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Google Stadia's stealth launch does not inspire confidence | Opinion

After its bombastic announcement, Stadia's low-key and poorly communicated launch will fuel suspicion that it's another of Google's passing fads

If you've been running out to buy a black mourning outfit every time the Death of Games Consoles, PCs or any other gaming platform has been proclaimed, bad news; it's another one for the mothballs, it seems. Having drawn gasps from bystanders and mild panic from shareholders when it was originally unveiled, Google's Stadia -- the game streaming service that's meant to be a nail in the coffin of the quaint idea of just running a game on a cheap piece of consumer hardware you bought in a shop -- is arriving in less than four weeks.

Yet for all the hoopla around its unveiling, Stadia's launch is a strangely muted affair. The chorus of the doom prophets is nowhere to be heard. The inexorable approach of the streaming black hole that will swallow gaming within its event horizon appears to make scarcely a sound.

"For all the hoopla around its unveiling, Stadia's launch is a strangely muted affair"

Alright, I'm over-egging it slightly, but it is honestly peculiar that with less than a month to go before the supposed entry of one of the world's biggest tech firms (indeed, one of the world's biggest companies full stop) into the games business, the launch is making hardly a ripple on the water. It feels like an inordinate amount of the anticipation for Stadia is contained within the rather rarefied bounds of the investor community, many of whom are seeing this as a landscape-altering event on a par with Microsoft's market entry all those years ago. On the consumer front though, and even among developers, the response to Stadia is far more measured -- "wait and see" appears to be the order of the day.

We might be waiting for a while before there's much to see. A scant few weeks from launch, Stadia's initial roll-out remains limited in scope. Even accessing Google's stadia.com page from Japan, for example, simply redirects you to a Google hardware page without a single mention of the service; not so much as an explanation or a "coming soon," which even considering the nightmare Microsoft famously had in this territory feels like a bit of an oversight in a market that does buy rather a lot of games.

The dedicated hardware being launched with the platform also appears to be a low priority. People who signed up for the "founders" type hardware packs may not even get their systems on November 19, it seems, with hardware instead being distributed over an undefined period post-launch -- a somewhat shabby way of treating the consumers most excited about a platform that hasn't excited very many people, and something that feels far more like a poor effort at inventory management on Google's part than a struggle with unexpected levels of demand.

There are of course some decent reasons for rolling out a service offering like this a bit more slowly than you'd launch a new console hardware platform -- not least of which being that it's much easier to keep your service offering consistent and online when you ramp up slowly, rather than opening the floodgates and seeing your infrastructure collapse. Google, though, is one of the biggest players in cloud computing -- second only to Amazon -- which makes it unusual that the balance is tipped so heavily towards being the softest possible launch.

"The notion that Stadia is a 'Netflix for Games' is still deeply ingrained in the collective psyche"

Then again, there's not actually that much for Google to make noise about around this launch. The company has attracted some exceptional talent to its games venture, but it feels like it did so rather late in the day. In her interview with this site earlier in the week, Jade Raymond said some fascinating things -- and perhaps more importantly, some very sensible and grounded things -- about the ideas she wants first-party development for Stadia to explore, but should we really still be at the stage of musing about the conceptual possibilities of cloud-based games when the cloud-based game service itself is going to be asking people to start forking over cash in three weeks?

Therein, I think, lies the rub. There are all sorts of excuses we can make about a strategy of gradually building up from a soft launch, or how this kind of service offering doesn't need to be splashy from the outset and can gather speed over months or even years -- and some of that is absolutely true -- but the on-the-ground reality is that Google is going to be asking people for money from the outset, and what they're offering thus far looks to be of deeply questionable value. Worse, the value of the offering still seems to be a source of some really basic confusion among not just consumers, but media commentators and investors too, with the notion that Stadia is a "Netflix for Games" still deeply ingrained in the collective psyche.

A big issue for Stadia is in how much confusion still surrounds the nature of the service so far after its unveiling

A big issue for Stadia is in how much confusion still surrounds the nature of the service so far after its unveiling

The reality of Stadia is, for the most part, not a library to which you subscribe for unlimited access, but rather a purchase or rental service that changes little about the underlying business model and merely trades one set of limitations (the need to download or physically acquire a game before playing, and to have a console or PC with you when you want to do so) for another (the need to have a very high speed, uncapped broadband connection at any location where you wish to play). That doesn't appear to have been very effectively communicated thus far, and the consequence is likely to be some disillusionment from consumers who are expecting something quite different.

