Has anything in video gaming launched hotter, and returned to Earth harder, than Google Stadia? This still-maturing industry has seen a lot of ambitious plans blow up on the pad in the past decade or two, but in 2019, Stadia’s unveiling at the Game Developers Conference had the air of history. Less than a year later, it was just another Google experiment that did not catch fire.
Thursday’s announcement wasn’t shocking for the fact Google was pulling the plug on its vegetative streaming games platform; it was remarkable because Google was offering refunds to anyone who spent money (other than the monthly subscription fee) on the service.
For some, the handwriting for Stadia’s demise was on the wall 18 months ago, when Google closed down first-party games development — for which Google acquired two studios and hired A-lister Jade Raymond. For many more, if not most, it was in Google’s anemic value proposition. Stadia Pro, the service’s premium subscription level, bought players access to an underwhelming library of unknown indie games, boutique racing sims, and THQ fire-sale IPs. It also largely failed to deliver on its 4K streaming resolution promises.
When it was announced in 2019, Stadia was meant to shove aside the idea of dedicated equipment — $500 PlayStations or even more expensive PC gaming rigs — by giving you AAA gaming quality from anything capable of running its Chrome browser. What Google learned is that, even if you’re building a virtual console, that console still needs some headline-grabbing exclusive titles driving people to it.
Google instead paid eight figures, according to some reports, to bring established console and PC titles, like Red Dead Redemption 2, The Division, or the latest NBA 2K, to their platform — at full price. Sharp-eyed Google observers, and there are many, noted Stadia’s very un-Google-like launch; typically, the company starts small — even acknowledging the beta state of its ideas — and expands. From the GDC 2019 announcement, Stadia was marketed like a finished product.
Yet behind the scenes, Stadia’s managers seemed to spend the most money they could to make the most redundant platform of its day. Meanwhile, the truly distinguishing features that Google vice president Phil Harrison promised at GDC 2019 never fully materialized. “Innovations like distributed physics can be built into your games,” with Google servers handling all of the processing, he said on stage at the Moscone Center. “Battle royale games can go from hundreds of players today to thousands of players tomorrow.”
That claim is unfortunately timely because, just last week, the group of Battlefield alumni who founded Embark Studios announced The Finals, a multiplayer shooter whose complicated, destruction-based physics engine is handled on the server side. The game’s creative director called that type of rendering “a holy grail” that the studio, founded in 2018, had been “chasing for a long time.” No less than Microsoft’s Crackdown 3 tried to pull it off in 2019, and it didn’t quite get there.
Harrison on Thursday said Google would apply the technology that the Stadia team developed across other parts of Google, “as well as make it available to our industry partners.” But it seems like studios are now capable of replicating one of Stadia’s original promises without its technology.
In the end, perhaps the only innovation Google will offer to video gaming is the idea that, when a platform well and truly dies, folks who put skin into their games can expect some money back. Google will shut down Stadia for good on Jan. 18, 2023; anything other than Stadia Pro subscriptions will be refunded, though whether that’s automatic or needs to be claimed is unknown right now. Still, those who bought Google Stadia’s full-price games, expansions, or downloadable content will be compensated, Google said on Thursday.
But it’s doubtful Google’s gaming industry partners will be as grateful as Stadia’s customers. When OnLive went clank in 2015, anyone who bought one of their its set-top boxes before February of that year found themselves with an expensive dining table trivet. When Ouya’s vision of bringing Android mobile games to home theater setups imploded in the same year, none that crowdfunded console’s backers got anything back.
The true bottom line here is that if games development is hard, platform development is many multiples harder, and requires as much force of will from its creators as it does vision and capital. Marketing, which includes spiffy GDC keynotes, accounts for zero.
You think back to the earliest days of another tech stock’s ill-advised console venture, how much they paid for exclusives, how much money it lost, how investors and rivals piled on that bad news — it seems like a miracle, 20 years later, that Xbox is even viable, much less the leader in video game streaming and subscriptions. At Google, Stadia was just another expensive experiment.