Stadia is dead – long live cloud gaming?

By Neil Merrett

Google’s experiment in hosting a purpose-built online gaming platform that can rival consoles is over. Yet predictions for what this means for the future of cloud gaming are not so clear.

In March 2019, tech giant Google announced it was making a significant investment in gaming with its Stadia streaming service. 

This was essentially an attempt by the company to disrupt conventional videogaming with a ‘games platform for everyone’ – or at least those with a semi-functioning broadband connection.

The idea was that the latest AAA or indie titles could be played via any screen connected to the internet.  All that was needed to access the service is a subscription and the Stadia controller.  It is fair to say that this was a seemingly logical extension of the hybrid mobile and home gaming culture that has become an accepted part of the modern gaming industry.

Cut forward to autumn 2022 and the Stadia platform is now set to be ‘wound down’ by its parent company with a full shutdown scheduled for January 2023.

Phil Harrison, vice president and general manager at Stadia, said that the winding down process would involve refunding ‘hardware purchases’ and any games or add-on content bought and accessed through the service.

He stated: “Players will continue to have access to their games library and play through 18 January 2023, so they can complete final play sessions.”

Since its initial launch, tech reviewers have broadly praised Stadia as demonstrating the case for the concept of cloud gaming both at home or on the move  – at least when connected to the web.

TechRadar was among the publications to praise the value of the overall concept of Stadia, even if its initial claims of the technology being a “potential platform killer” have not materialised.

The PlayStation and XBox brands continue to dominate the gaming market – albeit with embracing subscription-based cloud services of their own.

The Nintendo Switch console, which preceded the launch of Stadia and will seemingly long outlive Google’s service, is also not immune to experimenting with streaming. Nintendo is gradually offering cloud service games via its hybrid console as a means of overcoming the technical limitations of its five year-old hardware.

A ‘console alternative’

TechRadar’s effusive praise of Stadia as a “true console alternative” was tempered by the fact that not everyone shares an internet connection capable of ensuring a high performance of game streaming.

It stated: “Like any other streaming service, your experience could be radically different based on your proximity to Google’s servers and your connection speed. Unlike consoles that, roughly speaking, perform exactly the same from one location to the next, there’s no guarantee when it comes to game-streaming that we will all have the same experience.”

Other gamers and bloggers also shared a sense that the overall technology developed for Stadia was more impressive that the basic commercial proposition on offer for the service.

As you might expect from a press release, Stadia said that the technology and infrastructure built or acquired to deliver the service would now feed into other products and possible gaming services involving the company or future partners.

Mr Harrison said: “The underlying technology platform that powers Stadia has been proven at scale and transcends gaming. We see clear opportunities to apply this technology across other parts of Google like YouTube, Google Play, and our Augmented Reality (AR) efforts — as well as make it available to our industry partners, which aligns with where we see the future of gaming headed.”

There were no clear details on what this might mean for the wider gaming industry.

Developer impact

However, the implications for games developers of the Stadia shutdown has served to create some confusion and concern in the industry.

Tom Phillips, writing for Eurogamer, said that some companies and individuals working on games for the service were only made aware of its impending end via press coverage and social media posts.

He wrote: “Developers still hard at work on Google Stadia projects have been expressing their shock and frustration at the cloud gaming service’s impending shutdown.”

Mr Phillips said that a range of developers had been unprepared for the announcement, with some interviewed having expected to release their games on the service next month.

He said: “What will happen to those games is now unclear, as Google has already moved to close the Stadia store – making new releases unsellable.”

One developer cited in the report was Brandon Sheffield of Necrossoft Games that warned that the closure of the service created significant financial challenges for the company.

This was a sentiment shared by other developers.

As is unexpected with just about any public announcement, others on social media were quick to get memes together based on the commercial performance of Google’s platform.

In a more sombre assessment of the service’s shutdown, the Washington Post, whose journalists had previously described the platform as “unplayable at times, magical in others”, said the announcement reflected an abrupt turnaround by Google.

