As just about everyone in the video game industry suspected, Google finally unveiled a cloud-based streaming service that represents the company’s most substantial video game project to date. Leading up to this announcement, many people speculated that the reveal of Google’s streaming project would not only shed light on the future of Google’s interests in the video game industry but also the future of cloud-based gaming and an industry that is rapidly moving away from the physical and embracing the digital.
But that’s not what happened. We walked away from Google’s presentation with more questions than answers. The true shame of it all is that the answers to these looming questions are the same answers that will determine just how excited you should be about Google’s Stadia and cloud-based gaming.
Google elected to focus on the technical side of the Stadia project during the service’s reveal, which is hardly a surprise considering that the unveiling took place at GDC, an event that primarily caters to industry figures and insiders. Because of that reveal, we know that Stadia will be (theoretically) powerful, (theoretically) versatile, and (theoretically) accessible.
It’s necessary to label all of these benefits as theoretical because two of the things that Google didn’t reveal during the presentation were the price of this service and how, exactly, you’re going to be getting your games through it. Considering that the company intends to release Stadia later this year, these are glaring questions that still need answers.
What’s more troubling is that the things Google did reveal during this presentation suggest answers we’re not going to like. For instance, Google referenced its partners on this project and shipping out development kits (or the rough equivalent of dev kits) to the first wave of developers (including id, who showed Doom Eternal) who will use Stadia technology. That alone seems to imply that the process of getting games to run on this platform is, well, a process.
It also implies that games that currently exist on digital platforms like Steam, GoG, Epic, Origin, and Battle.net will not outright work with Stadia. If that does prove to be the case, then that means the rumors of Stadia being a cloud-based streaming service that essentially grants you access to a high-end PC may not be accurate. In fact, based on what we know now, it’s starting to sound like Stadia is much closer to a new console minus many of the actual physical components of a said machine.
If true, that greatly limits the potential of this service. As we saw during the last console generation, exclusives and access to a system’s back catalog can be major selling points. Exclusives are a big part of the reason why the PS4 has been so popular and Xbox scored big with its backward compatible features. The idea of a cloud service that doesn’t grant you access to any (or many) games released before the service is troubling. As for potential exclusives, we don’t know which future is more troubling: the one where Google uses its resources to acquire major exclusives and divides the gaming space even further or the one where the company doesn’t and we’re left to question the purpose of this service.
This all brings us to the price of Stadia, which is currently unknown. Leading up to this event, we speculated that Google might sell its service via a monthly subscription model similar to the Blade Shadow. However, Shadow allows you to access an entire high-end gaming PC (complete with Windows 10 and all the apps that come with it) for $35 a month. The thought of Google charging even $10 or $20 a month for life for what appears to be something much closer to a console than a PC (which allows you to access a massive back catalog of titles, mods, and other services) seems absurd in comparison.
How much is this service really worth, then? If Microsoft can indeed get away with selling its rumored digital-only Xbox One S for around $200, we imagine that you should be able to access Stadia for even less than that. Were that the case, Google would have used that figure as a major selling point during the reveal.
Maybe Google will offer you access to a Netflix-like library of games for a monthly fee, but in order to be more valuable than a service like Shadow, that fee has to be less than $35 a month. Is that really feasible? Even at $20 a month, you’ve got to ask yourself whether this service is worth, essentially, the cost of a new console every year minus the ability to choose which games you get to play.
Stadia’s other features should make it more valuable than competing services, but again, that’s only in theory. As great as it is to be able to use one service to play modern games on low-end PCs, phones, and even smart TVs via Chromecast, some of Stadia’s other features (like the ability to jump in a game with streamers) feel hopelessly gimmicky. After all, in a world where stream sniping is a huge issue, we have a hard time imagining streamers are going to let viewers join their sessions. Those who opt-in may just tire of having to decide which viewers get into a game’s very limited lobby. Either way, streamers risk the consequences of a viewer’s bad behavior on their YouTube channel. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a benefit to incentivize streamers to actually use the Crowd Play feature.
The shame of it all is that Stadia is still an exciting service in many ways. The idea that the future of video games will not be tied to the limited capabilities of a physical box of hardware nor the limitations of a disc or even the traditional retail gaming model has long been appealing. Stadia shows us that such a concept can work, even if it doesn’t show us what kind of internet connection such games are going to require, how this is possibly going to work with multiplayer games where different players have different connections, and how this service is going to help (or hinder) the development process of games that are reportedly becoming incredibly expensive to make.
These questions leave us feeling much like we did in 2013 when Microsoft revealed that controversial version of the Xbox One that tried to rush us into a digital age before the marketplace was ready. At the time, it seemed that Microsoft was more excited by future possibilities than it was to answer all the very real questions that come with those possibilities.
Six years later, it feels like Google is in roughly the same position. The company is trying to pitch an incredibly advanced technological concept to a broad audience based on the idea that it will make gaming more accessible than ever. Yet, Google still can’t tell us how we’ll access those games, how much all of this is going to cost, or what kind of internet connection we’re going to need to enjoy this service.
The future of gaming is likely going to be cloud-based services like Stadia. As it stands, though, we don’t know whether or not that future will actually feature Stadia in a leading role.