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Shadow: Enter The Hive

By Gareth Harmer on December 03, 2018 | Columns | Comments

Shadow: Enter The Hive

When I met up with Emmanuel Freund, a Mists of Pandaria mousemat hugged the corner of his demo desk. It turns out that the co-founder and CEO of cloud gaming service Shadow had been logging into World of Warcraft since the early days of beta, although nowadays he calls it ‘testing’ rather than ‘playing’. Freund had stopped off in London on his way to Shadow World, a fan celebration and chance to share upcoming new features.

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I’d first heard about Shadow at Gamescom in August, and subsequently put the service through its paces. Since then, business has been booming for the Paris-based firm, notching up another 20,000 subscribers to reach 50,000 across the seven countries it serves. Plans for 2019 include covering the rest of Europe, as well as completing the North American service rollout.

While the firm is eager to bring cloud gaming to more people, that’s not why Freund wanted to meet. Instead, there’s an excited glint in his eye as he revealed the next stage in Shadow’s service. Hive is a community platform that’s intended to help gamers share their experience and play alongside each other, including chat and being able to share screens. New multi-monitor support will turn a disused laptop, iPad or even smartphone into a second or third screen.

Freund’s also been working to establish partnerships with game studios to take advantage of Shadow’s unique architecture and Trackmania house Ubisoft Nadeo is the first to be announced. Due to the close proximity between game server and Shadow nodes, coupled with the standardised nature of each node, it might be possible to get hundreds or even thousands of cars on a racing circuit.

Cloud Gaming Gets Community

Speaking to Freund, it’s clear that cloud gaming is finding its purpose. He’s honest that it’ll never replace the heavyweight desktop gaming PC, but that’s not Shadow’s intention. Instead, he wants gamers to have more choice about where they play, and what hardware they choose to play on.

He goes on to tell me that in France, Shadow has become “totally mainstream.” Freund went on to add that one of Shadow’s main investors was a director at one of the main brick-and-mortar shops in the country, selling more than Amazon on hardware. “And it’s not because he saw it replacing the desktop, but change the gaming laptop.” As we discovered in our own tests, something super-cheap and super-light is now capable of playing the latest games at high settings.

By comparison, Hive is taking the existing Shadow service and adding new community tools that aren’t currently available. It’s not intended to replace Discord or Twitch, but instead uses some of Shadow’s existing capture and control tech to provide some very nifty features.

To explain, Freund told me about his early experiences playing WoW with friends. While out questing, they’d be chatting on headsets to keep in contact, but sometimes finding an objective or completing a puzzle could be a struggle. With Hive, it’d be possible to share a thumbnail of your screen as ‘picture in picture’ while you both play. It could also help with coaching players remotely, and helping newcomers learn raids.

Hive also supports some fun stuff, such as adding an additional layer of difficulty during match play. This could be distorting the screen with a range of effects, or even remapping the controls. It’s a little gimmicky, but it could work well with the right game and group playing. The point is, this is just the start - there are many places Hive could go with the underlying fabric in place.

Multi-Screen Stream Dream

While Shadow worked well in our tests, it was handicapped by only supporting a single screen. If a gamer wanted to use two displays - even to have a Twitch dashboard or chatbox on the second - they’d need to rely on something local. Freund’s multi-display solution fixes that, but it also means you don’t need a second screen hooked up to your rig. Anything you have, such as an old laptop, smartphone or tablet can be used to extend the display.

We also caught up on Ghost, the next generation of Shadow hardware that works as a tiny set-top box complete with Bluetooth keyboard and mouse support. The final prototype had been running fanless for most of the day, and yet was barely warm. Freund shared that 300 subscribers had the device at home to help fine tune, and would have the first thousand units up for preorder in December before hitting general sale in the new year.

As for Hive itself, the platform will be available in a limited beta through the release of special serial keys later this year, before becoming available for all Shadow subscribers in 2019. As a complement to existing social tools, it’ll certainly be interesting to find out how it evolves.

Beyond the Gamer

As mentioned earlier, Freund described how Shadow has started partnering with studios to explore the possibility of producing new content specifically targeted to the service. After all, it becomes a lot easier to predict movement when the game server is close to the client nodes, which all have the same hardware spec and location.

Surprisingly though, that wasn’t where the interest from studios started, Instead, they came to Shadow to solve a problem. Instead of optimising a game to work on a range of PCs, they could instead optimise just for the Shadow configuration and provide access to that instead. It means demos could be shared with journalists and influencers much earlier on, and the studio can offer much more tailored support. “We can just give the journalists a [Shadow] account. We know it’s the perfect configuration because we control the system. We know it will work.”

Even so, getting the clients closer to the game servers means that synchronisation is more accurate, which makes bullet prediction and location updates much smoother. It could also reduce the level of traffic, potentially allowing for a higher number of clients per server. That in itself could be a big deal for games like Trackmania Stadium, with Shadow members potentially getting exclusive content.

Ultimately, it’s clear that Shadow is a growing platform that’s solving problems for both gamers and developers alike. With features like Hive and multi-screen support in the pipe for communities, and closer partnerships planned for developers, it seems as though Freund’s firm has finally cracked the cloud gaming conundrum.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.