Google’s hour-long pitch for cloud gaming at the 2019 Game Developers Conference marked the company’s intention to reform and dominate the games industry. Google Stadia — if it works as advertised — is nothing less than a sweeping away of the status quo, an end to console boxes and the technological generations that have shaped the last 40 years.
Stadia promises massive changes to how games are played, bought, shared, and developed. It solves entrenched technology problems such as split-screen play and platform-agnostic sharing of game sessions. It expands the reach of YouTube livestreamers — enriching Google’s own ecosystems — while turning the entire internet into a video game store.
There is much that remains unanswered. What is Google’s business model for Stadia? What games will be available when it launches? Will Google’s vaunted cloud infrastructure really be able to deliver instant, perfectly presented games in up to 4K quality at 60 frames per second?
We must also wait to see the responses from Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and others.
For the moment, there is no question about Google’s ambitions. This internet technology giant is entirely serious about dominating the future of games. With that in mind, here’s what we know so far.
What is Google Stadia?
Google finally announced that its much-anticipated landing into the game industry is called Stadia, evidently inspired by the notion of a collective appreciation of gaming skill. The pitch is that Google’s technology advantage will bring players, developers, streamers, and viewers closer together, manifested in millions of connections to a global network of data centers.
What this means in practice is that I can click on any link (including a YouTube video link) and be playing any video game — no matter how visually intense — within five seconds. I can play on my crappy old laptop, my clunky old PC, my cellphone, my tablet, or my internet-connected TV. I can jump between multiple devices, where my progress will always be saved. There is no hardware, except an optional controller that connects directly to the servers (rather than any particular device) over wi-fi.
Speed, data-caps and resolutions
When Google tested its service late last year, under the moniker Project Stream and using Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the company worked within an ideal framework of 25 megabits per second, for 1080p / 60 frames per second streaming. “In fact, we only used about 20 megabits per second,” said Google VP Phil Harrison, a longtime industry veteran, in an interview with Polygon. Improving algorithms mean that the company plans to launch with a target of 4K / 60 frames per second in about 30 megabits per second.
Google has dodged the issue of what this will mean in terms of overall usage, as well as with data-caps, arguing that internet service providers will increase caps to accommodate consumers behavior.
The lowest resolution Stadia will go to is 720p. Harrison also said that Google is working on “very clever technology” that will protect game progress in the event of sudden internet droppage.
When is Stadia launching — and where?
The next announcements about Stadia will come out around E3 time. Although Google has not yet confirmed its E3 plans, Harrison said more details will come out in June. Stadia will launch in 2019 in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and “most” of Europe.
What will Stadia cost? Will it be a subscription?
Google refuses to discuss its pricing plan. Conversations are ongoing with publishers and other partners.
On the one hand, Google may go a conservative route, and price its service much like a traditional Steam-like online retailer. Or it could shoot for the moon with a Netflix-like monthly subscription fee, which would tally with its YouTube TV strategy. However, this could be extremely costly, and might not be welcomed by games companies. It’s also unclear how such a model would work in terms of revenue splits. Some kind of amalgam of subscriptions for certain games, and payment for others is probable.
Either way, Google will have to invest heavily in infrastructure and content in order to crack gaming. “It is a public record that in 2019, Google will be spending $13 billion in infrastructure and capital expenditure,” said Harrison. “So this is a very significant investment for the company.”
Competition: Microsoft, Sony, ... Apple and Amazon?
Harrison — a veteran of both Sony and Microsoft — made it clear that that this was no console launch. “This new generation of gaming is not a box,” he said, referencing the fetishization of console announcements. But Google made one comparison between Stadia and its current-generation competitors, pointing to a GPU power of 10 teraflops compared to the PS4 Pro’s 4.2 teraflops and the Xbox One X’s 6 teraflops.
In the wake of Stadia’s announcement, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer released a memo to Xbox staff, claiming that Google’s plan validates his own approach to streaming, cloud gaming. Microsoft runs a subscription service called Xbox Game Pass, in which certain games are available to download and play at launch. Sony’s service, PlayStation Plus, offers older games for free, at a rate of two a month, also a download-and-play.
There is also potential for competition from the tech giants as well. Amazon is reportedly developing a game streaming service that could launch in 2020, while Apple may be unveiling some gaming ... thing... at an event next week.
Hardware (aka Stadia controller)
So there is no box. But there is a controller. The unnamed device looks and feels pretty standard, but it connects to the cloud via Wi-Fi. It also allows players to stream gameplay using a specific button, and ask for developer-directed help using another button. Harrison also told us that “if you have an existing USB controller that uses the HID standard, it will work.”
There’s also a really cute Konami code easter egg.
Stadia’s freedom from the limitations of boxed consoles will greatly increase multiplayer options, according to Google. At its GDC pitch, the company spoke of battle royale games involving thousands of players rather than upwards of 100.
It also demonstrated multiple split-screen windows for couch co-op or online play, without any noticeable latency issues or degradation in graphical quality. Cloud-based multiplayer games on Stadia will also offer real-time, consistent world-altering events, like synchronized destruction. If I blow up a tower in an online game, every other player sees it happening, and it stays blown up.
This was not a presentation about individual games. Google said it has sent development tools to more than a hundred companies, and invited more developers to apply to join the effort. Marty Stratton from id Software announced Doom Eternal running on Stadia, which is also being demoed at GDC.
Developers and publishing partners
Jade Raymond, formerly of Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, announced that she’s heading up Stadia Games and Entertainment, a first-party publishing and development unit. She said the company would also be working with publishers and developers of all sizes in order to bring their games to Stadia, which will likely include financial incentives.
Google announced a raft of technology partnerships including major game development engines such as Unreal, Unity, and Havok.
One neat announcements was State Share, in which players will be able to share transferable, encoded representations of a moment in any game. This is a clear advancement in how key moments in games are referenced and shared between users. It allows game developers to turn in-game moments into a discrete, shareable link. These strings of code are just as precise and transferable as any other link on the internet.
Streamers and YouTube
Stadia is clearly designed with game streamers in mind, allowing players to queue up to play games with YouTubers (or YouTubing pals) live. It’s a new kind of online lobby, where the line ticks down until it’s the viewer’s turn to start playing. They then play a match with or against the streamer they’re watching. When the match is over, another viewer gets the chance to play. The YouTuber has full control over who gets to play, and who doesn’t.
With the press of a button on the Stadia controller, I can tell Google Assistant that I’m having trouble. The Assistant will automatically detect where in the game I’m stuck, and show me the most relevant YouTube video to help me get through the tough section. Google plans to integrate Stadia into its core services. “It’s a part of your Google account, so your Gmail account is effectively your login for Stadia,” said Harrison, in an interview with Eurogamer.
Will Stadia feature VR games? “We have lots of R&D, but nothing to share,” said Harrison, in an interview with CNet.
Google’s presentation was fixed inside an hour, exactly, with almost none of the droning we’ve come to expect from hardware announcements. It was concise and efficient, and it clearly energized the games industry, which is in dire need of a new model. This year, undoubtedly, is about Google’s invasion of gaming. Whether the reality will be as smooth as the GDC presentation remains to be seen.