Begun, the streaming wars have.
The idea of streaming video games isn’t a new concept, there have been services on the fringe for sometime; such as PlayStation Now or Nvidia’s GeForce Now; but the interest in streaming video games over an internet connection just got a huge boost courtesy one of the biggest tech companies on Earth. At the 2019 Game Developers Conference, Google unveiled their new game streaming effort entitled Stadia. Chances are you’ve see the internet had a wide range of reaction to the reveal, but as is often the case with new tech, it can be hard to parse the details and the questions. So we’re here to cut through the snark and explain Stadia and what it could mean for gaming going forward:
What the heck is a “stadia?”
Taking inspiration from the word stadium, Stadia is presented as a “place” for gaming, rather than being tethered to a specific set of hardware. In truth, Stadia is a platform in which video games are hosted on Google’s extensive global data farms; always available to any device capable of running a Google Chrome browser and Chromecasts. The idea here is to have your games available at anytime and anywhere you are.
Okay, so what’s the experience like?
According to Google, seamless. During a demo, an employee was able to switch from a Pixelbook to a computer to a television with a Chromecast attached and continue playing the same session of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey without any more interruption than the foot or so separating the same screen. Naturally, as a demo, it’s hard to take this experience at face value, but that’s what project head Phil Harrison talked up during the presentation. Harrison made a point of the GPU power Google’s technology, comparing the performance to the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X – 10.7 GPU teraflops compared to 4.2 and 6 teraflops, respectively. The claim is that with that power, Stadia can stream games to your screen in 4K resolution and perform at 60 frames per second consistently.
What’s the catch?
Good question. If you’ve ever streamed a video, you’ve probably already guessed one of the problems with this pitch. It wasn’t incredibly clear what kind of connection would be reliable enough to get that purported 60 FPS and 4K resolution. Kotaku cornered Google PR afterwards and were told that during a beta test called Project Stream that Google was able to provide 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second over an internet connection with a 25 mbps download speed connection and Stadia in full would be able to do the same. An email sent out by Google PR specifies instead a 30 mbps connection.
This is where the questions really begin. I personally participated in the Project Stream tests (disclosure: towards the end of the test Google and Ubisoft provided testers a free copy of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, though this was not promised prior to joining the test) and while I was genuinely impressed with the experience, I couldn’t say I ever played 60 frames per second at all during that time.
Naturally, connection speeds are only one aspect of this situation. Google Chrome itself is a known resource drain on computers, which could be further compounded with streaming a game at high quality. Here in the US, broadband isn’t spread out as far as it should be, and ISPs basically have the all the bargaining power when it comes to pricing and rules for use.
Are there even any games for this thing yet?
Oh, yeah: Doom: Eternal.
Yeah, and unsurprisingly the promise is again 4K resolution and 60 FPS. While we didn’t get other announcements, studios like Q-Games and Tequila Works took the stage throughout the presentation to commit support for the platform. Ubisoft head Yves Guillemot was in the audience and since Odyssey was used as the test game for Project Stream, it’s safe to assume that game and other Ubisoft titles will be on hand.
Wait, how can I even play games?
When on a computer, players with be able to play however they want – mouse and keyboard, or various controller configurations. Google will also be releasing their own controller, with features that might give an advantage on Stadia. The controller will actually use wifi to connect to Google’s servers, presumably to reduce latency. The jury is out on whether or not that’s the case.
All of that sounds interesting, but what else does this actually do for games?
There’s a lot of fancy technology at play here, and not all of it is simply for players. A style importer could use AI machine learning to help developers implement new and existing design languages. New sharing options lets developers and players share entire game state moments with others (think being able to share an exact run of The Binding of Isaac with your friend.) Stadia does require new development; meaning that direct ports might not be super easy to do. Another bold claim is that multiple streams can be run to the same device to revive couch co-op games. That multiple stream claim goes even further – Google says even more streams can be added to create more options for asymmetric gameplay beyond what’s been attempted before.
This is a Google thing, but you haven’t mentioned YouTube at all. Did they actually not put in any YouTube features?
Oh, don’t worry, there are plenty of ways for YouTube creators to feature games and flirt with fascism. The Stadia controller has its own share button, like on other current game console controllers. Creators can take advantage of features like the state share and developers can even enable games to be immediately playable from a creator’s stream and fans could even join content creators in-game. As for other Google features, the ever-present Google Assistant is on hand to answer questions and even pull up guides or YouTube walkthroughs with a simple button press and voice request.
Alright then, what does this all mean for gaming? Does it mean anything?
On the one hand, there’s a non-zero chance this ends up being yet another Google project that ends up going the way of the dodo (goodbye, Google+!) but I don’t know that’s going to be the case here. In theory, Stadia could offer games to people in all kinds of situations with even less hassle than consoles once helped alleviate. The thing is, I don’t know that that’s actually the goal of Stadia. Having watched the entire presentation and following reports since, it seems that Google is way more interested in cutting off that sweet mismanaged games industry pie instead of expanding games into even more hands. As mentioned above, network requirements and the fine details are still sparse, but frankly the people who care most about 4K and high frame rate gameplay already have the equipment and the means to achieve that.
We also don’t know how Google plans to make money off of Stadia. It’s not immediately clear if Stadia is a service that users subscribe to like Netflix or if players will need to purchase games individually. Either way, ownership of games by players will become even more a dead practice as a result. That pricing structure will also impact how much take-home will go to developers as opposed to Google, not to mention how the user experience will be. Will we need to watch ads? Is Stadia separate from YouTube Premium? There’s no way to tell.
YouTube and Google Assistant integration feel unnecessary and problematic. We’re not even two weeks out from a mass shooter invoking one of YouTube’s biggest personalities, a reputation based on gaming. The algorithms that fuel YouTube are problematic for both users and creators, from misinformation flooding the platform to Content ID causing headaches. YouTube will need to drastically change to not pull down Stadia’s potential, and since Google Assistant will prioritize things like YouTube content, it’s just as impacted.
At the same time, if this could work, the potential for convenience is incredibly high. I genuinely enjoyed my time with Project Stream. If I was honest, I’d probably take advantage of Stadia if only to ensure I could reliably play games on my Macbook, which feels like a miracle alone. Should Google secure a large library of titles old and new, it could open up gaming’s history in a way that makes it properly accessible and easy to do for any one for minimal cost. We also know that Microsoft and (probably) Sony are also looking into streaming technology for games and this tech could come to dominate the next generation of games. In fact, it could even be said that the Nintendo Switch was an attempt to get ahead of the same idea. As I said at the top, this has only just begun.
We won’t have to wait long to see how this is all going to go, Google plans to launch Stadia this year.