NOTE: LiquidSky have removed the top tier of PC, citing performance and demand issues, you can read more about it here
Some of you in my age group may remember a time when the best way to play PC games was to go to an internet café. In that era, we bought and paid for the privilege of using a good computer, and a fast internet connection to play our games. In those days we paid for time, not for games. PC cafes were largely killed by the proliferation of hi-speed internet to the home, and died off just a few years after becoming popular. Now LiquidSky 2.0 aims to bring back the best parts of PC cafes, without all the hassle of physically traveling to them. Bringing hi-end PC gaming in to reach for even the most average gamer with a low-cost rental options. But, does it all work?
This is not a game streaming service, like On-Live before it. Instead you should think of this just like those PC cafes back in the day. You are given a series of different options of PC’s (at press time three were available see the specs in the pictures below) and can spend credits to use those PC’s. More on credits later. You then log in to that PC (which is a VM in a data center) and you can basically treat it just like its your PC. You can download various clients, log in to services like Steam, Origin, and Uplay, and basically do whatever you want. The only downside to this is that you must have the games you want to play. So you are only renting for the box here, not the games. This of course runs opposite of what was so great about internet cafes, access to all the most popular games.
The folks at LiquidSky were kind enough to give me early access to their service, giving me 2400 SkyCredits to use for time. But if you don’t get a gift like mine there are several options available for using the service. The lowest tier is an ad-supported model, where you watch ads to get SkyCredits. what are SkyCredits? LiquidSky’s website defines them as “a virtual currency that can be purchased or earned by watching ads. Redeem SkyCredits for access to your SkyComputer where you can download and play any game you want. On the Gamer Performance package, 1 SkyCredit is 1 minute of access.” At the time of publication I was getting about 8 SkyCredits per ad. According to LiquidSky 2.0’s price model, these are limited to 600 earned credits per month at the free tier. Some basic math will tell us that to earn 600 credits we would have to watch 75 ads. If each of those ads was 30 seconds that would be 150 minutes of ads. Or just under three hours ads for 10 hours of play time. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.
The middle tier is pay as you go (with a range of plans from $5 to $100 one time payments), with you getting a set number of credits per dollar (subject to change) and being able to earn skycredits on the side with ads. This tier varies wildly and will probably be the easiest option for most people. If you want to buy an absurd amount of credit you can do it! If you want to play for 10 minutes you can do that too! As with most price models like this, there is a slight increase in how many credits you get the more you buy.
The final tier is Monthly with plans from 10$-40$. There are three plans available a $10 plan offering 2400 SkyCredits, a $20 plan that gives you 5000 SkyCredits, and a 40$ plan that gives you an astonishing 10,500 SkyCredits. On the lowest tier of SkyComputer thats 40 hours of gaming, 83 hours of gaming, and 175 hours of gaming. This seems a bit counter intuitive as both the 20$ and 40$ a month models provide more SkyCredits then their pay as you go counterparts. I assume this is because LiquidSky hopes monthly people come back again and again, but this feels much to easy to game.
Now as confusing as that is, it gets even more confusing. After you get your SkyCredits by choosing one of those plans, you must then chose one of three types of Sky Computers to use. The options are three fold: Gamer, Pro, and Elite.
LiquidSky claims that Gamer tier has 2GB of GPU RAM, 3vCPU cores (virtual CPU cores), 8GB of RAM, and will run any game around 30FPS at 1080p. This option costs 60 SkyCredits per hour, so if you use the free option you can have up to 10 hours of this per month, ad supported for free. Not a bad deal really.
The second tier is called Pro and doubles up your GPU RAM to 4GB, 6vCPU cores, 16GB of RAM, and according to LiquidSky will run any game at 60FPS 1080p. This tier costs 120 SkyCredits per hour, so if you’re running the free tier you will be reduced to just 5 hours of play per month.
The top tier (which was not available for press to use) is set to be called Elite. The Elite tier offers 8GB of GPU RAM, 12vCPU cores, 32GB of RAM and according to LiquidSky’s literature will run “any game on ultra-quality in 60+ FPS at 1080p”. This tier will set you back 240 SkyCredits per hour. That means you get just over 2 hours per month on the free plan if you watch all those ads.
For folks with no job, and no income this is a chance to at least play some of the most graphically intense games out there, so I do appreciate that LiquidSky has allowed even their lowest tier non-paying customers to access the highest tier PC’s.
While this pricing model may seem strange to some, it makes sense for those who are interested in a month to month subscription to play some of the games that your PC can’t handle. I can see using the 10$ per month tier to play something like EVE on my MacBook, or Total War, or really anything that required more GPU ram than the tiny laptop has. For now (during testing) there is no MAC or Android client available, but those are coming in the future.
Real World Testing
I was tempted to take some real world bench marking software to the VM and see what sort of results I got, but most benchmark software doesn’t read the virtual CPUs well off and will crash or give terrible results. So, I tested it in real world gaming conditions instead. Regrettably, I was informed by the engineers at LiquidSky that their top model of VM was not available. But that the mid-range should run most games just fine at 1080p 60FPS.
