Have we got Google Stadia all wrong? | Opinion

Google Stadia's focus should be on accessibility, not on subscription models or exclusives

Duncan fitted my kitchen.

He'd been in my house for about a week before we started talking video games, and he revealed to me his secret obsession with turn-based strategy games. He used to play big, complex PC strategy games in the 1990s. These days, he mostly just plays mobile free-to-play strategy titles. "They're not the same," he says. "But I don't have a gaming PC anymore."

I tried to convince him to get one. And he almost did, before he came to his senses. He wasn't going to splash out on an expensive computer just to play a new Total War game once a year.

Paula is my friend from school.

When we were kids, we used to play Doom a lot. She loved Doom. She lists it as one of her favourite things on Facebook. She really wants me to get Doom Eternal so we can play it together. She won't get it herself because she's not had a games console since her Xbox 360 suffered the Red Ring Of Death.

"The highest fidelity experience in gaming, for years, will be playing from a local device that has a direct connection to that television."

Phil Spencer, Xbox

When I think about Google Stadia, xCloud, PlayStation Now and all the other streaming platforms, I think of Duncan and Paula. Gamers, including myself, have no need for these services. Why would we? We've got more reliable consoles to play our games on, and probably will do for a while yet. It's a fact that Phil Spencer seemed to acknowledge with us at E3 last year.

"The highest fidelity experience in gaming, for years, will be playing from a local device that has a direct connection to that television, and a direct connection to your games," he said.

Game streaming isn't exciting because it gives console players a different platform to choose. It's exciting because it gives non-console players a way into the ecosystem without the barrier of having to buy expensive hardware. That's why publishers and developers are on-board with the idea.


Game streaming will have little appeal to core players

It's not just the Paulas and Duncans of the world that might be excited by cloud streaming. It's also markets like India and South Korea, which boast millions of gamers who largely don't own a console. Any audience where the console is a barrier to entry that's too big to overcome, Google Stadia and its competitors are the solution.

Bethesda's Pete Hines put it simply when we spoke to him last year:

"When you have folks who say: 'I'm never going to play Doom Eternal because I don't have a gaming PC and I'm not spending $400 for a console,' that's the end of the conversation. They're just not someone that I can reach out to for Doom Eternal. But if you know that on basically anything that has a screen you can suddenly stream a AAA, 60fps, 4K title, you're now a customer in a way that you simply hadn't been before.

"The number of people that applies to is hundreds of millions or billions. Now I'm not saying that everybody is going to convert to a $60 AAA consumer, but you're just opening yourself up to a lot more folks who don't have to jump through all the hoops of upgrading a PC all the time, or getting the new console, or paying for that big upfront cash outlay before the even buy a single game."

It's not that game streaming isn't going to interest core gamers at all. In fact, Xbox's plans to allow its console owners to stream their content to other devices so they can take their games with them will have some appeal (including the ability to put on glorified LAN parties). But it isn't the primary reason why the wider business is excited about the prospects of the technology. For them, it's about unlocking new gamers, not speaking to existing ones.

"If you know that on basically anything that has a screen you can suddenly stream a AAA, 60fps, 4K title, you're now a customer in a way that you simply hadn't been before."

Pete Hines, Bethesda

Of course, most industry professionals understand that. But when we're talking about attracting customers who are not (at least anymore) avid console players, you have to rethink what it takes to be successful. Some of the criticism that has befallen Google Stadia is entirely understandable, but some of it needs to be taken in the context of who the service is ultimately trying to attract.

Take the idea that Google Stadia needs exclusive content. When you consider the needs of Paula and Duncan, and the objective of making games accessible to a wider audience, why is exclusive content important?

Stadia-specific games may be needed to showcase the strengths of game streaming, and to help overcome the pitfalls. But Stadia's consumer appeal will come in its accessibility, not over whether there's a game on the service you can't get anywhere else. Exclusive content matters a lot more when you're choosing between an Xbox and a PlayStation. But if your customers are people who only want to play one or two major games every now and then, there's not so much pressure to put out a raft of exclusives every year.

