French startup Blade announced today that its Shadow game streaming service is launching in California, marking the first time the company will be making its product available in the US. Blade has been operating in France since July 2016, where it opened its first data center operation. (The service only works at low latency if a user is physically near their dedicated machine.) After a launch in the UK last month and a round of live demos ahead of this year’s CES back in January, Blade is ready to bring its service Stateside, thanks to a partnership with San Jose’s Equinix Datacenter.
The Shadow service costs $34.95 a month with a one-year service commitment, $39.95 for a three-month one, or $49.95 a month with no commitment. For that subscription fee, users are given access to what Blade says is a $2,000 remote Windows 10 PC, with access to the device streamed over the internet. Blade says it plans on expanding US access beyond California later this year.
To access Shadow, users can rent a streaming box from the company that’s essentially a video decoder. Blade says it houses an AMD Falcon CPU and mostly handles complex changes in resolution and frame rates. The box also handles peripherals, so you can plug in a monitor, mouse, keyboard, and headset, and all of it works together as the desktop component. In addition to the Shadow Box, Blade has apps for Mac, Windows, and Android, with iOS coming soon.
This arrangement allows you to keep the box hooked up at home and use Blade’s Shadow app for playing on the go with your phone, tablet, or standard laptop, so long as your connection speed is at least 15 Mbps. The Shadow Box works only if it’s connected to the internet via Ethernet, and Blade says it costs an additional $10 per month to rent or $140 outright.
We have a Shadow Box and access to the cloud service at The Verge’s San Francisco office. In our brief time with it, we were able to play Fortnite Battle Royale, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, with a few connection, latency, and peripheral hiccups here and there but a mostly stable experience overall while using the Shadow Box.
The Android and Mac apps, however, worked very inconsistently and caused huge headaches. For instance, it took dozens of reboots just to get elements like on-screen touch controls and functioning sound on the Android app, when just a day earlier, it worked perfectly under the same networking conditions.
We’ll be spending a little more time with Shadow before judging the overall efficacy and quality of the product next week.
Founded in 2015, Blade is just the latest company trying to make the dream of a cloud-based gaming PC a reality. Sony currently offers PlayStation Now for $19.99 a month, which lets you stream more than 500 PS3 and PS4 games on compatible hardware. It now includes only the PS4 and PCs after Sony discontinued support for older console hardware and smart TVs last year. To build its footprint in the burgeoning market, Sony bought two game streaming startups — Gakai and OnLive — and folded the technology and talent into its own streaming division.
Chipmaker Nvidia, with its GeForce Now service, and New York-based visualization company LiquidSky offer beta services aimed at making PC games available without the use of expensive physical hardware. LiquidSky works by charging users by the hour for access to server time, with 80 hours of server time per month for $19.99. GeForce Now is free, but you must request beta access and the service works best only with a list of supported titles.
Blade is best described as a competitor to GeForce Now and LiquidSky, yet its business model is slightly different. Blade charges users more money per month with its subscription but gives customers unfettered access to a single, dedicated Windows 10 PC with no apparent restrictions on games. You simply load up Steam, Blizzard, or any other game portal or download service, log in, and you have full access to your existing library of titles. Competing services often use what are known as shared resources, distributing multiple workloads across single components like multi-thousand dollar Nvidia Tesla graphics cards. Blade says every Shadow user gets their own machine.
Another benefit Blade says its service provides its upgradability. Right now, Shadow provides 1080p gaming at 144Hz or 4K at 60Hz, 12GB of DDR4 RAM, a Xeon processor that’s equivalent to an i7 chip, and 256GB of storage. Over time, Blade says it will upgrade those specs without the user having to do anything. The company says right now its machines are using a high-end Nvidia Quadro P5000, with 16GB OF VRAM. That’s a nearly $2,000 GPU, but the added benefits are mostly in memory management and not raw rendering power. For graphics purposes, Blade says the Quadro gives customers the equivalent of a GTX 1080 card.
Understandably, we’re quite a ways away from a true “Netflix for games.” Streaming a high-resolution piece of interactive media is technical intensive, difficult, and expensive. It’s also complicated by the fractured nature of the industry, which is divided between console, PC, and mobile, with even more subdivisions within those categories between Sony, Microsoft, iOS, and Android. So right now, consumers are mostly paying for access to the servers being used and must foot the bill for their own content on top of that, whereas video streaming apps are free to download and use and the content is available for a low monthly fee.
Blade is no different with regards to this arrangement, but it does promise a more universal PC game streaming service, albeit with a high price, in a package we haven’t quite seen before. It’s unlikely the economics of the game industry will ever allow for an à la carte streaming service that also includes new games from every popular platform. But at the very least, the technology is inching closer to making that business model more feasible.
If you don’t own a gaming PC but have always wanted to try playing PUBG or big-budget single-player games, Shadow might be a good option, though it would obviously be cheaper just to buy your own hardware. It’s also unclear right now if the rig can hold its own with titles where latency is more important, like Overwatch or other competitive shooters. And if you do already own a gaming rig, you’re likely already deep in the PC ecosystem and don’t have any qualms about upgrading your components.
But Blade thinks that game streaming is closer than we think, and it’s now got an offering for people who want to put one foot toward that future.