Stadia is Google’s first deep dive into the world of gaming. Part game console, part streaming service – think Netflix but for Video Games. Others have tried this kind of service but mostly failed (OnLive, Nvidia, PlayStation Now). Google aims to perfect it and if they have their way…console and PC gaming are about to become accessible to millions of users and that is a spectacular endeavor.
However, here are a few issues with Stadia, as I see it right now.
First is the simple nature of the technology, and how Google is positioning it wrong. Streaming is, in fact, possible – but it will be a distinctly worse experience. Latency is critical when it comes to games – and even in a best-case scenario, Stadia is going to have latency about equal to a 30fps game (I measure ~20ms ping times to Google servers – that leaves 13ms for rendering, perfectly reasonable, to hit an equivalent latency to 30fps while having 60fps display). 30fps is quite playable – but it’s not the quality tier of 60fps, or the luxury tier of 90fps+. So Stadia needs to be absolutely pitched as an entry-level sort of product – the market niche formerly occupied by Game Boys and DS Lites and Wiis, the $150ish system you can buy for your kids. Specifically, I think the place it’s going to shine is on smartphones. But instead, Google’s trying to sell it as though it’s a console competitor, hyping up how it “lets games put more on screen”, buying up temporary exclusives, making a system-locked controller, and other such BS, and pricing it ridiculously for what it is. Launching only the premium tier is a strange move – though it may help keep demand low while they weather the inevitable launch bugs. But what they really need to focus on is their messaging. Pitch it as “a way to play AAA games on your phone”, not “a way to ditch your Playstation” or “the absolute best way to play games.”
Second, the problem with Stadia seems to be one of identity. It doesn’t really know its intended target-market. Its very nature and technological shortcomings makes most (not all but most) hardcore gamers look away, and its technological requirements and pricing structure could drives casual gamers away.
Who’s this for, really?
Why would hardcore gamers care about a service that launches with games you can already buy on a platform they already own without getting the latency and image compression artifacts Stadia will add, and still having to pay full price for games that can disappear from the service whenever Google feels like it? Add the need to pay for a subscription on top of that?!?
And why would casual gamers be interested? The pricing structure of having to pay for a subscription AND still having to pay full price for games isn’t something most people would see as a good deal. Also, it’s “relatively” safe to assume there is a bigger percentage of hardcore gamers with good and reliable network connections than casual ones. Many casual gamers aren’t tech aficionados (some are) and to many, a basic connection is all they need. Also, and this effects everyone, internet speed and monthly data caps vary by ISP, and some regions have piss-poor choice and/or service.
The third problem is philosophical. They’re charging a monthly fee (for the Pro tier), and requiring you to buy the games. Games which will become instantly unplayable if, or more likely when, Google shuts Stadia down. People are already not too at ease with digital-only games. We trust them with consoles, as all that will break when they shut the servers down will be the ability to download them, and they’ve sunk a lot of money into the console so they won’t shut it down until well after its lifetime. We trust Steam because they’ve been around so long and are so big, but I remember the early years where people were wary of it. A lot of people don’t trust Origin or EGS, because maybe they’ll disappear on us, leave our library locked on our own hard drives. The sentiment is echoed in the clamors for game preservation, trying to archive old games before they disappear, and revive the online services needed for them. It’s an issue that’s in the zeitgeist, and Google is just ignoring it.
If Google wants Stadia to succeed, they need to remedy that. If you’re going to charge a monthly fee, make it act like a gaming subscription service. If you’re going to charge for the games, make them transferable. There’s rumors Steam will be doing something of the sort – maybe a subscription service that lets you stream the games in your library, the rumors aren’t totally in agreement. That would probably work, because worst-case we still own the games. Sure, maybe you bought Crysis VII even though your current rig can’t run it, and after the streaming service shut down you can’t actually play it, but when you finally upgrade your rig, then you could, and that distinction matters.
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