After playing on Google’s Project Stream back in late 2018, I thought I’d share my feelings about Google Stadia and cloud gaming.
Crossing the Streams
Oh, Stadia. I’ve been wondering when something like you would show up. Looks like Google has beat pretty much everyone to the stream cloud gaming party by a mile. I mean, they are not first by far, but they certainly have more involved than anyone else. I think they were just hiding all that development for the right time to pounce. Or, maybe they are scrambling early to confuse the gaming market, who knows? I’m no techie business guru. For those who somehow haven’t heard anything about Stadia, it is a game streaming platform that Google will be releasing this year that runs everything from the data center.
I may have lost you. Let me try again.
You can watch a YouTube video, click a button, and begin playing the game as a stream to your device in five seconds. In 4K at 60 FPS. Yeah.
Just pick up any device, be it a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, or TV and use whatever controller you have on hand or keyboard/mouse of your choice to play the game instantly with a cloud stream. Yep, that’s the magic of the internet, but how realistic is it?
I had the good fortune to be a beta tester for Google Project Stream with Assassins Creed Odyssey in late 2018 and, personally, I had some critiques of what they promised would be 1080p with 60FPS gameplay. I’ll be basing much of this article on what I experienced in that beta and how well it performed over a less than fantastic cable internet connection even if it was 200 Mbps.
While I was able to play each and every time on my desktop using ethernet from my modem, I was unable to play at all using WiFi with my laptop on Project Stream. While this is touted to be a viable option with Stadia, I just could not get a good enough signal to even start the game using my laptop on a 5 GHz WiFi signal that was only 10 feet away from the router. Google would actually check your connection before starting the game and it would fail my laptop each time. Granted, my laptop may be at fault with programs likely slowing it down, but the case was that I could not for the life of me get it to work. If Stadia can get around this issue, I would like to know and truthfully would like to know how as well. Project Stream certainly did not.
Assuming that it does get past this issue with some sort of image and sound compression, the idea of gaming as we know it will forever change. I was discussing this with my fellow staff member, Zordor, and he drove a nail into things when he mentioned that if Fortnite or Apex Legends could be played on a phone, there will be a bajillion people playing all at once. Nothing will be the same.
Imagine a 13-year old kid with a single parent who is working hard just to keep food on the table. That kid doesn’t have an Xbone, Switch, or PS4. All they can do is watch other people play on Twitch or Youtube. But with Stadia, they could play Apex Legends on a phone, assuming the signal works well and they have an unlimited data plan.
Maybe they don’t even have a phone, but they have an ancient PC that can’t play games but can still browse the internet. Well, now they can turn that dusty old PC into the gaming system they always wanted.
For those with a little more means, what if you just want to game in a different room other than where all your stuff is at and don’t have the cash for an extra PS4 or Xbone? You could get a $70 Google Chromecast 4K dongle for the TV and have an instant console. Some TVs already have built-in 4K Chromecasts such as many Vizio models, even older 4K Vizio models. It is unclear if these will work too, but I’m game to find out if my Vizio TV can do it.
Yet, most of this is dependent on if the Wifi signal works. My best estimate is that there will be some bandwidth bottlenecks, much like when you are watching Youtube and the signal quality downgrades all of a sudden. But, if Google pulls it off then it removes the barrier of gaming affordability for folks like never before. Suddenly, your phone may no longer be used for app games. The world will be streaming and gaming non-stop both at home and on the go. Ahem, assuming it works on WiFi well and also assuming I want to play something like Sekiro on my phone, which I probably don’t.
One thing I want to note while on the subject of WiFi is router quality. Do not expect the router provided by your ISP to provide a good signal. I recently had a brand new router/modem installed by an in-home installation tech no less and while the modem works fine, the router portion of the hardware is just a big fat disappointment. The WiFi was dropping signals frequently and had a weak signal on the 5Ghz band. I’d be watching YouTube and then the vid would just die when the signal dropped. My Steam Link device also was stuttering like crazy whereas it worked perfectly before the new router/modem was installed. I looked into the settings and to my surprise, only TWO channels were being utilized, channels 36 and 149. Both of those were also being used by several other routers in my neighborhood. There were no other settings options. It was clear to me that the signal was dropping because everyone and their grandma was using those two channels. So, I turned off the router from the modem/router unit and used my old router, a TP-Link Archer C9. I went into settings, picked a channel no one was using, channel 162, and set the channel width to 40 MHz. Voila, no more signal drops or Steam stream stutters. Even a half decent router beats out an ISP provided router.
