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Service lets players stream video games

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 15, 2010

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What happens when you try to play a three-month-old video game on a four-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 quite a while. Hundreds of titles let you compete with friends or strangers via the Internet. Also, 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 like Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed II, and Lego Harry Potter. To play, a subscriber downloads a small program that acts rather 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 just displays the game, and transmits the commands you send via keyboard and mouse.

This might make sense for slow-moving puzzle games like those on Facebook. But to play a fast-paced run-and-gun action game, you need instant responses to every mouse 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 three-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 four-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. Buy 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. But severe network congestion can spoil a game even if you have got 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, and 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, while 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.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @watha.