Google made some controversial splashing in the gaming world recently by announcing the Google Stadia and being the ultra-switched-on-mile-a-minute person that I am…. it kinda passed me by. I think I have a certain noise filter when it comes to gaming news and promises of live-streaming have been the right amount of hyped and disappointing over the years for me to mentally file it under “Meh”. This morning’s commute however saw it crop up on my twitter feed a few more times and I decided to take a look at the details.
… but wait, back up a second. Let’s cover the basics; for those of you who don’t know, Google Stadia is that tech-behemoth’s jump in to the streaming gaming market. The idea is that the gamer doesn’t need a console, all the hard work is done in google data centres with the user remotely feeding controller inputs and the visuals being fed-back via livestream. The ambition here is big with promises of up to 4K resolutions at 60fps at latency low-enough to make gaming feel seamless rather than the huge data back-and-forth that it actually is. From a user-hardware point of view it’s all looking very lightweight. The main accessory is a special wi-fi enabled gamepad which cuts out on some of the local communication hurdles and this is bundled with a ChromeCast Ultra in the founders edition for £119. Having said that the rumour is that Stadia will basically be accessible using anything that supports Chrome with some apparently great performance demonstrated on Pixel Chromebooks. On top of the hardware users will have to buy access to individual games to add to their virtual library and can choose from two tiers of membership: Stadia Pro, and Stadia Base. Pro users will enjoy some free titles each month, up to 4K and 5.1 surround sound whilst Base users will be limited to 1080p, don’t get the freebies, and must suffer stereo sound (I’ve never had a surround sound setup!).
Now, if this is all sounding a little familiar, it could be that your remembering the failed On-Live service which represents the last serious attempt to do something similar. That fell flat due to the technical limitations of the time and the sceptic in me wants to say that there is a big risk that Stadia will do the same. After all, who here has a stable enough connection to not occasionally get a dose of crazy-blocky-netflix? or low enough latency to not get shot mystically from around a corner in an FPS? The demands here, not only in connection quality, but stability are huge. Press-previews have apparently gone relatively well with most reporting reasonable performance with only the occasional blockiness and moments of laggy control, but succeeding in a very limited preview and when the load is ramped up to public access are two very different things.
Interestingly however, much of the chatter is actually about the very concept of streaming games rather than the possibility of technical failure or price-point. Many gamers (myself included) were resistant to the rise of digital downloads and this feels like the next bizarre step down that winding road with the player now not even having game data local to their system. Familiar arguments citing “what’s to stop Google from pulling games unannounced” have reared their heads again and it’s difficult not to have that thought lingering in the back of your mind, especially as there isn’t an indication of how much these games are going to cost to access (although Pro users will apparently get a discount). There is of course also the worry that your connection will go down or the Google datacentres will … erm… disintegrate?… and then hapless gamers will be left game-less on rainy Thursday evening… and yeah! As someone who spends around 75% of my gaming time in single-player endeavours, the necessity to have a high speed stable connection just doesn’t seem worth it compared to running things locally whenever I want.
… so with that in mind, I set out to write this article, but somewhere in the opening paragraph I stopped and really thought about it… and you know something?… I’m not the target audience for this. Just let that settle in for a second, because once you take that onboard, and accept that the November 2019 release date doesn’t mark the end of traditional gaming setups as we know it, it’s much easier to start to look at which this could bring to gaming.
First up, this tech could bring beautiful high-quality games to those who wouldn’t normally be able to afford the equipment; the early adopter kit is moderately priced and the basic controller is bound to drop in price. As an advocate for gaming to be inclusive this is surely a great way for even more people to enjoy the hobby that I love in more places and on a wider variety of screens. Games are for everyone and the first person I see belittling or dismissing a Stadia player as “not a real gamer” will be on the receiving end of a very stern unhappy emoji from me… you have been warned! The tech could also bring advantages to online gamers; imagine the game server and the local clients all running in the same data centre. Stuttering high-ping players, being shot around corners, server slowdown, and rubber banding could suddenly become a thing of the past. There’s also the probability that developers would be able to exploit the centralised processing to build even more unified gaming worlds and finally iron out those kinks that occur between client and server.
Truly cloud based gaming would also allow for you to easily take your game on the go. Want to break out your favourite game at your friend’s house? How about taking it from your TV to your mobile? or some sneaky evening playing in a hotel room whilst you’re on a work trip! There’s also the much touted public gamestate feature; imagine watching your favourite streamer playing a game and being able to decide that you want to take over – Stadia will allow you to literally take over their game at any point… which is both pretty weird, and pretty cool.
So yeah, there are a vast number of technical pitfalls, and those of us who love physical media will undoubtedly lament this next step closer to its obliteration… but you know, we started down that path a long time ago now.
It’s ambitious and it’s scary, and there’s a good chance it will fail, but just set that all aside for a moment because this could be something that spreads gaming, gives players a new way to play and opens up the community… and that’s pretty cool … right?
Stadia is being launched in November for Founders which includes a few month’s of Pro membership bundled. Base membership is due for rollout next year.