These days, the world seems to be moving away from owning material goods. In the video game business, this trend isn’t just manifesting in the transition from physical to digital games. The industry appears to be convinced that streaming is the future of game distribution.
One company, a French startup named Blade, is putting a bigger bet on that possibility than most others. Blade soft-launched its cloud gaming service, Shadow, in California this past February, following a successful debut in Europe in late 2016. Now, Blade is taking Shadow to the masses in America. But as tough as the platform’s technological hurdles are, Blade realizes it has an even more daunting task: simply getting people on board.
Seeing — or, in this case, playing — is believing, as they say. And from a recent demo, it seems like Shadow’s tech may finally be working well enough for people to believe in.
How Shadow works
The idea behind Shadow is paying for streaming access to a powerful cloud-based gaming PC that would cost approximately $2,000 to build. Of course, that would just be the initial outlay; as time went by and the machine aged, you might be inclined to spend more to upgrade key parts like the graphics card.
Part of Shadow’s appeal is that Blade will handle all of that for you: The company promises to periodically swap out components for newer ones, always keeping the PC up to date so it can run the latest games on max settings. 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 Blade is now upgrading its Intel Xeon CPU to a newer model that delivers 30 percent more performance.
Shadow works through an app that lets users access their PC from a wide variety of screens, including Android, iOS, Mac, Linux and Windows devices, as well as certain smart TVs. The app only relies on the local device for decoding a streaming video feed of whatever you’re doing on the cloud PC, and for uploading your inputs. (A small, optional console known as the Shadow “box” will let you hook up local peripherals, such as a mouse.) Blade’s technology adjusts the fidelity of the experience on the fly, depending on the device’s power and available bandwidth.
This opens up a lot of possibilities for people who want to play graphically intensive games without being tied to a massive tower PC. You could play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at 60 frames per second and send it to your work laptop via Wi-Fi during your lunch break, and then transition seamlessly to your smartphone to stream the game via 4G on the toilet. (As long as you could pair a proper controller to your phone, that is.)
Shadow gives users a full Windows 10-based PC, but of course, if you’re not using a device with a mouse to access the service, it can be a pain to navigate around the computer with, say, a touchscreen. Thankfully, Blade is introducing a free add-on for its mobile app called Shadow Beyond, which organizes the files on your PC into simple categories like games, music, photos and documents with a touch-friendly interface that’s better suited to screens like TVs and tablets. From here, you can just tap to play something; Shadow will automatically boot the required service, like Origin or Steam, and launch the game.
Rolling across America
Shadow Beyond, which is currently in beta and will soon be available on the App Store and Google Play, isn’t the only improvement Blade has made to Shadow as it prepares to launch the platform across the U.S. Until now, the company has restricted Shadow to customers in California — the service works best when users are located in the vicinity of a data center, and Blade has only had one in the country so far, in Santa Clara.
Blade is expanding Shadow to much of the U.S. on Aug. 9, adding Nevada and Oregon on the West Coast and bringing the service to 16 states in the East: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. This growth is fueled by four new data centers, one each in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas; the company plans to take Shadow to the entire continental U.S. in October. At the moment, before this significant expansion, Blade has about 25,000 subscribers worldwide, with the vast majority located in Europe.
Shadow is now on a simple monthly plan: Subscribers pay $34.95 per month for unlimited access to their own dedicated PC. (That price was previously available only to annual subscribers. Blade has since eliminated its more expensive one-month and three-month plans, which the company says confused customers, and no longer requires a long-term commitment.) Addressing a request from users, Blade also now offers extra storage above the built-in 256 GB, charging $10 per month for each additional terabyte.
Most importantly, Blade has improved the quality of the service itself. When the company showed me a demo last December in New York City, it was more of a proof of concept than anything else — which was only fair, since we were trying to stream Rise of the Tomb Raider from a data center across the country. But the California launch was also plagued by reports of all kinds of software bugs that soured the experience. This time around, again in New York, I got to try Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands on a data center right here on the East Coast, as well as Street Fighter 5 all the way from Silicon Valley — with vastly better results.
Shadow impressions: It actually works
Blade co-founder and president Asher Kagan told me that the company’s engineers developed a new AI technology specifically for America’s broadband infrastructure, which he characterized as “very different from what we have in Europe.” The AI measures the gaps between packets of data, and uses an algorithm to predict the connection’s stability and latency over the next 30-60 seconds. This is key because cloud gaming is a very different application from a service like Netflix, which streams static content and can buffer upcoming data. Shadow needs to do all the encoding, transmitting and decoding on the fly.