When I was playing Assassins Creed Odyssey on Project Stream, the first day was the best. I was literally dumbfounded by how well it looked. I was getting a strong 1080p signal, though it truly looked and felt like 30FPS instead of the advertised 60 FPS. I had a feel for it from finishing Assassins Creed Origins on my PS4 Pro quite recently and it felt exactly the same. Not only that, but later on Digital Foundry counted the frames and it was indeed 30 FPS. Visually, it looked like it was probably being played on Ultra settings and compared to a standard PS4 or Xbone console, it actually looked better with the exception of the occasional pixelation during fast movement. Compared to my PS4 Pro, though, you could see the Pro had sharper resolution due to the limitation of the 1080p stream.
However, I tried Project Stream again a few weeks later and things had changed substantially. For one, my graphics quality would vary drastically depending on the time of day, likely from the slowdown my cable internet has when everyone gets home from work and uses the internet at the same time. Even at 200 Mbps on ethernet, when I was playing I noticed the quality dropping to 720p or worse, sometimes blurring up on me to where fine details were just plain missing. It would fluctuate, though. One minute it was a pixely low-resolution stream, then it would bounce back to 1080p during cutscenes. When it went back to gameplay, I’d get some graphic fidelity issues again after the cutscene was over. Then, it would suddenly pop back to 1080p. It was all over the place and I wasn’t terribly keen on it. To me, there was a lot that needed to be worked on because it was significantly better when I first played compared to my second gameplay. I continued to play off and on after that and nothing changed really. Some days were fine, other days were more like my second playthrough. All I can guess is maybe Google was fine-tuning things, but I’ve no idea.
Now this brings to question, what was the problem and what if Stadia releases and gives me the same issues? I seriously bet it will, and you’ll likely get some blurred images due to compression or missing areas that didn’t load correctly because of signal degradation and whatnot. One thing that doesn’t help is shared bandwidth or bad home connections. All cable internet shares the connection with everyone in the neighborhood. I often had a terrible ping with my cable internet and it was because the connections in my neighborhood and house were sub-par. I know this because last month Google Fiber finally connected service to my house and my ping went from around 200+ ms with cable internet to 7-12 ms using a true fiber connection. So, that slow ping was not helping me with Project Stream in the least. I imagine many others may have the same issues with cable internet. I have no idea how Google will get around that issue, perhaps the same way it keeps YouTube vids running non-stop since it seems completely integrated. And that brings me to my next point…
Truthfully, no streaming service is going to get Netflix-like quick and steady service without a massive infrastructure in place. Sony’s PS Now service is a prime example of that. PS Now works fairly well if and only if you live close enough to the Sony servers to keep it steady. Otherwise, it will be laggy mess from my yearlong review of it. And the thing is, that experience will be completely different from one person to the next because while Tom lives too far to get anything resembling a playable game, Ted has a perfect experience and they live on opposite sides of the same city. The service is that picky. There simply are not enough servers for Sony to make the service consistent from one location to the next. I don’t foresee Microsoft or Nvidia Geforce Now being able to get past that either.
That’s not the case for Google. It has one of the largest infrastructures in the world and will be able to maintain that system for probably as long as there is a YouTube audience. Everything is literally BUILT INTO YOUTUBE. If anyone can pull it off, it is Google. Sony can’t compete and Microsoft can’t either because they are not in the same type of business. I’m kinda thinking no one else could pull it off except for maybe Comcast or Amazon in the US. Hell, if Netflix decides to stream games they may be able to do it too because all those companies have invested vast resources to create a networked system that brings us all the movies and TV we want to watch at any time in full HD and 4K within a few seconds and without judder. Without those billions of dollars in infrastructure, it is not going to be possible for any game streaming to happen at all. I mean like at all, it would be a lagfest of epic proportions without it.
On top of that, you need proprietary compression software that I’m thinking Google has likely been developing for some time. Wow, it totally feels like a season of Silicon Valley with the race to compression software. No joke, all the graphics, sound, controller movements, and interfaces need to work in a compressed manner with as little lag as possible or games will be jittery and unplayable. If Stadia can truly provide 60FPS or better even at 4K, it is not just a game changer it is an outright concept-of-gaming changer. The days of installs and downloads would disappear the same way that folks stopped bothering to use discs to play music or movies. Who inserts a blu-ray or CD these days? Not all that many, though vinyl has plenty of fans. Mostly, it is all streamed on demand like with Spotify, Apple, Google, or Netflix. Why not gaming? Well, latency is why not. And that brings me to my next point…
This is where some scary music goes DUN DUN DUNNNNNN. If the latency is poor, no one is going to want to play on this platform in the least. From what I experienced with Project Stream, it was actually very good even if a hair slower than using a wireless controller on my PS4.
