Early Thoughts on Google Stadia

Google has announced that they are creating a streaming games platform called Stadia. The idea is you won’t need a console or even necessarily a controller if you already have a compatible one (and most modern console controllers appear to be compatible). You’ll be able to play games right in a browser on your TV/phone/tablet/PC via streaming. No extra download/installation required. Basically, it’s Netflix, except instead of streaming movies or TV, you’re streaming a video game and streaming back your controller inputs.

It’s worth noting that very little consumer-useful information is available yet. Nothing about how pricing will work (all-you-can-eat subscription like Netflix? rent games like the original PlayStation Now model? ad-based like YouTube? some combo?) or how expensive it’ll be. They’re also advertising it as capable of doing 4k video at 60fps - which would require an amount of bandwidth that’s implausibly high for most people’s internet connections.

But they have some big names on board - Doom Eternal and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are confirmed for the service, and they’ve got Jade Raymond (creator of Assassin’s Creed) heading their in-house development studio where they will be developing first-party (probably exclusive?) titles.

With that background, here are my thoughts.

  1. This is far from the first attempt to create and popularize a game streaming service. Most of them have failed, and the common cause is that we just aren’t there yet from a tech and infrastructure standpoint. I mentioned how most people’s internet connections aren’t good enough to stream 4k video at 60fps, but even if you reduce those numbers it’s kind of crazy. Something like YouTube or Netflix has the benefit of being able to buffer video and thus ride out blips in the traffic - a game that needs to constantly react to your inputs doesn’t have that luxury.
    While Google is one of the best-positioned companies to overcome these kinds of barriers, there’s only so much they can do. I find it unlikely that even Stadia will be a consistently good playing experience for most people any time soon. (But as we’ll get to soon, that might not matter.)
  2. It’s my opinion that the reason so many companies have tried to make game streaming work despite the challenges is because it could be a really lucrative approach if it pays off. I touched on this in my most recent article but the more the publisher controls the game experience, the more money they can milk from it. I didn’t mention there that it also increases the analytics they can pull from it - think of something like the YouTube recommendation algorithm being applied to game design, fueled by every single input the player makes over the course of entire games.
  3. As also discussed in my article, I generally think the relocation of control from player to publisher is a bad thing. It worsens the game experience, it reduces ownership, and it makes preservation more difficult. Games preservation is already a very difficult proposition; streamed games become basically impossible to preserve. I’ve been dreading the day that streaming is viable enough to take over the AAA space.
  4. This is going way out there into wild speculation, but the name Stadia implies a focus on spectating, such as for esports or livestreamers. Twitch/YouTube/Amazon/etc. are already competing in this space. Any game played via Stadia will probably be best (and maybe only) spectatable via Stadia. It’s pretty easy on Google’s end to just also send the video/audio to other clients - and not have to wait on inputs sent back. Which means for spectators it’s basically YouTube, and we’re back to being able to buffer around connection dips if we have a few-seconds delay, which is already normal for streaming.
    Thus it’s plausible that the near-term business model is for high-profile streamers or tournament organizers to have good setups for playing via Stadia, and everyone else just needs normal-ish connections to be able to spectate. In which case it doesn’t matter if most people’s internet isn’t good enough to get the most use out of Stadia yet.
    Presumably in this case there would be built-in ways to subscribe/support individual streamers or pay to watch tournaments, and surely Google would take a cut. No esports-friendly games like that have yet been announced for Stadia, but this is very early days. They may not want to tip their hand just yet.
  5. On the other hand, if there are exclusives on Stadia that I care about, I appreciate that I’ll be able to try them without buying a console. There are a couple Xbox One-only games I want to play, but not enough to justify buying one, so I’m unlikely to ever play them.