Google’s Stadia launch is…not great. A poor value proposition, small selection, and a huge list of missing features have made the critical response to the streaming platform tepid at best. Our own review was less than kind.
But that doesn’t mean that you should ignore Stadia, or indeed, Google. While it’s not a great experience at the moment, Google is setting the foundation of its platform, and it has the time and resources to go toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in the gaming industry. With Sony and Microsoft both ramping up for new console releases in 2020 and preparing for some of the same high-bandwidth game streaming options, this is anybody’s race.
It’s a Beta
As we said in the review, Stadia is a beta in everything but name. Until the free tier arrives next year, allowing players to hop on without a $130 hardware bundle and a $10-a-month subscription (which doesn’t come with any games, a la the Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Now), it’s an expensive novelty.
It doesn’t help that Google is positioning Stadia as its own platform, which developers need to develop specifically for, thanks to its custom cloud-based hardware and Vulkan graphics API. That stands in direct contrast to streaming offerings from Microsoft, Sony, and NVIDIA, that work with existing Xbox, PlayStation, and PC games, respectively. Stadia has a handful of newer titles, but most of its initial offering is at least a year old, with just one indie exclusive, Gylt.
Another bit of evidence that Stadia is in beta: it’s missing tons of features. Aside from streaming to different screens, none of the unique features Google showed off at GDC earlier this year are available on day one. It doesn’t integrate with YouTube or Google Home/Assistant, it can’t stream to iPhones or non-Pixel Android phones, the game store is only accessible from a phone, and it can’t even export screenshots or video clips.
So why launch it early at all, if so much stuff is missing? The popular wisdom is that this is essentially an elaborate capacity test. Google’s going full early adopter, letting buyers of the $130 Founder’s Edition and Premiere Edition test the waters of its custom-made gaming data centers. The company will use this time, with a much more limited pool of concurrent players, to iron out the kinks in its system.
Then when the free tier unlocks and (hopefully) a million or two people jump on to their Chrome browsers to play Destiny 2, the system won’t buckle. Google is investing in its own publishing company, as every major platform holder has, means that it should improve its selection of exclusive and cloud-powered games, too.
Google Has a Good Reason to Stay
Why is Google so interested in the gaming market, after having only touched it lightly before via Android? Why do you think? Video games are now a bigger industry than even Hollywood movies, with over $130 billion a year of earnings expected to balloon up to $300 billion in the next decade or so.
There’s enough money to be made in gaming to make Solomon blush. It’s so big that Apple, historically averse to gaming of just about every kind, has jumped in with its own subscription service, making goo-goo eyes at some of the biggest publishers on the planet.
But anyone can just throw money at a market. (That’s basically what Sony and Microsoft did, back in 1994 and 2001, respectively.) As the era of the PS4 and Xbox One draws to a close, two of the industry’s major players are searching for ways to get people onto their platforms without needing to sell them a $300-500 box first. PlayStation Now, Xbox Game Pass (both of which work on PCs), and the upcoming xCloud system are all evidence of this: the console market has saturated, and both companies want to expand their customer base even more.
The solution, at least at the moment, seems to be getting rid of the console entirely. PlayStation Now will stream a massive library of games to you for $10 a month (no need to purchase individual games), and it’ll stream to either a PS4 or a PC. That PC doesn’t need to be especially powerful, either—a low-end laptop will work just fine. Microsoft’s upcoming xCloud will do the same, but can also stream to iOS and Android phones.
With the PS4 and Xbox One riding off into the sunset, Google will be ideally placed to lure gamers onto its platform instead. Google’s cloud power is bigger than Microsoft’s and dwarfs Sony, and it already has a massive audience of gamers on YouTube that it can leverage for social promotion. While the traditional console titans are splitting their audience between new boxes and streaming services, Google can offer a unified system that works on whatever screen you have right now, including such slim hardware as Chromecasts and Chromebooks, that’s free to try out.
A lot of critics of Stadia say that they’re afraid Google will drop the platform if it isn’t thriving as they have with so many other products in the “Google Graveyard.” Even game developers are hesitant to jump on for the same reason. But I think Google will be here until at least holiday season 2020, if only because the opportunity for profit is enough to make Scrooge McDuck reach for a swimsuit.
More Than Just Games
Former Review Geek writer Eric Ravenscraft points out that Google is after more than money when it comes to web services: the company lives and breathes data.
Game developers and publishers already sit on a dragon’s hoard of data collection—it’s the kind of information that enables some of the more gross practices in the free-to-play gaming sector. But Google, for better and worse, can spin data into gold like no other company on Earth. The potential of millions of players making purchases, connecting with friends, and doing both at home and out and about would be irresistible. It might even be able to make insights on the things you want to buy based on how you play a video game, giving new and more literal meaning to the idea of laser-targeted marketing.
And the application of data Google gathers from players isn’t limited to just their preferences or their social activities: the data collected from a driving game might be used to train self-driving cars in the real world. Recordings of in-game voice chat can be used to create more natural speech for Google Assistant. How players treat non-player characters in RPGs and adventure games could inform psychological studies. Data on in-game economies, how players treat money when variables of scarcity and demand can be easily manipulated, would be invaluable to market analysis. The possibilities, both to Google and potential clients, are almost endless.
That’s certainly a scary thought if you don’t trust Google with your data (and you probably shouldn’t). Nonetheless, it’s a reason for Google to stick around in the game industry even if they spend years losing money at the start.
The Real Test is 2020
If we’re generous, we can assume that Google has about a year to get Stadia right. That means delivering the features it showed to both consumers and developers, including the ability to dynamically allocate power to enable new kinds of games. It means expanding the library by an order of magnitude, enough to at least compete with Microsoft and Sony as they move to new platforms. And it means making a better value proposition than “pay a subscription fee so you can then buy games.”
This is possible. Google’s disrupted bigger, badder industries than gaming before. And though I compared Stadia’s initial offering to the ill-fated Google Glass in our review, it’s worth noting the less tangible differences. Glass was trying to invent a market for wearables that didn’t really exist, and in that form factor, still doesn’t. Stadia is trying to carve a slice off of an already-profitable market and doing it with a big lead-up to a time of fundamental disruption—the launch of a new console generation.
We recommended buyers skip Stadia at launch, and we stand by that. But anyone who’s been looking for something new in the way games are bought, played, and even made, would do well to keep an eye on the platform for the immediate future.