I tested this claim on a variety of games, from the brand new 2D beat em up Mr. Shifty (check out our review) to the most recent and graphic intense non multiplayer game I have, Ghost Recon Wild Lands. I wanted to test PlayerUnknown Battle Grounds as well, but I simply wasn’t able to due to the condition of that games servers so I subbed in Overwatch. I decided to start with the worst. I fired up Uplay (Which I had to download) and let it install. Though internet speeds were fast they never quite made the promised Gig speeds. Despite that, Ghost Recon (Which is a large game at over 40GB) downloaded in about 15 minutes. Try getting speed like that at home! This is good because you are paying for every single minute of time you use LiquidSky 2.0, including downloading and setting up any software you want to use, so fast internet is major plus here.
Single player FPS games (Ghost Recon Wild Lands)
Firing up the game revealed the first issue, the escape key was somehow bound on the VM to minimize? So I couldn’t skip the opening cut scene UBISoft thinks everyone should watch every time the game starts. This was easily enough fixed, I plugged in a controller and selected the controller pass through option on the desktop and boom good to go. That was the end of the easy part. The game started up and auto detected mid-range graphics settings, something around what the last gen of Nvidia GPU’s in the 60 or 70 range might have put out. So I manually cranked the settings to max (works at about 40-50FPS on my 1070) and tried to play. I say tried because it was impossible due to lag. Im not sure if it was the graphics, my internet, or the VM, but something was seriously not working out. So I dialed the graphics back to high and went about playing. I was able to play for about 30 minutes with a mostly stable game at that point. I didn’t notice a lot of FPS drop, and the game seemed to run fine around 50FPS on medium settings. This would be equivalent to say a mid-tier GTX card from the current generation like the 1060, or a 970 from the last generation. I didn’t spend a lot of time on Ghost Recon because seriously, its just the same thing over and over again.
Multiplayer FPS games (PlayerUnknown’s Battle Grounds and Overwatch)
Next I foolishly decided to try to play PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, I’ll let the video I took speak for how that worked out. Sadly I was not able to tell if that was PUBG server issues (They have a lot of them) or my internet or the game, or the game client, so that test had to end a bit early.Fearing that my test had been tainted by PUBG’s server issues I decided to try Overwatch. After jumping through all of the hoops that Blizzard puts up to let you in to your own account, I tried training and a quick match. Training worked fine, I was able to run jump and shoot with minimal lag. Jumping in to a match turned out to be possible. There was lag, I turned down the graphics, there was less lag. I was able to play, but no one was awarding me MVP at the end of the game. Because of this and the issues I had with input lag, at this time I would say its not practical to play any competitive FPS games on LiquidSky 2.0.
Non-Graphically intense games
Next I moved on to something I knew I would like, and would run great Mr. Shifty. The recently released punch drunk beat em up from Tiny Build ran with fluid grace. This was no surprise at all to me. There was 0 input lag, and even in a game like Mr. Shifty with its need for precision and fast inputs I found no issues. I tested with both the controller and the mouse and keyboard, and in both cases was quite pleased with the results. The mouse did seem to have some smoothing but it didnt bother me terribly. I also tried a few games that were still twitchy, but not graphically intense. These worked all right, but there were times I felt like I missed some frame perfect things because of the slight input lag. In most cases and for most users, this may not be an issue, but if you play platformers, or games which require a lot of frame perfect moves, your going to have a bad time.
Technical Mumbo Jumbo
Liquidsky was unwilling to provide any specific details when it came to hardware. It is of course all propriety. They also refuse my request for an interview with their engineering team. So I did a bit of digging, im not hardware expert, but it was simple enough to download speccy and run it on the VM to see what sort of hardware was there.
You can se we are getting 14GB of RAM (though its at 100mhz) and were utilzing a last gen Broadwell CPU @2.6GHz. and we are utilzing 4gb of an NVIDIA enterprise card, model M60-8Q. We have a 500GB virtual disk, and and we can read the optical drive. That CPU is the CPU for the whole VM, however many clients are on it, so what we end up getting is a chunk. Same with the GPU, though the GRID articheture is commonly utilized this way to do deep learning and AI type of work. I can say that our expert (who has a PHD in compsci) had never seen a GRID GPU employed this way.
Hoping for some clarity I reached out to LiquidSky their response from their CRO Jason Kirby was:
“LiquidSky, at this time, will not comment on the technology behind their servers, how many VMs run on each server or any specific aspects of their secret sauce. There currently are 13 data centers — San Jose (CA), Dallas, Washington DC, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, London, Frankfurt, Milan, Chennai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney — with plans to expand in the future. Right now the core focus is on LiquidSky 2.0 during beta and ensuring all the intended functionality performs exceptionally well and that customers are going to have a great experience before scaling up on hardware or aggressively attracting more users.”
LiquidSky has a long way to go before its useful as a play anywhere competitive FPS solution. The addition of more data centers (mine was in Washington DC, and im in Chicago!) and perhaps some better lag compensation could make this possible one day. But, right now its just not there. What is there is the ability to log in from anywhere (including thin clients like library PC’s and Work PC’s) and have nearly instant access to a bad ass gaming PC with a blazing fast internet connection. What will be there in the future is the ability to log in from any PC or MAC and use this hi-end like computer to play games from almost anywhere. With an Android clients planned as well, this technology has nowhere to go but up. I will be keeping my eyes on LiqidSky.