A reason as to why exclusives might be important is if your business model is a subscription-based one. Yet currently that is not the focus for Stadia.

That brings us neatly onto another criticism of Stadia: the fact it charges full price for games, as opposed to a Netflix-style offering. Indeed, EA stated its belief that for game streaming to work, it needs to look to how the world of TV does it.

"We've seen in other forms of entertainment that cloud streaming has been most effective when partnered with the subscription model," said EA CTO Ken Moss in a chat with us last year.

But again, although $60 for a game is likely to be prohibitive to Paula and Duncan, it's arguably more palatable than having to pay $10 a month to access a catalogue of games they don't want to play. Outside of the most hardcore players, how many games does the average person play in a year? Games are huge and expansive and ever-evolving in a way linear media isn't. You can't binge Assassin's Creed in a day like you can Stranger Things.

The subscription option may be exciting to gamers, but if you're someone who couldn't justify the cost of a console because you wouldn't use it enough, how are you going to justify spending a monthly fee to access hundreds of games?

Indeed, the business model around game streaming is going to require some testing. Not just to find out what is reasonable to Duncan, but also to work out how to monetise traditional console content in territories where the free-to-play business model tends to be dominant.

Any form of hardware is a barrier to entry for game streaming

Any form of hardware is a barrier to entry for game streaming

Ultimately, Google's priorities -- and those of the other cloud streaming platforms -- is to make its system as frictionless and accessible as possible. Business model is a big one, as is the input device... The fact that players need a controller is a barrier to entry that will need to be overcome.

Google already allows most controllers to work with Stadia. And Microsoft announced last year that it has added DualShock 4 compatibility to xCloud, which is significant when you consider that controller is in the homes of 100 million people worldwide. Microsoft says it's also working on getting touch controls operational so people can game using their smartphones. This will prove vital in opening game streaming up even further, and Google will be looking at that, too.

Of course, if Google's aim is to reach non-console gamers, it's not done an especially good job of it so far. You could argue that it's not quite ready to start pushing the service far and wide just yet. And indeed, it has an ace card to play in the form of YouTube. If gamers can truly, easily, play a game demo by clicking a button on a YouTube video, that could potentially unlock a massive audience. And an audience that Google's third-party partners will be eager to advertise to and help unlock.

Yet it's all potential for now. How many Paulas and Duncans are there in the world? Will non-console markets be willing to pay to access premium console content? Just how big is this market for Google and how long will it take to reach them?

These are questions that won't be answered at the launch of a service, or even six months in. These answers will only start to emerge when the real big games start to appear, and their publishers begin to advertise them to everyone who has the right internet connection. And not just those who have the right machine.

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Latest comments (12)

James Barnard Founder / Developer, Springloaded9 months ago
I couldn't agree more, I believe that long term, stadia or something like it will dominate the entire industry. Even for hardcore players, convenience is a pretty hard thing to resist.

Also, by long term, I think it's less far away than a lot of people think.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development9 months ago
Even for hardcore players, convenience is a pretty hard thing to resist.
Not a chance.

Gamers who are ready to spend £1,000s on a rig and £100s for peripherals you can get for a fiver on Amazon gameplay advantages and smoother play arenot going to settle with an additional 30-100ms of lag for a supposed convenience. Lag becomes insanely inconvenient because it basically means you're dead for online gaming, or a half second off the pace in a racing game.

It will never happen unless the lag is at least as good for games requiring fast reaction times.

But there are lots of genres that are perfect for it as well as new genres that don't yet exist but would only work with streaming.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 7th February 2020 8:49pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher 9 months ago
Bandwidth is going to be another serious constraint - look into the requirements of what Stadia actually needs in order to stream, even without 4k.

I hope this does well, but I disagree that it's going to happen quickly.
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Show all comments (12)
Jerry Liu Sales Analytics Manager, Sony PlayStation9 months ago
Obviously I am biased but I have to say that I chuckle when the author mentions the possibilities of 3rd world countries like India for Stadia. Because that is a place where the average wifi speeds are less than 5 mbps with significant penalties for going past data caps. Just ask Netflix how things are going for their 4K content if you don't believe me.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University9 months ago
I don't really see Paula forking over $50 for a controller and $60 for Doom Eternal plus whatever other costs she might need (like the device to receive the stream plus whatever fee Stadia charges on top of it.) To me the reason she wants you to buy the game is because she doesn't want to pay anything to play it and also playing it together in the same room is a social experience.

