Could it become the Netflix of Gaming?
“So now we are focused on our next big effort, which is to build a game platform for everyone.”
— Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google
Google, this week, announced a bold vision for the future of gaming. It’s a cloud gaming platform called Stadia, and it’s the culmination of years of work the company has been doing around networking technology and streaming video. That way, you could play any game on any screen, any time you wanted, regardless of what physical hardware you have. You wouldn’t even need a console or a PC. We’ve certainly heard this before. Maybe you remember OnLive or Gaikai, but Google says it has the infrastructure, the technology, and the resources to finally pull this off — for real.
Of course, Google isn’t alone here. Every big tech and gaming company is trying to figure out this tech. However, earlier this week, at GDC here in San Francisco, Google, one of the most powerful and cash-flush companies in the entire tech industry, made a convincing case that it’ll get there first.
-So how do Stadia work?
Well, it’s a simple concept that is notoriously difficult to pull off. Cloud gaming, unlike music streaming or television steaming, requires you to run a game remotely in a data centre. So you mostly have a PC on a server rack running a game in some data centre somewhere, and it’s sending a video feed of that over the internet to your screen. Then you, as a player, are pressing buttons on a controller and sending that input back over the internet. Moreover, all of that is supposed to happen with no latency, no lag, at 1080p, 60 frames per second. That’s pretty much unbelievable, and historically, it hasn’t worked.
Essentially, the company is making use of every critical part of its business to turn cloud gaming into reality. The first piece is the Chrome browser, and by extension, the Chromecast dongle. That’s going to be how Google gets the video from the game on the server in the data centre to your TV or whatever screen you’re playing Stadia on.
The second piece is the Android operating system. It’s the most ubiquitous OS on the planet, and it’s going to be how Google gets Stadia running on mobile phones and tablets.
The third piece is YouTube and will enable all sorts of futuristic features that will be huge selling points when the service launches. The first feature will let you launch a game using Stadia with the press of a button just by watching a YouTube video or stream. You’ll then be taken to that exact point in the game.
Another feature will be, when you’re watching a streamer live stream on YouTube, they can invite you into the game, so with the press of a button you can queue up and play with your favourite streamer. A third feature is an interesting one where you can use Google Assistant even to cheat. You can press the Google Assistant button if you’re stuck on a particularly hard puzzle on, say, Tomb Raider or a game like that, and it’ll overlay a YouTube video with a tutorial showing you how to beat that particular puzzle or solve that particular problem.
The fourth piece is Google’s cloud and its data centres. That’s the backbone of the service, and it’s what’s going to make it all work. Also, lastly, there is going to be a bit of hardware. Google built its own Stadia controller, one that connects over Wi-Fi to Google’s data centres. That way, when you’re switching devices from a tablet to a phone, from a phone to a laptop,
from a laptop to a TV, you won’t need to re-sync that controller to a new device every time. It’ll just communicate over the internet with the Stadia servers and connect automatically.
We saw most of these pieces work together last fall in a trial run of sorts called Project Stream and it did work quite well. It let players test the new Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on any device with a Chrome browser, so long as they had a 25 Mbps internet connection. However, it wasn’t at anywhere near the scale Google is hoping for with Stadia when it’s supposed to launch, and that has me a bit uncertain and sceptical, and there’s a good reason to be.
Cloud gaming has been the holy grail of the industry for decades, and many companies have tried and failed to make it work. In this case, Google hasn’t even talked about how much Stadia will cost or even if it’s a subscription service. It could just be a way to play games you already own or games that you buy elsewhere in the cloud and on any screen. That’s an exciting concept, but it’s not quite as ambitious as a full-blown, cloud-based game-streaming service.
There’s also a considerable amount of technical uncertainty here. Sure, Google has state-of-the-art infrastructure and a data centre operation that’s one of the robust and most significant on the planet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be able to stream millions of instances of games at 1080p, 60 frames per second to people with internet connections that are varying wildly. Also, even if you get all that technical stuff down, well, you’re going to need games.
Right now, the only launch title confirmed for Stadia is id Software’s Doom Eternal. Now, it is saying Doom Eternal’s going to be available on Stadia at 4K, 60 frames per second. That’s very impressive, but Google is going to need more than one game to get people to use this service.
With Stadia, Google is trying to change, not just how games are played, but how they’re developed, how they’re distributed, and how they’re funded and sold. Netflix did this for TV and film and changed Hollywood forever. Games could change similarly, but it’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not clear Google is going to be the one that wins.
For instance, Microsoft has an xCloud service. Sony also has its competing service called PlayStation Now, and you can even subscribe to that today. Not only that, but Amazon, Verizon, Nintendo, and even EA, they’re all working on cloud gaming right now.
It’s a race to the future and Google has come out of the gate harder and faster than any other company in the industry. However, remember, it took years and years for Netflix and Spotify to change how we consume TV, film, and music, and even then, physical media still exists. By today’s standards, it’s going to take us a while to get to where we’re going, and gamers are notoriously stubborn when it comes to change, especially when the benefits aren’t obvious. However, the promise of cloud gaming is there and with a company as big and powerful as Google in the mix, that could give it the push it needs to happen.
“One of the success factors for me with Stadia is that three years from now, you and I meet here at GDC or some other forum, and we’re talking about a brand-new developer that none of us had heard of before who has built something so new that it’s pivoted the world a little bit on its axis, then we would be considered successful.”
— Phil Harrison, VP, Google