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OnLive and latency: the milliseconds chalenge June 18, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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OnLive is finally here. The system launched yesterday and the team is being very cautious about it. They intend to do a gradual release, starting with fewer users and slowly opening up for everyone. But I don’t have any feedback on the service yet and it will be a while until we have solid numbers, so if you are reading and have something to say, write! I’m particularly interested in access farther away from the servers or in borderline connections (5MB according to OnLive’s FAQ).

Anyway, Gamasutra published a very good interview with Steve Perlman, OnLive’s CEO. And some of what he mentioned made me worry about the service, mostly about the issue everyone is worried about: latency. During the testing phase, Perlman said “99 percent haven’t had any lag complaints”. That is very positive. But in this article at PCWorld, Jared Newman states he experienced choppiness and lag during his tests. OnLive blamed the connection at the convention center.

However, if you put the interview and these first experiences together, you get to my main concern right now: OnLive works, but it takes such a toll on latency that you must be sure everything else works flawlessly.

First things first, OnLive’s main argument is very valid. That is: most of the latency is introduced in what they call the “last mile”. The distance from the server allegedly doesn’t matter much as long as the connection from the computer to ISP is good.

So they are already blaming someone else, right? “Our service is awesome, the problem is with the ISPs”. If you think about the network structure, it makes perfect sense. I hope the new age of remote computing forces ISPs to improve their networks and reduce overall latency. However, it is very easy to say something works in a structure that doesn’t exist. It is like making the most beautiful game ever, but that runs at 5 fps, and blaming GPU manufacturers (anyone thinking Crysis?).

But the other arguments I saw in the interview are worse. I never heard a casual gamer complaining about monitor latency, keyboard latency or mouse latency before. And those are the other reasons for big latency according to Perlman. Again: “Our service is awesome, maybe you just don’t have the right mouse”. Is it fair to blame the peripheral industry? Is it fair to say their service works and throw the problem over the fence? OnLive is the newcomer that should adapt to the current technology.

In my view, if mouse latency is a huge deal, that means it is just the last drop. I interpret that as: OnLive has an acceptable latency by itself, in vacuum, but take it to the atmosphere of the real world and the small latency caused by everything else adds up to an amount that makes the OnLive experience problematic.

Be that as it may, by Perlman’s speech it seems like all problems are solvable. So if you have a good connection to your ISP and small latency peripherals, OnLive should work and work well. And that’s a huge accomplishment. The problems shouldn’t stop gamers from testing the service. More than that, the choice to acquire OnLive and other remote solutions might in the long run force ISPs and peripheral manufacturers start making improvements. And if you have a good ISP at hand, OnLive still means you can run top notch games at high resolutions in low budget computers, which is amazing. I myself intend to try it as soon as possible. I want to play high res games on my laptop!

Just don’t come saying everything is fine and start pointing fingers. That’s just not right.

Side note: on January 29, I wrote a post mentioning OnLive on the iPad as a distant dream and somewhat of a joke. While it is still distant, other people thought of it (or maybe they read gaming me? lol) and it ended up in a proof of concept you can check here. Isn’t it cool?

See you space cowboys…

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