GDC: Why OnLive “can’t possibly work”

Thursday, 26 March 2009 11:16 GMT By Mike


Eurogamer’s tech expert Richard Leadbetter has written an article on just why he thinks the newly-announced Cloud gaming service OnLive “can’t possibly work.”

The first reason is because:

To give the kind of performance OnLive is promising (720p at 60 frames-per-second) realistically its datacenters are going to require the processing equivalent of a high-end dual core PC running a very fast GPU – a 9800GT minimum, and maybe something a bit meatier depending on whether the 60fps gameplay claim works out, and which games will actually be running. That’s for every single connection OnLive is going to be handling.

Then there’s:

First of all, bear in mind that YouTube’s encoding farms take a long, long time to produce their current, offline 2MBps 30fps HD video. OnLive is going to be doing it all in real-time via a PC plug-in card, at 5MBps, and with surround sound too.

It sounds brilliant, but there’s one rather annoying fact to consider: the nature of video compression is such that the longer the CPU has to encode the video, the better the job it will do. Conversely, it’s a matter of fact that the lower the latency, the less efficient it can be.

OnLive overlord Steve Perlmen has said that the latency introduced by the encoder is 1ms. Think about that; he’s saying that the OnLive encoder runs at 1000fps. It’s one of the most astonishing claims I’ve ever heard. It’s like Ford saying that the new Fiesta’s cruising speed is in excess of the speed of sound.

There’s plenty more to get your teeth into through this link.

Whether it will or won’t work, only time will tell.


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  1. BraveArse

    tbh I hope he’s right. I like ownership of my games even if it’s by download rather than physical copy. The concept would take a lot of the pleasure out of it for me in a bizarre kind of way.

    #1 6 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    That article’s hilarious.

    #2 6 years ago
  3. Roybott

    I love the idea of downloading games rather than buying them but I dont like the idea of not being able to play my games if my internet is down, or if my housemate decides to use internet to play his games at the same time…

    1.5mbps for 1 person how about a house of 2, 3 or 4 people all wanting to play?

    With the speed of takeup around streaming movies rather than buying them over the past few years I can’t see OnLive becoming mainstream enough to replace the games consoles in the next 5 years atleast!

    #3 6 years ago
  4. Newbie101

    I don’t understand a lot of peoples comments about owning a ‘physical’ game.
    Surely, turning on your TV and playing any AAA console or PC game sounds amazing?

    #4 6 years ago
  5. Blerk

    Sounds like a challenge! :-D

    #5 6 years ago
  6. Retroid

    /Also in the ‘OnLive is bollocks for most things’ camp

    #6 6 years ago

    Like we’ve all been saying, Onlive is just too far ahead of it’s time.

    I wonder how they feel though…

    They must have thought that they were on to an absolute winner with this thing, but so far, what seems like 99% of the public/gaming community reaction has been negative.

    #7 6 years ago
  8. rainer

    BraveArse – onlive wont kill off thins like steam and there are plenty of people who just don’t have that attachment to games that you do (I used to be one) they are more likely to be the kind that are interested in onlive.

    Mister Leadbetters armchair musings aside several of the worlds biggest publishers were clearly convinced, Ubisoft, EA, 2K Games, THQ and smaller outfits so yeah it does work otherwise they wouldn’t be supporting it.

    The challenge will be to deploy it the general public and those are problems for onlive not consumers.

    #8 6 years ago
  9. Psychotext

    There were quite a few publishers convinced by the Phantom too. :D

    (Tech is obviously very different… but the point is that otherwise intelligent people can react badly when they see massive dollar signs flashing up.)

    #9 6 years ago

    “Mister Leadbetters armchair musings aside several of the worlds biggest publishers were clearly convinced, Ubisoft, EA, 2K Games, THQ and smaller outfits so yeah it does work otherwise they wouldn’t be supporting it.”

    Not really. Many of them signed up for Phantom too iirc.

    Anyway, all that happens is that someone comes to your company and says that he can make you billions. Gives you a Powerpoint presentaion, then asks if you agree to do business with them in the future. Whoever doesn’t agree with that proposal in principle isn’t really looking out for the best interests of his company.

