Yesterday Google announced that it was shutting down Stadia Games and Entertainment, the in-house publisher and developer it had created to bring first-party games to Stadia. In the post it said that it was focusing its investment on Stadia’s platform and technology, not original content. A sentence or two later, it said high-profile hire Jade Raymond was leaving, too.
This is a big blow to Stadia as a platform. Stadia’s lack of exclusive content, and specifically content that made unique use of its cloud-based technology, was one of the biggest disappointments of its first year. Google essentially giving up on making its own games, or even acquiring unique games from other developers, does not bode well.
What could Stadia have done differently? What’s the secret sauce it needed to nail the launch and the year that followed? That’s a question that inevitably creates an arrogant 20-20 hindsight situation, playing Monday morning quarterback for a multi-billion-dollar company.
So yeah, let’s go ahead and do that!
Work From Valve’s Template
To be sure, it would have been more or less impossible to pull out a groundbreaking AAA title in just a year or two of development for Stadia. Two years is about the time it takes for a company like EA or Ubisoft to make a blockbuster game, and that’s with decades of experience and usually a franchise, engine, and basic game design to start with. For something wholly original, say, a Horizon Zero Dawn or a Halo (man, I’m old!), they’d need four to six years at the least.
So, Stadia was never going to get a huge title breaking the mold of gaming, at least not out of its internal studio. Knowing their limitations, perhaps it might try to focus on a shorter, more contained experience—something that takes advantage of all that distributed cloud power they showed off at the Game Developers Conference, without the sprawling, $100,000,000 scope of a modern AAA blockbuster.
There’s a template to follow here, even if you don’t want to focus on indie games. In 2007, Valve released Portal, a short little puzzle game built mostly on an existing game and physics engine. It was a pack-in with The Orange Box, which was supposed to have a new Half-Life episode as its highlight. Instead, Team Fortress 2 and Portal influenced multiplayer and single-player game design respectively over the next decade.
Portal is a particularly relevant example here, because it’s barely even a Valve game. Portal is a pseudo-sequel to Narbacular Drop, an indie game where its unique teleport mechanic first debuted. Valve hired the team of students that made the freeware game, threw a bunch of money and talent at them, and got a groundbreaking, universally-beloved classic in less than two years.
Add In Stadia’s Secret Sauce
So let’s assume that Google could have thrown enough money around to get its own team of game design wunderkinds working on games for Stadia. Since it hired Raymond, a star producer behind mega-franchises at EA and Ubisoft, it certainly had the capability. Stadia courted developers like Tequila Works, which made indie hits like The Sexy Brutale. Maybe it did try to create a focused, short project that would set the world of fire.
But that’s only one ingredient it would need. Portal is a classic, but it was built on technology that was pretty conventional at the time. It had a revolutionary idea and implemented it with tools that were pretty well-known: the Source Engine, which is still being used by some projects today.
That wouldn’t have cut the mustard for Stadia, which was (and is) trying to sell gamers on an entirely new approach to the gaming medium. This hypothetical killer app would also need to demonstrate some of the gee-whiz capabilities of Stadia that Google showed off at GDC 2019 … and which are still trickling out in actual games.
A multiplayer game with thousands of people on a map. A driving game that let other players throw obstacles at your from YouTube. A platformer that, I dunno, let you hop across Google search suggestions as users typed them in real time. Something that made Stadia more than just the games you already know about, delivered without a big old box next to the screen. Dylan Cuthbert, a Nintendo veteran and founder of Q-Games, said that he was working on the developer’s “biggest game ever” using Stadia’s State Share feature.
Google didn’t make that game. But it’s telling that the company is doubling down on the technology behind Stadia rather than the games themselves. It’s an engineering-focused direction, but one that doesn’t play well with gamers. The fact that Nintendo is selling more consoles than anyone, powered by what’s essentially a souped-up (and rather old!) smartphone chip, testifies to that.
An Almost Impossible Ask
This is where the arrogance comes in. Yes, it’s easy to look back on a year of lackluster Stadia performance and a disheartening closure of creative ambition, and tell Google what it should have done. “They should have made Portal, but better” is a pretty snobby thing to say: I am entirely fulfilling the role of Captain Hindsight.
I don’t know what Stadia’s killer app could have been. Maybe the people that Google hired were working on just that, but they couldn’t make it happen, for lack of time, talent, or simply not having an idea that delivered on all the points above. There’s no shame in that: if I had the answers to the questions I’m raising here, I’d be working at Google’s magical dream factory instead of playing tech pundit.
It’s worth pointing out that Google isn’t the only international tech titan that struggling to break into the gaming space. Amazon has been trying to make its own game studio for years, with some big bills and little success. It turns out that companies used to delivering infrastructure and logistics aren’t great at pivoting to fields that are, to a greater or lesser degree, creative in nature.
Looking backwards at this is fun, but not particularly helpful. What does Google shutting down its creative ambition for Stadia mean for players? It means that, for the foreseeable future, Stadia will be getting the same games as every other platform—and a lot fewer of them, too. Cyberpunk 2077 was as close as Stadia got to a killer app last year, and its rocky launch meant that even that didn’t have the impact Stadia really needed.
It’s been speculated that Google’s focusing on Stadia’s technology in an effort to farm it out. EA and Ubisoft might like a plug-and-play system for adding game streaming to those subscription plans they’ve been hawking, and several developers are using streaming tech to bring high-powered graphics to the Switch. If Google hasn’t thought of it, Amazon certainly has: Luna would be an easy thing to sell as a B2B service to other game publishers.
In the meantime, Stadia fans can hardly help but see the closure of Stadia Games and Entertainment as a harbinger for the platform. From the day of its announcement, commenters have feared that less-than-stellar performance would doom Stadia to the Google Graveyard of abandoned projects and platforms. Those fears aren’t going away any time soon.