ONLIVE: The Rise And Fall Of The Internet’s First Cloud Gaming Service

9th May, 2017 by

Let’s start with a little clarity. There are now a number of definitions for cloud gaming, but back in 2009 at the Game Developer’s Conference, there was just one. And ONLIVE was the definitive article. Cloud gaming or game streaming was an emerging technology that allowed users to control video games via the internet. The games themselves were actually running on super-spec ultra PCs that could be half a planet away. The concept was ingenious. It opened the elite top tier of gaming to keyboard jockeys who could access the latest games with nothing more complicated than a screen and the internet.

It sounds cool today, but back in 2009, the reaction to this new tech was like telling a sci-fi convention that Josh Whedon’s Firefly was getting a second series. In the days that followed the convention, the noise around ONLIVE was deafening.


The PR team behind ONLIVE will tell you that in the days after the 2009 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, the term ‘ONLIVE’ received more hits than the phrase ‘Video Game’. The platform’s future looked bright. The platform’s creator and CEO Steve Perlman, the brains behind QuickTime and WebTV, started Googling ‘Yachts for sale…,’. However, there was trouble brewing in paradise.,But like all superheroes, dear readers, he’s recovered. You can see what Steve Perlman’s up to right now with ONLIVE thin gaming client that runs crisis on the iPhone.

So what happened to the ONLIVE dream?

Well to be honest, it was all my fault. I need to tell you straight up that I was an early adopter of the ONLIVE service. I had not one, but two of the micro-consoles that they gave away with premium subscriptions. Sadly, there weren’t enough of me to go round and ONLIVE was living beyond its means. There were other issues too. If you’ve ever turned to your better half around 6pm and uttered the phrase, “Is there something up with the internet?” you’ll know what I mean. Cast your mind back to 2009 and try to imagine or reimagine the levels of frustration involved in trying to conquer a two-hour boss fight, when the screen went blank every time your little sister logged into MySpace (Yes, it was still a thing back then…).

To make matters worse ONLIVE’s creator wasn’t what you would call a diplomat and was prone to rage and thus actually quit himself. If history tells us anything it’s that 2009,10 and 11 were not exactly his years and his subsequent ‘own goals’ blew the final whistle on his dreams of glory.

But while it worked…

ONLIVE in practice was actually as good as it was in theory. If your connection was strong and you didn’t mind the mostly B-list titles, you could play games designed for ultra high spec machines for a fraction of the cost. I first came across and completed the first Bioshock game on my little ONLIVE console. This was at a time when I couldn’t dream of affording a PC capable of playing it, but that was another ghost in the ONLIVE machine. Sure, anyone could log in and stream these games on a cheap PC, the micro-consoles and even their mobile phones, but back at HQ ONLIVE they needed high spec PCs to actually run them.

There was also the issue of ownership. As a predecessor of Stream, which eventually became one of its partners, ONLIVE offered its customers the opportunity to buy games. The problem was you only owned the game as part of the ONLIVE service and if the servers or your internet was down, your game was gone. Indeed, I still own a few titles on ONLIVE, but I wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to find them now.

In the end, ONLIVE went the way of TIVO. The two companies shared a lot of their stories. Both were pioneers of their tech, attracted heavy investment, had limited actual success in the market and, in the end, both had their tech bought out from under them. For ONLIVE the salvage team would come in the form of SONY. It makes me giggle to think that when the missus kicks me off the big screen for Homeland on Sunday evening, and I’m forced to power up my wee PS Vita. By streaming my PS4 Game, I am in some way keeping the ONLIVE dream alive.