For on­line gamers, On­Live stream­ing ser­vice is on point

Austin American-Statesman - - TECHMONDAY - By Hi­awatha Bray

What hap­pens when you try to play a 3-month-old video game on a 4-year-old per­sonal com­puter? Bad things, usu­ally. The new­est games of­ten re­quire more com­put­ing power than an old ma­chine can de­liver.

Yet I hap­pily played the lat­est “Splin­ter Cell” game on an ag­ing Ap­ple Macin­tosh lap­top the other day. Of course, I wasn’t re­ally run­ning the game on the Mac. I played the game us­ing On­Live, a new ser­vice that es­sen­tially broad­casts high-pow­ered games over the In­ter­net.

Gam­ing has been mov­ing on­line for a while. Many desk­top com­puter gamers down­load the soft­ware at on­line stores like Valve Corp.’s Steam ser­vice, which fea­tures about 1,100 games. There’s also GameTap.com, an on­line game sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that for a flat fee lets Win­dows PC users down­load and play mostly older video games.

But with these ser­vices, the game is ac­tu­ally run­ning on your com­puter. Not so with On­Live, which is more like the on­line video ser­vice Hulu. In­stead of stream­ing old TV shows, On­Live streams games.

The ser­vice of­fers about two dozen ti­tles so far, in­clud­ing re­cent high-end hits such as “Splin­ter Cell: Con­vic­tion,” “As­sas­sin’s Creed II,” and “Lego Harry Pot­ter.”

To play, a sub­scriber down­loads a small pro­gram that acts like a me­dia player. Ac­ti­vat­ing it con­nects you to one of On­Live’s three high-pow­ered com­put­ing cen­ters, in Vir­ginia, Texas, or Cal­i­for­nia. The game ac­tu­ally runs on a com­puter in the cen­ter; the soft­ware on your ma­chine only dis­plays the game and trans­mits the com­mands you send via key­board and mouse.

This might make sense for slow­mov­ing puz­zle games like those on Face­book. But to play a fast-paced run-and-gun ac­tion game, you need in­stant re­sponses to ev­ery mouse

Con­tin­ued from B click.

Now imag­ine play­ing over the In­ter­net, on a ma­chine lo­cated hun­dreds of miles away. Even a small glitch in the net­work ought to make the game un­playable. It’s hard to see how On­Live could pos­si­bly work. But it does. I had no prob­lem play­ing “Bat­man: Arkham Asy­lum” on a 3-year-old Dell lap­top. On-screen graph­ics were sharp and rich, and the game re­sponded im­me­di­ately to ev­ery twitch of the mouse. It felt ex­actly as if I had in­stalled the soft­ware on my lo­cal com­puter.

I had equal suc­cess play­ing “Splin­ter Cell: Con­vic­tion” on that 4-year-old Mac lap­top. That is even more im­pres­sive than it sounds, be­cause the Mac-com­pat­i­ble ver­sion of this game doesn’t ar­rive un­til Oc­to­ber. No mat­ter; Macs can play any On­Live game.

Fair warn­ing, though; the one-but­ton mouse used by Macs is use­less for ac­tion games. Get a stan­dard PC mouse if you want to live.

Your On­Live ac­count works on any com­pat­i­ble com­puter, so you can log on at work or a friend’s house and re­sume a game where you left off. And al­though it works with older ma­chines, they can’t be too old. You will need a dual-core pro­ces­sor; sin­gle-core Pen­tiums just aren’t fast enough. You also need a fast In­ter­net con­nec­tion, with down­load speeds of at least 5 megabits. That’s a prob­lem for peo­ple with slower DSL broad­band, though cable mo­dem users should have no trou­ble. How­ever, se­vere net­work con­ges­tion can spoil a game even if you have a fast con­nec­tion.

On­Live presently re­quires users to plug in an Eth­er­net cable. Wi-Fi wire­less ser­vice isn’t sup­ported, though On­Live founder Steve Perl­man told me they hope to change this in a few weeks.

But just be­cause On­Live is on the In­ter­net doesn’t mean it’s free. On the con­trary, it can get a lit­tle costly. On­Live in­vestor AT&T Inc. is of­fer­ing free one-year mem­ber­ships to new users, but af­ter that, the ser­vice will charge $4.95 a month in ad­di­tion to fees to ei­ther rent or buy the games.

You will gen­er­ally pay around $5 to play a ti­tle for three days, or $9 for five days. Some games cost just $10 to buy out­right, but “Splin­ter Cell: Con­vic­tion” goes for $60, its stan­dard re­tail store price. When you buy a game, On­Live stores it re­motely and guar­an­tees to keep it for you for at least the next three years. If you let your monthly sub­scrip­tion lapse, you can no longer play the games you “own.’’

Still, break­through technology is rarely cheap, and an­other break­through lies ahead. On­Live is work­ing on a de­vice that will stream games to your home TV, and even­tu­ally hopes to of­fer the ser­vice on smart­phones and tablet com­put­ers. The com­pany’s ul­ti­mate goal is in­stant high-end gam­ing, on any In­ter­net-con­nected de­vice — and so far, On­Live is get­ting it done.

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