"For potential content partners and consumers alike, what Google may be seeing as a soft launch is something quite different"

Between the lack of hype building around the launch (which honestly feels like it's happening now just to keep the promise of hitting a 2019 date, even if the service isn't really ready for prime-time until next year), the odd failure to deliver pre-ordered hardware on time, the confusion over the business model, the vague and distant nature of first-party support and the utterly inevitable technological issues many users will face (and will be very, very noisy about online, you can be sure), it's hard to see how Stadia doesn't have a pretty bumpy start to its life.

Which, you might say, is fine if the plan has always been for a soft launch and a gradual build up, but all the fine talk of a gradual build-up has to come with a few pinches of salt when we recall that Google is a company with a famously terrible attention span and no track record whatsoever of sticking with bets that don't start paying off in the short-term. Developers will be evaluating which baskets they want to stick their eggs into, and Google's internal politics will no doubt have a few knives out as well; if Stadia's early word-of-mouth is poor and initial uptake is disappointing, the promise of a system supported by Google's practically limitless financial clout may evaporate pretty rapidly.

If any of this feels like I'm saying "Google should have spent more time learning how traditional console launches work, and why" -- and thus ignoring the terribly exciting new-technology, new-paradigm aspects of all this -- well yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. New technology and new paradigms are all very well, but there's a reason that strategies for marketing, promoting and launching new platforms have evolved in the way they have, and much of that is down to consumer psychology and an understanding of how vital momentum is to a platform, not specific to (or invalidated by) any given technological approach. Google may not want Stadia to be seen as a console launch or evaluated in those terms, but both the industry and consumers are going to base their judgements on many of those same metrics -- and thus far there are few signs that Stadia is going to measure up.

This, too, isn't new territory for Google. The company has struggled mightily with its hardware efforts in general, not least because it's often willfully insisted on "disrupting" market realities around sales, marketing and distribution without properly taking the time to understand the reasons for those realities. Hence, for example, Google building some of the best smartphones in the world yet managing only a miserable trickle of sales for them. There are plenty of traps in Google's own recent track-record into which Stadia might fall, and it would be naďve to think that developers and publishers aren't keenly aware of those even as they eye the Silicon Valley giant's potential first- and second-party development coffers.

For both those potential content partners and consumers alike, what Google may be seeing as a soft launch is something quite different. It's a chance to watch carefully for signs of whether Stadia is really a commitment, or just another expensive, hare-brained scheme that'll fall by the wayside as soon as the C-suite loses interest. For such a quiet launch, next month's arrival has a great deal to prove.

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Latest comments (4)

Nick Parker Consultant 24 days ago
While it makes sense to compare the launch of Stadia with a new console launch and therefore Google should be emulating pre-launch hype demonstrated by Sony and Microsoft, streaming interactive games suffers from a number of unknowns that a physical device doesn't.
Gamers tend to know what to expect from a new PlayStation or Xbox so there are obvious buying behaviour patterns but Stadia will be at the mercy of any new streaming service unknowns. How many gamers will enjoy a smooth service (geographical bandwidth and latency limitations) so a fear of a sketchy experience? What quality games will be available? How much will gamers have to end up spending?
Streaming platforms know this is not a seven year life cycle (as for consoles) but a much longer, generic infinite solution to accessing games and gameplay so there is quite a way to go beyond the first period of launch.
Google may be forgiven for treading carefully as an early disruptor with so many questions unanswered but, unfortunately, most commentators (not Rob) default to castigating the big corporates of our industry.
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DAVID FAHRENHOLZ Software Engineer/Game designer 23 days ago
There are many things, positive and negative, that can be said about the "drinking straight from the well" phenomenon that surrounds streaming. If one tries to allay fears and anxiety from the target demographic about treading in as an early disruptor it only short shrift's the actual pioneers of recombinant game-play. The use of streaming for single and multi player games has been around for several decades. While it is true the vehicle for facilitating this has been changed the actual mechanics still remain. One needs the node, the channel to move the data and the dedicated address to deliver the packets or signal to the codec. The physical limitations have not been lifted only shifted to hide the reality of how it works and some of the computing burden.

Google certainly is trying to even the experience by using the fastest servers and dedicating upstream pipes to ease congestion. Where this system will fail and all others have found trouble is the player experience. Streaming via AI compression services such as what Netflix or satellite radio use, works reasonably well because the sender can control most of the process. While satellite radio controls the hardware due to build requirements what Netflix or any video streaming service cannot control is the final leg of the connection the the ISP and the congestion of the data channel. These types of AI programs also expect some user input but these interactions are not time sensitive and use buffering to account for signal loss.

Gaming, as Google surely knows, is heavily dependent on user input and the timing is critical to the user experience and this reduces the impact of buffering and compression. Single player input presents one type of coding situation. The most likely approach to this is using AI to control predictive latency while betting heavily on the better servers they will use to be fast enough to analyze all of the branching needed for a somewhat seamless experience. Multi player compounds that challenge and adds even more latency to the situation as well as using AI for predictive decision analysis. AI, in its current state depending on the engine used, is more than capable of handling this but only on a local basis.

