Google Stadia: Not Quite It
What Stadia has taught us about the past, present, and future of gaming.
In March of 2019, Google announced the launch of its all-new, cloud-based gaming service — Google Stadia. Stadia’s main selling point is that it does not require any external hardware, such as a gaming console or PC, to be able to run and play video games. Instead, Stadia allows its users to stream games directly from Google’s data servers to any of their own personal devices with a browser. These devices can include laptops, phones, TV screens, tablets, and more. The user can then “jump” from device to device, all while never having to be interrupted mid-game to do so.
Google Stadia launched in November 2019 in fourteen countries, limited to its Stadia Pro tier users. Cloud gaming services were already being offered by recognizable gaming brands such as Steam, Nvidia, and Sony, but Google is now the latest to join the game-streaming wars. Because of its powerful servers, Google was expected to highly succeed in this endeavor. According to Google, Stadia is said to be capable of a 4K 60FPS gameplay experience just as long as the user has access to a sufficient Wi-Fi connection.
Unfortunately, as it stands, Google Stadia is anything but a success. Since its recent launch, reviewers have criticized Stadia for a multitude of various reasons. Some have even gone as far as calling it a “disaster” and a “catastrophe”. ‘Technology Absurdism’ is defined as the development of a technology that ignores, fails to appreciate, or underrepresents obvious negative externalities. This article will outline how the development, launch, and business model of Google Stadia is a perfect contemporary example of technology absurdism at its finest.
But why is it such a failure?
To understand what makes Google Stadia a failure, let us first set the landscape of the rapidly changing ecosystems of gaming and technology leading up to Stadia’s launch date. Google Stadia launched in November 2019, which means it launched during the eighth generation, or current generation, of video gaming consoles. The eighth-generation includes consoles released since 2012 by Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, and is expected to transition into the ninth generation in 2020.
During this current generation of video gaming consoles, on-demand streaming has become the standard concept for viewing movies and TV shows and has been that way for the better part of the decade. Because of increased internet speeds and rapidly improving technology, we are now able to stream content directly to any of our devices, provided we have a sufficient internet connection. Although it has yet to become the standard, on-demand streaming of video games is also possible in a similar fashion.
In recent years, cloud/streaming gaming services have come to fruition, offering an alternative to buying either physical or digital games. Cloud gaming services operate by instead rendering these games on their native data centers, to which the output is then streamed to the user playing the game via the internet.
There are advantages, both theoretical and concrete, to this approach of gaming. Cloud gaming can replace the cost of a new gaming console or PC every few years with a monthly subscription cost that could end up being cheaper in the long run. This especially applies to light users. This is made possible by reasons such as bulk licensing of games being done by the streaming service provider, as well as the user only having to pay for time spent with individual games rather than overpaying for expensive hardware only to play a select few games.
Some of the game-streaming services offered today are PlayStation Now by Sony, GeForce Now by Nvidia, and the upcoming Project xCloud from Microsoft. Each service varies a bit in their subscription models, content, and recommended internet download speeds, but they all offer the chance to play the latest AAA games from a local, accessible, first-party library. However, there are disadvantages to this approach to gaming as well.
In order to make cloud gaming a viable option, many users will need faster speeds, lower latency, and bigger data caps on their internet connections.
Not only that, but there already exists a long-lasting divide amongst players and their preferred console or ecosystem. Whether it be Sony vs. Microsoft or Steam vs. Epic Games, gamers face the inconvenience of perhaps having to buy multiple consoles or having to wait a lengthy amount of time for their desired game to be released on their preferred platform.
A brand new ecosystem is not the answer
This brings us to one of the first fundamental issues of Google Stadia. Instead of being a service that somehow bridges this gap amongst users, it instead provokes further segregation of these ecosystems by creating a new, paid subscription-based environment where players will need to re-purchase games that they may already own for full price ($60 USD).
At the time of its release, Stadia only offered a selection of 22 games, which had already been increased from 12 games last-minute. While some games from this selection are popular, contemporary, AAA titles that have a recent launch date, many of the games from this selection have already been in release for some time on other platforms. Nonetheless, Stadia is still charging full price for some of these games which were released one, two, and even three years ago.
For a product whose alleged focus is accessibility, Google Stadia’s pricing structure creates a fundamental conflict with that notion. For early adopters, the Founder’s Edition of Google Stadia was priced at $129 USD, which included three months of access to Stadia Pro (the service), which costs $9.99 USD per month. Also, this bundle included a special Stadia Controller and a Google Chromecast Ultra from which to play it on.
If these users want to buy even two additional games — games they might already own elsewhere — they will be spending approximately $250 USD. That is because, as mentioned earlier, games are sold separately and are not included within the subscription to Stadia Pro. Currently, in December 2019, at a local game store or online, a player can buy a pre-owned console or even a bundle (including a game or two) for less than $250 USD.
For most users though, if they want to play Google Stadia at present, they will be spending $129 USD for the Premiere Edition. This also includes a three-month subscription of the service, a Stadia Controller, and a Chromecast Ultra. The only difference is that now, a copy of the game, “Destiny 2”, is now included in that price.
However, the Stadia Pro membership does offer “discounted” prices on some of the games that have been in release for some time. For example, with a Stadia Pro membership, you can buy the game, “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey”, a game which was released back in October 2018, for half off the full price of $60 USD.
This particular game though has historically been on sale for as low as $15 USD in some instances. As a matter of fact, PlayStation Network currently offers PlayStation users a package that includes both games, “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” and “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey”, for $40 USD.
Of course, all of this goes without yet mentioning the concept of ownership.
