GDC is a show with a huge capacity to surprise, and while we didn't know the exact details of the biggest surprise this year, we have been fairly sure of its source for at least a month. As soon as Google's enigmatic email arrived in February, teasing a keynote of the sort it has never held at the San Francisco developer conference before, it has been clear that the tech giant was about to make a huge (and likely disruptive) stride into the games business.
At a stroke, the announcement that Phil Harrison had joined the company last year was cast in a new light. When Jade Raymond was also revealed as a new hire last week, anticipation levels had reached a rare pitch.
Last night, all was revealed -- well, perhaps not all, but definitely some. As the GamesIndustry.biz team discovered, an impressive demonstration of cloud gaming is not the only question that Google Stadia needs to answer.
I admit that some of what Google talked about for Stadia is very cool. Sharing your game state by way of a link? That's pretty awesome. Lowering the barriers to entry so AAA console games can target people who don't own expensive consoles? Something worth striving for. The establishment of Stadia Games and Entertainment, a first-party development studio led by Jade Raymond? It's a nice sign that Google is finally serious about its push into games.
"For many people the problem is their ISP plan or the infrastructure near their homes; they just don't have fast connections"
But there are a whole lot of "buts" here. For one thing, there's the tech. Google's presentation gave some suggestions why people might get better performance through its streaming technology than existing services, but did nothing to address some longstanding issues facing streaming technology.
For many people the problem is their ISP plan or the infrastructure near their homes; they just don't have fast connections, and that will not only shrink the addressable market but create bad word-of-mouth from those who gave Stadia a chance. And then there's the common critique that streaming may work fine for some games, but any kind of latency whatsoever would adversely affect titles that require consistent, precise inputs like fighters or rhythm games.
Beyond that, the two most common issues I expect to see brought up with Stadia are interconnected: the business model and the price. Given that the tech is worthless without games to play on it, I expect Google will try the business models publishers are already comfortable with. Buy a game a la carte for roughly the same price as other platforms, or subscribe to a Netflix-style service populated by indies and AAA catalogue titles.
Any kind of frontline AAA games will have to be made by Stadia Games and Entertainment, or come through deals Google makes on a product-by-product basis. If publishers become more comfortable with other models, then Google can adopt those as well. The question is if the business model is more or less similar to what players are being offered now, will Stadia's perks be enough to make it a preferable alternative?
Finally, in bigger picture concerns, I'm generally turned off by the pitch of building the platform around "watching games" as much as "making games." Social media and influencer culture seems so broken for both the creators and the audience these days that I'm not thrilled to see a major player like Google trying to tie it inextricably to the heart of the games industry before it has more credibility at trying to address the existing intractable problems it has produced.
In other words, do you really trust the people responsible for YouTube recommendation algorithms and comments to shape the ways game creators and their audiences interact in the future?
My tendencies as a boundless optimist may be a poor fit for big announcements like these, but seeing Google's promise (however squishy marketing speak it may be) of greater gaming accessibility makes me want to believe.
"There's a real possibility for such accessibility to address the dire need for greater industry diversity"
On paper, the idea that those who may not be able to afford pricey consoles or gaming PCs might partake in the biggest and most hardware-intensive releases more easily is a bright one. That's not just for the basic reason of broader audience sizes equating to more eyes on announcements, more word-of-mouth spread, and more units sold. There's a real possibility for such accessibility to, over time, play a role in addressing the dire need for greater industry diversity. With access to the industry's biggest titles regardless of expensive platform ownership, future developers, esports players, publishers, journalists, and others may discover a love of games from a title they would not have otherwise touched.
That's my wide-eyed, dreamy view. And I think if I were to look at any technology or gaming company with that level of optimism for this kind of work, it would be Google. More so than maybe any other tech company, Google has proved it has the resources and the knowledge to make Stadia work and work well enough to make money.
But realistically, there are still too many questions. One of the biggest unfilled blanks following the Stadia announcement is the platform's pricing model for software. How will Google monetise this technology after spending years putting it together? How will developers and publishers make money, and how will consumers be paying them that money? Will that model be radically different from than anything we've seen before, or the same old pricing models we've come to expect from hardware platforms and PC storefronts? Knowing Google's history, there's potential for new monetisation models centred around either advertising itself, or using instant gameplay from YouTube video as advertising, with revenue streaming from clicks or plays or views.
My colleagues have covered many potential issues, and to those I'll add one more: how does this announcement factor into the current PC storefront landscape? Google's Stadia isn't (so far) a storefront at all. But it is, alongside several other things, a PC platform through which users can access games. While Steam may have found a worthy opponent in the Epic Games Store, the ability to jump from YouTube video to a game with a single click perhaps eliminates the need for the storefront middle-man. How does Steam respond? Does Valve need to worry? Without seeing it in action, we cannot guess.