For those who don’t know what latency is, you may have noticed there is often a slight delay from a button press on a controller to the action on the screen. That’s the latency for wireless controllers. It is the slow-down you get from the game, the tv display, and the Bluetooth signal going from the controller to the game and back. All these things affect how soon you see what happens on screen after you hit a button. Pro Tip: when using a TV make sure to turn on GAME MODE in the settings, it is a big difference.
Digital Foundry did a very in-depth analysis of the latencies found in using controllers from Xbone, PC, Project Stream, and somehow from Stadia ( I have no idea where they got those numbers since Stadia has not been released ). They also have numbers including the display lag and oddly Stadia would be on par with the display lag using an Xbone. While I doubt many PC gamers would give up their current latencies, if the latency is comparable to an Xbone then console gamers will find themselves right at home. How Stadia will improve on that is beyond me, but for gamers to really get into this platform it must be forefront on their development or they are dead in the water. Can you imagine playing an FPS or platformer with a latency issue? Not going to happen. For PC gamers to move to Stadia, the latency will need to be substantially improved to match the already rather expensive setups most PC gamers own. But, then again, Stadia may have their sights on console gamers instead.
One thing I did notice with Project Stream was that if the graphics got pixelated and I lost my 1080p signal as it downgraded to likely a 480p signal, my controller latency never changed. I didn’t even use a wired controller, just an aging wireless Xbox 360 for Windows controller with the included dongle. I felt that this latency consistency was important because I never lost control of what was on the screen, even if at times I couldn’t make out the details.
Buying in the Cloud
There has been absolutely no information about how Stadia will sell games as of the writing of this article. It could be one game at a time, or a subscription, or maybe even rental options. There is no way of knowing. From what I gathered watching the reveal, though, I think there will be individual games being sold. That said, would I want to spend $60 on a game for a service that may or may not be around somewhere down the line? Google has to really stick with gaming FOREVER for this to really work. We don’t want another Google Hangouts. There is even a whole wiki on closed Google services: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Discontinued_Google_services
We all need to know if Google is really in this for good or no one is going to trust them. I recently lost a few games on my Telltale account after they shut down. I don’t really feel like having the same thing happen with $60 games. That said, a subscription service would be fine by me. Yet, will studios want to immediately have their games being sold on a subscription basis? Maybe if they are Google owned, but I don’t think I’d want my brand new game to be in a monthly cloud sub on release day if it were my game company. Perhaps if Stadia has digital sales much like PSN and Steam I’d be more open to buying say, the next Assassins Creed for like $20 even if it seems like a bit of a crapshoot.
I’m curious if companies like Ubisoft or EA would have cross-platform buying. Maybe for $15 more you get a copy on Stadia and on console or PC. Something along the lines what of blu-rays do when including digital copies that can be redeemed on Google Play or the Apple Store.
Another thing that will help is to at least match Steam with a return policy on games. What if you buy the newest action game and it turns out the latency from your internet connection is just bad enough to prevent you from being able to beat a level boss? I would feel more assured with Google if I had the option to return my game, even if it is just store credit, in the event Stadia falls below my expectations
The other day I saw a post that the newest PS5 and Xbone will be even faster than Stadia: https://www.gamesradar.com/rumour-the-ps5-and-xbox-project-scarlett-will-be-more-powerful-than-google-stadia/ . So, for those who prefer “the box” as Google calls it, they will undoubtedly have the option of the newest console to consider and PC games will likely run much faster on PC if you have a deep enough wallet to buy a very fast and expensive setup.
The emphasis here is the word wallet. A vast number of folks just want to play the damn game and want a platform they feel comfortable playing it on. You put a $600 PS5 in front of me and right now I’m just going to blink. That’s like two car payments. For many people, it is not a fathomable option until they save up for it. The same goes for PC. I’ve been meaning to upgrade for a few years now, but I wanted to wait until there was an affordable 4K option and at the moment I’m not exactly overflowing with cash. So, no new $1000+ PC for me in the near future. I look at Stadia and I want to hope that what they are promising, which is contrary to what I experienced with Project Stream, will really work. I can live with a few compression artifacts or some visuals popping in and out while the stream keeps up if the rest looks just fine. If I can play in 4K on my current TV, then I want to see if it is true because, for me at least, I don’t mind the stream if the game is reasonably priced and I don’t need $600 to buy a new console that I’d likely need to buy an HDMI splitter just to make fit along with everything else hooked up right now. Google, sell me some convenience that works.
