Game streaming services depend on three big factors for success: technical prowess, cost, and games. Based on Google’s track record and their recent GDC pitch, Stadia’s tech chops will likely hold up well in real world testing. Consumer cost I’d anticipate won’t be high either. The big unresolved question is what actual games Stadia will have for its release later this year. And it’s on games that give Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo solid footing for blocking Stadia’s advances.
Games carry an outsized significance when considering past PC and console platform battles. For example, the PS4’s “must play” exclusives helped buttress their lead over the Xbox One over the last few years. This is where Google will run into a substantial headwind; game libraries on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC are gigantic, with many critically acclaimed exclusives bound to a single platform. Assuming next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft support backward compatibility, this “lead” from Google’s competition should only grow.
For Google to build up their game library, a strong business relationship with developers is critical, and Google has some obstacles and unresolved questions to deal with. First, Stadia games require an explicit port to Linux, costing potentially significant development time. Also, the very nature of a server-heavy, streaming only solution provides Google with more leverage over game access compared to platforms controlled by Sony, Microsoft, or Valve. If I buy and download a PS4 game, I can play the single player experience without worrying about the game creator’s relationship with Sony. However, with Google, the moment Google wipes a game, everyone loses access forever.
That adds a serious trust hurdle for the company to overcome. What’s going to be the rate that developers pay for hosting beyond a cut of purchases? If a game becomes especially popular, will developers be on the hook for added bandwidth? Also, today small studios can create amazing looking games for those that have the proper hardware to pull it off. But now that horsepower has shifted from gamers’ consoles and PCs to Google’s data centers; will the most powerful GPU/CPU specs be affordable to only the biggest tech companies? Studios may also be wary to invest in Google given the company’s reputation for shutting down their own products.
Games are a messy proposition for Stadia out of the gate, but I suspect their technology will deliver. As I speculated recently, the scale of Google’s infrastructure already makes streaming a great fit. Google’s GDC keynote projected confidence in positing 60fps, HDR, surround sound, and 10.7 teraflops as the debut spec. Trotting out Doom Eternal — a twitch shooter that relies on lightning fast fluidity and control — as a Stadia launch title suggests they are convinced the technology is reliable. Based on Google’s great track record, that’s a decent bet. Add to that Digital Foundry’s deep dive which found latency results fairly close to playing on a home console, and I’d say Google is in safe territory here.
Stadia should also be affordable; it all but has to in order to stay competitive against consoles and PCs. Affordability is core to Google’s ethos; most of their services are free and their hardware is priced competitively. If I had to guess, most games will be available a la carte with a pricing system similar to Steam. New titles will remain in the $50-60 range, older, sale, and smaller indie games from $10-40, and Google takes some margin of the sales as the middleman and streaming host. That’s a straightforward system familiar to gamers and game developers. Granted, given fuzzier lines of ownership and the fact that games are unplayable without internet could make gamers balk at a full $60 for Stadia AAA games. I could see Google sweetening the deal by subsidizing the cost to cap games at $50 or lower.
While on the subject of cost, there is rampant speculation Stadia will offer a subscription option for a game bundle as we’ve already seen with PlayStation Now, Xbox Game Pass, and soon Apple Arcade. But given how Google’s initial library may be small, combined with how historically subscription services can annoy developers with small payouts, I have doubts Google will steer into this for launch. If a AAA developer like Ubisoft is charging $60 for a new game on Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live, I can’t see them signing up for a totally different revenue structure with Google.
All these factors on the ground mean we have little to do but wait with until the summer when Google promises more details. While I have some confidence the potential of the technology will be impressive, it remains to be seen if Google can drum out a decent launch library. On one hand, with the right amount of money thrown at developers and savvy business deals, we could see a legit gaming rival to the likes of Microsoft’s debut with the Xbox. If not, we could easily have yet another Google “experiment” on our hands that peters out of gas.