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Cloud gaming firm forced to find new investors, commit to big layoffs

The fall of OnLive has rocked a host of top industry players including AT&T, Inc. (T), HTC Corp. (TPE:2498), and Autodesk, Inc. (ADSK).  The reports have many asking what exactly OnLive is and why so many top companies would bet and lose big on the firm.

I. Great Expectations

OnLive certainly was founded on a clever premise.  It bet that while gamers were emphasizing mobility over graphics these days, that they would still jump at the chance to get enthusiast-caliber graphics on the go, if it were possible.  

So OnLive cooked up a cloud service scheme where its high end gaming rigs rendered and streamed video at 720p (HD) from 300 best-selling game titles.  The service quite literally could allow you to play high-end titles like Assassin's Creed II on lightweight laptops with low-end integrated graphics.


OnLive allows you to enjoy top-tier gaming titles on low-end hardware.  It also briefly flirted with controversy, allowing you to use Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Office suite on the Apple, Inc. (AAPL) iPad.

The intriguing premise of cloud software and gaming pulled in the high-profile investors.  And today the company boasts 1.5 million "active" subscribers and 2.5 million total subscribers.

Among the various plays OnLive was trying was the "MicroConsole", a small set-top box that looked to compete with traditional consoles via controller-based streamed gaming from the cloud.  The company was also on the verge of rolling out its most ambitious service yet -- streaming gaming for tablets and smartphones -- when the cash ran out.

II. Restructuring

Ultimately the cost of its five data centers -- located in California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia -- outweighed the payments from partners like AT&T and the payments from ongoing customers (typically $4.95 USD/month).

Seeing the investment go down in flames, the investors killed the company name OnLive, Inc. using a financial mechanism called a "Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors" (ABC) to avoid the unit falling into bankruptcy.  The majority of employees at the company data centers were also laid off.

Data Center
The cost of running the data centers to maintain the service was too much for its corporate backers.
[Image Source: Wired]

Under the restructuring, the assets (aka, the data centers and subscriptions) will be acquired by venture capital investors Lauder Partners.  Lauder Partners had previously injected a small stake in OnLive in 2009.  The VC firm is now the "first investor" in the new entity, which is simply referred to as OnLive (no "Inc.")

OnLive has released a statement commenting:

The OnLive Game and Desktop Services, all OnLive Devices and Apps, as well as all OnLive partnerships, are expected to continue without interruption and all customer purchases will remain intact; users are not expected to notice any change whatsoever. OnLive’s current initiatives will continue as well, with major announcements of new products and services planned in the coming weeks and months.

In other words, customers should continue to enjoy their games and not really notice much change, assuming Lauder Partners can run a tidy house.

III. HTC Gets Burned, Some Folks Get Their Jobs Back

The new OnLive calls the layoffs "a heartbreaking transition for everyone involved", though it promises new hiring "upon closing additional funding", which will allow it to continue "transforming the OnLive vision into reality."

OnLive hopes to continue to deliver uninterrupted service and to hire back many of its laid off employees. [Image Source: Engadget]

Adding more details about the layoffs, the company writes:

Almost half of OnLive’s staff were offered employment at their current salaries in the new company immediately upon the transfer, and the non-hired staff will be given offers to do consulting in return for options in the new company. Upon closing additional funding, the company plans to hire more staff, both former OnLive employees as well as new employees.

Exactly how much each investor lost in the deal is largely unknown.  However, HTC revealed today that it was burned for $40M USD in the process.  For the fiscally struggling Taiwanese smartphone maker, that's not the only troubled asset. HTC in July announced its intent to offload half of its 51 percent stake it acquired in Beats.  It acquired the stake for $300M USD, but will likely lose money on the exit, as with OnLive.

In the big picture, what happened here? Private investors -- including institutions such as HTC -- got burned the worst.  

Employees were hit as well, with some losing their jobs, and many being forced into lower-paid, volatile contractor positions -- positions which typically do not provide medical benefits.  

The gamers are least affected, as they should continue to enjoy 24/7 service as normal -- for now.

What are the lessons learned?

Cloud computing can look great on paper -- but without a tremendously disciplined approach from a cost perspective, even the most promising startups can fast travel down the road to ruin.  Let this be a cautionary tale for those firms "in the cloud" to come.

