Meet Blade, the French startup that’s revolutionising cloud gaming
How a French startup is revolutionising cloud gaming by giving every user their own remote PC
Blade’s co-founder and CEO, Emmanuel Freund, gets right to the point. “Even for me, cloud computing – cloud gaming, whatever – has been shitty,” he says. “It hasn’t been working, let’s be clear; if it was working then everybody would have cloud-gaming stuff.”
Freund’s company has been running its cloud-computing service, Shadow, in its native France since the middle of 2016. Now, ahead of the service’s rollout in the UK and US, Blade faces the challenge of differentiating Shadow from a legacy of similar products that, at best, have achieved limited success. Like OnLive or PlayStation Now, Shadow provides users with access to games from any device with a screen and an internet connection. Unlike those services, however, Shadow’s offering isn’t limited to a provider-approved catalogue of games. Instead, Shadow provides remote access to a powerful PC with a topend Nvidia GPU, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and a Windows 10 installation – and that’s it. Users are free to do whatever they want with their Shadow PC from that point, including installing games from Steam or other download services, browsing the Internet, working – anything and everything a PC can be used for, really. Each user is guaranteed access to their own machine whenever they want it.
“The biggest threat we had to face was the failure of other services.” Freund says. “That’s why everyone had a shitty image of the cloud – even me. I mean, the cloud? Come on. I use Spotify, I use Netflix, I use whatever, but for my PC? The cloud? No. That’s only because they tried to sell a service that was not working fully.” Freund is keen to stress – and to demonstrate – that Shadow is different.
“Normally in cloud gaming, or cloud computing in general, you’re talking about mutualisation,” he tells us. “You try to fit as many users as possible on one server in order to not spend a lot. Here, we’ll give a full computer to every user. That’s one of the things that will be allocated to you and not to anybody else. That will be dedicated to you during your usage. But as soon as you stop using it, it can be used by somebody else.” Where previous cloud-gaming services have charged the sort of subscription fee typical of Netflix or Spotify, Shadow’s pricing model is more akin to a smartphone contract. European users pay 45 a month, or
30 if they commit to 12 months in advance. Spaces are limited, with the doors opened to new users whenever availability in Shadow’s data centres permits. The service currently has 15,000 users in France, with expansion to the UK kicking off as you read this. Blade has also recently established a data centre in California, marking the beginning of a US rollout that is expected to take place over the next six months.
We’re shown Shadow working in multiple contexts at Blade’s Paris headquarters (where, Freund is keen to emphasise, the internet connection is “absolutely shitty”). First on the agenda is streaming content to a PC monitor via the Shadow Box, a small standalone unit intended as a replacement for your existing PC. The Box consists of four USB ports, two HDMI ports, an ethernet port and audio jacks. Anything users connect to the Box is treated as if it’s connected to the machine in Shadow’s data centre. The image quality is crisp, both while using the machine as a desktop PC and playing Rise Of The Tomb Raider, with no noticeable input lag – although, it should be stressed, Tomb Raider’s heavy use of scripted animations make lag less apparent than it would be in a strategy game or FPS.
Although Blade recommends a 15MB broadband connection for getting the most out of Shadow, Freund contests that the failure of the previous generation of cloud-computing services was not wholly due to inconsistent connectivity. “It’s not totally true,” he says. “The main networks are fibre. The problem is the last mile. If you go from Paris to Marseilles, it’s five milliseconds. The input lag on a computer, for example, is normally 40 milliseconds. If you look at other cloud services, the main issue was that it was taking something like 50 milliseconds just to capture and encode the image. Our technology – we have some patents on some specific things – achieves encoding of the image in less than ten milliseconds. It gives us a huge advantage in terms of latency.”
The same demonstration is then loaded onto a tablet, MacBook and smartphone in quick succession, with additional support for touchscreen features such as pinch-to-zoom. An Xbox controller, connected via Bluetooth, allows the game to be controlled on the phone, with the game-state transitioning seamlessly between devices – the core machine you’re connecting to doesn’t change, simply the screen being used to
“Here, we’ll give a full computer to every user. That will be allocated to you and not to anybody else”
access it. In addition to being able to play games on the move, this also potentially acts as an alternative to Bootcamp for Mac users who want the option to use Windows for games. “Basically, you don’t need a gaming console any more,” Freund tells us. “Because you have a better PC than an Xbox, and you can play any game that you’ve bought on your TV with a controller. That’s always been the vision: that you can access your PC from anywhere, and it will not change.”
