Google Stadia: Hands-on with the Cloud PC Gaming Platform

Is Google Stadia the future of PC gaming? We went hands-on with the new platform and have some thoughts...

The promise of Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform to bring AAA gaming to any device that can run Chrome could be a game-changer, but much of its success hinges on how well the games perform in practice. At GDC, I had the chance to get my hands on Stadia, playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey straight from the cloud. My experience left me generally optimistic about the new service, though there are still plenty of questions left unanswered that could make or break the platform’s prospects.

Visually, AC Odyssey looked quite nice, running at 1080p and 30 fps, though a Google employee assured me that the signal from the Google data center was streaming at 60 fps. The game was running on a Google Pixelbook laptop at each of the stations I tested on the show floor, and for the most part, the visuals looked console quality, though some of the stations seemed to show a bit more artifacting, distorting the graphics at points. This could have been due to the fact that the screens at the display stations weren’t super high-quality gaming monitors (which I was standing inches away from, which is never ideal), or that the internet connections varied in strength at the two Stadia booths, which were in separate buildings across the street from each other (both were running on Ethernet connections). It was hard to tell exactly what caused the graphical inconsistencies I noticed, but at the end of the day, the game felt very smooth and certainly didn’t appear to be visually downgraded in any major way.

That being said, Google’s data center is 50 miles away from where I was playing in San Francisco, and the Bay Area is an incredibly well-connected region, so if graphical inconsistencies were due to the internet connection, one has to wonder how well Stadia will do in other regions. Google has recommended a 25 Mbps connection for Stadia, which, while standard in some parts of the U.S., is nowhere near the national average internet speed of 9.1 Mbps. There are some areas in the country and across the world where the connection won’t be fast enough to run Stadia at optimal fidelity. Performance will almost certainly vary depending on where you live and how close you are to one of Google’s data centers.

There wasn’t much of a perceptible latency issue during my time playing AC Odyssey, but latency isn’t as critical for a game in which reaction time isn’t as key to gameplay. A Google employee told me that the latency should be imperceptible to human eyes, and with Assassin’s Creed, it certainly felt responsive enough.

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I was also able to go hands-on with Stadia’s Doom PC demo. The game was running at a lightning-fast 60 fps at 1080p, though there were some caveats. Doom was running on a version of Stadia meant for developers. The visuals looked fantastic when spectating, but latency was definitely noticeable once I started playing using the station’s mouse and keyboard. The cursor lagged behind my movements ever so slightly, which is of course less than desirable for a twitch shooter like Doom. The Google representatives assisting me insisted that latency would not be an issue at launch.

Stadia is being advertised as “for everyone,” in the sense that it will make AAA games quickly and readily available to all players, and it looks to deliver on that promise. Accessibility and ease of use is the focus here, and the ability to jump into a game you’re watching someone play on YouTube by simply clicking a button is an interesting prospect, though this functionality was only showcased in a video on the show floor, and I wasn’t able to try it out.

In-person, Stadia provides what appears to be an adequate gaming experience, though there were too many variables in play on the show floor to make a concrete assessment of the platform. Google’s new controller wasn’t available to try on the show floor (Logitech controllers acted as stand-ins) and were instead on display in glass cases, and there were no Stadia menus or HUDs to be seen either, so the platform’s UI is still a big question mark as well. And of course, Stadia’s as-yet-unannounced price will be one of the biggest defining factors in its success.

I wouldn’t necessarily choose to play a game like AC Odyssey on Stadia over my home console or PC based on what I saw, but if I was traveling or wanted to play in bed on a Chrome-running device, I’d be perfectly happy to run Google’s new platform. For competitive gamers and fans of games requiring ultra-low latency, however, Stadia still has yet to prove it can provide an ideal gaming experience.

Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.