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The Mobile Gaming Mavens on OnLive's ability to disrupt the mobile games industry

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The Mobile Gaming Mavens on OnLive's ability to disrupt the mobile games industry

The PocketGamer Mobile Mavens is our own carefully curated collection of the finest brains in the mobile games industry.

Every week we ask them a trying question about the most prevalent or often titillating issues impacting the industry, with the latest point of order focusing on game-streaming service OnLive, which is attempting to release an app on iOS.

The question to the Mavens was:

With OnLive now available on tablets, do you see it as a disruptive technology for the mobile games industry or for the console games industry, or both?

And if Apple doesn't approve OnLive, does this give Android tablet manufacturers their first strong competitive advantage over iPad?

HandyGames' Christopher Kassulke didn't think that OnLive was, in its current state, a killer app on mobile.

"OnLive is used by hardcore users and currently not by the casual gamers, which have a bigger audience in the moment in the mobile game space," he alleged.

Thus he didn’t think it offered any real competitive advantage.

Mills™ of ustwo agreed; "From a human perspective I just don't see this taking off for many years - OnLive has been demoed in our studio and quite frankly nobody gave the slightest shit.

"It's an incredible technical feat but consoles and mobiles give a better experience and thus win. It's a geeks' domain right now and I'm thinking it will be for many years."

Dave Castelnuovo of Bolt Creative was even more sceptical; "I will eat a shoe if OnLive disrupts the mobile game industry." editor Jon Jordan riposted "We'll allow you peppercorn sauce" whilst Andreas Vahsen of Machineworks joshed "We are not shaking in our boots."

Clouded vision

Castelnuovo continued; "For a long time now, people have come on the scene touting a future where people have dumb terminals and all of their software runs on the cloud somewhere. Larry Ellison tried it years ago, Microsoft has built some really cool tools to be able to do it efficiently, but it just hasn’t caught on."

Castenuovo thought the failure of cloud-based software was because running software on a remote dumb client wasn't, currently, all that much cheaper than running a game locally, "Yet the experience of a 100 percent in-the-cloud model is much worse."

He recognised the instant-on benefits of OnLive, but pooh-poohed the current quality of the service, especially on mobile; the games neither look good, nor are adapted properly for mobile, and the difficulty particularly hasn’t been altered.

"There are issues that OnLive will not be able to get around, at least until the developed world is blanketed in 10Gbs internet connections with 1ms ping times," he added.

Castelnuovo's challenges

He also found the service hugely laggy.

"The gameplay is kind of smooth but it's impossible to completely get rid of the lag," he added. 

"That's why Apple is moving to Bluetooth 4.0 for AirPlay because even under local wi-fi conditions, it's extremely hard to make an IP-based network connection behave well enough to provide a good gaming experience when you are streaming the video output of a game."

Strategy Analytics' David MacQueen agreed; "Mobile networks are not really up to it - although things like LTE might make things better as there is a lot less lag on LTE networks."

David Helgason of Unity also chipped in with similar sentiment. "When you talk to the LTE technology providers you'll hear about latencies of up to 500ms as the round-robin signal slot makes its way between dozens or hundreds of LTE users," he said.

"These guys have an incentive to be optimistic, but totally aren't."

MacQueen also thought that cutdown apps, like the Warcraft Armoury, or local versions of triple-A titles made more sense in many cases than trying to stream the whole game.

"Providing an experience which may be limited but is good to a mobile handset, to me is more important than providing a 'full' experience which isn’t suitable for a small screen."

Flawed offering

On top of the earlier OnLive problems he'd listed, Castelnuovo found more; the text becomes unreadable, it needs always-on internet, and the price is too high for purchase, rental or subscription.

"I could see the service getting more traction if OnLive offered a buffet style subscription model where you pay $10 per month for unrestricted access to their entire library, but the economics don't really allow for this," he said.

"OnLive basically runs a console capable environment for every user that is playing a game. This is a very expensive server architecture to scale."

The only games that Castelnuovo saw succeeding on OnLive on mobile were, ironically, asynchronous ones, turn-based strategy titles like Fallout and Warhammer.

"Eventually in the far future internet companies will remove their bandwidth caps and improve their speeds so services like this are possible, but (not) in the next 5 years. OnLive will likely be purchased for its patents by then and the resulting service will probably be a hybrid approach," he added.

"It's not only the technology I’m afraid of, it's the people who drive the industry. Look at Netflix - by now it should be offering every movie available on every device but the executives in that industry ruined it because they want to protect their old world businesses.

"But I agree that elements of OnLive will probably show up in Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. No way in hell Nintendo will be jumping on that bandwagon - 10 years from now it will still be using carts, a stylus, and some really odd thing that no one was expecting."

Sceptical about the sceptics

Lucky Will Luton of Mobile Pie already has a good internet connection.

"I now play entirely on OnLive microconsole at home - my PS3 is just a fancy VCR," he said.

Despite this, he was aware of how bad the mobile experience is, but thought these were just technical challenges to be overcome.

"An industry vet once told me as soon as she hears someone say something 'will never happen', her instant thought is 'Yes it fucking will'."

"I laughed at OnLive. No way that could ever work," added Thomas Nielsen of Progressive Media. "Then I tried it. Blown away."

He agreed though that the infrastructure, device and content support wasn't quite there yet and wouldn't be for a long time, which meant he couldn’t see it threatening mobile.

"I don't want to sell games to technology or service first-movers only. To me, this business is fun because there's a mass market that understands mobile content consumption."

Luton thought the debate over the cloud paralleled the similar debate about digital downloads three years ago, citing "All the 'what if I don't have connection' or 'what if my hard drive crashes' or 'what if the service goes under'" questions flying around.

"All good questions, but they are about the limitation of the service, not the validity," he concluded. The future of mobile is the app, he contested, and the user doesn’t care about whatever’s driving that, as long as it works.

Not this, but something else

PR man Brian Baglow found the scepticism funny; "Access, theoretically, to every game - ever - from any device… OK, it's limited and a little clunky right now, but are we assuming that technology is going to get slower and worse?

"This could - and I will go out on a limb and say probably will - change the face of the industry almost totally. Probably not in 2012 - and it may not be OnLive or Gaikai as a company, but this is going to happen. Consumers are going to drive this. One purchase, play forever. On everything. Sold."

Kassulke agreed: "SMS took over a decade to be successful, mobile games took around that time as well ... timing is the important thing to be 'the' big company of that time and sector.

"We saw a lot of social networks before but Facebook made it, we saw a lot of chat software but at the end everyone is using Skype, we all had a lot of search sites but Google did it better, etc."

Fail whale

Castelnuovo provided counter-examples. "How about the Atari Jaguar, the N-Gage, Gizmondo, 3DO, interactive movies where the audience choose the path of the narrative, as well as many game related startups during the dot com boom.

"For every situation where people are saying that the iPhone would never happen but ends up transforming the industry, there are 100 situations where it really doesn't catch on."

Luton replied; "It's the black swan: The fallacy that all swans are white, because we'd only ever observed white swans, was only broken when a black one was found.

"Don't search for evidence supporting what you know, seek out what could undermine it, because when someone starts selling black swans, when you believe black swans don't exist, your white swan business is done.

"That said, I championed the Dreamcast. So clearly don't have a fucking clue."