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Stadia, Google’s gaming platform, changed the rules of the console wars

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Suddenly the hardware on which you play games may not matter

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Google is finally taking gaming seriously, and a flood of news coming out of the company’s keynote at the 2019 Game Developers Conference is our first, practical look into a future that isn’t focused on hardware.

Google’s gaming platform is called Stadia, but it’s not a console. Google itself will be handling all the processing power that’s required for each game, and will stream that game to your laptop, television, phone, or tablet so you can play anywhere, as long as you have a strong internet connection.

Streaming games from the cloud has been tried before, but Google has shown that it knows how to deliver on the promise during the beta for what was then called Project Stream.

“The first, and most surprising, thing you’ll likely notice when the game loads is that it ... works,” Polygon’s Austen Goslin wrote after trying the Project Stream beta. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey runs about as well from the cloud as if you had just installed the game normally. Movement is responsive, and combat feels fluid. Even dodging enemy attacks was easy, and I never fell victim to the kind of input lag that has often plagued game streaming in the past.”

This could change everything

Google is the first company to try to truly disrupt the gaming business in some time, and Stadia could be a threat to everyone from the companies that create and sell consoles to online storefronts like Steam. It’s hard to wrap your head around all the ways this system could change the way we interact and play our games.

As Google CEO Sundar Pichai pointed out, most content online just ... works. You know that a link a YouTube video will work if you send it from your laptop to your phone. But gaming is tethered to the hardware we use to generate the image on the screen, and we have download huge amounts of data before we can begin playing.

Pichai described a world in which you can click on a link after a game trailer and begin playing that game instantly, without worrying if your drivers are up to date or waiting for a large download.

That focus on streaming and content delivery versus the creation and physical sales of a console that sits near your television is what separates Google from the rest of the major players in gaming platforms. Suddenly the hardware on which you play barely matters, and Stadia will in fact be compatible with your existing USB controller or mouse and keyboard along with Google’s new custom controller for the service. The only thing that matters is whether you have a strong, stable online connection.

Pichai stated that Google’s goal was “building a game platform for everyone,” and Stadia will certainly remove some of the friction that comes from traditional gaming, such as the purchase of expensive equipment or the visual limitations that come with the limited processing power of low-cost tablets or phones.

Google wants us to bring the habits we’ve developed from streaming video into gaming, in other words. Hulu and Netflix don’t sell users proprietary hardware to watch their offerings, and Google’s vision is that gaming should operate in the same basic way; games become something you do through a service using a selection of inexpensive hardware to access the connection to Google’s servers.

That control of everything from how the image is processed to where the streaming data goes could also make multiplayer gaming a much simpler, safer affair. “And yes, no cheating, and no hacking,” Google’s Phil Harrison claimed during the keynote.

But it’s the speed at which you can begin playing that could take the longest to get used to, as well as Google’s ability to leverage YouTube directly by letting fans join streamers instantly. Streaming itself will no longer burden your connection or hardware because Google will be generating the image on its own hardware before sending one stream to the player and another stream to YouTube allowing others to spectate a high-quality stream that doesn’t impact the frame rate of the player themselves. Stadia will also let players create and share their own links that will lead other players to their exact location in a game, allowing other players to pick up the game from that moment.

There are many unknowns here, including how the service will be priced and how many developers will be bringing games to Stadia, but Google has introduced the potential for a huge shift in how we think about, and interact with, our games.

Google doesn’t want you to buy another console; it wants to control every aspect of how the games are played on its service while offering players and developers enough features and innovations that they don’t mind the trade-off.

And, of course, you’re going to need to be connected if you want to play. Stadia might be able to run on just about any piece of internet connected hardware you own, but it won’t run on the subway.