Google’s Stadia is dreaming big. It wants to disrupt how we play games. The days of buying games for a local device will be gone, replaced by instant access to an extensive catalog of titles, all equally playable on a TV, tablet, smartphone, and anything in between.
It’s an exciting goal, but gamers aren’t easy to impress. Google will have to avoid a dungeon’s worth of pitfalls and traps to have any hope of success. There are many ways that Stadia could fail, but these five problems are the most serious.
This, of all the reasons, is the most troubling.
You’ll run across the phrase “at scale” repeatedly if you browse the statements made in interviews or watch the gaming presentationsat Google I/O 2019. This phrase, as anyone familiar with Silicon Valley can tell you, isn’t exclusive to Stadia. It’s been used for years to describe tech that can handle massive growth almost instantly. Every business in Silicon Valley, from Uber to WeWork, is built to disrupt whatever preceded it and, within the span of just a few years, become the new normal.
That can lead to massive success, but it also leads to massive risk. Google – or, perhaps more importantly, Alphabet, the conglomerate born from Google — hasn’t indicated what it expects from Stadia, or how much money it’s invested so far, but make no mistake. The expectations are huge.
Alphabet’s revenue was over 136 billion dollars in 2018. That, by the way, is just two billion dollars less than revenue from the entire video game industry last year. A meager success just won’t do because Google has little time for businesses that bring in less than a billion dollars per year.
What the company wants – even needs– is new business that can bring in tens of billions every year. It needs that because, despite efforts to diversify, most of Google’s money still comes from advertising, which makes it worryingly vulnerable to changes in that business. Stadia isn’t really about gaming. It’s not a passion project of Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, or anyone else high in Google’s corporate structure. Stadia is about money. It’s a new business for Google that uses its existing expertise in cloud infrastructure.
Just ask the Nexus Player, which could be used to play Android games on your television, or YouTube Gaming, which just received the axe after nearly four years fighting Twitch. Google expects massive success. Google has killed 167 products in its history. Anything that doesn’t work within a couple years is unlikely to see its fifth birthday.
The biggest threat to Stadia is Google’s high standard for success.
And everyone knows that.
Stadia has a great pitch for developers – one that, I think, could appeal the most to small indie studios. It could offer a true one-size-fits-all solution for games. Launching on Stadia means a studio can launch on every PC, mobile phone, and tablet available, all at once and without the usual QA problems. Google also promises easy access to players through Play Now, a feature that lets Stadia players jump into a game just by clicking a link.
Yet Google’s willingness to quickly drop projects negates this strength. Developers see the potential, but they’re also leery about targeting a platform that will surely evaporate if it fails to reap profits “at scale” as expected. If Stadia goes dark, so will the developer’s game and whatever profits it was generating.
Worse, the developer might see blowback from gamers. Will the players who purchased and/or played the game on Stadia be mad at the developer because they can no longer access the game? Probably. It’s a headache waiting to happen.
Google needs to walk a thin line. Stadia could make launch woes a thing of the past, but developers will need to trust Google as a partner. I don’t think that trust exists yet, and if doesn’t, Stadia won’t have the games it needs to lure players.
In a way, Stadia does have a launch game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey became available to stream last year (for free, no less!) through what was then called Google Project Stream. It’s good pick for a graphical showcase. Odyssey has a massive, densely populated, downright gorgeous game world that can humble a mid-range gaming PC.
The game was felt fluid and responsive,but image quality wasn’t what Google’s press releases led me to expect. Odyssey looked soft and blurry on Project Stream, as resolution was sacrificed to smooth out frame delivery. I also noticed banding artifacts in the game’s blue skies and chunky macroblocking artifacts during fast motion. Playing the game over the cloud just wasn’t as much fun as on a high-end PC, or even a PlayStation 4 Pro.
That’s not to say the demo was a total disappointment. I played via Chrome on a laptop that would normally struggle to play Fortnite, so Project Stream did unlock a whole new level of performance for the system. Given the choice, though, I’d much rather sit down and enjoy the game on a PlayStation, and I think a lot of gamers would agree.
I’m a demanding gamer. I tend to notice little flaws because, well, it’s my job. But gamers as a group are nothing if not fanatical and the biggest fans demand the highest quality. Google needs to bring top-tier quality with no excuses. The time I had with Project Stream didn’t convince me it can deliver.
Google’s counter to complaints about quality will focus, of course, on how Stadia brings games to so many devices simultaneously. It’s not just that laptop with Chrome. It’s also a low-spec smartphone, a Chomecast enabled television, or even an iPad tablet. Anything that can run a streaming video app is a target for Stadia.
Just because a device can run Stadia, however, doesn’t mean the gamer who owns that device will pay for it. Google hasn’t announced how much Stadia will cost. $10 per month? Almost certainly not. $20 per month? That’s the lowest I think realistic (it’s how much Sony charges for PlayStation Now). $30 per month? I know that sounds high, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
It’s possible that Google, in a clever move, will find ways to repackage the price so that it’s not directed at the consumer. Maybe Stadia will operate on a digital storefront model, where is taken from each sale. Maybe we’ll see some combination of business models. Anything that lowers the price for gamers will help Stadia in the coming battle for hearts and minds.
Whatever Google settles on will have to address the first problem I pointed out. Stadia needs to make a lot of money. If Stadia makes that from gamers directly, the price will be too high. If Stadia makes that from developers instead, they’ll be less inclined to bring games to the platform.
Price will be a tricky problem. I’m holding out hope that Google will impress with an unexpectedly affordable business model, but I have a hard time seeing how Stadia will make that happen.
Stadia sucked the oxygen out of cloud gaming in the month after its announcement. That’s no surprise. It’s news when a company the size of Google elbows into a place where it has traditionally lacked presence. The initial luster is starting to fade already, though, as competitors make their own moves. Sony spoke extensively about cloud gaming at its last investor meeting, reminding everyone that it has its own cloud gaming service called PlayStation Now. While Google’s Stadia has no information about pricing or game library, PlayStation Now is available right now for $20 per month and offers hundreds of games.
Microsoft is going to make its own pitch at E3. Amazon hasn’t said much on the subject, but the company owns several studios, has a game engine called Lumberyard, and clearly has the infrastructure needed to launch a competitor. Nvidia, Shadow, and Vortex round out the options.
The sheer volume of Google’s announcement created the illusion that cloud gaming is exotic. In truth, it’s already readily available, and it’s about to become common. Stadia will have a lot of competition in this space. Some competitors already exist, and others look set to launch by the end of 2020 at the latest.
Microsoft and Sony are the most worrying. Google can bring its robust cloud infrastructure to Stadia but, as I’ve said before, it’s not worth much if there’s nothing to play. Microsoft and Sony both own original, recognizable IP. They also have experience working directly with developers to secure new, exclusive partnerships. A better library is going to beat superior technical execution nine times out of 10.
There’s room for multiple cloud gaming services, of course. But it’s hard to imagine a world where Stadia exists as an also-ran for more than a couple years. Google is in it to win it. If they can’t win it, Stadia’s chance of survival plummets.
Google’s Stadia shows promise but, as these five points prove, it also faces serious obstacles. Gamers are not going to jump on board just because Google says they should. They’ll need to be convinced. That’s not impossible. Valve did it with Steam. Microsoft and Sony did it with Xbox Live and PlayStation Now. But most companies that try to disrupt gaming fail. Only time will tell if Stadia can join the few victors or will be known as another good idea that didn’t survive.