The concept of ownership is disappearing
We are living in an era where physical copies of music, movies, TV shows and games are all becoming increasingly scarce. All of these respective industries have begun to pivot towards digital-only downloads, meaning a decrease in users’ control over their own library. This is one of the primary arguments against a total switch to digital.
However, all other contemporary gaming hardware other than Google Stadia has the option for physical-disc installations or analog libraries of titles. This hardware includes consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as well as gaming PCs. That means that if Google Stadia fails and ends up shutting down sometime in the future, all of the money that users spend towards games on this platform will be wasted.
Google Stadia’s service is meant to invade the current gaming industry, just as Netflix invaded the traditional movie space. The difference between Netflix and Stadia is the fact that Netflix did not require the user to outright purchase the movies they wanted to watch separately for full price in order to do so. This pricing structure, in its current state, is beyond the realm of acceptability.
This is not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because the final product is just not worth it. While it may be hard to believe, Google Stadia’s paid subscription-based environment is the least of this new service’s worries.
Stadia is simply unplayable
For those who have gotten their hands on Google Stadia, the experience of playing games has not been good. In fact, Google Stadia has been said to be “unplayable” by many, if not most reviewers of the new service. There are two main issues with the experience of streaming games using Stadia, and those are visual quality and latency.
According to Paul Tassi, a Senior Contributor at Forbes, he reported getting periodic stuttering issues with massive resolution and frame drops during his experience with Stadia. Not all the time, but enough to be noticed frequently and disrupt gameplay.
This is something that everyone feared and anticipated may happen with this kind of streaming technology. Tassi reviewed Stadia at home on his Chromecast Ultra and TV for many sessions, with wireless speed ranges between 200–350 Mbps. According to Google Stadia’s website, in order to play games in HD, users will need at least a 10Mbps connection. For 4K, users will need at least 35Mbps. Tassi’s connection clearly surpassed the minimum requirement for 4K, even Google’s own Stadia speed check tool classified his internet speed as capable enough to have a high-performance gaming experience on Stadia.
According to Tassi, it did not matter whether the games were graphically rich or demanded a high amount of computing power in order to run. These issues with visual quality and latency persisted throughout the entirety of his experience.
In his own words, “I fell off ledges in Tomb Raider because of lag. I flat-out lost Mortal Kombat fights I would have won otherwise. I died to Destiny enemies I would roast with ease on any other platform. I managed to slog through the entirety of the Mortal Kombat 11 campaign (which I genuinely wanted to play, as I hadn’t yet) and probably at least one a match I ran into lag issues. Even if it’s just for a moment, it can cost you an entire fight in a game like that.”
These dips in quality are happening often enough that they have affected everybody’s play session at one point or another. While this may be acceptable with games such as “Tomb Raider”, where the latency issues may only cost the player a life or so, this is unacceptable for highly competitive multiplayer games such as “Destiny 2” or “Mortal Kombat 11” where players take their online status seriously.
Albeit, streaming games is a difficult task. As mentioned earlier, users will need faster speeds, lower latency, and bigger data caps on their internet connections in order for this to happen. This is something that is not yet available to everybody, especially in the US.
The problem here is that Google Stadia claims that users need a lesser wireless speed requirement than what is actually required. When contacted about this issue, Google recommended that Tassi turn down his settings to “Balanced” instead of on the highest 4K setting, which is what Stadia Pro subscription is paid to access and run on. Once the same issues persisted, they recommended that he turn down the settings even further to the lowest tier available.
It did not seem to matter. On every setting, Tassi reported that Google Stadia ran into the same issues time and time again throughout his experience.
This flawed experience with Google Stadia seems to be consistent with all of those who have been able to review it. Of course, input latency and diminished graphics are to be expected when it comes to remotely rendering games via the internet versus running them locally. However, the marketing for Stadia is assuring consumers that they will be able to have a 4K 60FPS gameplay experience just as long as the user has access to a sufficient Wi-Fi connection.
That is just simply not the case.
Even with a sufficient connection, which happens to be too high of a requirement for most users, Stadia does not run as advertised. Google Stadia is actually less accessible than a regular console on a basic home internet connection. Simply put, Google Stadia is an unfinished, unpolished, and unusable product at this point in time following its launch date.
In addition to a poor overall product, Google Stadia is also at fault for delivering false promises on the previously mentioned preorder packages. Google marketed the “First-Come-First-Serve” system for redeeming usernames as a big advantage of ordering Stadia early, and although custom username redeemability is a standard concept for other gaming platforms, that promise has fallen through.
Many early adopters who preordered the Founder’s Edition still do not have an access code for the Stadia Pro service either, even though they have already received their Founder’s Edition kit.
Google has a trust problem
Lying and misleading to get cash from customers should not be accepted, especially by a company that is already known to breach their users’ trust. Google needs to answer for their broken promises — even if they intended to fulfill them but failed to do so. It is time for users to become educated on their rights as consumers, as there is no reason to defend a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar mega-corporation who lies to its customers in exchange for profit.
‘Technology Absurdism’ is defined as the development of a technology that ignores, fails to appreciate, or underrepresents obvious negative externalities. Just as companies such as Takata misled the public on the safety of their airbags, Google has misled consumers on the quality of their service.
While the concept of Google Stadia is interesting — being able to seamlessly stream games across all devices without any external hardware necessary — it is nowhere near as good of an experience already offered by Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and gaming PCs.
And if it is not better or even as good, then why would anyone switch?
This is not to say that there will not exist a place for cloud gaming in the future. In fact, I do believe that it will play an important role in the landscape of gaming and technology at some point down the line.
Unfortunately for Google Stadia though, that time is not now.