Mikhail Klimentov and Jonathan Lee reported that Google had earlier this year committed to ensuring ongoing support for the service – with further investment reportedly being considered to secure the rights to stream some major AAA titles.

The Washington Post said: “Unfortunately, Stadia will now be interred alongside the over 200 other cancelled projects in Google’s graveyard such as its defunct social media venture, Google Plus, and mobile virtual reality platform, Google Cardboard.”

The report cited Joost van Dreunen, a lecturer at New York University’s School Stern of Business who specialises in videogaming. He questioned the commitment and capability of big tech giants to compete with established gaming names going forward.

Mr van Dreunen told the Washington post: “Despite having impressive infrastructure and deep pockets, the overall lack of personality in Stadia’s offering was never going to get the traction necessary to justify writing the big checks you need to successfully penetrate this market.”

He went on to speculate in the report that cloud gaming could yet develop as a huge commercial proposition. This could be driven by technical and software developments, as well as a broader improvement in basic internet connections around the world. However, Mr van Dreunen argued that Stadia’s shutdown did pose important questions for other similar sized tech companies with regard to their role in the gaming industry.

He said: “Stadia’s demise casts a shadow over the rest of the cloud gaming category by alienating the early adopters and calling into question what rivals like Amazon and Meta can truly offer that is better or different.”

The future is not always easy to predict and frequently can get caught up in the hyperbole of ambitious press launches such as those issued by Google to announce Stadia.

Sometimes, it can be nice to be taken along with the potential of some of the more long-term ambitions for a service or technology, rather than the more grounded reality of what they initially can deliver,

Squareblind was not immune itself from speculating on the possible significance of a company with the technical capabilities and financial clout of Google entering the gaming industry back in 2019.

Even at the time, there were important concerns being raised about the concept of licensing and streaming games and what ownership you had of software beamed into your home.

Can you own a game held in a server and not in a physical format preserved by the individual themselves?  How secure are purchases when they can be cancelled on the whim of a company?

At the same time, gamers are increasingly expecting greater flexibility not only in where they game, but also how they can access and share dynamic digital worlds with friends and individuals all around the world.

Stadia, with Google’s resources, has not ultimately engaged gamers at the scale required.

“To days to come”

But much like the story of other technical innovations that have reshaped media, pop culture and wider society, progress is rarely a simple and straightforward story.

A prime example of this can be seen in the 2022 documentary series Light and Magic.  The show charts the story of George Lucas’ formation of the Industrial Light and Magic company that was invented from the ground up to design the special effects for the original Star Wars movie.

Industrial Light and Magic is synonymous with reshaping the movie industry. But even Mr Lucas and his specialists were not always aware of the potential of the technologies and systems they had developed.

One example was the pioneering work it had made around computer generated animation that is reflected in the shifting graphical capabilities of consumer technologies such as consoles. After developing some of the tech to meet its own requirements for digital effects in a live action format, the Pixar Image Computer and the team behind it – once the property of Lucas Film – were spun-off into an independent company.

Lucas Film was not ultimately in the business of producing animated features. Therefore, how could the primitive shorts painstakingly produced through a computer ever match the scope and scale of Disney’s hand drawn art?  The company would therefore focus on innovating and developing the movie effects and images it was known all over the world for. It simply make the idea of animated movies work for its business model.

By January 2006, 20 years after the company became independent, Pixar and its intellectual property were acquired by the Walt Disney Corporation for US$7.4bn as part of an acquisition that has transformed mainstream animation both culturally and technically.

The future had arrived for Pixar, but it has just come the long and complicated way around.  The late Steve Jobs – a pioneering figure in the tech and computing sector and a major shareholder in Pixar – had forever transformed animation and become an influential figure in the Disney Corporation. He had transformed an industry without having to draw a single cell of animation.

Videogames may equally one day face a similar seismic change in its methods and approach to business that isn’t driven by Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. This will now unlikely come from Stadia. But who knows where this high profile experiment in cloud gaming may lead.

As a wise old time traveller once said: “to days to come”.


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