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Google Stadia is the first early access video game console

Who are the people buying this first batch of hardware?

Google Stadia Controller in hands Google

Google’s cloud gaming service, Stadia, is launching on Nov. 19.

Except you need the official hardware to play when the service first goes live, and orders are being shipped in the order they were received, so you may not get your pre-order on that date.

Stadia has always been a complicated service to try to explain to potential customers, but having a system that is supposed to work without dedicated hardware launch in a state that requires dedicated hardware, without a firm idea of when pre-order customers will get their systems, surely doesn’t help things.

The idea is that the game is actually being run at a Google data center, and the video feed is then fed to your display, with control data being sent back to the data center whenever you press a button or tilt an analog stick. This means that you should be able to play even graphically intensive games on laptops, tablets, or smart phones, and pick up your game right where you left off on any of those pieces of hardware. But, at least at launch, you need to buy the official hardware to use Stadia.

The ability to play Stadia games without Google’s official hardware is coming ... at some point in the future. There’s no specific date announced yet, beyond “sometime in 2020.”

The wireless controller that Google is shipping with these initial consoles, for the service that doesn’t require a console, will only work wirelessly on the Chromecast Ultra. If you want to use it on any other device, you’ll need a USB-C cable until wireless capability is added for more devices.

How much do we trust Google?

This is as early access as a hardware launch can get, with key features that are supposed to be the entire point of the platform completely absent at launch, and squishy timelines for when they’ll be added. This is a service with no console, that requires a console. This is a controller that can be used on a variety of devices, at some point, that only works wirelessly on one device for now.

Google is reportedly going to decrease latency in the future by rolling out a feature that predicts what button you will press, before you press it. That technology might solve most of Stadia’s problems, if it’s ever perfected or released.

I don’t know who the people are who are pre-ordering a system that will launch without being able to do nearly anything it’s been designed to do, in order to buy games you can get on other platforms or may already own, to play anywhere as long as you’re near the hardware and don’t mind plugging the wireless controller into existing devices, but I’m nowhere near confident enough in the technology or Google’s track record with cancelling products and services to join them.

Heck, I’m worried about that even with Google product launches I really enjoyed. I was a big fan of Daydream VR, in fact. It launched in 2016, and showed how well Google can enter into new markets. It was also recently discontinued, although the app itself will still be supported.

You can consider Stadia to be kind of like putting regular gaming hardware on a payment plan, except the monthly $9.99 payments never end if you want to play games in 4K, and you may lose everything you have bought if Google ever decides to cancel the service. Google assures you that won’t happen, outside of “unforseen circumstances,” but those circumstances leave a lot of room for Google to allow that to happen without breaking its promise.

Google Chromecast Ultra and Stadia Founders Edition controller
This is the only way to play wirelessly with the Stadia controller at launch
Image: Google

Stadia could be great, and many very large companies are investing very large sums of money into making game streaming a reality so they can control every aspect of how games are released, played, and shared. Whoever gets there first may very well have a monstrous advantage in the marketplace, and only powerful companies with massive warchests and existing infrastructures are going to be able to even try.

I understand why Google is trying this, but what I don’t understand is why anyone would take them at their word when so little is ready for players. I’m fine with early access games these days, but an early access console should at least be able to do the most basic things that make that console stand out among the competition.