2020 is going to be an interesting year for gaming. With Google officially announcing Google Stadia, the console war battlefield is rapidly shifting. Google isn’t creating a console. Instead, they are leveraging their existing server infrastructure to allow you to stream games to any chrome compatible device.
Google Stadia will come with two pricing tiers. Stadia Base will be free for anyone to use. You will still have to buy the game at full price. But Google saves you from having to own a gaming laptop, computer or console. With Stadia Base, you will be limited to up to 1080p resolution, stereo sound, and 60 FPS.
Stadia Pro is their higher tier where you pay a monthly fee of $9.99. Like PS Plus or Xbox Live, you get free games to play that get released regularly. You also get special discounts on select game purchases. With Stadia Pro, the resolution gets bumped up to up to 4K, the sound gets bumped up to 5.1 surround sound while still running at 60 FPS.
Google also provides seamless integration with other Google services such as YouTube and Google Assistants. Gamers will be able to ask the Google Assistant directly for information if they are stuck in a game. Stadia player will be able to join a Youtuber’s game live stream directly with CrowdPlay. Stream Connect allows for split screen multiplayer by steaming one player’s game into another’s. Google is also forming Stadia Game and Entertainment to have games developed directly on its platform.
Google is definitely offering some interesting benefits, but lets dive a little deeper and look at some other game streaming competitors currently on the market.
Google Stadia actually has a lot of competitors in the game streaming space. Below are just some of the major ones I have found:
PlayStation Now is Sony’s game streaming service. At the price of $20 a month or $50 for 3 months or $100 for a year, you get more than 750 PS4, PS3, and PS2 titles that are playable on the PS4 and PC. These can either be streamed directly to a PC or be downloaded or streamed to your PS4. You will need a Dualshock 4 controller to play.
Nvidia has a similar service that is currently in beta called Geforce Now. Instead of being able to play any game in their library, you will need to own the game on Steam, Uplay, or Blizzard Battle.net to play. Not much is known about the pricing just yet.
Vortex currently uses IBM’s cloud services to serve up its games. They use a combined model where some games are included in their $9.99 a month price and others require a license to play. Most of the games that are free are free elsewhere (e.g. Guild Wars 2). What is nice is that if you own a game they support on steam, they will allow you to play it on their service without having to buy it through them again.
Shadow allows you to bring any games from places like Steam and Origin and play them on their service. Shadow’s service is much like having a remote gaming computer that you can access from any device. Currently, Shadow is limited to certain States in the US. This is most likely due to limitations of where their servers currently are. 15 Mbps is all you need to have for optimal performance. Pricing starts at $24.95 per month for an annual plan and $34.95 per month for a month to month plan.
PlayKey is similar to Geforce now in that you can play games that they support and you own through their service. What is different with PlayKey is its unique pricing structure. Instead of charging their user’s monthly, PlayKey charges by the hour. You can purchase 3, 5, 10, or 20-hour packs that never expire. You need a minimum of 10 Mbps to stream games at 720p. Given that their servers are all in Europe, I am not too sure how well the service would work in the States.
Is Stadia the future of gaming?
As you can see, from a technical perspective, Google Stadia isn’t anything special. What Google can provide is seamless integration with YouTube and other Google services as well as a whole host of servers to power their service. It is unclear to me how the integration would provide value for gamers. Being able to join a game streamers game is cool, but it won’t make me want to purchase games from Stadia instead of say, a place like Steam.
Google Stadia has a lot of hurdles
Data caps will make game streaming unrealistic
With game streaming being able to burn through close to 16 GB of data per hour, you will reach those data caps quickly. This makes Stadia unrealistic for most users with data caps.
Connection speeds are not fast and stable enough yet
Given that streaming game will require a solid connection speed that doesn’t randomly slow down, right now the only practical place to play is in the user’s home. Can you imagine multiple people using Stadia at a Starbucks and slowing the internet to a crawl? Right now Stadia does not sound viable on the go.
Lack of compelling reasons to buy games through Stadia
Google has a reputation for starting side projects that are not essential to its core business and then shutting them down (e.g. Google Wave, Nexus Q…etc). Given this, I would much rather buy a game on Steam that I know will be around rather than Stadia. Not only am I concerned about the longevity of the project, but there is also no compelling benefit for me to limit myself to only be able to play on Stadia. I can accomplish the same effect by purchasing the game through Steam and using another game streaming service. It may be more expensive, but it allows the flexibility of playing offline on my gaming machine and remotely as well.
The latency will make some games unplayable
For competitive games like Apex Legend, gamers that play on local hardware will always have an advantage compared to those on a streaming service. This makes competitive games not ideal on game streaming services. For games that require quick reaction time (e.g. Monster Hunter or Devil May Cry) Stadia is also not great. There are a significant amount of games that fit in these two categories, making Stadia a hard sell. Unless infrastructure improves, I am not sure if there is anything Google could do to improve this. Perhaps compression algorithms will be able to shrink that data enough to make the latency negligible.
Game streaming may be the future, but I am left wondering if Google is launching Stadia too early. There is too much uncertainty to recommend anyone to buy into the platform. With Sony and Microsoft teaming up to provide similar services in tandem with their upcoming consoles, the upcoming PlayStation and Xbox sound to be safer bets even if you have to pay more upfront. Whether or not Stadia will be a success will depend on how committed Google is in developing it. I fully expect the first couple of years to be quite rough for Stadia.