Doom-inspired cosplay or SquareSoft actually releasing an updated version of Final Fantasy VII. But we can dare to dream, can’t we?