    #10 6 years ago
  11. Newbie101

    PT, correct me if I’m wrong but not one top publisher openly supported the Phantom.

    #11 6 years ago
  12. Shatner


    Do you remember the earliest days of Steam and all the “No, it’ll never work. Speed. Ownership. Internet. Yadda yadda yadda” comments there were?

    “Yes but.. but..!!!”

    #12 6 years ago
  13. deftangel

    Finally, someone with some sense is looking at this critically. Why do you say it’s hilarious though Pat? Are you down on the article or OnLive itself?

    Eventually something like this kind of service will be around and working, it’s just too early. The sort of people who have the net connections where this is feasible and not object to paying £X per month, are going to be the sort of demanding gaming consumers who won’t like the idea of playing their games looking at a horribly compressed picture on their new 1080p telly.

    Once it gets down to mass market levels and the broadband infrastructure is there, your average Joe bloggs who wants to play FIFA and doesn’t care what it looks like could be interested. I just think that’s a long way off, practically speaking.

    #13 6 years ago
  14. Quiiick

    What also makes me feel uncomfortable is the fact that this new cloud-service has already a very professional looking logo and beautiful photographs of game-controllers and other hardware components. Just like the phantom did, to attract dumb investors.
    I’m sceptical. OnLive could very well be a scam.

    #14 6 years ago
  15. Psychotext

    Newbie: I have this as the list of supporters for the Phantom:

    “Eidos, Atari, VU Games and Codemasters are the biggest players so far enlisted, with smaller firms confirmed including: 21-6 Productions, BraveTree, Chronic Logic, Dreamcatcher Interactive, eGames, Enlight Interactive, Framework Studios, GamerBlitz, Gameware Development, GarageGames, Global Software Publishing, Interplay, Kuma Reality Games, Legacy Interactive, Max Gaming, O-3 Entertainment, Riverdeep, and Skunk Studios.”

    They’re not EA, but Eidos and Atari aren’t exactly smallfry.

    #15 6 years ago
  16. Patrick Garratt

    Deft – The way it pulled it apart just made me laugh, is all. I love the concept, but I spoke to Rich about this yesterday, and he came to the very swift conclusion that it simply isn’t possible at the moment.

    #16 6 years ago

    It’s a bit of a killer blow when you wonder how exactly they are going to get the kind of processing power to handle potentially millions of high end games being run at the same time.

    How much does 10 million dual core processors cost?

    #17 6 years ago
  18. Newbie101

    PT – Did the phantom ever show anything running? Don’t forget, these are not just publishers putting their name in a PR release this is a company showing their games running on the machine…
    At the end of the day, I’m just a consumer. I don’t care how it works as long as it works. They have proven it works over a closed environment, they just need to prove it works in the wide world.. we’ll see in the summer during the Beta in the states (who do have the internet infrastructure).
    Anyone who says this isn’t an awesome idea have to be lying to themselves….

    #18 6 years ago
  19. Psychotext

    Yeah, but the Phantom wasn’t anything clever like this. Was really just a Steam box of sorts.

    I think the thing is in this case, a lot of people understand just how it could work in a closed environment… but unless you’re talking about Internet 2 the main product might be another story.

    #19 6 years ago
  20. deftangel

    Ah I see, cheers. That was my initial reaction also. Undoubtedly something like this will be viable at some point, they aren’t the only guys working on this stuff.

    I’m just finding the “it will kill teh consoles” – “er no it won’t” – “you are afraid of teh change” back & forths” I’m seeing in some places quite amusing :D

    #20 6 years ago

    You don’t need any sort of high tech system to know that you can get remote access to a PC. The problem comes when Johnny Bloggs wants to play Crysis on his TV using his 4MB Talk Talk broadband, and ends up with a stuttering mess that actually runs at 10-15 fps and crashes every 10 minutes.

    #21 6 years ago
  22. Newbie101

    @PT True..

    I think what I was trying to get at was I thought a lot of publishers was careful who they give their game IP out too so that they must have some confidence if they are letting them demo their games on the system…?

    #22 6 years ago
  23. crackdude

    This article is a load of bull.

