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OnLive. Head in the Clouds, or Merely in the Sand?

OnLive. Head in the Clouds, or Merely in the Sand? A month ago, if you had told me that I would be writing this piece, I may have thought you were a bit loopy. But here I am. This all started last night when I came to realize that wunderkind online gaming service, OnLive, had not released a single major game title in over a month. I commented about that over at the OnLiveFans.com forums, and of course caught a little flak for pointing it out. But I guess that I should have been expecting that, as one of the biggest problems about game sites dedicated to a singular gaming platform, the unwritten rules state that you will get punished, ridiculed, griefed and flamed for making any comment that could be remotely construed as negative against the platform of supreme dedication. It does not matter if you are telling the truth, it does not matter if the criticism comes from a place of love and a desire to see the object of your love reach it’s potential. The very fact of bringing such things up, usually makes you persona non grata at any platform-centric site, blog, or forum across the internet. It did not always used to be that way, but around the turn of the century (maybe around 9/11 even), the internet turned into a cruel, and cynical place. And these rules have pretty much applied since.

Fortunately for yours truly, the OnliveFans.com forums are a slightly more evolved place (for now). And while my comment did not elicit a much hoped for serious debate into the near future of OnLive (something similar comments would have done over a decade ago), at least I was not run out of town with any of the, ‘you are no longer welcome to ever return here,’ type that most places these days would have gone out of their way to make clear. But all the same, the response was still a far cry from the good old days of the internet, where the word forum meant just that. But enough about the myopia of platform or product-centric internet forums. I could, and probably should, write an entire book about the inherent dumbing down of the entire internet because of those. The entire situation with much of how modern internet communities are structured, reminds me of something Major Kusanagi said in Shirow Masamune’s masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell. The line was in reference as to why Section 9 would hire a non-augmented operative like Togusa. And I paraphrase, as I have not seen the film in almost a decade, but the line has to do with the fact that groups of people who think too much alike, inherently breed in weakness. Nature would also seem to agree with this assessment. As anyone who breeds animals, or has even a high school level knowledge of genetics can tell you, full breeds get sicker easier and have a tendency to die more easily from sickness, than mongrels. Anyway, that’s all I am going to say on that issue for the moment. On to the topic at hand.

As I have stated before, I noticed that OnLive has not released a major title for several weeks now. Matter of fact, we have not had a major game released to OnLive since before the UK launch . . . over a month ago. And no, Orcs Must Dies does not count, as on every other platform it’s a download-only title. In fact, I think the last major release we got was Space Marine way back on Sept 4, closing in on two months back. And we still only got half of that game, as only the single-player campaign for Space Marine was released, with the promise that the multiplayer and co-op modes, would be coming sometime later, presumably long before now, almost two months later. Not trying to be a downer, but for a while there it appeared as if OnLive was really picking up momentum. Now we just get to have the ‘blahs’ normally associated with a slower summer release schedule, all year round.

Look, and I am speaking purely as a business professional right now. There was a big deal made about the service launching internationally last month. There was a big deal made about the international crowd being granted a more complete version of OnLive; the OnLive as it was supposed to be all along. The subtext being, that the service was ready for prime time, and would perform as a premium gaming service. You can’t make that kind of promise, even if the promise was purely subtextual, and then go weeks and weeks and weeks without premium releases. Well actually, you can make that kind of promise and be forgiven for it, but only if you are one of the big dogs on the porch. Console makers frequently launch new consoles and go months before releasing titles after the launch window. But when your console is expected to move 2m to 5m units in the first month alone, you can kind of get away with delaying your promises like that. Even so, there is no guarantee that even as a big dog, such things won’t come back to bite you on the ass. I mean, look at Nintendo and their 3DS. Almost everything at launch was one form of rehash or other. They were months away from releasing anything anyone really cared about on the platform, and the truly new titles, those are still not due out until sometime in 2012. And, oh how such broken promises have caught up with the Big N in a negative way. Both hardware and software sells are down, revenue is down, profit is down, their ticker valuation is down, and all of this in spite of being one of the biggest players in the game.

I think what I am trying to say is, if they are going to build momentum, OnLive really needs to stop mucking about with these sporadic stops and starts, and get on with it. I personally not only want this service to succeed, I want it to be huge in it’s success. And it is just bad business to build momentum, and then stop that momentum cold in it’s tracks.

Again, speaking from a purely business POV, ideally building off the UK launch, should have been at least one major title release via the platform every two weeks, from then on out until Thanksgiving (almost every publisher takes December off from game releases). Smaller releases like Orcs Must Die, From Dust, Bastion, LIMBO, etc., should also have been every other week throughout the fall, so that the release schedule goes something like this: WEEK 40 – Major Release(s); WEEK 41 – Smaller or Indie Release(s); WEEK 42 – Major Release(s); etc., all the way through until week 47, or 48. Their tentative schedule of one new country launched a month, should have been one of those things ironed in stone. It’s been over a month since the UK launch, and not so much as a peep at which country is going to launch next – much less an actual launch, or launch date. The mobile OnLive player for Android and iOS, should have been a part of the UK launch event. Barring that, then at least it should have launched about a month later. And along with news of OnLive mobile player, definitive news of availability of the OnLive universal controller should have surfaced. Followed a few weeks later by the OnLive browser (and perhaps some news about their plans for OnLive enterprise services in 2012). With Black Friday starting the biggest retail period of the year, news should have already begun to surface about when and where to expect the availability of OnLive embedded HDTVs, blu-ray players, settop boxes and other devices from Vizio, Intel and their partners hitting retail. This late in the year also should have marked news of OnLive’s retail partners in North America. The month of November should see OnLive actually move into retail on both sides of the Atlantic, complete with OnLive recharge cards, OnLive hardware, and even OnLive demo kiosks as the week of Thanksgiving nears.

