Google's "Stadia" Streaming Video Game Service

You’re reading Understandary: a weekly news analysis column by the host of Let’s Know Things, Colin Wright.


Summary

A new Google-developed gaming platform has launched today, and notably, it boasts high-end graphics and AAA-grade games without requiring a console.

Announced in March of 2019, Stadia distinguishes itself from other gaming platforms by being playable on, theoretically, any device within range of an internet signal.

This is possible because while traditional consoles require a great deal of hardware oomph on-site to do all the processing required to display high-end games, Stadia is primarily a means of utilizing sprawling data centers filled with graphics processing units and other powerful computer gadgetry that do the hard work at these remote locations, and then send the outputs of their efforts to the screens of their users around the world.

Stadia has gotten very mixed reviews from early players and professional reviewers, with many noting that is is surprisingly playable, still quite rough. Most conceded that it was an interesting peek at what the near-future of gaming might look like, but wasn’t, in its current incarnation, anything special or wow-inducing.

Google surprised early users by making nearly twice as many games available on the first day as originally planned—22 instead of the announced 12—and another dozen games are slotted for released in late-2019 and into 2020.

At launch, Stadia can be played on a TV using a Chromecast Ultra (the same type of accessory used by companies like Roku, Amazon, and Apple to turn dumb-TVs into smart-TVs) paired with a special controller, it can be played on Pixel phones (Android devices made by Google; though it will also reportedly be possible in the future to play on iOS and other Android devices), and there’s a version you can play through the Chrome browser on any PC or laptop.

Context

The world of video gaming is going through something of an upheaval, with the economics of the industry justifying increased investment, but no one being certain exactly which way it’ll pivot, and thus, where to place their bet.

One facet of this industry is the broad-based world of casual games, like those you can download onto your phone. That world has long been dominated by tiny fees and advertising revenue, but is increasingly being put behind paywalls and membership programs, as we saw recently with Apple Arcade; which some industry vets are calling a spectacular move, as many users are fed-up with loot boxes and death-by-a-thousand-cuts payments required to make some games playable—far better, they claim, to provide an inexpensive and easy option for those who just want the games and none of the interruption.

Another facet is the world of virtual reality gaming, which hasn’t yet hit its stride, but there is movement toward something cohesive and comprehendible beyond the always-enthused cluster of gaming fanatics.

The emergence of the stand-alone Oculus Quest, which is made by a major developer—Oculus is owned by Facebook, and considered to be one of the big players in the consumer virtual reality space—it doesn’t require a powerful PC to use, and is priced realistically for a mainstream audience: $399 on the low-end. So about what you’d pay for a high-end gaming console. All of which seems like a strong argument for VR finally getting within arm’s reach of the mainstream.

There’s also the world of competitive e-sports, which itself is a spin-off of the worlds of hardcore-ish PC gaming and the more casual-gamer-slanted world of console games; which are basically the same as PC games, except you typically use a game-specific computer—like an Xbox or a Playstation—which is plugged into a TV or other monitor, rather than utilizing a general purpose computer for the task.

Consoles are quite powerful, seeing as how they’re built for playing games, specifically, but they’re also quite a bit cheaper, as the idea is often to make little or no money on the console so that you, the console-maker, can either profit off game sales, or profit from licenses game developers pay you to produce games for your console.

The Stadia is meant to upend this fracturing of the gaming world a bit, by creating a platform that can exist across hardware types, so that even highly resource-intensive games—games with great depth and duration and super high-end graphics—can be played on devices owned by casual gamers; no suped-up PC or high-end console required.

This is accomplished by building what amounts to a Netflix for games, where the games are streamed to devices from powerful computers located around the world.

So you push a button on your controller, and that command is send over the internet to a server farm somewhere, and the rack of computers processing your game receives that command and then sends the resulting data—the images and sounds—back to your screen. And this happens over and over and over again, constantly, as you’re playing. It’s as if you’re playing a game on an Xbox, but the Xbox is located three countries over, and the device on which you’re playing it is just a controller and screen, connected to that distant console by the internet.

The benefits of this deconstructed console model are potentially huge.

It could alleviate the need to ever release a new console: the hardware can be constantly updated invisibly, and as new games are released, new processing power can be added to the network to make playing that game possible. This could be great for players and their pocketbooks, but also for the makers of these games, which would theoretically be liberated from processing and size constraints, but along with Google, which wouldn’t need to worry about being leapfrogged by another company coming out with a new console before them—they’ll always be up to date and competitive.

It could also mean fewer resources consumed to build and ship the hardware, fewer overall operating costs, since doing processing work and storing and disseminating data is kind of what Google does, so they can benefit from economies of scale pretty much right out of the gate, and it means a whole lot of people who never would have had access to high-end games very well could; without having to make a several-hundred-dollar investment, beforehand.

