Google Stadia – a bloody big gaming thing

stadia main image

Google’s sometimes mesmerising pitch for a console-less gaming service – a platform that offers the latest and greatest games to any web-connected device with a screen – raised many possibilities about a future where there are far fewer barriers to gaming. Yet many in the media warned that a large number of questions are still unanswered for a service that is set to launch later this year.

By Neil Merrett

The premise is to create a ‘games platform for everyone’. Everyone in this case, is defined as those with a semi-working broadband connection.

This was the hyperbolic, and somewhat mesmerising pitch put forward by tech giant Google in its attempts to disrupt conventional gaming with its Stadia platform.

The concept, as unveiled this week by Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, was that under the new service, any triple AAA game currently in development or already on the market, as well as a wealth of even more technically sophisticated titles yet to developed, can be played via any screen or phone.  Stadia is set to launch this year.

The only limitations, aside from the legal and rights complications, will be that you must own some web-connected device with the Google Chrome browser installed.

All technical and processing requirements usually handled by some exclusive, initially expensive, purpose built hardware will now be managed via Google’s significant data centres, all in time for Christmas.  This will also theoretically allow for new games to be developed way beyond the specifications of current consoles.

It may all sound as if something from recent science fiction films such as ‘Ready Player One’, a movie that touched upon a society that is equal parts besotted and enslaved by a ubiquitous gaming world.  Yet that science theoretically works and is already being played right here and now in a test capacity.

There feels something inevitable about the idea that games will ultimately be streamed and powered by the web itself, leading to one major question; if Google or tech giant Amazon are not the ones to bring such a model to the fore, then who?

stadia presentation

The potential significance of Google’s announcement was understandably a major issue for technology and gaming journalists.

The ongoing saga of cloud gaming

Writing for the Guardian, John Walker noted that Stadia wasn’t entirely new as a concept, with cloud-based game subscription services launching in 2010.  some of these services ceased operations five years ago.

He said, “The survivors are Nvidia’s GeForce NOW, Shadow and Loudplay, and of course Sony’s own Playstation Now. But Google believes it is bringing something new to this market, based on the sheer scale of its infrastructure, and the technology it is putting at the other end of the cable.”

Walker spoke to a range of industry experts for his piece, many of whom raised a series of pertinent questions about the service that were barely addressed, or absent entirely from google’s hour long reveal presentation on March 19.

He added, “Everyone we spoke to at the Game Developers Conference was interested in what Stadia could be, although most were hedging their bets until a lot of the questions are answered.”

“How easy will it be for developers to adapt existing games for Stadia? How will pricing work? Which games will be playable on release later this year? What kind of internet connection will be required to use it? And what happens down the line if Google’s attention drifts on to something else?”

A difficult question

A massive number of questions have been raised in recent years, both politically and journalistically, over the need to potentially force structural changes on Google to protect against monopolisation of the Internet and ensure greater control of how our personal data is compiled and sold.

Some in the press have therefore asked whether such a single corporate monolith should have such leverage on an industry that is increasingly dominating entertainment.

In a piece for gamesindustry.biz, the publication’s journalists offered their own thoughts and possible fears about whether streaming, branded under the Stadia name, was the future of gaming.

Rebekah Valentine considered both the utopian and dystopian potential of Stadia and its implications for gaming.  Valentine noted that the proposed technology almost double’s current console capacity, while being made available instantly through the web on a flexible number of devices.

She said, “There’s a real possibility for such accessibility to, over time, play a role in addressing the dire need for greater industry diversity.” “

With access to the industry’s biggest titles regardless of expensive platform ownership, future developers, e-sports players, publishers, journalists, and others may discover a love of games from a title they would not have otherwise touched.”

Valentine accepted that outside of her dreamy hope for game streaming, important questions of how Google, which already faces growing criticism of how it makes money from our data, will monetise the potential of the technology.

She added, “How will developers and publishers make money, and how will consumers be paying them that money? Will that model be radically different from than anything we’ve seen before, or the same old pricing models we’ve come to expect from hardware platforms and PC storefronts?”

“Knowing Google’s history, there’s potential for new monetisation models centred around either advertising itself, or using instant gameplay from YouTube video as advertising, with revenue streaming from clicks or plays or views.”

Brendan Sinclair of the same publication found the potential of the technology to be exciting, especially as a means to open up availability to AAA console games instantly around the world.

He also praised the announcement of the development of a new Google development studio led by Jade Raymond as signs of a serious commitment to gaming. Sinclair said that technical details aside, too little was known at present over the business model and eventual price that it would cost to use whatever Stadia is.

He added, “Given that the tech is worthless without games to play on it, I expect Google will try the business models publishers are already comfortable with. Buy a game a la carte for roughly the same price as other platforms, or subscribe to a Netflix-style service populated by indies and AAA catalogue titles.”

“Any kind of frontline AAA games will have to be made by Stadia Games and Entertainment, or come through deals Google makes on a product-by-product basis. If publishers become more comfortable with other models, then Google can adopt those as well. The question is if the business model is more or less similar to what players are being offered now, will Stadia’s perks be enough to make it a preferable alternative?”

In an opinion piece for Polygon, Ben Kuchera argued that Stadia was a sign of a changing landscape in the console wars. After all, how can things ever be the same for a market that has long been dominated by the Playstation console when the hardware games are played on becomes an irrelevance?

He wrote, “Google wants us to bring the habits we’ve developed from streaming video into gaming, in other words. Hulu and Netflix don’t sell users proprietary hardware to watch their offerings, and Google’s vision is that gaming should operate in the same basic way; games become something you do through a service using a selection of inexpensive hardware to access the connection to Google’s servers.”

An earlier beta test of Google’s proposed gaming platform – then operating under the name Project Stream – by another Polygon journalist last October, found the most surprising thing about the system was that it worked.

Austen Goslin said the beta appeared to run in the cloud similarly to how the same game operated after it had been had been installed on a device as normal, with movement and combat – important parts of the game – feeling “fluid”.

However, Ellen Rose of Otuside Xtra, noted the end of physical ownership of games in a reply-able format created some complications for preservation of older titles that may fall foul of corporate politics.

A brave new world

Amidst the excitement and concerns about what the future of gaming may be under a corporate and technological monolith such as Google, there was something melancholic about what Stadia’s announcement means.

Regardless of whether Google succeeds or not in fully converging gaming with the web, making the process of playing inseparable from our video sharing and social media interactions, cloud-based gaming will one day be the norm, for a generation not yet able to pick up a controller.

After all, have you tried explaining terrestrial TV on a four year-old raised on streaming?

Sega, Atari, look upon their works and ask what’s next for the current giants of gaming.

There is something sad about a grand gaming juggernaut being ignominiously hauled off for scrap. The inevitability of time as they say.

But how significant can Stadia really be? it’s just a bloody great big gaming platform at the end of the day.

Much like how the iPhone just over a decade ago was just an upgraded music device.
Google on the surface gave just us a new game controller.

But when it comes to Stadia, what do you see?

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