Google’s Stadia is impressive tech but where were all the games?

Google Stadia has a lot of questions hanging over it

GameCentral analyses Google’s new streaming platform and tries to predict whether Stadia is the future of gaming… or its doom.

When a company as big as Google gets involved in the games industry you expect it to make an impact. And now that we know what Stadia is and how it works it may well end up being one of the most important video game announcements of the modern era.

But as ever, it’s not necessarily what a company says that is the most important thing but what it purposefully doesn’t say… and the language it uses to describe some of the details.

Stadia is a streaming platform that promises to run games ‘up to’ 4K resolution with an ‘up to’ 60fps frame rate, and yet even some of the on-stage demos seemed to show flickers of latency issues.

Many also missed – because Google purposefully gabbled out the information – that at launch Stadia will not run on any smartphone or tablet that isn’t a Google Pixel model. PCs only require the Chrome web browser but that’s not the case for anything else, with a TV also requiring a Chromecast dongle.

But the most important details weren’t mentioned at all: the price and, most vitally of all, the games.

Apart from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which was used during the Project Stream experiment last year, the only new game that was confirmed for Stadia was Bethesda’s Doom Eternal – no footage of which was ever shown.

Ex-Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond was present to announce Google’s new first party game development business, but no indication was given as to what they were working on, how many studios they had, or their relationship with third party publishers and developers.

Although they did something similar for middleware software like Unreal Engine and Havok, there wasn’t even the usual wall of company logos that accompanies almost every new console release – even ones from Nintendo.

For as far as anyone outside Google knows Jade Raymond was only appointed this month, and while that’s probably not true there was no evidence either way.

As slick and exciting as the presentation was it was curiously reminiscent of the disastrous unveiling of the Xbox One, even down to the presence of frontman Phil Harrison and the lack of any input from Japanese companies.

Leaving out games was obviously purposeful, with a brief promise to show more in the summer, but is that because there’s nothing to show or because they haven’t made deals with other companies yet? Or both?

A video games platform, whether it be a physical console or otherwise, is just a means to an end. You don’t play consoles or the PC, you play games. And without games they’re about as much fun as a DVD player with no disc in.

The other big problem is that we have no idea how much Stadia will cost. More than that there was no clue given as to how anything will be paid for. Some kind of subscription service seems inevitable – Google has suggested they want to be the Netflix of gaming, after all – but how much will it be and can you buy games individually at all?

If you can’t then you’ll essentially just be renting the games you play, never owning them. A prospect that concerns plenty of gamers already with the current state of digital ownership. And what about modding? Streaming games may, hopefully, mean no cheating but will it turn games into untouchable monoliths that can never be altered or improved by their players?

Everyone wants to know how much the subscriptions will cost, or if you’ll have to pay more on top for big name games, but there’s also major questions concerning the cost of having a broadband connection fast enough to run Stadia properly.

According to Google’s own figures 4K gaming requires download speeds of around 25 Mbps, which is roughly twice as much as the average American household. The average UK household tends to be higher but given current online games can work relatively happily at as low as 3 Mbps, many people are going to find themselves either unable to run Stadia or looking at an expensive upgrade to their Internet service.

But it’s not just how much Stadia will cost for gamers to use but how developers are expected to make any money from it. Although Google’s presentation was clearly addressing the whole world, they were actually at GDC (Game Developers Conference) talking primarily to an audience of developers.

Some, such as No More Robots’ Mike Rose, have already voiced their concern that the prevailing logic for companies running subscription services is that they don’t pay the developer at all for their game. Instead developers are paid based on how much time people spend playing their game. That’s fine for well known and advertised games but considering how much difficulty indie games have getting noticed at the moment it could be ruinous for smaller studios.

And even for big companies it’s likely to encourage the use of microtransactions to make extra money on top of what is, or isn’t, guaranteed by Stadia’s basic service. An unwelcome intrusion given the controversies microtransactions have already caused with paid-for games and their malign influence on game design.

Despite Google’s hour-long presentation none of the most important questions about Google Stadia were answered or in most cases even mentioned. That includes the most important one of all: does it work? Something which is impossible to answer until ordinary people are able to test it at home.

Although perhaps that’s not as important a detail as you might assume. Consumer technology, particularly of the last decade, has shown that convenience always trumps performance and the majority of Stadia users probably won’t care if games hiccup during play, or have an uneven frame rate or resolution, as long as they’re quick, easy, and cheap to play.

By that same logic there’s a huge question of what to do about controls when using a smartphone or tablet. Nobody’s going to wander around with a joypad in their pocket, waiting to play, so are these games going to have alternative touchscreen controls as well? And will the need to have such an option mean future games are designed with that in mind, forcing developers to simplify control schemes just so they’ll work on a phone?

There is a lot to be excited about with Stadia. The social features were highly impressive and championing couch co-op was a very welcome surprise. And while curiously it wasn’t mentioned at all, the ability to create multiple instances of the same game, all running at high resolution, seems like it could revolutionise VR headsets.

Streaming clearly is the future of gaming, but not all futures are utopian

Until Google provide more information it’s impossible to evaluate Stadia as an idea, let alone a service. But it is going to be fascinating to see what Microsoft’s response to it will be. As while they are also planning their own streaming service – Project xCloud – they’ve been careful to insist that console gaming is not dead and will always be the preferred means of playing for anyone but casual gamers.

Both Sony and Nintendo have already experimented with streaming tech and while they haven’t specifically commented it seems fair to assume they’re of a similar view. So will Stadia be the outlier in the future games market or will it evolve to become the dominant means of consuming games?

The games industry has a history of adopting technology too early and poisoning the well for years to come, motion controls being the most obvious example. And as huge a company as Google is that hasn’t helped YouTube Red, YouTube Music, or Google Play offer any meaningful challenge to market leaders Spotify and Netflix.

Google also has a history of giving up surprisingly easy on initiatives that don’t yield immediate results, and it remains to be seen just how committed they will be if Stadia is not an instant hit. Streaming clearly is the future of gaming, but not all futures are utopian. Google will certainly be remembered as the company that ushered in a new era of video games, but how much they succeed beyond that remains to be seen.

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