In my honest opinion, Stadia’s future rests entirely on the wow factor. If enough people are able to play popular F2P games likes Apex Legends on it with a 1080p-4K resolution with true 60FPS and latencies similar to consoles, you have yourself some street cred. Maybe they can allow 15-30 minutes of free gameplay of any game to try out first, that would help immensely. People need the experience and if it is less than stellar, Google will shutter this service likely within one year. It has to wow gamers or no one but those without consoles will even bother to use Stadia at all.
I find it sort of odd, but many gamers tend to situate themselves in one camp or the other. There are stalwart PS fans and diehard Nintendo fans along with Xbox lovers and then there are PC gamers.
PC gamers are a different breed. I’ve always encountered three types I know of, though I’m sure there are more I’ll discover along the way. There are ones that live and breathe PC gaming, where 120 FPS is considered “good” yet maybe not ideal, 60 FPS considered “decent”, and anything less than 60FPS simply referred to as “pathetic”. When they read of someone gaming on mid-level setups they just sigh and roll up their eyes because it’s all about the PC master race, baby, so gear up and get a “real” PC. Your pocketbook is the limit if you have the means or simply can’t stop buying upgrades even though you eat Ramen five times a week. The second type is the type of gamer who squeezes every last bit of gaming from what little they have and love every minute until they save up for years to buy something better. My nephew for example, who played Dark Souls on an aging laptop without a graphics card and FPS at times in the low teens didn’t complain and yet he managed to 100% it. Then he played it over and over until he took his savings for Christmas and finally made his first PC from scratch, and guess what? He played it again. For him, it’s about the sheer joy of gaming on his PC, nothing else in the least. The third type, and I think I’m likely in this category, are the ones who game on any platform with games that they enjoy and currently have or have had more than one console with a PC added to the mix when they have the means.
Where does Stadia fall in here? Not with the platform fans for Playstation, Nintendo, or Xbox that is for sure. Those folks will always buy their console no matter what. PC gamers are a non-factor, they are not giving up their $1000+ PC rig for a stream, that’s downright silly. My guess is the casual gamer with a mild interest in the occasional game but not enough to invest in any setup, followed by the gamer without the cash to get a new console/PC anytime soon who watches streams a lot and thinks Stadia looks like a decent deal without investing too much, followed by the gamer who just enjoys gaming and is curious about exclusives because they play on any platform that looks like fun. I’m very likely missing some other audiences, but those are the ones that stick out to me.
Ah, but again we have the convenience factor. This is not just about a situation where let’s say the newest game comes out and both my PS4 Pro and PC can only manage 30 FPS with many of the visuals turned off. I could buy it on Stadia with everything blasting at 4K and 60FPS and problem solved, but really the biggest draw for me is being able to play in 5 seconds with no download or even having to turn on my console. Seriously, I doubt I will play on my phone or tablet much, but instant gaming is a huge deal. I would also not mind switching to my laptop when both my TVs are in use. Convenience is a real factor, especially at a time when people would prefer to pay someone to deliver their groceries rather than shop for them themselves.
What Stadia Offers
Stadia won’t just only appeal to people without a console, but also for occasional gamers who have no desire for the clutter of a console or PC and will simply never own one. It also aims at portability much like the Switch. Move from the TV to a tablet in the blink of an eye. For those with families, that can really affect a decision in a gaming platform. There is also the instant access ease of use, which was the main reason I liked having PS Now besides the fact that I was one of the lucky ones who had a steady connection that didn’t turn into a lagfest.
There are also folks who prefer owning physical copies of items, and for them, Stadia will not be enticing in the least. However, I have to note that physical sales of games are slowing down to a standstill already and the idea of physical media being discontinued is really just a matter of time as digital sales continue to outpace physical sales over and over. I find this sad, but I also sort of don’t care much. While I have plenty of game discs, I’ve gotten a few ruined over the years and even when they are mailed out to a repair place, they only play again for so long. Eventually, these discs won’t work or the old consoles will die. I’m not fond of replacing broken game discs. Really, the out of print games are the only ones that appeal to me.
For those that can’t comprehend buying cloud games, I’ll put it like this…do you collect games on Steam even though you like physical discs? You know there is no guarantee they will be there 20 years from now, so all you own is a digital library. Do you like to look at your digital library? Does it feel nice and comforting to see that your favorite games on there? I bet you do. You only have confidence in Steam because they have a strong presence in PC gaming and you don’t expect them to close down. My point is, even if folks like physical media many of those same gamers have extensive digital libraries and for those that say Stadia will never succeed because it is all digital in the cloud, I disagree because at some point even stalwart physical collectors can succumb to digital game collecting. Hell, it is even addictive. Stadia will need the same strong type of buyer confidence as Steam in order to make any dent in gaming beyond kids playing Fortnite on their phones. It is up to them to provide it, though.
