Google revealed Stadia this week to a chorus of oohs, aaahs, shrugs and yawns. This was no console. This was Google's vision of a future where we have no consoles, no desktop PCs, no local hardware. Gaming outside of the boxes, playing everything in the cloud.
While Google may be a tech giant though, it's no Apple in terms of reliability. Google throwing its weight behind something means nearly nothing, its 20-year history littered with the carcasses of failed ideas and abandoned projects. Google Stadia felt like a taste of the future, but we're not sure whether that taste was sweet or sour.
Fast, Reliable Connections Are Not Widespread
The biggest elephant in the room is connection speeds and availability. Google is suggesting a minimum of around 15Mb/s for 720p/60, rising to 25Mb/s for 1080p/60. For 4K, Google Stadia head honcho Phil Harrison suggests a minimum of 30Mb/s, although logically you’d have to be looking at 100Mb/s to achieve something approaching satisfactory quality.
Plenty of people have these sorts of net speeds. Plenty more don’t. Of the 200 countries whose net data is publicly available, just 21 have average speeds above 25Mb/s. The US squeaks in with 25.86Mb/s average, while countries such as the UK, Russia, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Italy, and more, all have average speeds well under 20Mb/s. This is a major limiting factor right now, although if Google can stick to its promise of 25Mb/s for 1080p/60, with low latency, then there could be potential for wide-scale adoption in the right countries.
Where Are The Games?
Announcing a game streaming service is all well and good, but what use is any of it without the games. They have to be the single most important thing of any gaming service. We have no doubt Stadia will get plenty eventually, but all we got to see during the showcase was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game we’ve all been able to play for the past six months. Doom Eternal was talked about but Google wasn’t confident enough to show it on-stage.
However, Google has opened up a new Stadia Games and Entertainment division that will be dedicated to bringing in exclusives for the platform, although it feels as if these could be a long way from coming to fruition. More than 100 devkits have been handed out to third parties though, and the porting process sounds as if it could be relatively painless. We have to take the word of Id Software on that though, a supremely talented, big budget, tech-savvy studio that could probably get Doom Eternal running on a toaster before the toast pops up.
Google Stadia Is A Nightmare For Game Preservation
We live in an age where digital ownership is already a gigantic pain in the arse. We’ve signed over our hard-earned property to the DRM gods, all part of the blood sacrifice we had to make when moving on from physical games. With Google Stadia, this chasm between gamers and ownership grows ever wider. The games you buy won’t even exist in your town, let alone your hard drive. Everything about games will be fleeting; ephemeral. All it takes is the flick of a switch and these games are lost forever. Not even cracks can save them, existing as they on some random server farm deep in the Nevada desert.
Google is omnipresent; a tech giant that creeps in the dark and is acutely aware of nearly every aspect of your life. For a lot of us, Google knows our routes to work, favourite restaurants, our search history, where we like to go on holiday, where we live, who our friends are. How much more information do we need to give Google and is handing over our entire game collection to Google really the smartest decision? Google is a company built on a foundation of ads. Each and every service it has ever offered has only been a tool within which to find out more about you and deliver you more ads. Google Stadia will be no different. Google will know what you play, how long you play, when you play, where you play, what you say, who you play with, who you stream to, who you watch, and what you buy, tailoring ads to you in menus, on the store, and even in-game itself.
How Much Are The Games Going to Cost?
It takes a special sort of talent to get up on stage, talk about how great something is for an hour, and then no once mention how much it’s going to cost.
There are so many question marks over what model Google is going to adopt. It could be a Netflix-style all-you-can-eat subscription service. We may have to buy the games outright. We may have to pay for the amount of time we play. We'll probably have ad breaks between levels. It could even be a combination of all of these. Throw in ISP data caps and this could swiftly become an expensive proposition that totally negates no new hardware is required.
Google Stadia Isn’t All Bad
It can be easy to get tangled up the negatives but Stadia does also open the door to a whole new world of positives, things that just aren’t possible.
With Stadia, for example, you’ll never need to patch a game ever again. Rainbow 6: Siege’s 54GB patch wouldn’t matter one bit because it would all be updated on the server rack, leaving you just to click and play.
Which bleeds into the second, altogether more obvious point - you’d never need to wait for a game to download again. Find what you want in a store, buy it, and play it, within a matter of seconds.
Breaking down the barriers of hardware also provides near limitless potential for the experiences that can be made. Developers can create games knowing everyone will be using top-of-the-line hardware, the cloud-based infrastructure constantly evolving as technology advances. We could also see thousand-player shooters, massive space battles, or unparalleled destruction physics. Again, all that is required is any hardware that can run Chrome, breaking gaming loose from its boxes. Players can switch from their PC to their phone to their TV, instantly picking up the action right where they left off.
When the rumours were circulating Google had console hardware on the way, it never even occurred to us just how potent its combination with YouTube could be. Stadia and YouTube are built to go hand-in-hand. All of the games on Stadia can be watched on YouTube; you can start playing a game your favourite streamer’s playing with the click of a button, and save states can even be shared to allow you to play exactly the same part of a game as someone else.
And look, as I cast my eyes upwards at the wall of text I’ve written, I’m all too aware that the pros are being heavily outweighed by the cons. Watching the games industry over the past two decades has taught me one major thing that can never be underestimated though - convenience is king. The path of least resistance literally trumps everything, and when Joe Bloggs discovers he can play a game on his Macbook just by loading up Chrome then you can bet he’ll absolutely do that. If the service is reliable enough, cheap enough, and quick enough, this train is going to be hard to stop.