    “OnLive overlord Steve Perlmen has said that the latency introduced by the encoder is 1ms. Think about that; he’s saying that the OnLive encoder runs at 1000fps. It’s one of the most astonishing claims I’ve ever heard.”

    This is what ticked me off. We aren’t talking about physics here and aerodynamics. We are talking about technology. The guy who is in front of the project is one of the guys that originaly CREATED VIDEO ENCODING with Quick Time on the mac. So I think he at least knows a bit more on this subject than the “tech expert” Richard Leadbetter. I wonder what would Richard Leadbetter tought about streaming video off the Internet a few years ago.. Cause that would be like…putting an elephant inside my Fiesta! woha!

    #23 6 years ago
  24. Whizzo

    OnLive is complete nonsense, unless they’ve developed magic or have stolen tech from Area 51 it simply will not work.

    #24 6 years ago
  25. Gekidami

    Computers and magic are one and the same… Havnt you seen Die Hard 4?

    #25 6 years ago
  26. Whizzo

    Perhaps venture capitalists whose only knowledge of computers comes from the movies is who OnLive are trying to sell their idea to?

    #26 6 years ago
  27. ecu

    I wonder what would Richard Leadbetter tought about streaming video off the Internet a few years ago.. Cause that would be like…putting an elephant inside my Fiesta! woha!

    How is this in any way like streaming video? Video can cache in your harddrive while it’s still downloading. This has to react as you’re playing it, AND at ridiculously high latency, so the logistics are miles away. I’ve no doubt it can be done, but not with the technology that your average computer user would have access to.

    #27 6 years ago
  28. Psychotext

    crackdude: That’s not the opinion of Richard Leadbetter, he said he “consulted one of the world’s leading specialists in high-end video encoding”.

    #28 6 years ago
  29. Retroid


    (Not a response to Ptext, there)

    It’s far from the main problem with things like this, the people who’re saying “this won’t be usable”, like myself, are people who’re thinking about input lag, not the ‘HD’ video encoding.

    #29 6 years ago
  30. ecu

    crackdude doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Sure, Steve Perlman might be talented, but he’s constrained by the technology available to the consumer. I just don’t think the technology is in place for this to be anywhere near feasible for quite some time – especially not in this country.

    #30 6 years ago
  31. Rhythm

    My thoughts exactly, Retroid. Input and response is the main concern here. After using streammygame I believe it can definitely be done but the network lag would need to be sorted.

    As for video encoding, what makes Richard Leadbetter assume that the video feed is being doubly encoded (using his Youtube comparison)?

    #31 6 years ago
  32. Quiiick

    Quote by “Darren” from the Eurogamer comments section:
    “… Seems to me that if you’re that bothered about paying £200 for a piece of hardware to play your games on every five years and the cost of those games themselves, you’d be better off buying the hardware second-hard and renting the games as it’ll probably be cheaper in the long-run and deliver a much better experience …”

    I absolutely agree!
    Even if this whole “OnLive” thing actually does work, I’m quite sure it will not be cheap for consumers to subscribe.

    #32 6 years ago
  33. Shatner

    Seems to me like Richard Leadbetter has never used a VNC connection. Also it seems like everyone else is assuming the game content will all be focused on their sort of games – such as ones where speed and reactions count for everything.

    You could do stuff like Brain Training (yeah, nobody bought that) or SRPG or heaps of other game types that aren’t frame-specific and there’d be no problem.

    There’s no way this is “impossible” – the only folk that think something is impossible are the ones without the ability to broaden their views.

    Look at what YouTube has done to the internet in just a few years.

    Things change. The stuff that was too radical for some folk to believe becomes common place.

    /gets on hoverboard

    #33 6 years ago
  34. Psychotext

    You could certainly do stuff like brain training… but when they put Burnout Paradise up as a banner title they’re going to have to deliver on it.

    #34 6 years ago
  35. Retroid

    Given that at least one preview of Onlive mentioned playing Bioshock, I was ‘presuming’ they’d be offering things like…. Bioshock.

    I’ve used several versions of VNC over the years and while they’re usable, they’re no substitute for controlling the machine you’re using directly.

