Google Stadia finally arrives in North America this week. Has the American tech giant figured out how to make game streaming work? Will it be as disruptive to the game industry as streaming services have been to music and video? Will Stadia usurp brands such as PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo?
The answers to these questions are, in order: sort of, probably not and no.
The extent to which Stadia succeeds with individual users will be largely dependent on what these users expect from a service that processes games in the cloud and streams them to TVs, PCs and mobile devices.
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If you head in anticipating an experience with the same graphical fidelity and tight, instantaneous control as you’d get from a high end gaming PC or console, you’re bound to be at least a little disappointed. Stadia works according to the physics of our world, which means it takes time for information — namely, control inputs — to be sent to Google’s servers, and more time for those servers to process that information and send rendered frames back to your device for you to respond to. The further you happen to be from one of Google’s server farms, the greater the delay will be.
If, on the other hand, you go into the experience expecting and willing to accept a bit of latency, then — depending on the type of game you typically enjoy playing — you’ll likely get exactly what you anticipate: An imperfect but serviceable way to play games without spending an exorbitant amount of money on hardware.
Google provided Post Arcade with a Stadia Premiere edition kit — worth $170 — for evaluation prior to the service’s launch on November 19th. It comes with a Stadia controller and a Google Chromecast Ultra, along with a three-month subscription to Stadia Pro. Stadia Pro costs $12 per month and provides free access to certain games (starting with Destiny 2), discounts on select titles and the potential for a slightly higher fidelity gaming experience, including 4K graphics and 5.1 surround sound. However, starting early next year users will be able to access the service for free using competitors’ controllers and streaming devices, though without the free games that come with Pro — you’ll need to purchase all games a la carte at about the same price as you would on any platform — and they’ll experience these games in slightly lower fidelity, meaning 1080p and stereo sound.
Keep in mind that the overall quality of your experience is also largely dependent on your Internet connection and your proximity to the nearest Google data centre. I don’t know the closest Google server farm to me, but I’m just a few kilometres from Google’s Canadian headquarters in Waterloo, Ont., which has done a good deal of Stadia development. Plus, I have a gigabit connection at home, which is more than enough to meet the 10 to 35 Mbps connection speed Stadia requires. In other words, my experience ought to be about as good as the service can muster at launch.
I can’t comment with certainty on the end-user setup process — journalists seeded with kits pre-launch had to go through a slightly different series of steps than the general public — but the included instructions make it look simple enough. Just connect the Chromecast to your TV, connect the controller to your Wi-Fi network, and you’re pretty much good to go. If you want to play on your phone — the service currently supports Google Pixel 3 and 3a handsets, but will expand to include other devices over time — you simply need download the free Stadia app and connect the controller. If you want to play on PC, you can launch games from within your browser. I tried playing Stadia games on all three types of devices.
The controller, it’s worth noting, feels lovely. It borrows liberally from traditional gamepads designed by Sony and Microsoft, with quality thumbsticks, action buttons and handy specialty function inputs, including screen capture and Google Assistant buttons. The triggers feel a smidge soft, but that’s my only (very minor) beef.
The Stadia dashboard, meanwhile, is a study in simplicity. It has none of the confusing morass of tiles found on the Xbox One dashboard, and is much more basic than even the PlayStation 4’s streamlined GUI. So far there is no achievements or trophies system, but there is a basic partying system to keep groups of friends together, and online communication is handled through a third-party app called Discord. To begin playing a game you just scroll through the titles in your library and hit play to launch them. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.
Of course, all of this was more or less known and expected prior to launch. The real question is how games play. I had a chance to try half a dozen of them, and the results were mixed, depending largely on genre.
The first game I tried was Destiny 2. I’ve dumped upwards of 100 hours into Bungie’s online space shooter on PlayStation 4, so I know how it ought to feel. On Stadia, the latency is very apparent. The time between controller inputs and the game registering those inputs is impossible not to notice, and I often found it frustrating. The delay repeatedly caused me to miss shots and even some melee attacks. Perhaps someone new to the game wouldn’t be as put off, but I doubt I’ll ever choose to play Destiny 2 on Stadia over PlayStation 4.
Other games, however, were much more pleasant. Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, felt significantly closer to the way they do on consoles. These are both games with which I’m also intimately familiar, and while I definitely noticed latency while playing, the impact on the overall experience wasn’t nearly as irksome — likely because success in less twitchy games like these isn’t as dependent on perfectly timed inputs. In the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, I found that its generous target assist system also helped reduce the likelihood of input errors caused by latency. I can see myself playing through both of these games on Stadia with only moments of aggravation rather than constant frustration.
The best experience of the launch games I tested, however, was Gylt, a Stadia-exclusive starring a little girl searching for her missing sister. Timing was even less of a factor here. I spent the bulk of my time exploring and interacting with the environment. The slower-paced action meant control latency was frequently nearly unnoticeable. I suspect games of this ilk will thrive on Stadia, at least to start.
Also dependent on the speed and stability of your connection is presentation. Stadia renders games on powerful machines capable of more or less maxing out visual settings in most modern releases. That said, clarity and frame rate can be affected if your Internet speed stutters. Most of the time games looked great during my evaluation, but there were moments when I noticed hitches and chugs, and these occurred more often if I moved to play in areas of my house further from my router. For the best and most dependable experience you’ll likely want to play Stadia games in or close to the same room as your Wi-Fi connection.
So, why would anyone choose a game streaming service like Stadia over a console or PC if it’s not as reliable? It likely boils down to cost and convenience.
Avid gamers are much more likely to spend hundreds or thousands on hardware in order to achieve the best possible gaming experience, including stutter-free graphics and zero noticeable control latency. More casual players, on the other hand, may be attracted to Stadia’s low entry cost, and perks such as being able to play on a variety of devices, the option to switch between those devices quickly and easily, and never needing to wait for games to download and install. There is definite appeal in being able to just decide, hey, I want to try Mortal Kombat 11 right now and then start playing in a minute or two — no worrying about whether your hardware can support it or waiting forever for a large game file to download.
I’m not convinced game streaming services can ever completely replace local hardware. The technology still has hurdles to overcome, the most daunting of which are the laws of physics. That said, there’s always room for new options in how we choose to play, and what sort of tradeoffs we’re willing to make. Stadia is simply another choice for the world’s billions of gamers.