I also don't buy the Duncan example much. I don't think you need a big gaming pc to play a turn-based strategy pc game. If a person has a decent laptop which I assume one does if they have high speed internet, I imagine they can play a turn-based strategy game. Also I imagine if there was a big market for that customer then turn based strategy games would have already been made to play well on older laptops.

And like was said above, who has high speed internet and can't afford a console? The two go hand in hand. Consoles are $200 too in the US. They might be $400 at launch. But the PS4 has been $200 at xmas with games bundled in for 4-5 years now. Xbox One has been ~$150 with games for many years as well at xmas time.

I also think the game execs are overestimating how many are interested in the $60 AAA games outside of the current market. I think some of the people they want to reach consider those games too much work to get into and too time consuming.

Then there's the question of the experience. EVen a turn-based game is probably going to suffer being played over the cloud. I mean I played Civilization back in the day. I can't imagine giving orders to every little unit late game and having to wait for a response from the cloud after every command. That would get old. And that's turn-based games. FAst action games? Doom Eternal? I don't know. AS I like to say, Netflix can buffer. GAmes can't.

And then I can't imagine the experience of shoe horning a AAA game onto a smartphone screen. That to me smells like junk. And no one is going to want to pay $60 plus buy a controller etc and get junk in return.

I'm just not believing in cloud gaming in general. Especially in the short term. Maybe in 10 years or more.....

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 8th February 2020 3:33am

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James Barnard Founder / Developer, Springloaded9 months ago
@Keldon Alleyne: I think "never" is a bit strong, and maybe I wasn't clear enough. Sure I want to watch bladerunner with 5.1 surround on a giant screen in 4K ultra HD, but for most things I can't be bothered. And I apply the same logic to games, only once or twice a year a game comes out that I need to "experience", the rest I can just play pretty casually.

To me GTA5 was a game I kind of wanted to play, I eventually got it on sale, didnt install it for 4 months because I didnt have any drive space on my PS4 pro. When I finally did, I enjoyed it, but I made slow progress eventually I made the decision to clear the space of my drive to play something else despite only playing GTA for a few hours. I will probably never play it again, if I could press "play now" on my entire PS4 library, there would be a lot more things I would play, and a bit of latency would probably not bother me all that much in the end vs the convenience.

All the talk about bandwidth etc, I dont really get it, cisco has some pretty interesting predictions about the future, and even if you go to a mainstream site like speedtest ( you can see the worst improvement globally in the last 12 months was 25% while the best was 60%.

15 years ago, you tube didnt exist, and even when it did the quality was pretty bad, the idea of streaming HD movies to our homes is startlingly new given the historical timeline of the internet, So I think Stadia is just preparing for a future that is almost certainly coming, and sooner than people think. I am amazed that so few developers see things like I do.

What all this means for the industry (especially once they start subscriptions) is a whole different discussion of probably darkness, but that's not my point!
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz9 months ago
@Jerry Liu: India will receive 5G in 2022. Obviously, this isn't happening overnight, but actually a lot of developing countries are jumping further ahead with its broadband infrastrucure. PUBG highlights the potential for console games in india, if they can somehow crack the business model.
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz9 months ago
@Bob Johnson: I never said they can't afford a console. It's a case of justifying one.

Indeed, the $50 business model and need for a controller is a big obstacle for game streaming (as I said in the article).

I've got a MacBook and a notebook and neither can play Civ 6 or XCOM 2.
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 9 months ago
@Christopher Dring: Hi Christopher, I'm just wondering what "5G" would really do for any economy - let alone that of a (infrastructure-wise) developing country?

After all, we've had line-of-sight microwave communication for decades (in private networks) and more recently even with internet solutions. These can reach the speeds of 5G and have really good latency and distance (much farther than 5G).

