OnLive founder, president and CEO Steve Perlman is no stranger to cutting edge technology, having worked for both Apple and Microsoft over the course of a career that’s seen him dabble in everything from Quicktime to motion capture. OnLive can be viewed as an amalgamation of his past experience, drawing in aspects of digital distribution, hardware manufacture and software development as he attempts to take cloud-gaming by the horns.
OnLive’s UK debut, the first region to follow its US launch in June last year, will see it arrive with a strong, varied line-up of titles. From new releases like Deus Ex: Human Revolution to indie hits like Braid, choice of content is not an issue. We sat down with Perlman to talk about learning from the past, looking to the future and how OnLive might be the key to gaming’s next seismic shift.
What lessons have you learned in the first year of OnLive, stateside, that will be brought to the UK launch?
The list is huge. We launched in the US with 18 games, and wired connections to PCs and Macs – you need millions of connections in order to figure out what is needed to make it run before we went to wifi – so then we added wifi. Then we added the microconsole. Then we added tablets. And then we started adding a lot more games. Multiplayer. Voice-chat – three different types: spectating chat, which is quite unique to OnLive, in-game chat and then group chat with friends.
Did this iteration come from community feedback?
Some came from the community, some things were on the slate but we just didn’t get around to them. There were limited resources so we had to triage our development resources, [things like] building parental controls… other things were smaller; how do we price these games? What’s the right way to promote them? How do people compare this offering with downloads and physical media? Like with Square Enix and Deus Ex – a coupon in with the disc turned out to be a very successful idea. When we first launched Playpack – which has over 100 games, and will be £6.99 in the UK (it’s $9.99 in the US) – the studios weren’t super-fond of [services like] Netflix, because they see it as more difficult to be successful in movies. But we tried to point out that gaming is a different thing, and we can make a successful flat-rate service.
Certain types of games, certainly legacy games that have been around, make sense, but getting studios to bring in new games like Homefront and Fear 3 and saying, ‘Hey – how about we just do multiplayer for that because then you have annuity revenue and if the person really wants to do singleplayer they can buy the whole game’: that worked out great. So we’re getting games six weeks after release into this flat-rate plan. How could you have predicted a year before that that would be the case? Initially [publishers] were saying there’s no way we’re going into a flat-rate plan. But having a flat-rate plan is very appealing for parents and people on a budget. However, they’re not going to do it unless there’s quality games on there, so how do you find that balance? We worked that out, it was 15 months of learning in the states in order to get us where we are now. There’s also been a huge amount of work on improving the algorithmns: if you were to measure the performance of, say, Unreal Tournament today compared to where it was 15 months ago, it’s more responsive.
OnLive founder, president and CEO Steve Perlman and OnLives streaming selection menu
The Pando survey of UK ISPs suggests BT isn’t top of the pile – why did you go with BT?
There’s a number of different issues. In the US, there’s not one internet backbone there’s several. Unlike a website, or streaming video, we’re very concerned about what route you have; to make sure it’s a very direct route from the data centre right to the user. The backbone in the UK is something which BT wholesales, so they have the technical depth and knowledge of how all these different pieces fit together. And so we worked with them in making sure that our inter-connects are optimal, that we can connect to anything as optimally as possible. And BT have a great relationship with their customers from a retail point of view, and they have a large network of wifi access points – you can, in some cases, get Onlive to work over 3G, but for tablets and mobile devices it's really a wifi application.
Who pitched to who?
There’s another side to it. I was giving a very objective set of characteristics but, gosh, at this point we’ve probably met with every major operator in the world – certainly different operators in the UK. We meet with people who are motivated and have a vision to go and do something new, who are willing to take a chance and go with something that’s not defined. BT invested in OnLive before we had even launched the service, where the general consensus among experts was it didn’t even work technically, it wasn’t possible. BT invested in May of 2010, and we launched in June. They believe in what we’re doing; they analysed it, said it really does work and not only that but it’s something which has a chance to really revolutionise things. We’re showing them the basic service now, there’s going to be new things we’re going to come up with; we want a partner who’s not going to look askance at it and say it’s too risky to try. We need risk takers and its hard to find that with large corporations.
The past months have seen developments in portable gaming, from 3DS to Vita – do you see yourselves now competing with those platforms?
Not directly. This brings up the broader question of whether we see consoles as competitors. This is the very first time a new platform has been introduced into the gaming space which is not a direct competitor against existing ones. We have lots of folks that are Xbox, PS3 and PC users who use OnLive as well. We’re more than happy to work in concert with these other platforms. We view ourselves as joining the ecosystem. It’s the same with portables, if you’re on an airplane without connectivity and you have your iPad or Android tablet, you’re not going to use OnLive. Then again, if you’re at the airport and your train’s running late and you want to play Deus Ex, you can. And that’s awesome.