Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cloud-Based Consoles and Why They (Currently) Annoy Me

Before you label me as a crotchety old man (at a whopping 22), hear me out: I really want a cloud-based console. I firmly believe that cloud-based gaming is the future, and that at some point in my life I will wind up getting one of these wonderful machines. My frustration comes not from the concept itself, but how it is executed and how tantalizingly close the current options are to justify my purchasing one. In order for me to finally make the financial commitment to one of these new game consoles, several changes and updates must occur. Before I discuss these, however, I need to take the time to congratulate the current generation of cloud-based gaming consoles on what they have done right. First up is the company that I think leads the race in cloud-gaming, Onlive.
Onlive’s streaming capabilities are incredible, and the console’s portability from any tv or smart device with a strong internet connection (Ipad, smartphone, computer, what have you) is extremely appealing. Its growing catalogue of games, including AAA titles like Arkham Asylum and Just Cause are equally compelling reasons to invest in this console. Another exciting feature, its player pack, allows users unlimited access to over 150 game titles for a nominal additional fee attached to the standard subscription. That’s the the coolest thing I have heard of as far as any sort of gaming subscription goes, and despite my hatred of anything connected with the word “subscription,” I would seriously consider investing in the player pack. The fact that it comes with a bluetooth-enabled controller reminiscent of the 360’s physical design (which, in my humble opinion, is the best controller ever) only adds to this device’s appeal.
I also love the idea that Onlive’s gaming experience is more dependant on the screen and device you are using than a physical console’s processing power. This allows for Onlive to expand its cloud’s graphical power without inconveniencing the user or forcing them to purchase a new device. Beyond the technical aspect, I love Onlive’s decision to let players rent games online for instant access, and observe other people  playing full-access games for free via their spectator mode.  I rarely buy a game if the developer does not offer a solid demo, and Onlive’s various means of pre-testing a game before purchase is a major boon to people who want to become educated consumers. All in all, Onlive has many very strong selling points that make it my top overall pick for a cloud-based console. Yet another promising candidate is the Kickstarter poster-child, Ouya.
This Android-based console, like Onlive’s mini-console, is a cheap buy at $99. Though it lacks Onlive’s portability, it also seems to lack Onlive’s subscription system, which is a major plus for those of us who hate monthly fees. Because it is a physical console, Ouya also benefits from the ability to store games on its hard-drive. Ouya’s controller design also seems solid. Data-wise, the Ouya’s Android OS ensures that game developers can interface with a familiar system. Ouya’s creators claim that the device itself is a test-kit, which might allow a massive wave of new  and innovative developers to cheaply bring their ideas to market. In a world of increasingly stagnant genres, this could be the key to perpetuating gaming as an industry. Where Onlive delivers solid performance and a very modular gaming experience, Ouya is all about its promise and potential, both to gamers, and the industry as a whole. And now for the uncomfortable part where I explain why both of these consoles are a very hard sell for me:
First, on the subject of Onlive, my major complaint is a lack of overall versatility. I am of course referring to its streaming-only style of gameplay and, by extension, its subscription system. I like owning things; I like knowing that even if Microsoft declares bankruptcy and Xbox Live shuts down forever, I will still have access to my physical disks and the games contained on them. Onlive is in a position to render disks irrelevant and instead offer an unlimited number of downloads of purchased games onto an external hard drive, but it does not offer this as a feature. In so doing, OnLive does not capitalize on the flexibility that makes it such an appealing option in the first place.
This not only means that people could pay full price for a game and have no way to access it if OnLive tanks (and I hope they don’t), but they have no way to play their games when, not if, they lose internet connection. By offering the option of downloading a working copy of a purchased game to a hard drive, OnLive would almost assuredly get my money. This would also open up a new possibility for payment plans. I love the idea of paying a 10 dollar subscription if it gets me access to my games on any smart device ever, but when I need to pay money to play games I already paid for... well, let’s just say there’s a reason why I don’t watch Netflix on my Xbox. If OnLive offers the ability to download copies of purchased games to a hard drive, and use the subscription to capitalize on their platform’s versatility instead of blocking penny-pinchers like me from even considering their system, I will happily fork over huge amounts of money to them, not only because I want their product, but because I believe in the versatility and focus on educating consumers that their system excels in.
My main problem with Ouya is more deep seated, but I will reserve judgement until the console either sees production or becomes yet another failed dream. However, some things are apparent to me that I think I can safely call the console out on right now: first, every game I have seen played on this system looks like a cheap flash-game, as in the sort I could find by the handful for free online at sites like Bubblebox, Addictinggames, Kongregate, or another similar site. I see no compelling games that would encourage me to invest in this system, especially considering the fact that I’m at a point in my life where $100 is still a fairly large investment. I certainly don’t want to buy another $2-400 console if i can get the same experience for less, but Ouya has given me no indication that it can provide this level of quality gaming. Still, my own experience with XBLA and what I have seen of the PS3’s similar online game marketplace, I know that there are several exceedingly high quality games (Bastion being a personal favorite) that a platform like Ouya could specialize in. My only question is: how does it plan on competing with more established systems, like the aforementioned XBLA? Pricing, perhaps, and certainly with a wider pool of new developers, but I suppose I will believe it when I see it.
I wish both Ouya and Onlive every success in the world, and hope that both can find their niche. However, until Onlive offers more concrete ownership to consumers and leverages this to offer a subscription-free means of using the system, and Ouya starts... existing, I see no reason to buy either console over an established brand. If they get their respective issues sorted out, I may even find it worth my while to get them both. Here’s hoping.