Sources: The Verge, Engadget, PCWorld

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come again?
By kattanna on 8/20/2012 12:01:22 PM , Rating: 4
enthusiast-caliber graphics

720p is not what I would call "enthusiast-caliber graphics"

thats in fact pretty low res for playing FPS games.

I also read and chatted with a couple people that playing FPS type games over the service left a lot to be desired with lag literally killing you.

for non-twitch games though I think the service should be fine.

RE: come again?
By Motoman on 8/20/2012 12:51:16 PM , Rating: 1
Yes, physics would seem to dictate that FPSs are probably not a good idea. However, users with average consumer-grade laptops with craptastic video chips could actually play games...720p is stellar for them. If you feel the need for higher resolutions, you probably also feel the need to buy a higher-end laptop with acceptable graphics hardware.

RE: come again?
By Samus on 8/20/2012 3:34:23 PM , Rating: 2
I've been using Onlive for a little over a year, not regularly though because of lack of multiplayer ability. However, living in Chicago very close to one of their data centers, I get a 9ms ping using Comcast. It's almost perfect for FPS's, but still feels disconnected/lagged. However, every other type of game, even music games where things have to be in sync, are entirely playable.

The problem is when you are on a wireless network (even worse on LTE/WiMax) the latency goes up to 20-30ms, and jumping on queue in a game is lagged.

The concept is great, but the technology just isn't there yet. The time to send a command, have it processed, have the data returned, and processed again, effectively more than doubles whatever the latency is. Cloud applications are in their future, cloud gaming, doubtful.

RE: come again?
By JasonMick on 8/20/2012 1:22:57 PM , Rating: 3
720p is not what I would call "enthusiast-caliber graphics"
I think you misunderstood me. "Enthusiast caliber" in terms of rendered polygons, was what I meant.

As in, normally on a laptop with integrated graphics, games that do play (like Dragon Age, WoW etc. default to low/mid low-poly models).

720p may not be the most crisp, but the environment detail will be quite good, as the rendering/anti-aliasing is done on higher settings.

It's impossible to deliver the HD levels you're talking about on the average laptop (say the MacBook Air) given the screen resolution. This approach is as close as you can get to playing Crysis on your iGPU laptop.

RE: come again?
By CZroe on 8/20/2012 6:42:40 PM , Rating: 2
Indeed. No matter how good OnLive's graphics, there is no way it can boost the resolution of the device you are streaming them to. My Sony Ericsson Xperia Play gaming phone with built-in gamepad works great on the service and 720p is higher than the phone's native resolution despite the high pixel density.

Indeed, it's more about the raw poly pushing power and other graphical effect that can be applied beyond the phone's native abilities.

The laws of physics doomed this from day 1
By BZDTemp on 8/20/2012 12:50:39 PM , Rating: 2
The concept had no chance of working except with casual single player stuff and maybe turn based strategy stuff. And this is even disregarding the low graphics resolution (which is made worse due to compression and a less than stellar framerate).

The issue is simply that the concept introduces two extra layers of moving data back and forth. To keep it simple let's say one is playing a shooting game, on the screen you see a target in your sight so you press fire then this happens:

1. Your computer send a message to OnLive that you pressed fire.
2. The computer at OnLive decides what this means and sends a message to the server hosting the game where ever that may be.
3. The game server determine what happens. Was the target still there, did you hit... and sends the result back to OnLive.
4. OnLive renders what happened, compresses the image and sound and sends this to you.
5. Your computer decompresses and renders the image.

In other words, even disregarding the compression and decompression of the game image+sound, the data that is telling what goes on must travel one extra stop to the game server and one extra stop back from the game server. Even with great connections this means delayed response time aka lag which makes all the difference between fun and only hitting opponents that pretend to be statues.

RE: The laws of physics doomed this from day 1
By Ammohunt on 8/20/2012 1:55:46 PM , Rating: 2
I agree the entire idea was quite premature broadband is just not there yet and frankly there is little to no demand for this type of service considering that gamers purposely buy/build machines that are buff enough to play the games they want to play. They are not going to buy crappy machines just for a mediocre cloud based experience. Its obvious that the guys that came up with this had no idea what their market would be and were banking on the cloud buzz word to sell their product.