My demo began with Ghost Recon Wildlands streamed to a Surface Book, where I played with a mouse and keyboard. Kagan soon brought over a cheap Android tablet and loaded up the game there; I picked up where I had left off, now using an Xbox One controller. Next we moved to an Android phone sitting in a plastic housing that connected it to a gamepad, and finally to a MacBook Pro. In each case, the transition was just about seamless, taking only a few seconds.
I’m a stickler for image quality, and that’s an area in which Shadow may not quite pass muster for me. Blade recommends a minimum bandwidth of 15 megabits per second, although the service can run decently on a connection as slow as 5 Mbps. On the MacBook Pro, the Shadow app utilizes the laptop’s Touch Bar to let the user manually select bandwidth. Up at the 25 Mbps level, I saw compression artifacts that turned the pristine image — the game was running on ultra settings — into something that looked like a YouTube video. But I could see myself playing on the 50 Mbps setting, where the image clarity was almost uncompromised.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Kagan explained that Shadow always prioritizes frame rate over image quality, which you might also favor. Plenty of people will be willing to deal with a lower-fidelity stream of a good-looking game if it means keeping the action at 60 fps.
The demo of Street Fighter 5 might have been even more impressive. I didn’t see many video artifacts, perhaps because I was playing on a small smartphone screen (and maybe also because I was more focused on trying to pull off a Hadoken). The app was connected to Kagan’s Shadow PC on a California data center via 4G, but if there was some lag, it didn’t have a material impact on my ability to defeat Dhalsim. Sure, it’s not the ideal way to play a game that requires split-second timing, but it seems like it’ll do in a pinch.
Cloud gaming is here ... ?
Blade is far from the only company in the field of cloud gaming. Years after the demise of OnLive, Blade’s existing competitors include Sony with PlayStation Now and Nvidia with GeForce Now. Those services feature catalogs of select games, but closer comparisons to Shadow’s offering include Parsec and LiquidSky. Parsec lets you stream games from your home gaming rig to remote devices for free, and charges for renting cloud-based computers hosted on Amazon Web Services or Paperspace. LiquidSky users pay per minute for time on cloud-based gaming computers.
Others seem to be planning to enter the fray. Google and Microsoft are reportedly building streaming platforms and/or consoles. Electronic Arts acquired the cloud gaming tech behind GameFly’s soon-to-be-defunct streaming service earlier this year, while Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot recently said he expects one more wave of traditional console hardware before platform-agnostic game streaming becomes the norm.
Kagan is bullish on the technology, of course.
“We really feel that now, everyone [agrees] that this is the future,” said Kagan. “I mean, it’s making way, way more sense to have everything remotely, and to have no friction between you and the content, and to give you directly the access on any screen to your games.”
Blade has all kinds of big plans for Shadow. The company is partnering with esports organizations in an effort to prove that cloud gaming can work for the most demanding customers out there — professional gamers. The hope, according to Blade’s Patrick Van Loot, is that there will be a “trickle down” effect from esports pros to hardcore gamers to more casual players, as more people come around to the idea of cloud gaming.
“The biggest challenge, basically, we are facing here in the U.S. is really to convince the market that it’s working,” said Kagan, adding that Blade is “starting to see the movement toward this” here after proving skeptics wrong in Europe.
Sharing the cloud
“Long term, every computer in the world’s going to be cloud-based, or most of them,” Van Loot said.
It’s a bold prediction, but it doesn’t sound ridiculous in the context of modern trends.
Often, the reasons behind the shift away from owning things come down to cost and utility, such as with renting a movie from iTunes instead of spending five times as much to buy it on Blu-ray. Sometimes, convenience is the driving factor, like with purchasing games digitally to avoid having to swap discs or put cases on a shelf. Whatever the explanation, people feel increasingly comfortable with leaving ownership behind in favor of the sharing economy — paying for things only when they need them, like being a zero-car family and relying on transportation services such as Lyft, Car2Go and Citi Bike.
Gaming fans may be more tech-savvy than average consumers, but they can be very set in their ways when it comes to paradigm shifts as fundamental as cloud gaming. To win customers and achieve its grand vision, Blade will need to prove that Shadow is the real deal — and the true test begins next week.