I’ve watched Google’s E3 Stadia Connect presentation three times and I still don’t know who the cloud gaming platform is for.
Stadia’s thesis is that you don’t need a console to enjoy high fidelity AAA video games. Instead, it makes games an on-demand service — you tell Stadia what you want to play and a computer deep in one of Google’s many colossal server farms will fire it up on max settings. It will then be streamed live over the internet to your screen, be that a TV, a laptop, your Google Pixel or your tablet device. Here, watch the presentation for yourself.
Longtime gamers, especially those in Australia, will already be spotting several problems. Stadia is built on the premise of a fast, stable internet connection and not all national infrastructures are created equal. How bad does your internet connection have to be before it renders Stadia useless? How does it compensate for latency, if at all? What effect will server lag have on input lag for games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat where every frame counts? Will it only be truly useful for single player games? Trying to play a multiplayer game that is itself already streaming over the internet sounds like a great way to wreak havoc with your ping.
Google, of course, was brushing off concerns in the video stating that a connection of “only” 35Mbps was required for a fluid gaming experience running in 4K res with HDR at 60 frames per second and 5.1 surround sound. 35Mbps is, of course, more than triple the speed of an average broadband connection here in Australia, meaning you’d need an NBN connection at the very least to get the most out of Stadia.
Apparently aware that Australia would be glowering at their product, Google quickly insisted that internet connections as slow as 10Mbps could still access Stadia content in 720p res at 60 frames with stereo audio. Most ADSL2+ connections in Australia top out at around 10Mbps, meaning Stadia would necessarily use the entire connection to itself. The moment anyone else in the house gets on the internet, the bottom’s going to fall out. This likely explains why Google has set no launch window for Australia. They’re still figuring out what to do with us.
Then we get into portability. Because it only requires an internet connection to run, Google’s pitch is that you’re ready to go, anytime, anywhere. But again, not every wifi signal is as good as another. PC Gamer crunched the numbers and currently estimate that Stadia, at full stride in 4K, will haul down 1.5TB of data for every 2.5 days you use it. Fine for a home connection with unlimited download, but imagine trying to run Stadia on hotel wifi when you travel. I suppose you could run it on mobile internet, but whose plan offers that much data? And you won’t be able to play it on a plane at all because, most of the time, there’s no internet up there, making offline play impossible.
Then you’ve got the controller, without which Stadia won’t work. So now I’m taking this disembodied controller with me everywhere. Even when I’m running it on my phone, I have to use this Xbox One lookin’ ass controller.
Then you have to worry about entangling yet another facet of your life in the Google ecosystem. How much data do they have on me already? They know everything about me and now they’re going to collect information on what I’m playing, where I’m playing it, how long I played and exactly which actions I took in any given game. How much did I spend? Did I play it on a Google Pixel?
So how do you actually get games? Well, if you’re using the Stadia Base plan (free, streams up to 1080p), you’ll buy them via Google’s digital storefront and they’ll be bound to your Stadia account. If you’re using the Stadia Pro subscription ($9.99 USD per month, streams up to 4K) then you’ll have access to monthly free games (which are of course not free, they’re part of your sub) and they’ll be available for as long as your sub is active.
Stadia feels like an idea created in a vacuum. It caters to an audience of … I’m honestly not sure who. People who can’t afford a PlayStation 4 but can afford a top-tier internet connection? People who don’t want a console but are happy to cart a controller around with them? People who want to play games in the highest possible fidelity but don’t want to build a gaming PC? The games industry has been trending towards an all-digital gaming solution for many years now. Stadia is trying to do exactly that, trying to be that all-digital system, and yet it still seems to be making a meal of it.