    #35 6 years ago
  36. Rhythm

    VNC isn’t geared at delivering fast moving video content though. Try out a service like StreamMyGame (VNC for games) and things improve a lot. If this is a money-backed, server-full version of StreamMyGame then I can see it working for certain games, definitely.

    #36 6 years ago
  37. deftangel

    The OnLive guys were very clearly pitching this at the top end of the market, “hardcore gamers” if you will. You know, the people commenting on how feasible it might be on a gaming website.

    If they are going after a more mainstream/casual/whatever audience then it’s a different kettle of fish as they will have more room to compromise on quality with regards to picture quality, input lag whatever.

    Think of it as streaming Wii games vs 360/PS3/PC games. The technical requirements for the former are far less onerous and closer to what current broadband infrastrucute is capable of delivering today.

    But that’s not what they were showing. They were showing Crysis, Burnout running at 720p video at 60 frames a second with no lag. That’s a completely different game, let alone the same ballpark.

    #37 6 years ago
  38. Shatner

    Fair enough. I still think that it’s perfectly possible. I don’t think you’ll be getting the exact same experience with the game being virtualised but, then again, with fewer middle men to deal with (not need for distributors and retailers) and piracy being greatly limited due to the fact OnLive isn’t actually delivering the content itself there’s a lot of scope to offer gameplay at a noticeably reduced price.

    If people don’t have to spend £200 on a machine + £40 on each game (or three times that much for the latest whizz-bang PC hardware) and they get a product that has negligible differences then why would they pay more?

    Additionally, you folk need to remember something about context: this is currently being pitched at a developer conference, not a consumer one. Just like the Nintendo keynote and gamers spazzing out saying it was boring. That’s because the main audience being addressed at GDC *isn’t* consumer gamers. The clue is in the title: GDC. :P

    #38 6 years ago
  39. Blerk

    I’m sort of curious about the costs involved. Yes, you don’t have to buy a £200 machine, but you do still have to pay for the game. And then on top of that, you’ve got to pay for your broadband connection. Exactly how much data are we expecting to be streaming here? I’m guessing a capped connection isn’t going to be able to handle it, so you’d have to go for a full-fat uncapped service… which costs a lot more money. And hence you potentially end up spending more money than you would have spent on just buying the hardware.

    #39 6 years ago
  40. Shatner

    Thats like saying you have to buy a TV and have electricity to use a games console. There’s a lot of people already paying for a broadband connection so that ‘additional’ cost is already absorbed by the demographic this product is likely to be aimed at.

    Having said that, bundling the “OnLive” box when someone signs up to BT/Virgin/Sky or whoever’s broadband package would be a good way of getting your box into a lot of people’s homes.

    Everything has running costs. But, as this generation has shown, you can hide the running costs of something very well and convince a lot of people that you’re the cheapest option around and they’ll swallow it down so fast it won’t even touch the sides.

    #40 6 years ago
  41. Blerk

    Yeah, but how many people are paying for an unlimited broadband connection?

    #41 6 years ago
  42. Shatner

    I don’t know.

    But it would surely be an attractive option to present to an ISP:

    “Hey, our box will make obsessive gamers spend ages using excessive amounts of bandwidth. You can probably get more unlimited signups because they’ll want to keep playing.

    Fancy doing a deal?”

    #42 6 years ago
  43. Mike

    EDIT: Bah, my post makes no sense after your edit, Shat.

    #43 6 years ago

    Good point about the data costs Blerk.

    Even the ISP’s that give you ‘unlimited’ data have a ‘fair usage policy’.

    What about the gamers who spend up to 5-6 hours a day gaming? I seriously doubt that 720p60 plus Surround Sound audio being constantly streamed over 6 hours by thousands of users is going to be an attractive prospect to any ISP.

    #44 6 years ago
  45. Mike

    It’s not just that. Can ISPs deal with all that traffic?

    #45 6 years ago
  46. Tonka

    What is this capped broadband you speak of? Do they cut you off if you exceed a set limit?

    Sounds truly shit.

    #46 6 years ago

    I’m on unlimited, but again, I have a ‘fair usage policy’ that I have to watch out for.