I don't think we'll be left hanging on these questions for long, though, and certainly not past E3 this year. The proof won't be in what features Google lists at these public events. The true test will be when the public -- and quite specifically the public in areas where ISP and income barriers are real -- get their hands on Stadia and report back on whether or Google has fulfilled its mission of accessibility.
"This is the kind of elastic, open future for gaming that I believe we should be working towards"
I'm not much of an optimist, but I can't deny that yesterday's demonstration of Google Stadia was impressive. Not so much the segment on Style Transfer, with its fluid switching of environmental aesthetics -- the true implications of that will be more easily grasped by a developer -- and definitely not the gee-whizz enthusiasm of the segment on YouTube and content creators, about which I harbour very similar concerns to my colleague Brendan.
But the moment where a single session on Assassin's Creed made a seamless transition from laptop, to mobile, to tablet, to high-definition television, with the time between single-click launch and active gameplay promised at five seconds or less? That's where Google had me in its grip. We all expected this announcement to be a cloud gaming service, and while there are a great many questions still to answer (there were always going to be), this is very much the technology I was hoping to see.
This is the kind of elastic, open future for gaming that I believe we should be working towards, regardless of whether every one of Google's promises can be fulfilled at launch. But let's be clear: I don't believe Google will fulfil every one of its promises at launch, or even within a year of launch. That doesn't make the potential of Stadia any less tantalising, but it's worth bearing in mind when Google hits the first of many bumps in the road.
How many people have the kind of internet connection to play Assassin's Creed: Odyssey in the way demonstrated onstage? Certainly not all the peoples of the world, which is the audience Google CEO Sundar Pichai claimed he wanted to reach in his opening statement. Will Stadia's business model suit game creators? I'm with Brendan that I expect a mix of existing options -- for consumers, at least -- but I don't see the standard price of a AAA title coming down by a single cent, despite the direct channel the platform could potentially open between publishers and players.
But the biggest question of all is whether Google will actually stick with Stadia on its inevitably uneven journey toward actually becoming what we saw on the GDC stage last night. This kind of technology will be absolutely integral to what the games business looks like in five years time, and we may only be months away from Microsoft making a similar public demonstration of its own platform.
"The ability to put a trailer on YouTube that links directly to a free live-streamed demo is potentially revolutionary"
If Google does persevere, then my concern is very much with PlayStation -- the market leader in the console market by a significant margin at present, but a market leader without the vast network of data centres necessary to be a real contender in what looks very much like the future of the games business. Amazon should be expecting Sony's call any minute now.
In contrast to E3, GDC has always been about the future of games. Not what's coming next, but what's coming after that.
In that sense, Google's press event was actually a triumph. It showed people what the future might look like, and it looked great -- from the service itself, to the development tools that it's making available. And this isn't some ambitious start-up like OnLive, but one of the most powerful companies on Earth. If Google says it's going to deliver a revolutionary streaming service, then that's probably what it's going to do.
There's always some scepticism when a company that isn't really a games company pledges to revolutionise the games industry. And when Google CEO Sundar Pichai rocks up and admits he doesn't really play games, it's not exactly the most endearing start. Fortunately, he did make way for more familiar faces in Phil Harrison and Jade Raymond. The former, of course, is well versed in both how to launch a games platform, and how not to launch a games platform. His experience here will prove invaluable.
As the rest of the team rightly observe, there are definitely questions around pricing and content. Are consumers going to spend $60 on streaming individual games? It seems unlikely. They might be inclined towards a Netflix-style subscription model, but you wouldn't expect the big AAA publishers to put their latest titles in there. Any subscription service will probably be a mix of exclusives and legacy games, and in that area you really would have to back Xbox and Project xCloud, considering its wealth of studios, back-catalogue content, and growing base of Game Pass subscribers.
The unique selling point for Google will likely be YouTube. Influencers selling content directly is hardly new. Twitch and Amazon have that connection, and Epic Games Store has its own influencer programme. But those still require consumers to move from one place to another, and wait for deliveries or for a download to complete. Stadia eradicates those barriers. Plus, from a marketers point-of-view, the ability to put a trailer on YouTube that links directly to a free live-streamed demo is potentially revolutionary.
But really, that's all in the future. PlayStation 5 will still arrive next year and be a huge hit. The question is what happens after that? And for game developers finishing off one game and beginning to think about their next five-year project, that's a question they'll need an answer for. Perhaps Google just supplied it.