As a medium that depends and thrives on innovation and constant change, the gaming space is no stranger to major leaps in technology and innovation. Moving from arcades to home consoles, from cartridges to compact discs, from standard definition to the much richer 720p and 1080p resolutions, are all great examples of this and all have taken place just within the last few decades. But change is constant, and we continue to see the moving target of gamers’ expectations lead the way towards new frontiers for the industry. As frame rates less than 60 per second become less and less acceptable and 1080p continues to take a larger backseat to the world of 4K and 8K, we are also seeing an upswing in the concept of streaming games.
That is, playing a game that isn’t even running where you are. You are simply receiving a stream of the game from somewhere else while it accepts your inputs from your location. As a concept, the idea of streaming games theoretically has a lot of attractive connotations for those who make games and those who play them. It allows one to save tons of digital and physical space since they are not located where you are, and it removes the traditional barrier of consoles only being so powerful by allowing the power to be located somewhere else and adjusted accordingly by whoever is facilitating the stream instead of the user. It makes a lot of sense on paper. A Netflix or Hulu equivalent for video games.
Game streaming isn’t a terribly new idea though. It has been toyed around with in the past with devices like the Wii U, PSP, PlayStation Vita, and Nvidia Shield with varying degrees of success. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony’s 8th generation consoles also have their own, more robust streaming services and functionalities, albeit still with inconsistent results. Nevertheless, despite the fact that game streaming is still very much in its infancy, the lane for a gaming console to totally rely on it has remained wide open, that is until Google decided to fill it. Google seems like a great fit for this particular challenge, especially with their proven acumen managing massive operating systems, streaming devices, and digital content distribution. Though now, well after its launch, the platform is struggling to hold the attention of even those who were its most fervent supporters less than a year ago. How could something that the market clearly has room for from a company that should be more than capable of pulling it off end up where it currently is? What the hell happened to Google Stadia?
The announcement of Google Stadia, the all-online cloud gaming device, was met with plenty of positivity… at first. As we discussed before, it’s an excellent idea. Plenty of people are over managing hard drive space, let alone physical space, and are far more attracted to the idea of still being able to have those experiences but without buying expensive consoles. Likewise, there are still plenty of us who prefer the relative security of having a copy of a game owned locally, but truth be told, the group who doesn’t care about that is the one growing at the larger rate. With that, Google Stadia was able to garner plenty of interest, but with that interest eventually came questions, and with those questions came some less than satisfying answers.
First of all, cloud streaming games isn’t an improvement over localized gaming in every department. As we touched on before, paying for the right to stream a game, is not the same as buying a copy of it and owning it. When you buy it, you have it with you. Even digital games, as long as they exist on your drive, you have access to them. You don’t necessarily need an internet connection, unless a specific game calls for that, and it’s yours to play at your leisure. But much like Netflix or other video streaming services, with Google Stadia, it was revealed that in theory they could pull a game from the servers at any time and for any reason. Despite the fact that you paid for it. This might not have been such a huge issue with gamers if the Stadia truly behaved like Netflix and just allowed you access to all of them with one flat monthly fee, but alas, it doesn’t.
In fact, the multi-tiered payment system that Google implemented for the platform would prove to be a big part of why it currently sees itself in the midst of its troublesome start. While the basic version of the service has no monthly fee, you still have to buy the games at retail prices despite never really owning them, and higher resolutions and surround sound is missing unless you pay the $10 a month required for the “pro” service. With this you also get free games every so often, sort of like PlayStation Plus and Xbox’s Games with Gold, but again, never really owning access to them, just retaining the privilege to stream them while continuing to pay the monthly fee. This makes things unnecessarily confusing for the casual players who are looking for the most hassle-free method of gaming, for whom, the Stadia purportedly exists.
As the Stadia launched, the feedback from gamers and reviewers could be generously described as mixed. It really depended on who was able to have the connection strength necessary to get the most out of it, and who was okay with the payment method, and small launch line-up of less than 20 games. One cool thing about Google Stadia is that it’s not just limited to its box and Chromecast, as it’s not just a physical device, but rather a multi-faceted service. In addition to having it on your TV, computers and even some phones will run the service. While a larger list of phones than just Google’s own Pixels would have been nice, the fact that the service does technically work in all three major entertainment spheres is impressive, when it works.
This brings us to another glaring issue with Stadia; the inconsistent performance. At times, if you have anything north of the suggested 35 MB per second network speed, you might just be able to run many of the games in Stadia’s library at 4K. It’s rather impressive when it works, and does show potential for the platform. Unfortunately not everybody has speeds in that range though, and many who do, can still see dips depending on their ISP. This isn’t Stadia’s fault per se, but it did spell trouble for the platform at launch and lead to many unsatisfied customers. Another monkey wrench in all of this is that certain games, like Destiny 2 for example, were not hitting the resolutions that were advertised, despite the network speeds being met on the end of the users. On top of that, many other headaches like overheating boxes, intermittent input lag, and an annoyingly slow trickle of new games continued to drag the system’s reputation down, for which Google’s responses have been… less than great. Largely saying that since they hadn’t experienced said issues in their internal testing, they aren’t going to acknowledge them as real issues. They also seem content with the speed at which they are adding new games, making one of them.
It may be premature to call Google Stadia dead, as it hasn’t even been out for an entire year yet, but it certainly isn’t turning out like anybody was hoping it would and has brought far more disappointment into the world than joy, as it stands. That being said, as internet connections do slowly get better over time, and Stadia continues to add to their library of available games, and smooth out the edges of its performances, there is far more room for the platform to grow and gain back the trust it has lost with the disparities between the hype and the reality of the platform that currently exists.
Patience is probably the key here, as most gaming platforms that take the risk of trying something as radical as Stadia is doing, do tend to pay some sort of price for it, at least for a while. With Google promising to roll out support for more devices, and more robust free option, and several timed exclusives, they could be on the path to a real course correction. But no matter what happens, the truth still remains that Google has the resources to figure the platform out, and even though it may never be for everybody, it could one day be for enough of us to assert its own place in the gaming world among its competition.