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Google Stadia's E3 presentation showed us the (hypothetical) future

June 7, 2019 4:18 PM
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Google Stadia's E3 presentation showed us the (hypothetical) future

There’s something deeply unsettling about Google Stadia, and it’s because I’m pretty sure it’s going to be wildly successful. By detaching console gaming from the console, moving everything to the cloud, and taking away basically every single complication (downloads, discs, patches, boxes) from video games, Google stands to create a service endlessly easier to get into and use than the Xbox or PlayStation. The idea of streaming games has been percolating for a while now, but everything we’ve seen of it up to now has been laggy and functionally useless. But because this is Google, I’m pretty sure they can pull this off eventually. And therein lies the problem; a future of gaming that becomes yet another industry dominated by Google and another step away from ownership of games into a nebulous rental model. But, based on the scattershot and under-developed messaging Google has put out thus far about Stadia, I may be getting ahead of myself.

Stadia Connect, yesterday’s Nintendo Direct-like set of pre-E3 announcements, gave some more information about Google’s release plans. In a break from what many expected, Stadia will not be using a Netflix subscription model. Instead, you’ll be buying games piece-meal, and paying Google a $10 monthly subscription if you want to play those games in 4K. (1080p streaming doesn’t require any additional fee.) Google’s also selling a $130 Founder’s Edition that includes a Chromecast Ultra, a Stadia controller ($70 standalone), three months of that subscription service, and a copy of Destiny 2. Compared to an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, both of which start at $250 for models that don’t output to 4K, this seems like a good deal at least initially.

This is an unexpected strategy in how rudementary it is; Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all offer comparable subscription services for their consoles, although these are to play online instead of to play in a higher resolution. No word on prices for individual games yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are priced comparative to other platforms. The difference between Stadia and other platforms, of course, is that these games are intrinsically reliant on Google’s continued support for Stadia. If you buy a single-player game on a traditional console, there’s a reasonable assumption you’ll be able to play it as long as you want; the same absolutely cannot be said for a game on Stadia, which would cease to work the second Google stopped dedicating server space to the platform.

An uncertain future is an inherent drawback to streaming games, a positive to the approach—and one Google keeps hammering home in their Stadia messaging—is the conveniences allowed by the death of console. Since Stadia is essentially streaming gameplay from massively powerful systems in the cloud, you can play graphically-intensive games on any device and switch between them seamlessly. Again, though, Google doesn't seem to be being as forward-looking as you’d expect; at launch, you’ll only be able to stream games on Google Pixel phones and it’s unclear how broadly available the service will be on smart televisions and tablets.

We haven’t seen a new platform of this scale in video games since Microsoft announced the Xbox in the early 2000s, and Google deserves credit for how strong their launch lineup appears to be. A number of fall releases including Doom Eternal, Breakpoint, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, and the entire recent Ubisoft lineup are coming to Stadia. We didn’t hear anything from Assassin Creed producer Jade Raymond’s Stadia Games and Entertainment studio, but we did get a couple of new announcements. Undeniably the biggest was Baldur’s Gate III, the return of a classic role playing series now helmed by the developers of the cult-favorite Divinity series. That game, along with multiplayer physics-based Get Packed and the horror adventure Gylt, will be coming exclusively to Stadia and the PC. Nothing announced was quite on the level of an E3 megaton, but considering this is Google first show as a really-real first party, it could’ve been much worse.

Streaming is undeniably part of gaming's future. We've seen the same shift happen with every single other entertainment medium. The two essential questions Stadia faces are “is this the time for streaming to work” and “will the trade offs of streaming be worth it?” Google keeps gesturing at the answers to these questions; they point towards the ease to a console-less world and keep telling us they have the infrastructure to finally make this work. But yesterday’s announcements did little to assuage the deep fears about streaming. Google says you can make Stadia work on a 5Mps stream, but yesterday’s presentation lacked any kind of demo of the technology actually running. By adopting such a traditional model of ownership without acknowledging the ways streaming fundementally alters the concept of games ownership, Google also seems oblivious to some pretty fundamental concerns that they need to answer for.

According to PC Gamer, streaming a 4K game on Stadia for an hour will take up 15.75 gigabytes of data. Considering a lot of people have set data plans on their home internet, that could add up quickly. I was surprised when I saw that figure, not because I don’t believe it, but it made me remember that Google hasn’t said anything publicly about Stadia’s bandwidth usage. That's one of those fundamental questions that Google just hasn’t answered yet about Stadia, and for a lot of people, it could be the difference between whether or not Stadia is viable for them. Stadia’s got a solid technical backing, some undeniably mezmerizing ideas for the future of gaming, and what appears to be a strong launch lineup, but if they want to avoid being another Onlive (or yet another abandoned Google initiative), they need to start answers these questions sooner than later.

Grade: C+