What will happen is the current generation of AI engines will create a type of false flag situation where the player actually is not making a RTD anymore and in multiplayer mode may be interacting with an NPC instead. In many cases this is undetectable but if the latency builds due to congestion or dropped signal the player will be begin to be able to identify the AI changing the scenario and eventually cause the player to stop playing. Google has no control of the end connection and as such will have to make these type of constructs to keep the code going while they wait for the rest of the customer base to upgrade from copper based data lines to Fiber Optic or 5/6G. Fiber Optic is currently only offered in 25% of the USA and uptake to 51% or higher is expected to take 10 or more years based on current information. 5/6 G is another possibility but the wireless carriers control the data flow and pricing is too restrictive for most adopters at this time.

What then are truly the barriers to Stadia or any all streaming service to becoming successful? The ISP's control pricing, data availability and infrastructure. Goggle has gone on record to state that pricing will align itself once end users demand it but historical trends refute that statement. Unlimited data, which is a requirement due to the massive amount of data needed, is still expensive and highly elusive for most Internet users. The ISP's see data as the their future profit generator and as such will be reticent to allow manipulation of pricing or usage unless it benefits them. It is entirely possible that unlimited data will become commonplace but it may only happen because local governments become utility providers to facilitate usage by citizens of all economic stature.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 23 days ago
Barrier 1: Shipping the product
A Playstation can be shipped from anywhere to anywhere, a data stream cannot. Producing the stream in a location that helps with low lag delivery is something very unique to Stadia streaming. That alone could make Google the most decentralized and scattered across the globe company in the 21st century. Sufficient to point towards Walmart and their attempt to go global to see where things can go horribly wrong. Ignoring the technical challenge Google is facing, the cultural challenges are just as immense.

Barrier 2: Finding an audience
I will be the first to admit that low lag games are not everything. Anno 1800 is a perfect example for a game that works just as fine, even with half a second of input delay, while massively profiting from the idea that there is a market for stream to reach players who do not have high end PCs to run the game in eye candy mode. I can see how Google can score a hit with bringing Football Manager to everybody. Doom Eternal? Not so much. At the moment, the games announced lean heavily into a rather small segment of the video games market as a whole.

Barrier 3: the idea of a compute center.
a data center is a data center and a super computer is a super computer. Data centers excel at size and storage capacity, supercomputers excel at computational speed. For that reason, they come with their own can of worms. Google is seeking to take the compute density of a super computer scaling it up to data center in size. The biggest supercomputer today has 27.000 nVidia Tesla cards. Switch it out for 27.000 Stadia units and you couldn't even serve New York with streams. Tip of the hat to Google, they are in the process of taking super computers and try to mass produce them. But if you think "Super Computer Mass Production" sounds like something that was ever only achieved in a Civilization 6 game after turn 400, then because it was ever only achieved there.

Barrier 4: the sheer amount of real time data
you may think you have streamed a movie just now, but just as often, you buffered it in three to four big spikes and played it back from some cache. A cache in your device, a cache at your ISP, who needs to know that with a movie. Consumption is real time, delivery is not! The internet is good at balancing spikes, but Google has a new type of base load and claims to seek mass market adoption for a type of real time data delivery that is unheard of outside of Wall Street high frequency trading. Now think about all the multiplayer games today and their problems with all the national and local ISPs causing lag and mayhem with strange QoS settings and routing around certain internet exchange hubs for sheer petty. Now replace a 64k/second realtime network multiplayer stream with an 8-16Mbit realtime stream for everybody.

Barrier 5: distributed power loads vs. Google central
20 million people turning on their Playstation after work at their home across Europe, that is the type spike to the power grid that the operators of power grids like. The equivalent of 20 million Playstations lighting up in a few dozens of places, that is not good. More importantly, that is not cheap for Google. As a home owner you may get charged for Kilowatts per Hour no matter what, as a big industrial park (which a Stadia center no doubt is), you will be judged by your peak and you shall stay within the limit of your announced peak or suffer dearly come the next billing period. Then again, buying a nuclear plant outright is an option Google has that normal industrial park operators do not have. With mass consumption of energy, comes the viability of entering the field of mass production of energy.

or maybe Stadia is just a front to plaster the globe with supercoputers and have some Google AI take over all financial markets in 20ms or less and take over the world. Why risk being put under tutelage by your kids, when you can build a machine to do it. Especially when you are 100% certain that a machine you build has better judgment than those kids.
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Dany Boolauck distributor 22 days ago
Three key elements in streaming that Stradia is obviously not taking into consideration:
- Latency
- Latency
- Latency
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