People familiar with the video game industry have been hearing about cloud gaming for so long that they may already be tired of the concept, even though it hasn’t yet hit the mainstream.
A number of high-profile disappointments, most notably the flameout of OnLive, have left gamers feeling that the idea might be an ahead-of-its-time fad, like virtual reality in the early 1990s. Plus there’s the additional hurdle of fidelity: Although our lives are becoming increasingly dependent on the cloud, it’s hard to convince gamers that any game-streaming platform can deliver an experience that’s as responsive as playing on a local machine.
While major players like Sony and Nvidia are currently running limited cloud gaming services, a 2-year-old French startup called Blade is now entering the U.S. market after a successful showing in Europe. But unlike existing companies in the field, Blade isn’t just streaming games to customers. The company’s aim is nothing less than upending the model of personal computing altogether — and though its cloud-based platform, Shadow, seems like an impressive technical achievement, Blade may have a lot of convincing to do when it comes to winning over American customers.
A new kind of game streaming
Shadow follows the modern trend of moving away from owning expensive hardware. (No, it’s not exactly “Uber for PCs.”) Blade wants to simplify the PC experience and open it up to people who can’t — or don’t want to — commit the money or real estate necessary for a big, beefy gaming rig. The company’s idea is essentially to let people rent a powerful Windows virtual machine. So instead of ponying up, say, $2,000 for a high-end gaming PC, you pay Blade a monthly fee for a cloud-based equivalent.
To be clear, Shadow users aren’t sharing resources with each other; in effect, Blade is providing a dedicated virtual PC for every single paying customer. And the company is promising that the PC in question will always be capable of playing the latest games at the highest fidelity. This addresses one of the major downsides of PC gaming: having to continually replace your rig’s components to keep up with the times.
The Shadow platform currently offers a full PC running Windows 10 Home on an Intel Xeon CPU featuring four cores and eight processing threads, with 12 GB of DDR4 RAM and 256 GB of storage. Shadow’s Nvidia-based graphics solution is approximately equivalent to a GeForce GTX 1080, with 16 GB of video memory — twice as much as the amount in a consumer-grade GTX 1080 — and 8.2 teraflops of processing power. Blade handles all upgrades and maintenance on its end: As technology advances, or if components break down, the company will swap out its hardware for newer parts. In fact, Blade upgraded Shadow last November, replacing the platform’s GTX 1070-level GPU with the current GTX 1080 equivalent.
“The idea is that the user will never need to care about the hardware anymore,” said Asher Kagan, president and co-founder at Blade, during a demo at Polygon’s offices in New York last month.
Shadow runs on data centers provided by Equinix, and the service’s global expansion is directly tied to that physical hosting setup. (Cloud-based platforms have to exist somewhere on terra firma, after all.)
“Our issue is not a demand issue,” said Ness Benamran, chief operating officer for Blade’s U.S. division. “It’s a question of actually putting up the infrastructure.” Blade is so confident in Shadow’s availability, said Kagan, that the company “actually never developed an error message that [says], ‘The data center is full.’”
Coming to America
Blade launched Shadow in France at the end of 2016, and quickly reached the 5,000-user capacity of its initial data center in Paris. The company let in customers from Belgium and Switzerland in late 2017.
Starting today, Blade is taking sign-ups for Shadow from American customers for the first time — but only from residents of California, since the company currently has just one U.S.-based data center, in Santa Clara. Blade is planning to launch Shadow for those customers on Feb. 15. From there, the company will gradually roll out the service across the country as it spins up more data centers, with the aim of offering Shadow nationwide by this summer.
Shadow will debut in the U.S. as a cloud-based service only. Using the Shadow software, customers will be able to access their virtual PC from a wide variety of screens. The app is currently available on Mac- and Windows-based computers, Android tablets and smartphones, and certain smart TVs; it is coming soon to iOS devices. This setup allows Mac users to operate a full Windows PC on their computer without bothering with Boot Camp. And because the Shadow app is cross-platform software, you can start using your PC on one Shadow-enabled screen and transition to a different one. In our demo, we switched from playing Rise of the Tomb Raider on a computer to running it on a smartphone, with only a brief hiccup to restart the mobile app.
The Shadow app only relies on the local device for decoding a streaming video feed of whatever you’re doing on the cloud PC (and uploading your inputs). Blade’s technology adjusts the fidelity of the experience on the fly, depending on the device’s power and available bandwidth. If you can connect a gamepad to a 4K smart TV that supports the Shadow app, and your internet pipes are wide enough, you could conceivably stream Forza Motorsport 7 in 4K at 60 frames per second. But don’t expect the same experience if you’re connecting to Shadow from a bus stop via your Android phone’s 4G signal. (Blade recommends an internet bandwidth of at least 15 megabits per second.)
Rig in a box
The Shadow platform is capable of delivering an even smoother experience with its dedicated local console, which Blade simply refers to as the Shadow “box.” (Clever!) It’s been available in France for a while, but Blade isn’t launching the device in the U.S. until later this year.
The Shadow box is an oddly shaped unit that you can nonetheless hold easily in one hand: It’s 7.5 inches long by 7.25 inches wide by 4.33 inches deep, and weighs just 1.5 pounds. Two USB 2.0 ports, along with headphone and microphone jacks, sit on the front of the box; the back features two USB 3.0 slots, an Ethernet port and two DisplayPort outputs, as well as a power input. It’s through these connections that the Shadow box and its cloud-based counterpart can serve as a wholesale replacement for a full PC.
