One topic dominated headlines at E3 this year: cloud gaming. Whether it’s Google’s launch into the gaming space with Stadia, or Microsoft’s move with xCloud, it seems like big players now see the technology’s potential. But what of the pioneers that have been living the dream for years?
According to Emmanuel Freund, it’s all good news. We last caught up with the co-founder and CEO of cloud gaming service Shadow when he was launching Hive social features and Ghost hardware box. Since then, the firm has launched in new countries and new US regions, with customer numbers continuing to grow. E3 announcements by both tech titans put a spotlight on cloud gaming, resulting in a surge in sales during the Las Vegas expo.
Like Shadow has done with the PC, Freund expects that xCloud and Stadia will reduce the need for a bulky console. “I think it's great. [...] It's liberating for gamers, it's liberating for game consoles, it allows them to do some very new things.” Even so, the cloud veteran had a few words of caution for any would-be early adopters.
Clouds on the Horizon
My own complaint about Stadia was that I’d have to buy my games all over again. But as Freund pointed out, I was misunderstanding what Google was trying to replace. “The point is, Stadia is a gaming console. [...] When you buy a game on PlayStation, you need to buy the same game on Xbox or somewhere else that you want to play the game on Xbox. So again, like a gaming console, the games you own are only for this gaming console. It’s just like PlayStation or Xbox that way.”
Put it like that, and Stadia’s direct competition is the traditional console market. It’s unsurprising that Microsoft chose E3 to announce its own xCloud service, and why we’ve also heard that Sony’s looking to offer something similar for PlayStation. The only platform owner without its head in the clouds is Nintendo, but the portable nature of the console already offers ‘play anywhere’ gaming.
It’s a stark contrast to Shadow’s approach, which puts the gaming PC in the cloud instead. It means that a PC gamer can use their existing Steam, GOG or Epic Games library on the new platform, with all of the full mod and customisation support that gaming on Windows provides. By taking the console-centric approach, Stadia will need to use exclusives and publisher deals to persuade users to buy on its platform. “We need to know what kind of games there will be and what kind of exclusivity. [With] UPlay Plus, the announcement with Ubisoft, I would probably use it myself.”
But it’s not just about the games. Building on the streaming technology, Shadow built a social system called Hive that lets gamers share screens and play alongside each other, without requiring anything being built inside the game. It’s these that help build a community and make it more than just a tech platform.
“You can ping some friends, you can screen share, you can look on finding something like that inside the game, which is great. But with Shadow, you can do the same thing but outside the game. You don't need World of Warcraft to develop an API to be included [...] to be able to share a screen and to see where your friend is actually. You can do it directly with Shadow.”
“It's not that easy to make it work. [...] You cannot afford to have a so-so experience. You need to not have it freeze every ten seconds, you need to not have artifacts, you need to have a very good image quality. You need to have a very low latency.” Freund’s experience with cloud gaming is full of warnings, which explains the cautious rollout of Shadow to new markets.
“On the cloud system it is even worse. You are a perfect excuse. If you lose in a game, in Fortnite for example, it's very easy to say ‘oh my god’ because they have latency. Even if you don't. So you need to be perfect otherwise the player will just replace the cloud system with a real local computer. And that remains the main teaching, my opinions from Gaikai and OnLive”.
Freund continued, stressing what will happen if Google launches Stadia with an average gaming experience that’s “ ... not super good quality, not on-par with the local computer with a small latency saying, ‘Nevermind they will accept that.’ They will not. The users will come back to look at computers if the cloud solutions are not perfect.”
Even so, Google’s high-performance claims have been great news for Shadow, especially considering that Stadia is far from launch. “They tell everyone that in one year you will have 4K and 60 frames per second with a decent latency. We're already selling that right now. So it’s a very good advert, and we saw most sales actually raised during E3 and during the Google announcements. But [...] I don't see them as clear competition. I mean in the same way a gaming console is competing with a gaming PC.”
As our conversation continued, I brought up Google’s reputation for killing services that didn’t meet the firm’s expectations. What would happen in the future to all the games that someone might buy if Stadia heads to the Google Graveyard? Freund has a different opinion, suggesting that the reputational damage to Google would be huge if Stadia ends up getting canned.
“We need to fear Google for some other reasons, not this one. Yes of course, they might throw the project and yes of course you might lose the games. But that's still so much money that, just to not have a bad image, they will make up one way or another. I'm not that terrified that they will do this.”
“For me the real risk is, again, the way they will use the privacy, the way they will use your data. [....] So I am much more interested to know how they will use the first basic pre-version of Stadia that they announced. Is it just ads? Will they use your data, whatever? I am more concerned about those kind of things.”
But even with these uncertain skies, Freund remains positive about the future of cloud gaming. For him, the service that Stadia promises is already possible with today’s technology. Looking ahead, Shadow aims to unlock game modes and game styles that simply aren’t possible with traditional platforms. That might be a Trackmania session with thousands of cars, or a Fortnite match with thousands of players. Or it might be something completely different.
“If you look at VR headsets, they often struggle to stream full HD images at 120 frames per second because the internal computer is simply not powerful enough. As long as you can connect the headset with WiFi, you can replace the internal computer with a small chip and by adding two [Shadow Virtual] computers on each eye are able to run the 4K image at 120 frames per second. This is a new leap in technology and usage, and is available for demonstration right now.”
The rest of the world may have finally woken up to cloud gaming, but Freund and his team at Shadow are already working on what might be possible in just a few years time. If it all comes to pass, your current gaming rig might be the last one you own.