That said, there are some seemingly anachronistic elements to this system, including the fact that you pay for games, just like you would have if you were buying a disk or a download for your Xbox or Nintendo Switch. And the games for Stadia can run upwards of $60 apiece: so not only do you not have any tangible indication of your ownership of this relatively expensive thing you’re buying, you also don’t technically own it: like anything digital that you stream in this way, what you’re really getting is a license to use that thing, not the thing itself. When you watch a film on Netflix, you’re paying to watch that film. When you play a game on Stadia, you’re paying to play that game, not to own it.

None of which would be a terribly big deal if Stadia used a similar model to Netflix or Spotify or one of the other major streaming platforms that exists for other mediums. Paying $20 or $30/month for all-you-can-play video games would have been a true bargain for access to these sorts of games, even if that would be double what Apple charges for its casual-game-heavy Apple Arcade offerings. These Stadia games, remember, are very expensive productions—they often cost tens of millions of dollars to make—and thus, will necessarily require higher prices to justify their production.

Analysis

This release is, ostensibly, a very big deal.

The benefits of being able to play resource-intensive games in your browser, or on an outdated computer will be magical to a lot of people. Though to many others, including those who already have powerful gaming rigs or consoles at home, it’ll probably seem like more of a non-event.

Stadia is a clever gamble for Google, as they’ll be able to utilize a lot of their existing infrastructure to power it, and thus, they’ll be in a good spot if other gaming entities attempt to start their own streaming services; which some arguably already have, and others are reportedly planning. They could define this corner of the industry, and benefit from many first mover advantages as others begin to throw money at similar projects.

It’s also a potentially smart move for Google because of what it could mean for their Chrome OS product: a currently niche, low-powered operating system they’ve been installing on relatively low-end laptops optimized for certain types of school or light office work, but which, with the addition of Stadia, could actually become solid gaming devices, despite their lack of any traditional gaming rig attributes.

A major externality here that Google has no control over, though, is that of low-speed and metered-bandwidth data plans; something that is an issue even in wealthy countries, including the US.

Stadia relegates most of the hard work to powerful computers on the other side of the internet, and if your internet plan doesn’t provide you with enough bandwidth—can’t send enough data back and forth quickly enough—or if you only have so much data you’re able to use each month before it shuts off, gets crazy expensive, or is throttled (the speed lowered), Stadia will not work as advertised.

Reviewers even had trouble with the service related to WiFi fluctuations in their own homes, and even just within the single room where the router is located. Plugged-in speeds were pretty great, but anything beyond perfection in terms of connection made the gaming experience sluggish and noticeably laggy, which probably wouldn’t bother more casual gamers playing lower-end games, but would absolutely keep it from being taken seriously by those requiring more processing muscle and quick-twitch and transmission speeds.

The end result for Google, optimally, is that the player wouldn’t notice the difference between playing a game on Stadia and playing a game on a Playstation 4 or Xbox One X; the high-end console competition made by Sony and Microsoft, respectively. This service could someday become a powerhouse, capable of playing games that no other platform could handle, because those other platforms would be limited to the real estate contained within a single computer or console, while Stadia would have Google’s vast, international computational reach to leverage for whatever game they might want to tackle.

For the moment, though, just achieving parity with the existing offerings would be a solid proof of concept, and based on the first-day reviews, that hasn’t been accomplished quite yet.

Some reviewers noted, as well, that Google has a reputation for killing off promising, but not-profitable-fast-enough projects that are ambitious and interesting and promising, but which don’t measure up to the standards they use to decide which projects live, and which die.

Which is probably smart in many regards, when you’re a multifaceted corporation like they are, but not so ideal in terms of what it does for the perception that customers and developers have of you, as an entity that will cut and run if things don’t immediately go perfectly. And that leaves early adopters on both ends—creators and consumers—in the lurch, which in turn, over time, makes such people more hesitant to buy in to your offerings until they’ve been around for a while.

Further Reading

Google Stadia highlights what’s wrong with broadband caps
https://qz.com/1748962/google-stadia-highlights-whats-wrong-with-data-caps/

Google Stadia review: a terrible but tantalising glimpse of the future
https://www.wired.co.uk/article/google-stadia-review

Uncharted creator Amy Hennig announces studio focused on ‘emerging streaming platforms’
https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/18/20971217/amy-hennig-skydance-media-studio-streaming-platforms

Google Stadia launch review: Gaming’s “future” looks rough in the present
https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/11/google-stadia-might-be-gamings-future-but-in-the-present-it-looks-rough/