Anything hooked up to the box, like a keyboard, mouse, external hard drive or network printer, will show up as an accessory connected to your virtual Shadow computer — just as if you had plugged it into an actual PC in your house. (When we asked about virtual reality headsets, Kagan said that’s one thing the box doesn’t yet support, but it’s in the works.) Curiously, the Shadow box doesn’t include a Bluetooth radio; you’d have to plug in a USB dongle to add support. It’s also worth noting that the box is required to deliver Shadow’s maximum frame rate: 144 Hz at 1080p.
Again, Shadow gives you your own cloud-based computer with a full Windows 10 setup. You can install any games you own digitally on platforms such as Steam, Uplay, GOG and the Microsoft Store. (Note that Shadow pulls them down at gigabit speeds — up to 125 MB per second — since they’re downloading to Blade’s servers in a data center, not to a local device via your own internet connection.) Heck, you can install any software you want: Think of Shadow’s virtual PC as one that’s actually yours, because it effectively is.
Of course, since Shadow lives in the cloud and isn’t actually a physical computer that you own, it would be natural to have security concerns.
When I asked about how Blade safeguards the Shadow platform, a spokesperson for the company told me that “privacy and security are top priorities for Blade.” The representative said that Shadow’s own terms of service prevent the company from accessing data that users put on Shadow PCs, outside of hosting, storing and sharing that data for users in the normal course of operating the platform. (The terms also prohibit customers from using Shadow for unlawful purposes, and explicitly forbid activities such as sending spam and mining cryptocurrency.)
On the network safety side, Blade ensures that customers can’t infect other Shadow computers by downloading a virus. The Blade spokesperson said that the virtual PCs are all “very strictly isolated from each other.”
The significant technical hurdles here are obvious, considering the trouble of delivering low-latency streaming to meet the standards of gamers — a notoriously demanding group. Yet cloud gaming companies also have to contend with larger infrastructure challenges and, of course, financial concerns.
Building out a cloud gaming service is an incredibly expensive proposition, from leasing space at data centers to filling racks of servers with the kind of cutting-edge hardware that Blade is providing to Shadow customers. Since its founding in October 2015, Blade has raised a total of €64 million ($76.9 million) from angel investors, with the bulk of that figure — €51 million — coming last June to fund the company’s expansion outside continental Europe.
Kagan and Benamran proudly told me that the business model they’ve chosen is designed to make Blade profitable just from its initial play for the gaming market, and that they’ve met the company’s financial goals every step of the way. That takes into account the massive outlay required to build up the infrastructure necessary to support Shadow.
As a result, Shadow isn’t cheap. A month-to-month subscription costs $49.95, while the service is $39.95 a month with a three-month commitment; it’s $34.95 per month on a yearly plan. The cheapest option comes out to just under $420 over the course of a year. With that money, a PC owner could buy a new graphics card — a great one, though not top of the line — every year. The subscription doesn’t include the Shadow box, which costs an additional $10 a month to rent or $140 to buy outright.
Blade is pitching Shadow as an option for people who can’t afford the initial cost of a high-end gaming PC. But it’s possible to build a rig that’s roughly comparable to Shadow’s hardware for less than $1,500 — the same amount of money it would cost to rent a Shadow PC (without the box) for three and a half years at the annual rate.
Cloud or vapor?
Shadow may be worth the price for some PC gamers, especially those who don’t want to worry about their rig growing obsolete. It’s a completely different service from the most well-known cloud gaming options out there.
With PlayStation Now, Sony offers a selection of 500-plus PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 titles for as low as $99.99 a year. The GeForce Now service for Nvidia’s Shield devices features more than 100 games, but only about 60 are included in the $7.99 monthly subscription; users must buy the others individually.
GeForce Now for Mac and PC, a separate program, is somewhat similar to Shadow in that it provides access to a cloud-based gaming PC powered by an Nvidia graphics card. However, it’s only in beta testing on Mac at the moment; it offers limited support for external games that aren’t explicitly compatible with GeForce Now; the PC cannot be used as a normal Windows computer; and Nvidia has given no timetable for a PC beta, let alone a public launch.
Of course, the technology has to work in order for it to be a viable business. Benamran and Kagan provided testimonials from Shadow’s launch in France, including stories of side-by-side tests in Counter-Strike and Street Fighter 5 during which professional gamers couldn’t tell the difference between the games running on a local PC versus Shadow.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of our meeting with Blade made it impossible for the company to provide an accurate demonstration of how Shadow will function. We were trying to stream Rise of the Tomb Raider in our Manhattan offices from Blade’s data center across the country in Silicon Valley. Playing on a Windows PC, I experienced a delay — small, but easily perceptible — between my inputs on the gamepad and Lara Croft’s movements.
I wasn’t able to play far enough to partake in any combat, but the lag seemed significant enough to throw off Lara’s aim in a gun battle — not exactly good enough for an esports athlete’s seal of approval. Yet considering Blade’s plans for a geographically based U.S. rollout, the demo wasn’t representative of the experience that typical Shadow customers will have.
It’s not that I doubt Blade’s executives; the company has clearly made its mark overseas already. But with its wildly inconsistent broadband speeds, the U.S. presents a daunting challenge even for industry giants like Microsoft, which may soon enter the fray. I’m eager to give Shadow another try once Blade has established a data center closer to New York. Until then, I’ll stick to the gaming rig I built for myself last summer.