Given the controlled nature of this demonstration, we ask to see Shadow running in the wild. To that end we take a smartphone and an Xbox controller out to the street and attempt to use the service over a 4G connection. Remarkably, it holds together: we play several rounds of Street Fighter V outside, with minimal input lag, though there are a few noticeable pauses and frame drops. Even so, the quality of the performance would be sufficient to use the service for less latency-dependent games or programs (it likely would have been fine, ironically, for a slower singleplayer game such as Tomb Raider.)
There are obvious
limitations to an offering like this. If your Internet connection is inconsistent, your experience with Shadow will be too (although Blade is working on improving the adaptive quality of the service). If your ISP has an outage, you can be left without a PC. If you let your subscription lapse then your data will be stored for 30 days, after which point it’s at Blade’s mercy – though the company says it is considering offering a cheap subscription option that will allow users to put their Shadow to ‘sleep’ if they’re likely to not need it for a period of time. It’s also natural to be wary of forgoing ownership of PC hardware in favour of renting it as a service, although this is a direction in which the industry is already moving. More and more software ‘ownership’ takes the form of digital libraries on Steam or PSN, and Shadow’s price point undercuts the cost of buying, maintaining, and running a PC with this much power.
There’s also the matter of privacy and data security. “We built the product with gamers,” Freund says. “The first question was: ‘How do I know that you’re not looking at my computer? Specifically, at one in the morning when I’m doing something I don’t want you to see?’ It’s not legal. Your data is yours. That’s not like Google Docs, or whatever. We don’t own your data. It’s yours. It’s private. We’re going to jail if we ever look at what you’re doing on your computer without your authorisation.” Because Shadow gives users full control over a Windows installation, they are also able to secure their data in any way that they’d normally be able to. “You can put a password on Windows, and of course we won’t know what it is. You can encrypt your data and we won’t have the key to decode it.” Freund explains that Blade’s responsibilities as a service provider are similar to those of an ISP. If a court issues an order to serve up user data to the police, it will comply. “In the same way that a policeman will go to your place and ask you to hand over your computer,” he says.
Nonetheless, Blade does monitor the hardware used to provide the Shadow service. This means that it has access to CPU, GPU, and network usage data – this wouldn’t include what a user was doing, but would indicate when they were making use of the service. This information is necessary, Freund explains, in order to maintain the hardware. It also allows Blade to monitor for certain suspicious usages: users are prohibited, for example, from using Shadow to mine cryptocurrency, and keeping an eye on GPU load allows Blade to police the service without violating user privacy.
“The goal is for the product to be totally open,” Freund says. “Not to be a library of games, not to only be able to play, or whatever. It’s a computer. You need to be totally free on it. We explained to our community that if too many people are doing bad things, we’ll be obliged to put policies in place. We want them to play along. Of course there will be assholes, but mostly users just play games. They play by the rules with us.”
Blade wants to do for cloud computing what Tesla has done for electric cars: to take an on-paper good idea and be the company that makes it work. “Cloud computing will be the future of computers.
“We’re going to jail if we ever look at what you’re doing on your computer without your authorisation”
We’re passionate about that,” Freund says. “We started to think: what about a world where you can replace not only the computer, but a smartphone, or anything, by having a device that is just a screen, but can have unlimited power, and a super-long battery?”
Cloud computing is also a potential solution to some of the tech issues surrounding VR, and Blade is actively investigating how its technology might be adapted to that end. “At this size,” Freund says, indicating the coin-sized chipset fundamental to the Shadow Box, “you can stick it in the headset. You don’t need a wireless headset: you can have the computer inside. It enables a lot of things. We’re working on it. It will be ready when it’s ready.”
If Blade can make cloud computing work for gamers, Freund believes, then more widespread use of the tech will follow. This is the most demanding audience that the service will face – the most sensitive to failure, and the least forgiving of it. “When we started with the cloud, we saw that for everyone – enterprise, gamers, my mother – the cloud sucks. For different reasons, but, the cloud sucks. And we decided that if we were able to convince the most demanding guys first with a high-end PC, it proves that it’s working. That cloud computing is a fact.”
For fast-paced and latency-dependent games like Street Fighter, a speedy and reliable internet connection will be essential. That said, those who are serious about competitive gaming likely already have one
Being able to play graphically demanding games at the highest quality levels is central to Shadow’s promise. Blade boasts support for 4K displays and 144hz monitors, although not both at the same time
Offering the ability to play PC games on any device which has a screen, Shadow is being positioned as an alternative to Switch. However, the service has a clear advantage in providing access to desktop software that was previously unavailable on mobile