Google didn’t give any details on much of what gamers want to know: How much are the games? Show me some demos with hundreds of multiplayer games running simultaneously! How can it work on my internet when it takes me 10 hours to download a game? *THOSE* are questions Google omitted and I think this is a shame because all it does is leave us in the dark with more questions and fermenting frustration. Then again this was a reveal, not a demonstration. The fact they have Doom playing in 4k at 60FPS is pretty impressive, but what about trying to play Dark Souls on there or, hell, let’s try Tekken 7 or Sekiro where every frame and millisecond matters! Google’s customers need more demonstrations, I’m just hoping we find out before everyone just throws their hands in the air and say meh.
It is very clear from the way Stadia is set up that YouTube is fundamentally integrated into the system. From the controller, which connects directly to the Stadia server instead of your device, which has instant share buttons and incredibly easy to broadcast button options to the ability of viewers to simply click on a PLAY button from a gameplay and start playing at exactly the moment they are looking at, it is a service deeply embedded in YouTube like nothing else we’ve seen before.
It looks amazing, but I personally might accidentally connect to a Google Assistant or inadvertently Share my Broadcast while fighting a boss by simply bumping the buttons because there are a lot of sharing buttons on there. I am also picky about my controllers. I love my PS4 controller and the Xbone controller I use for Steam. I had a very mixed and frankly disappointing reaction to the Steam controller and I just outright dislike JoyCons ( replaced both left joysticks on two of them already ). I wonder if my 8bitdo Gamecube adapter for the Switch will work because it also supposedly works on PC ( I LOVE this adapter on the Switch ).
The whole bit where you can jump to a section of the game is nice, but also kinda feels like it ruins the game in a very real way. If anything, it may make folks start to play TL;DR versions of games you can play in 10 minutes on YouTube with Stadia rather than play through entire games. That would really truly suck in so many ways.
As for instant multiplayer join-ins, that sounds like a gawd-awful mess waiting to happen. While pretty fun for smaller streams, big streams would be overwhelmed in minutes with likely irate folks wanting to play, maybe even tipping streamers generously just to get to the front of the line. I don’t really like the idea all that much and I hope it is optional with an ability not to turn that on.
With Stadia, I’m hoping we see a consistent service. Something where the lag isn’t a death knell because Microsoft is still trying to figure that out and so is Geforce Now. PS Now barely gets it to work and only at 720p. My guess is that, much like PS NOW, you’ll have a subsection of folks with terrible internet who will get laggy service or, at best, decent latency with a subpar glitchy 720p stream. Then you’ll get a toxic social media reaction of haves and have-nots which can just play out poorly even if the service works sort of okay. Okay won’t be enough. It has to be damned good or nothing at all. Here is what we need for this to work, everyone needs Stadia to be, at the very least, as reliable as YouTube is. That should be the gold standard of reliability in my opinion. Since Stadia is literally Vulcan mind-melded into YouTube now, customers would expect no less.
Google is the big fish in the pond, those other streaming services won’t stand a chance unless Google fumbles badly. So, I really think this will make Sony, MS, and Nintendo really work hard at making their platforms the best they can possibly be. In the end, I’m also hoping it makes them all the better for it.
You’ll see Sony and MS pull their weight with exclusives to pull people away from Stadia. Stadia will likely do the same. Exclusive-war is the name of the game. I know cross-platform availability is one of the biggest concerns of gamers lately, but in all seriousness I think it may be the only way some platforms can stand out to sell consoles. I don’t see Mario Kart coming to Steam anytime soon if you get my drift. Granted, I do see things changing more and more with PlayStation games at least. What used to be exclusive is now often on PC as well, and that is really nice to see, even if the ports are less than fantastic most of the time. What I do hope, since Stadia is based on Linux, is maybe there will be some Linux download options for owners of Stadia games. Steam’s list of Linux games is always growing, so here’s to keeping on eye on that for all the Linux users!
The ball is in Stadia’s hand at the moment. Everyone is waiting to see if they score or shoot and miss. It is no mistake they are counting on disrupting things while PlayStation and Xbone ready their new consoles for 2020. There is the potential for this to be something great, something revolutionary, and it will very much be a work in progress as they roll the service out. Only time will tell if Stadia can make us *want* to play in the cloud or not, though. Because without that, they are paddling upstream against a river of industry consisting of already established platforms with millions upon millions of fans who are perfectly happy with the way things are already.