March 21, 2019

Why Google’s New Cloud-Gaming Service, Stadia, is a Game Changer

Earlier this week at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Google formerly announced Stadia, its cloud-gaming initiative. Reaction to the announcement among conference attendees was generally positive, but somewhat reserved, as the announcement still left many critical questions unanswered.

(Relatively) Device Agnostic
As I predicted in 2018, Google’s new gaming service will be a pure-cloud solution, in the sense that it doesn’t require a dedicated device or adaptor to play Stadia games. There was some expectation that the service might only operate via Google’s Chromecast device, but head of Stadia, Phil Harrison, demonstrated the service working directly on mobile phones, PCs, and tablets using a Chrome browser. The plans are to expand to other browsers and platforms over time. Google will offer a dedicated controller optimized for Stadia, but it’s an option and not a requirement for play.

Before the announcement, much of the speculation regarding the new service centered on Google’s competitive strategy vis-a-vis Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. But the most dramatic new features announced for Stadia seemed targeted at the Amazon’s popular video-streaming service, Twitch.

New Features Leave Competitors Twitching
Google unveiled a number of break-through features that blend watching a game stream on its YouTube gaming service, with purchasing, playing, and interacting with other streamers into a seamless, nearly instantaneous experience. Other features allow players to capture any single moment of a streamer’s game and replicate it in their own home to recreate and play their exact same scenario, or to jump into a queue to play together with another streamer. All of these experiences break down barriers between streamers and viewers, and eliminate the friction of buying a game. A player can go from watching a new game to buying it in a little as five seconds, and then instantly begin sharing their own game stream online with others.

These announcements put Twitch, which dominates the game streaming category, in a threatened position. Twitch currently doesn’t offer these types of services, but expectations are that Amazon may not be far from its own announcement of a cloud-based gaming service deeply integrated with Twitch. The competitive environment is quickly heating up, much as TDG anticipated.

On the gaming side, Phil Harrison demonstrated the high graphic fidelity of the service with both a list of impressive performance specifications and a live visual demonstration. However, this is a classic case of ‘your mileage may vary,’ as the actual performance and graphics of Stadia games will be highly dependent on the speed of each gamer’s individual internet connection.

In today’s era of player-versus-player social games and the rise of esports, Stadia brings a strong story of empowering massively multi-player games, with thousands, even tens of thousands of players competing simultaneously. Stadia also made a less dramatic but very important point about side-by-side play. With traditional consoles in split-screen two-player mode, the processing power of a game is cut in half, often reducing the game’s performance. But Stadia can instantly multiply the processing power delivered from the cloud to ensure stable performance, regardless of how many players join in. This could bring about a renaissance of ‘sofa multi-player games,’ where players sit side by side and watch the same game screen.

Stadia’s presentation was well produced, carefully crafted, and flawlessly executed. There were no moments that were off-key or disappointed the crowd (except perhaps for Google CEO Sundar Pichai introducing himself as, “not a big gamer”).

Questions Loom Large

Why Linux?
Stadia avoided creating any major negative impression from their presentation, but they left many questions unanswered.  Several other developers expressed dismay at the platform being Linux-based, since very few games today use the OS. Designing games in or converting them to Linux is a new skill all developers will all have to learn and could be a barrier to adoption by content creators.

Is This Really Gaming for Everyone?
Several industry executives did challenge Stadia’s positioning as “gaming for everyone.” The risk here is two-fold. First, hardcore gamers could be disappointed by any performance compromises due to less-than-ideal internet connectivity. Second, casual gamers could be unwilling to pay for games they usually play for free. The fact Stadia may disappoint both ends of the gaming spectrum could leave it without a loyal core audience of its own.

Just What Is the Business Model?
Google mentioned nothing about how customers would pay for the service, or how publishers would be compensated. Phil Harrison did refer to a “store,” which implies that even if consumers are offered a subscription service, it seems there would be some content or services offered outside a subscription.

When Will the Service Launch and With Which Features?
Not much was said about when the service will officially launch, except that it would be introduced this year in the US, Canada, and Europe. Not clear is whether all the features announced would be available on day one, or if this was more of a long-term vision.

Where’s the Content?
Most concerning was the limited visibility on content — especially in light of the Linux-based platform. Only two new games were showcased. The shooting game Doom made for a powerful showcase of Stadia’s capability, due to the high-performance requirements of the first-person-shooter genre. On the other hand, showcasing partnerships with the small Spanish studio Tequila Works and Kyoto-based Q-games may have been intended to demonstrate Google’s support of indie gaming developers, but it also left the impression that no superstar developer or top-class IP has committed yet to the platform. (Two older PC/console games were also shown: Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed).

Google announced that it would be developing original content via its own in-house studio. But having just hired a studio head (Jade Raymond), it will probably be 2-3 years before there is any meaningful output. This stands in contrast to Microsoft, which acquired six game studios in 2018 and established a new California-based in-house studio to build up the content pipeline for its own cloud-based gaming platform, xCloud.

How Will Google Deal with Latency?
The biggest unanswered question remains how Google will deal with latency: the lag caused by the additional time required to send content from the player to the data center and back. Some critics believe this problem will never be solved, while others expect Google to overcome this challenge with a massive investment in infrastructure that competitors won’t be willing to match.

This may be a problem for some time, especially for latency-sensitive genres like fighting games. But as developers learn to build for cloud platforms, new techniques that work around these limitations will emerge, while the rollout of 5G connectivity and expansion of fiber-optic networks will improve overall network speeds.

Google has made a bold step as the first major technology company to release a new high-performance game system since Microsoft launched its first Xbox in 2002. Amazon is expected to enter the space soon, backed by its dominant Twitch streaming service and the strength of its AWS cloud infrastructure. Remarkably quiet are Nintendo (which has tested streaming for its Switch handheld device, but has made no announcements) and Sony (in spite of taking some early steps in cloud gaming several years ago) has remained strangely silent on the topic.

One thing is certain: This added level of competition will drive innovation in gaming, broaden the mainstream gaming audience, and bring more opportunities for content creators around the world, both big and small.

Mike Fischer is a veteran of the video and gaming industries, having held executive positions at Microsoft, Amazon, Epic Games, and Square Enix. He is also a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California.

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