As far as I can see it, 5G has severely limited application (from a technical standpoint) and it appears to mainly being pushed as a way to get consumers to upgrade their devices as a gimmick, rather than as a benefit. Most of the solutions 5G claims to address are already covered by existing technologies on the market, at much lower cost.

Considering all this and the cost of investment both on the commercial and consumer side, I don't see how anything "5G" would transform markets like India which haven't already been able (or willing) to invest in their infrastructure using the previously available technologies...

I mean, 5G can't even penetrate walls or human bodies (when far enough from the station) so how, exactly, will it help with 4K streaming? If it's too expensive to put 4G wireless/microwave stations on every housing unit as a primary connection to the backbone, then it's damnned well going to be prohibitively expensive to do it with 5G.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 10th February 2020 6:58am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 months ago
$1000 monthly payment on house: sure
$500 car leasing: sign me up
$1200 latest iPhone: absolute necessity
$2000 75 Inch OLED: you bet
$400 console or $1000 gaming PC for yourself: too much money.
$400 console or $1000 gaming PC for your kid: here you go.

Could it be that it is not about the price and still about what you think you project? Could it be that people over a certain age still have more of an image problem than a price point problem. Which could also explain why Stadia is marketing action games harder than nostalgia baiting strategy titles, whose round based or slow real time based structure is technically the better fit.
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Daniel Indie Game Dev 9 months ago
@Klaus Preisinger
While I wouldn't disagree with your suggestion that people of a certain age group care about image almost more than anything, which probably warrants an entirely different discussion in itself, I'd say Stadia is probably advertising the action games hardest because it has a bit of a chip on its shoulder about what is feasible/enjoyable with this technology.
From their perspective (and I think the market generally agrees with this sentiment), if as a result of latency Stadia is only really good for slower, non-real-time games, and especially not multiplayer games, then it doesn't really offer anything to consumers at all. Despite what Christopher Dring has said, anyone with a laptop can run these types of games on lowest settings no problem, they don't strain hardware at all. If they don't strain the hardware, what's the point in renting that hardware when the laptop you're streaming it from is perfectly capable of running the game anyway.
Stadia's primary mission, its raison d'être, is to bring AAA experiences to a wider audience. If it can't show that the most popular AAA titles (fast paced, multiplayer, usually shooters) are fully enjoyable on the platform then it has failed. That's why they're so eager to demonstrate these games that require low input lag. Unfortunately, Stadia failed at this primary mission anyway when so many other issues (not just the input lag, which in some cases isn't that bad) got in the way. It could have worked somewhere like Korea, and it probably could still work out there if they keep working on it and iron out the other issues (first of all, make Stadia compatible with phones other than Pixel), but it's not going to be on the scale that Google needs or wants it to be.
Ultimately, Stadia failed. At this point it amounts to nothing more than a Google vanity project.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Daniel on 11th February 2020 9:12am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 months ago

In my opinion, the self imposed limit of this iteration of Stadia can be observed not by which Ubisoft game is on the list, but by which game is missing: Anno 1800. That is one game you rather stream in 4k than suffer through on low settings on your laptop.

The defining weakpoint of Stadia is its willingness to put the controller at the center of the control scheme. Because if there is a surefire way to make everybody feel the limitations of lag, it is giving people a joypad and some action games. While Nintendo can be too gimmicky at times and dial it back, Google was way too conservative on this one. In an effort to race to the bottom on price, they were stranded with an $5 joypad and all that it entails. But it was also a fast solution to implement.

I bet, a few eye candy strategy games played on your TV, but controlled with your mobile phone would have sold a lot more people on the experience. By all means, keep the controller as well, but as long as input lag is what it is, directing all the attention on twitch action games is suicidal.

I argue, twitch action games, while popular on console, are not the end all be all for that mystical broader mainstream home audience. They were not on mobile, so why should it be different on streaming. One look at Netflix, Prime, Disney+ and all the others and one can see that there is a lot of slow paced TV shows and not a lot high adrenaline action.

I bet Microsoft Flight Simulator will be the most played game on Microsoft's streaming service and not just for a week or two.
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