    I think I’ve only ever had one warning letter so far, though…

    #47 6 years ago
  48. Shatner

    I think it did Mike. Edit it back you big wuss.

    G1GA: I disagree. ISPs would be rubbing their hands with glee if they adopted a pay-as-you-go policy with that sort of data usage. They’d much rather people use more than they intended than cap how much money they’d make. Look at how successful it’s been for mobile phones.

    #48 6 years ago
  49. Shatner

    Mike, the traffic ISPs are handling today could have been handled 5 or more years ago.

    But if they offered that service all that time ago they couldn’t have rolled out ‘upgrades’ to people.

    The actual ability of the infrastructure far exceeds what is offered. It’s just a business strategy to offer as little as you can now so you can offer a tiny bit more later and people see it as a positive thing. It’s more than they had before but it’s still only a fraction of what you’re able to give them.

    I guess you question isn’t “can they” it’s “will they”.

    #49 6 years ago

    Yeah, if they used PAYG they’d be happy with it. They’d probably have to find a way to stop offering unlimited data plans to gamers in that case.

    #50 6 years ago
  51. Psychotext

    Gah… pay as you go internet. That takes me back to the bad old days of 14.4 modems and paying 5p a minute to go online. :(

    #51 6 years ago
  52. wz

    Is it possible? Of course! Given a fujkload of processing machines, why not.

    But reasonable? I doubt it. And btw, processing power is so incredibly cheap today, why would I want to relay it?

    But then, seeing the development in the thin client sector for applications, it’ll definitively happen.

    #52 6 years ago
  53. Mike

    Shat: Good point. They do argue however, that the cost to them would be so high that we’d all be paying shitloads. Also however what with the limitations of coax, are ISP willing to lay down fibre optic giga pipes?

    Or will that not make a difference?

    #53 6 years ago
  54. Shatner


    #54 6 years ago
  55. deftangel

    If everybody on Xbox Live moved over to OnLive the ISP’s would be screaming blue murder. They do not have oodles and oodles of cheap bandwidth to throw around. If they did, they wouldn’t be investing so much money in traffic shaping and the like.

    In the UK, they’re buying it off of BT. I’m sure BT would be happy to flog it to them but I don’t see the ISP’s in this country being overjoyed if 1m people decide to sign up.

    Not to mention the average broadband speed here is 2Mbits

    #55 6 years ago
  56. ecu

    You’d need a lot of upstream bandwidth too, yes? That’s one area that is totally crippled over here in the UK. My 8mb internet is still capped at 512kb upstream.

    #56 6 years ago
  57. Shatner

    No, upstream doesn’t need to be much. It just needs to poll your inputs and upload them for processing. That could be optimised to a few bytes or less.

    #57 6 years ago
  58. deftangel

    Far more important than the actual bandwidth is the latency, (time taken from your “console” to reach the servers).

    60fps only allows for a latency of 17ms or so, which is quite ambitious given it has to transmit & process your controller inputs, update the game, render it, then render that into video and send it back down the pipe all in that time.

    I’m inclined to agree with the Eurogamer analysis that the best way of achieving that is going to be dedicated OnLive servers at the ISP. Did they announce any ISP’s as partners?

    #58 6 years ago
  59. Patrick Garratt

    Rich just said this to me on MSN:

    - I was doing some maths… really should have put it into the article
    - but basically OnLive is suggesting that each frame of HD video along with 5.1 surround is being conveyed in 10.41K of data
    - yup, 10K
    - can you imagine a 720p screenshot that’s 10K in size?
    - but that’s the maths… 5000kbps = 625K/s… divide by 60 frames and that’s 10.41K per frame

    #59 6 years ago

    Oh dear.

    It just gets worse…

    He should update the article and send it to OnLive for a response.

    #60 6 years ago
  61. Blerk

    I managed to get this Ratchet and Clank 720p screenie down to 30k. And as you can see, it looks just fine.

    #61 6 years ago
  62. Patrick Garratt


    #62 6 years ago
  63. Rhythm

    Just tried it with a Wipeout HD screenshot – LOL!!!

    #63 6 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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