Friday, September 18, 2020

Comparison/Review of PC cloud gaming services

Over the last few weeks, I've tried some of the different "cloud gaming" services that are available now.
There are many different hosting/service models on the market today. Personally, I'm not interested in a service where I have to buy games specifically for THAT service. I am interested in a platform where I can bring the games I already own (on Steam, mostly, but possibly also Epic, GOG, Uplay, etc.) and play them, using the (hopefully powerful) hardware the provider makes available to me. In case a provider goes out of business, I can simply take my games elsewhere or go back to my own PC, but I won't be dependent on any given provider.
This rules out Stadia right out of the gate, since games have to be purchased on Stadia and can only be played on Stadia.

The candidates that are available to me right now and that I'll be testing are:
- Shadow
- Maximum Settings
- GeForce Now

Shadow is a service by the French company Blade and has been around for a few years now. They lowered their prices significantly towards the end of 2019. Shadow offers several tiers to choose from. However, due to the current human malware outbreak people tend to stay at home more and the company has been overwhelmed by the demand. So much so that you can currently only sign up for their lowest tier and even that one has a waiting period of several weeks or months (depending on where you live and where their nearest data-center is located).

The lowest tier, called Boost, is the one I have at my disposal. I signed up in mid-June and it took until mid-August for me to get activated and be able to start using the service. My VM was provisioned in their Amsterdam facility because I signed up with a German address. There is also a datacenter in Paris, which is used for European customers who are not located in Germany or the Netherlands. My Boost-VM comes with a GTX1080-equivalent GPU (Nvidia P5000, to be precise) and a Xeon E5-2678 v3 CPU (2.5 GHz, Boost up to 3.4 GHz, I think), 12 GB RAM and 256GB of SSD space. This costs 14.99 EUR/month if you pay monthly or 12.99/month if you pay for a year. Personally, the 2 EUR/month are not worth it for me to give up the freedom of being able to cancel at any time, so monthly is the way to go for me. Additional storage space is priced at 2.99 EUR/month per 256GB-slice. The initial 256GB of space on the C: drive can indeed feel a bit restricted. On the other hand, since the Shadow PC has a 1Gb/s connection, downloading games is a pretty quick affair, so deleting and re-downloading games is not too big of a deal. Of course, if the game you want to play is huge (Looking at you, Warzone), then it can be a challenge and you may want to get additional space. It's also worth noting that additional storage has often been unavailable because of high demand.

The way Shadow works is: You download their proprietary client (available for Windows, macOS, Linux and Android), log in, start up your VM and you're presented with a remote Windows session. You're free to do anything, start a browser, start Steam, Epic Launcher, Uplay, install an emulator, install LibreOffice, edit videos, etc.

So in principle, any Windows-game can be played. There are some exceptions, though: The game Valorant seems to have some code in their anti-cheat-measure that doesn't play nice with virtualization. Therefore, Valorant doesn't run on Shadow. Similarly, Rockstar recently patched Red Dead Redemption 2 and ever since that patch, it refuses to run on Shadow as well. This seems to be more of an unintended side-effect, but the question is whether Rockstar will put in the effort to fix this issue or not.

Maximum Settings (MXS) is a service provided by a Canadian company of the same name. Their datacenter is in the Toronto-area. The service is pretty similar to Shadow: you get access to a full Windows VM with a GPU and are free to do anything you'd like. One of the differences, though, is the pricing model: With MXS, you're charged by usage-time instead of a fixed monthly price. There are several tiers to choose from, I went with the GTX1080-tier for 0.65 CAD/hour (important to note: These are Canadian Dollars). It comes with a Ryzen 5 1600 CPU, a 256GB SSD (C: drive) and 2TB of harddrive storage (D: drive).

Simple price-comparison between MXS and Shadow: At the GTX1080-tier, taking the current currency conversion-rates into account, if you use your VM for less than about 37 hours per month, MXS is cheaper. Otherwise, Shadow is cheaper.

Unlike Shadow, MXS don't offer a proprietary client of their own. Instead, they suggest to use the Moonlight client (which is an open-source reverse-engineered client for Nvidia's game-streaming technology).

GeForce Now (GFN) by Nvidia differs from Shadow and MXS in three aspects:

- You get access to a pure games-launcher instead of a full Windows environment. So you can't install anything you want, you can only launch games.

- The hardware your games will run on is listed here. Which hardware you'll actually get for your specific session depends on which game you start. Low-end games will get you a lower-tier rig (GTX1080 is the low-end here), while demanding games will get you a higher-tier rig (with Ray Tracing enabled, if the game supports it), up to a RTX2080, currently. Storage space is a non-issue, you don't have to worry about it.

- The list of available games on GFN is restricted. This is not a technical restriction imposed by Nvidia, but rather several publishers/developers don't want their games to be available on GFN (idiots!) and have asked Nvidia to have their games removed. So it comes down to checking if the games you like are available or not and if you can live with that.

