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Google needs to think smaller about games streaming | Opinion

Stadia should never have been billed as a major console rival

There's going to be a lot of criticism directed at Google way over the next few days from the games industry.

And not without good reason. The company announced it would be making video games, hired an industry luminary in Jade Raymond, brought in some 150 talented folks from around the world, and then subsequently closed it after barely getting started. lt turns out making games is costly, time consuming and really hard to do, who knew?

Anyone who has been in games any length of time could have predicted it. I've lost count of the number of tech and entertainment giants who saw games as a 'real opportunity', hired an industry veteran, flew them around the world, and then upon seeing the bill decided 'to go in another direction'. Microsoft and Warner Bros are notable exceptions, and even they had their moments.

The dream for game streaming is big. Perhaps even too big. The idea of being able to play any game on any device anywhere, unlocking audiences in every region of the world and opening up high-end gaming experiences to those who were previously unable to access them. It's a huge opportunity for everyone making and publishing games. But that dream is years and years, decades even, away. It's notable that both Xbox and PlayStation, two of the bigger players in streaming (the latter of which has been doing it for over six years) play down the immediate impact of these services. As Xbox chief Phil Spencer says, the best way to play his company's games is on the Xbox Series X, not xCloud.

"Google made a statement with its flash GDC presentation -- it's in the games market, and it's going to be making some changes"

Stadia was far more bullish, or at least appeared to be. Although Google exec Phil Harrison acknowledged that "the whole world isn't going to shift to that new model overnight", the firm had made a statement of intent with its flash GDC presentation -- Google is now in the games market, and it's going to be making some changes. This was the future of console gaming.

But after two years, it's not clear how it plans to build to that future. Going from nobody streaming to everyone is quite the leap. At that very GDC, Google announced it had hired Raymond to build a games studio and make exclusive Stadia games. If Google thought exclusives were important to Stadia (which, for the record, I don't), then why didn't they start building products earlier? Can you imagine Nintendo unveiling a console and then saying 'oh, and we'll start making games for it soon'? It seemed half-hearted from the beginning and as if they weren't quite sure what it would take to get people playing. That still seems to be the case now.

Stadia's promise is that it could unlock new markets and audiences. Yet the first product it launched targeted existing core gamers in Western markets. Perhaps it was the easiest thing to start with, but it didn't help Stadia's cause. The media immediately dismissed it, because it wasn't as good or as reliable as a games console. Google's main audience for Stadia was always those who don't own dedicated gaming device, which is an audience that's almost impossible to quantify at this stage. It's a risky play, but if there's a company that has the money and patience to get there, it's someone like Google.

Google Stadia made a big launch at GDC 2019

The BBC recently uploaded a retro news report from 1997 about the launch of the N64 in the UK. An analyst in that report predicted that console games will decline in the near future and that online gaming was about to transform the industry forever. The analyst was correct (well, for that last part) but about ten years too early. The games industry was doing cool things with online multiplayer by the year 2000, but it took years and years of educating players, developing new ideas, and expanding services before it fundamentally changed the business. Even by the launch of Xbox One in 2013, the idea of a device that had to be connected to the internet was roundly rejected by players (another painful memory for Phil Harrison).

"Stadia should never have been billed as a rival to the console establishment but a potential partner"

Games streaming can expect a similar journey. Today, services like Stadia should be about the gaps where the technology might unlock a small opportunity or a new audience. The recent release of Hitman 3 on Switch is a nice example. Switch is the biggest console on the planet right now, but its technology was old when it launched, it's just not capable of running big PlayStation and Xbox games. In the years gone by, the Switch audience would have been a market that publishers like IO Interactive wouldn't be able to talk to. But because of streaming, there is an opportunity to speak to at least some of them. It's not perfect, it's perhaps too pricey, but it's a solution that opens the game up to more players. As time goes on, as new Switch models come out and internet infrastructure improves further, there's an opportunity for a profitable little streaming business to evolve on a device like Switch. It's an affordable way for publishers to reach a different group of players.

It's not just about widening the business, but offering more options to existing players, too. Xbox owners can use xCloud to stream their games to other devices, so they can visit a friend's house and jump into their games, or take their console on holiday without taking up room in the luggage. It's a small thing, but it's a genuine benefit that would introduce games streaming technology to people who previously had no need for it.

These are the potentially small but useful roles games streaming can have today. And it's from this point that you can slowly educate players, develop new ideas, unlock new markets, bring in new people... and one day, that ultimate streaming dream can become a reality. It just takes patience and modest short-term ambitions to get there.

Google's decision to exit game development makes them look ridiculous, and hurts a lot of people, but it was over-ambitious from the start. Stadia should never have been billed as a rival to the console establishment but a potential partner. If the company is sincere about continuing, it ought to forget about that ultimate dream for now, and look at the small ways it can improve things for the business today.

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who