Google’s Stadia streaming system is the most exciting thing to happen to the gaming market in years. You can try it out first-hand in November…and you probably shouldn’t.
Why not? Because the “Founder’s Edition” currently on sale is essentially an elaborate beta test, an “early access” sale in slightly more modern terms. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Google’s advertising it as if it’s something special and exclusive. That just isn’t the case: it’s a relatively expensive way to be Google’s guinea pig for a streaming setup that won’t be truly complete until 2020. Unless you’re just desperate to get in early, save your money and wait for the full rollout next year.
What Does the Founder’s Edition Get You?
Google is currently offering the Stadia “Founder’s Edition” for pre-order. Come November, buying the $130 package will be the only way to get into Stadia until 2020. The package includes a Chromecast Ultra (which has been on the market for nearly three years already) and the Wi-Fi powered Stadia controller.
Since the Stadia controller costs $70 on its own, and the Chromecast Ultra is $60, you’re not saving any money on the hardware. You will get the first three months of access to the Stadia system for free, a $30 value. And the pleasure of knowing you’re in before everyone else, of course, assuming you live in one of the 14 supported countries and your home connection can handle high-speed, low-latency video.
…But It’s Not the Real McCoy
Back at the Game Developers Conference in March, Google introduced Stadia as a revolutionary new platform that would let you play games anywhere, on any hardware. As it turns out, that’s not true, at least for the introductory period covered by the Founder’s Edition. In November you’ll be able to play on Chrome (Windows, MacOS, ChromeOS), a Chromecast (possibly just the Ultra), and Android phones…so long as you’ve bought a Google Pixel device.
Leaving huge amounts of iPhone and iPad users out in the cold, not to mention approximately a billion people who have Android phones not made by Google, strikes me as a deliberately limiting choice. Google isn’t trying to drive purchases of its (frankly) overpriced phones, so much as limiting mobile access to a relatively tiny pool of test users. The company wants to nail down the tricky business of streaming to relatively low-power devices, over Wi-Fi and mobile connections that are often less than ideal, before it widens to a broader audience.
Games will be available on a hybrid store system: your $10 a month service fee will cover a few freebies, very much like PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass, while newer and more prestigious games will need to be purchased at full price. If that seems a little odd for a system that’s hoping to be as open and available as possible, it is. Just wait until 2020.
Next year, Google will release a free tier of Stadia, with streaming quality limited to 1080p. (The $10 a month tier has access to 4K resolution.) Games purchased on Stadia will be available to access at any time, on either tier. The freebie games included in the $10 a month package will not be available, but presumably by then Google will endeavor to expand support to other Android devices, iOS and iPadOS, and maybe even competing smart television systems like Roku.
That’s when Google’s real test comes. When anyone with a few minutes and a controller can try out your system for almost nothing, they’ll suddenly get millions and millions of simultaneous players, if only to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s no coincidence that 2020 is also when the next-gen versions of the Xbox and PlayStation arrive. With a new option available on their existing hardware, free to try out and deeply connected into Google’s other popular services like Chrome and YouTube, Stadia is ideally placed to make a $300-500 game console look like a hulking dinosaur in the age of more agile web services.
Whether Google can actually pull this off is dependent on a lot of factors. We outlined them before, and now that the pricing model and at least a few of the major game releases are known, it’s still not a slam dunk either way. Stadia’s success is still going to be extremely dependent on securing game releases for its new and unique system, and Google’s ability to market it effectively…something the company hasn’t been very good at in the past.
But the truly crucial test will be whether Google can actually deliver on its promise of seamless online play at as little as 10 megabits per second speed. Publishers and console manufacturers have had a hard enough time doing that on regular multiplayer, let alone constant high-speed streaming of every aspect of the experience. If anyone can do it, Google can—but it’s probably going to take them a while to iron out the kinks of the full-scale system.
No Need To Rush: It Doesn’t Even Offer Any Major Exclusives
In summary, don’t feel like you need to get into Stadia immediately, especially if you already have a current gaming system. The platform isn’t offering a significant discount on its introductory hardware, and it’ll be free to try next year anyway. (Generic controllers like the Xbox One pad will definitely work on laptops and desktops, and possibly phones, too.) Perhaps most disheartening, it’s not offering any significant exclusive games: there’s nothing on Stadia you can’t play if you already have a decent gaming PC, Xbox One, or PS4.
It doesn’t help that, at least at the moment, Google hasn’t shown any major exclusive titles for Stadia. Exclusives aren’t a popular feature with consumers—no one likes to be locked out of experiences—but it’s an undeniable draw for consoles and even PC platforms, like EA’s Origin or the Epic Game Store. The PS4 has dominated this generation thanks to an impressive stable of both first-party and third-party exclusive games. I get the feeling that developers are taking the same wait-and-see approach to Stadia that I’m recommending for consumers themselves. Porting a game to Stadia should be easy thanks to wide compatibility with development tools, but it’s not free. Right now the biggest titles Google has announced for Stadia—Destiny 2, DOOM Eternal, Mortal Kombat 11, Borderlands 3—are all available elsewhere already (or will be in the future).
If you happen to know that you want to try Stadia, and you could use a 4K-enabled Chromecast, there’s nothing to lose by pre-ordering. But if you’re not entirely sure you want in, it’s probably best to wait: you’ll only be getting onto Stadia during the few months that it’s least appealing and least capable. And if Stadia ends up abandoned or forgotten, like so many Google services, that $130 would be better spent on a newer console or a couple of games.