You can easily link your Steam account to the GFN client and have it scan your library so that you can see at a glance which games from your collection are available to play through the platform. Games purchased on Epic and Uplay work as well, GOG is not supported.

Nvidia has set up servers in many locations of the world and you'll be routed to the closest one at the time you start a session. For me, Frankfurt is closest, but they also have servers in Amsterdam, Paris and other places (and, of course, many different locations in the US).

GeForce Now costs 5 EUR/month (plus tax). There is also a free tier, but the price for full access being so low, the free tier being limited to 1-hour-sessions and having to wait in a queue before starting a game, I think the paid-tier is a really good proposition.

Tip: Detailed stats showing framerate, latency, etc., can be enabled while being in-game, details here.

Regardless of the platform/service, the "cloud gaming experience" does, of course, heavily depend on one's internet connection. My ISP is Init7 and I'm located near Zurich. That's probably one of the best-case scenarios for using cloud-based gaming services: my bandwidth is 1 Gbit/sec up and down and Init7 actually cares about good peering.

The latency from my PC to these gaming-services' servers is:

MXS: 100 ms

Shadow: 20 ms

GeForce Now: 7-10 ms

My overall experience using these services has been pretty great, I must say. I didn't expect that at all.

Some latency is noticeable for me when using MXS, but that's to be expected, since in that case, the server is so far away (Toronto). But even then, I tested a few games like Dead Cells and Portal and it's absolutely playable for me.

On GFN and Shadow, I don't notice any latency and the experience is equivalent to playing locally (except my PC's hardware doesn't get hot and the fans don't have to kick in).

I conducted some of my tests with a mini-PC (Lenovo m93p tiny), which has an Intel Core i5-4570T with integrated graphics and 8GB of Memory. It's crazy that you can fire up the GFN client on this 7-year-old office-potato and play Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Control at 1080p/60fps with Ray Tracing enabled (!).

All these services can be used from many different operating systems and devices. Personally, I'm only interested in playing on a Windows or Linux client and all my monitors/TV are 1080p/60fps. But there are clients for mobile devices as well and higher resolutions/framerates are supported, I think (can't test those, though).

- Shadow provides clients for Windows, Linux, macOS, Android, iOS and Apple TV.

- GFN has clients for Windows, macOS, Nvidia Shield. You can also play on a Chromebook or simply in the Chrome (or Chromium) browser.

- MXS uses Moonlight, which is available for Windows, macOS, Linux, Steam Link, Raspberry Pi, iOS, Apple TV, Android, Amazon Fire OS, ... the list is long. :)

There's one use-case I was very interested in, aside from "regular" gaming: VR

Would it be possible to play Steam VR games like Half Life Alyx or Beat Saber with my Oculus Quest, wirelessly, on a cloud PC hundreds of kilometers away without making me puke after 10 minutes because of high latency?

Here's the setup I prepared for my VR-test:

Oculus Quest --> 5 GHz Wifi Access Point --> Home router --> ISP --> Shadow

Even though my home router provides 5 GHz Wifi, I bought a separate router and configured it to AP-mode (went for a cheap used TP-Link Archer C1200). This would be for exclusive use with the Quest and is placed within 2-3 meters from me (my home router is tucked away somewhere in the hallway,  therefore its WiFi would not be optimal for the Quest).

On the software-side, I sideloaded Virtual Desktop (VD) on the Quest and installed the VD streamer (the server-component of Virtual Desktop) and Oculus software (drivers, basically) on the Shadow PC. There are some settings that can be tweaked, but I pretty much left everything at default. There is probably some room for optimization and I'll explore that more in the future, but for now I'll leave it at that.

The result: VD reports about 55 ms of latency while in VR and I'm a happy camper, it's absolutely playable. :) True room-scale PC-VR, no tethers or cables in your way and no need for powerful hardware on your end.

Side-note / pipe-dream: If mobile 5G truly brings the high bandwidth and low latency that are being promised, it may be possible to play VR games while being out and about, by simply connecting the Quest VR headset to a 5G-hotspot. Imagine room-scale low-latency VR while physically being on an empty parking lot or a large backyard.

My overall verdict regarding my cloud-gaming-tests: Freakin' awesome!

I'm seriously impressed by what these services have to offer and the price is right, for me. For now, I'll be keeping my account with all three of them, since MXS only charges for usage-time, so there's no cost in just keeping the account active as long as your VM is shut down, GFN is so cheap that it's a no-brainer and Shadow's pricing is fair, I think.

As things evolve and new graphics cards and games come out, we'll have to see if these providers will upgrade the underlying hardware over time and can keep offering good value. But things are looking good!

Update: Jean-Baptiste Kempf, one of the long time lead-developers of VLC, has recently joined Shadow as CTO. There was a Twitch-stream with him last night (French version here, English version here) where he introduced himself and answered some questions from the audience.

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