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OnLive iPad app delivers console-quality gaming, custom touch controls

OnLive is one of the most impressive gaming options out there -- it's a cloud gaming service with the games actually 'playing' on remote hardware. That may sound clunky, but it works like a charm.

Instead of running the games from a local executable on your PC, Mac or console system (as you would if you installed from a disc or downloaded from Steam), you instead buy access to games on OnLive's servers. The games run on OnLive's infrastructure, streaming audio and video to you as you play, and sending your control actions (either from your mouse and keyboard or a compatible controller) back to run the game itself.

The arrangement may be a bit confusing (which is likely one reason for OnLive's relative obscurity, though in terms of digital sales, the company says it's second only to Steam itself), but in practice, it works quite beautifully. On any computer & ISP connection with the specs to run a streaming video service like Netflix, you can play console and PC games styled in all of their graphical glory.

Now, you'll be able to do the same on any "post-PC" device too. Today, OnLive has released an official OnLive player app available for free on tablets and smartphones, including Android and of course iOS.

At its core, this news means that gamers will be able to play much of OnLive's catalog right there on the iPhone and the iPad, and OnLive's CEO Steve Perlman tells TUAW that it will work "beautifully." The service will take high-end PC games (like Rockstar's LA Noire, above), and bring them in full motion to any iOS device. "So you're taking one of the highest end games and putting it on one of the lowest end devices," he tells us. "You can literally run this game on a phone now if you want to."

If you're a gamer at all, your first thought is probably how the controls work -- a touchscreen interface is obviously very different from a mouse and keyboard or a console controller. But OnLive is way ahead of you: the company has three different solutions for various games on the service.

The most fascinating solution is that OnLive has been working directly with some game developers to provide full touch interfaces for some of the titles. Rockstar is one of those developers, and the company has given its recent '40s cop title full touch controls for OnLive's app.

Gamers who buy LA Noire via OnLive and then play it on the app will be able to control it using special touch controls that allow them to do things like rotate objects in the game world, or poke around crime scenes with their fingers. And because the game uses OnLive's streaming service, this will all be done with console-quality graphics, regardless of which iOS device you're running -- older devices like the iPad 1 or the iPhone 3GS will work great. Indie game Defense Grid Gold is the other launch title that will perform like this, and OnLive promises more touch interfaces are coming.

Second, for games that still require buttons, there are two options. First, OnLive has developed some onscreen touch controls that will let gamers play titles on the iPad and iPhone with a virtual joystick or virtual buttons. This is the solution a lot of current iOS titles use, and regular iOS gamers know it can be hit or miss -- especially with a lot of buttons on the screen, your fingers can get lost, or the game's graphics can be blocked.

So the other choice is a wireless controller, developed by and sold directly from OnLive. Available for $49.99, the controller will wirelessly connect up to tablets and smartphones (with "a bunch of different means," says Perlman -- he was rather vague on how it all worked, but said that it would) to work as a local controller, and it even comes with a USB dongle that will work with any PC or Mac as well.

You can see my video demo of the controller below; sorry for the blurry, but you get the idea of how it works. The experience is very much like what you'd expect from playing the game on a console or on a desktop computer... but a lot more portable.

Finally, some games that simply were built around a PC and a standard mouse and keyboard input (specifically some complex RTS and strategy games) just won't be playable on the tablet. That's just a limit of the system -- some interactions will simply require more direct controls than tablets and touch devices offer. OnLive is working hard to make as many games work as possible, says Perlman. "It's not that we don't have more games coming, but it takes time for QA to play through them. So that's why not every one will be available at launch."

Of course, even games that don't work well on the iPad or iPhone will still be playable using the Mac or PC OnLive client. The company also sells a US$99 standalone 'microconsole' system that is basically the screensharing client in a box, with HDMI outputs to connect to your TV set and both wired & wireless network connectivity to hook up to your ISP connection.

Will Apple let a system like this (basically a marketplace inside the App Store marketplace) all fly? Perlman says he's confident the company has a good relationship with Apple. OnLive has previously released a "viewer" app that will stream other players' gameplay to tablets, and Apple even spotlighted that app back when it was released. As for the marketplace question, gamers won't be able to purchase OnLive titles directly on iOS tablets -- they'll have to log into OnLive on a PC or Mac, buy the game there, and then log back in on the iPad or iPhone. Perlman believes that will pass Apple's rules on in-app purchases and subscriptions. "We're respecting the way they would like us to do it," he confirms.

Perlman also promises some pretty incredible things in terms of performance -- he said that 3G is definitely an option for using the OnLive service, and that the company has worked with AT&T to make sure that the cellular bandwidth is there over the next few generations of protocols. "We actually worked with [AT&T]," says Perlman, "to make sure there's a mode, just for OnLive that makes it so that you have a nice natural response even over cellular. It's pretty badass."

Indeed. Customers will need to sign up and register with the service on the official website, and then the app can be downloaded from the App Store (or from Android's marketplace, if you have an Android device or tablet) later on this week. OnLive originally promised to make cloud gaming a reality, and in the year the company has been running its service, it has shown the ability to do exactly that. Now, with these tablet apps, if OnLive can fulfill all of its promises, the sky's the limit in terms of iOS gaming.

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