Renting a virtual gaming PC: Are Shadow’s remote gaming services worth it?

Getting stuck inside during this pandemic has made us all look at streaming gaming services a bit differently. Google Stadia is still trying to prove its worth in the market, and Amazon Luna just started up, nipping at their heels with impressive technology but a lackluster library. Then there’s Microsoft’s game streaming service, which comes bundled with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which might just be the best value in gaming library wise, but still leaves something to be desired in terms of performance.

With these three services all lacking somehow, power-users have begun to look at alternatives. You may have heard how some users are now setting up their own Amazon Web Server computers and connecting them via Parsec (a freeware desktop capturing application primarily used for playing games through video streaming). Well, if you are somewhere between the type of gamer that just wants to connect up to a streaming service on a low powered PC and the power-user that wants to create a web server instance from scratch, then there is yet another alternative: Shadow.

What is Shadow?

Shadow is essentially the song and dance of setting up a remote web server with Parsec but without actually, you know, having to do it. You get a high-quality gaming PC that you can do… pretty much anything you want with. For $12 a month you can access a Windows 10 PC with a fast processor, 1080 equivalent graphics card, and full SSD storage and use it just like you would use your own computer from any device in your home. Laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, whatever you want can connect to your Shadow PC and use it as if it were, well, an actual PC. So yes, you can game on it, but you can also, say, video edit on it if you really wanted to.

First of all, let me just say that it works. While you need about a 70mbps connection to get the most out of Shadow and it feels blazing fast. There is no perceptible lag whatsoever, and the visual feed didn’t get interrupted once. It’s just, straight up, like turning your current PC into another more powerful PC. You won’t have to worry about its functionality.

The games

You will, on the other hand, have to worry about its value proposition.  You see, Shadow doesn’t come with any games. Every other streaming gaming service comes with some sort of game library but Shadow tells you to just buy your games yourself. Steam, GOG, Epic Games Store, Origin… if you are a weirdo. Doesn’t matter. Just install your software like you normally would on a normal PC, and that means purchasing your software like you normally would on a normal PC.

As you might imagine, this can make running Shadow somewhat expensive, but the important question here is “Expensive when compared to what?” With Google Stadia, you have to buy your games through its platform, and if you want to play those games in 4K or on your television, it’s $9.99 a month. Remember, those games are ONLY playable on its platform.

Amazon Luna is much less expensive at only $6 a month, however, its library is abysmal. To expand its library you have to pick up extra channels which can be as much as fifteen extra dollars a month. By just picking up the Ubisoft channel, Amazon Luna is now costing you more than Shadow plus an Xbox Game Pass for PC, and frankly, you are getting more games for the same amount of money with Game Pass.

This brings us to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Game streaming is available with Game Pass Ultimate baked in for only $15 a month making it slightly cheaper than Shadow. However, it isn’t platform agnostic. It’s limited to only Microsoft devices and devices that support the game streaming app. That means no Apple devices or computers, no Linux, plus you need to use Microsoft’s controller to get it to operate while Shadow lets you use pretty much whatever controller you want. Also, the performance just isn’t there. When I tried Xbox’s game streaming service I experienced a lot of connection hiccups that just weren’t there with Shadow. You are only saving $5 a month and you are getting a lot of restrictions.

Shadow’s value

So is Shadow the best value in-game streaming?

Not quite. Like I said before, Shadow works, but its market is very small. It requires you to, at the very least, know what you are doing when it comes to using a gaming PC, and the thing is if you know that then you probably own a gaming PC. There’s not a whole lot of reason to use Shadow when you can just game on the PC you have. You might be thinking “well I can connect with lower-powered PCs, tablets, and phones” but once again, you can do that already with your existing PC and Parsec.

Shadow’s problems are compounded by the fact that you need to purchase your own games. While this does make it a good value if you already have a library of games on existing digital distribution platforms, people who have existing game libraries already likely own gaming PCs. I own more than 700 games on Steam and that’s because I’m already a PC gamer. If you are looking to rent a cloud PC, you probably don’t have a library anywhere near as big as I do. That’s why I kept comparing Shadow’s prices to other services while assuming that you were bundling in an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which is probably the best “library” offer in gaming right now.

The multi-connection conundrum

There is one thing that would have made Shadow the best possible option out there, and yet they don’t support it, and that is multi-connections. In this age of lockdowns, people are dying to play local multiplayer games with their friends, and they simply can’t. They have been dancing around the problem with remote desktop applications like Parsec, but unless they have a very fast upload speed and a very powerful computer, there’s always some lag.

Pro-gamers get around this by renting instances on an Amazon Web Server, which has the power and the speed to allow for as many connections as you like and make it feel like local play. Shadow takes that whole process and simplifies it but only allows ONE person to play at a time, meaning you CANNOT PLAY LOCAL MULTIPLAYER using this service. It’s a major missed opportunity, and frankly, one that every single other game streaming service also misses.

Shadow vs. Parsec

This brings us to the last thing that Shadow is not a better value than the whole AWS Parsec setup that has become so popular. To set up Parsec on AWS you need to pay about a dollar for every hour you game and 4 cents a day to keep it active. So for the price of Shadow, you can get 11 hours of gaming a month on a much more powerful computer with far fewer restrictions using AWS. That might sound pretty restrictive but bear in mind that Shadow has “upgrades” that it will charge you extra for, like extra processor speed, more RAM, and better graphics cards that, once again, an AWS instance already blows out of the water.

About six months ago Shadow’s proposed “infinite” tier was about $40 (though it wasn’t available to purchase at the time) and for the same cost, you would be able to get about 40 hours of gaming on AWS with Parsec with fewer restrictions. So how much do you game and are you willing to go through the complex setup of AWS+Parsec?

Shadow is a very powerful technology but it suffers from not really having a market right now. It wants to market itself to gamers that already have a large library of games, but those gamers also have gaming PCs. So I personally won’t be using it, but then again, I don’t use any other streaming service either. When you can run it locally, you might as well do that.

What Shadow is good for, is acting as a stop-gap. Say you are looking to build a PC but you aren’t there yet. Or perhaps your friend has Steam shared their library with you but you don’t have a computer that can run their games. If you find yourself in this middle area, then Shadow is definitely one of the better values in cloud gaming that’s out there. It’s just that I don’t personally think too many gamers fit that description.