This is how you roll out momentum, especially for a new platform with everything to prove. And believe me, when you are the new kid on the block, the burden of proof is squarely in your lap; not in anyone else’s. From the moment they launched the UK back on September 22, all the way up to the week of Cyber Monday, there should have been an almost constant stream of OnLive flavored goodness hitting gamers’ palettes. Even if they had to bulk up their staff over the summer, from the current 200, up to a number that would insure these goals could have been accomplished during this quarter, then that is what they should have done. All this start, stop, start, stop, start, stop, that OnLive keeps doing, that’s how you send mixed messages. And considering that males are OnLive’s core demographic in the early going for the service, that’s the one thing I can tell you that is going to kill OnLive faster than any of their half-assed, upstart competitors could ever hope to do. The one thing about the male mind that must be understood under the circumstances, psychologically, men don’t like mixed messages. For whatever reasons nature and evolution has intended, we are almost hardwired against it on a genetic level. The clear message from OnLive starting with the UK launch should have been, ‘we are here, we’re better than what you are used to, we’re prime time, and we’re gonna rock your socks off.‘ However, the only message that OnLive has managed to deliver so far is, ‘we’re here sometimes . . . and sometimes we are not here. Just flip a coin, and your best guess is as good as ours.

And while sure the first two weeks of November will see the release of four major hits to OnLive: Lord of the Rings: War in the North, L.A. Noire: The Complete Edition, Saints Row: The Third, and Batman: Arkham City, and supposedly having these games on tap, will finally ease the ailment. But it truly does not solve the problem. Right now we are up to 8 consecutive weeks (two full months) since the last major release. At this rate, by the time War in the North comes out (if OnLive gets it on the scheduled release date next Tuesday), that would be nine whole weeks. If it slips, then we are looking at a ten whole weeks by the time L.A. Noire ships the following week. Ten whole weeks? That kind of thing is barely acceptable in the summer, when hardly any games come out for any platform. But in the fall? Not acceptable in the least. And I know at least one person will bring up the fact that OnLive released MLB 2K11 a couple weeks back, as ‘proof’ that my argument is invalid. Well for starters, not only does that not invalidate a single word I have stated, but it is really the self-deluded grasping for straws. If today was currently sometime in early April 2011, and had MLB 2K11 shipped a few weeks ago (back in March) when every other platform got it, then you’d have a leg to stand on. As it stands, MLB 2K11, a sports game of all genres, which have the shortest shelf life of any gaming type, can hardly be any longer considered major game release, when it ships seven months late. Baseball fans are gearing up for the impending release of MLB 2K12 in a few months, and OnLive just finally got MLB 2K11.

My point is, OnLive needs to seriously step up their game. You should never have a two month (or longer) gap in major game releases in the middle of the busiest release quarter of the year – especially when you have a backlog of major releases that were supposed to be released over the summer, that have not shown up on the service yet. The likes of Call of Juarez: The Cartel, Dead Island, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Driver: San Francisco, and NBA 2K12 are all still MIA, even though they were all promised as coming to the service this year. These glaring holes in their release schedule is all the more reason why OnLive is in dire need of a momentum building strategy that looks to set the new, post-Euro launch face of the company, apart from it’s reputation of a spotty, and inconsistent release schedule.

If there is one thing that GameStop’s cloud service is going to have in it’s corner the moment they bring this thing out of beta, is being able to hit full momentum out of the gate, backed by a company that knows how to maximize that momentum so that it is in every gamers’ face, and on every gamers’ mind the moment it hits. Matter of fact, GameStop threatens to do such an effective job or rewriting history (something that happens woefully often in the tech business), that unless OnLive get’s their shit together soon, GameStop will go down in history as the company who invented cloud gaming – OnLive will be considered a footnote by anyone who even cares to remember it in five years, if they are not careful. And that would be the worst kind of shame, because I really do believe in OnLive. I love their pioneering, and innovative spirit. I love what they are doing for gaming. I love that the guy at the top of the company, is a real human being, and not a scumbag like so many other CEOs. These are the kinds of people I like to see succeed more in the business world. Not by sacrificing their principles, but because of it. The world needs more companies like OnLive. Which is all the more reason OnLive needs to get it’s act together. Especially after the entire DXHR-gate fiasco perpetrated by GameStop helping to bring OnLive into the limelight, this autumn should have been OnLive’s for the taking. And the only people who don’t seem to realize that, is OnLive.

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