RE: The laws of physics doomed this from day 1
By BZDTemp on 8/20/2012 4:35:59 PM , Rating: 2
The thing is will never be there unless it becomes a solution where the "OnLive" rendering servers is distributed so widely they essentially reside in you're local network. It's either that or the rendering servers will need to be in the same place the game servers are meaning Blizzard could do it for their games, Valve could do it for theirs and so on.

If you spread rendering and game servers to different geographic locations then laws of physics will mean a delay compared to the games that have local rendering. It's not about bandwidth but about reaction time and and that is down to routing and the covering of distances(which all goes pretty quick, but still it takes time).

Example. Someone is spending $300 million to establish a faster reacting connection between London and New York in the hope banks will pay big money to use it. Current travel time for the data is 65ms and with the new shorter one shaving off 6ms that is gonna give some trading machines an real edge.

By FITCamaro on 8/20/2012 4:52:00 PM , Rating: 2
What I'd love to buy is a piece of software that lets me run my own OnLive server in my house. So I could be on my laptop in the bedroom playing a game from my desktop in the den. Or on a TV upstairs.

By someguy123 on 8/20/2012 11:11:01 PM , Rating: 2
The ping problem is an issue, but it's not as big of a problem as everyone thinks (in general, not onlive's service). Average television is already somewhere in the 40~70ms response time ranges, and even higher if you stack on post processing like motionplus. That's the type of response time similar to what you'd see in a server thousands of miles away. You can do a quick and dirty high-bitrate conversion of a video capture practically instantly, especially if you go for less computationally expensive codecs, though bandwidth costs would go up.

On-live just had nothing going for it. Their datacenters could not handle the bandwidth requirements at all and the ping times were mostly in the 100 ranges unless you lived next door. Even worse, they tried to mitigate bandwidth problems by going through heavier tiers of compression depending on connection speed, which just turned things into a mess of pixels. Maybe they were financially limited, but the service was just god awful regardless of physics.

By eagle470 on 8/20/2012 12:08:37 PM , Rating: 2
I would say their problem was in advertising. I remember when they opened for business, then I quickly forgot about them because I only saw one ad on TV. I might have purchased StarCraft II through them rather than buy a hard copy, if I had be aware of them or if they had been pushing their services.

Heck between then and now there has been a lot of beers, can't expect me to remember everything.

I kinda figured
By FITCamaro on 8/20/2012 4:52:47 PM , Rating: 2
This was nothing more than the company screwing over the investors while still operating under new ownership.

Crappy service
By really on 8/20/2012 5:14:24 PM , Rating: 2
I'll tell you why they are having problems. They can't deliver what they are selling. I tried an OnLive trial a few months ago on my Nexus S 4G and even over wifi just loading their menu was laggy at best and often didn't finish loading. I tried it for two or three days only got one game running and then the client crashed. From then on I couldn't get their menus to load.

I gave them the benefit of the doubt and tried it on my tablet as well, Lenovo Thinktablet with Tegra processor and it didn't fair any better.

I uninstalled the service and never looked back. I can't believe some people are actually $5 a month for the service.

By zodiacfml on 8/21/2012 1:31:44 AM , Rating: 2
When this was first announced, reading in Tom's hardware news, I was concerned with the price that consumers have to pay since I thought that there's a lot of costs involved for the service.

I believe they were right on the pricing and costs, it's just that they took risks of pricing it low to bring in more customers then scale it for profit.

By ryko on 8/21/2012 12:08:27 PM , Rating: 2
I wanted to say that typically I am not a fan of your articles as they are mostly long-winded and hard to get through in a reasonable amount of time.

But lately, in the last week or two, you really have come around and have been releasing well-written and concise articles here on dailytech. I even had to double-check the author's name a few times. I applaud you for that!

However, with this article you seemed to have fallen back to your old ways. Anytime I see roman numerals and bolded sub-titles in your articles I know they are going to be a slog to get through. Please keep it concise and lose they subtitles! Your writing is much improved if you do so!

OnLive Is Amazing
By Middleman on 8/20/12, Rating: 0
"A lot of people pay zero for the cellphone ... That's what it's worth." -- Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook

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