Google Stadia. It will launch in November. Have you heard of it? You most likely did if you’re an avid gamer and/or gaming industry observer, but don’t feel too bad otherwise if you didn’t. Here is where Google Stadia problems begin, and why I’m strongly inclined to believe it will fail, at least at launch: it’s mistargeting its message, and it’s making it extremely confusing and convoluted to follow and understand for those it should be aming at. But let’s put it all into context first...
What is Google Stadia?
Google Stadia is, essentially, the natural progression of past game streaming services like OnLive and Gaikai (both ended up being bought by Sony and a lot of their patents and know-how were applied to Sony’s PlayStation Now service), and is setting itself up to compete in what should be the next great videogame wars: game streaming! Both Microsoft (with xCloud and Xbox Game Pass) and Sony (with the aforementioned PlayStation Now) have been preparing for the console-less future, and persistent rumors of Amazon eventually getting in the game keep floating, while Netflix has also started to dip its toes into game production. Nvidia has been present in this domain for a while since they first released their Shield tablet, and their service is currently called GeForce Now (and yes, insert whatever rumors you heard about Apple as well, sure). What we now know is that all these companies believe that, if not all, at least a big portion of the gaming business will be digital and cloud/streaming-based in the near future, and they have been preparing for it, diligently.
Why will it fail?
Google Stadia is, arguably, the first “big player” to explicitly enter the arena as a streaming-only gaming platform! No strings attached! The future is here! It’s all digital from now on! Right? Except...Google is also producing and selling hardware for Stadia. And it’s not actually a one-subscription paid service like many would assume (à la Netflix). Their messaging so far as been alarmingly confusing, and even after 3 official presentations (at GDC 2019 in March, E3 in June, and most recently at Gamescom in August), it’s fair to say most people still don’t quite understand what Stadia is, and who is it aiming at exactly.
Unlike Netflix (and most other media entertainment streaming services people have become accustomed too), with Google Stadia you won’t be paying a monthly fee to get instant access to an expansive catalog of games. Instead, you will have to pay for most individual games you want to play. Full price! Will you own the games? No, but let’s not even open the “content ownership” can of worms for now. So what’s the advantage? You don’t need to buy a gaming machine to play games. Granted, that’s a big selling point for people who don’t traditionally buy gaming consoles and/or gaming PCs. However, there’s a reason why people buy these machines, and why they exist in the first place: performance fidelity (and lack of a viable alternative, of course).
Let the confusion set-in...
But while Stadia is not exclusively a paid subscription-based service, there are indeed premium subscription-based services available. “Stadia Pro” will be available for $9,99 a month, and it will enable 4K streaming at 60fps (shouldn’t that be available for anyone with sufficient broadband to support it?) 5.1 surround sound, plus include a few free games from time to time and discounts for other games - you will still need to pay full price for most individual games. Also, Ubisoft Uplay+ (streaming service from Ubisoft) will be available with/through (?) Stadia, at $14.99 a month and includes most recent and upcoming Ubisoft games. EA Access (EA’s streaming service) might also be available, but still not officially confirmed.
On the other hand, Google will be selling (separately) its own wireless controllers, although most third party ones will also be compatible with the service, allegedly. Oh, and did I mention the “Founders Edition”? The “Founders Edition” is exclusively available on the Google Store, costs $129, and includes a Chromecast Ultra (yes, you will need one of those “chromecast things” if you plan to play your games on a TV), a limited edition controller, 3 months of “Stadia Pro” for free for you and a friend, a game of your choice, and Destiny 2(that’s another game by the way).
Is there any way to access Stadia for free? Yes, with the “Stadia Base” subscription which will allow you to buy and stream games (up to 1080p at 60fps, with stereo sound) on any compatible devices (smartphones, tablets, computers, smartTVs, “regular” TVs with necessary add-ons...). Let all that information sink in for a while, and if you feel so inclined, do some math about what the real annual costs would be for the Pro service (roughly $120).
Who is Stadia for?
Stadia’s big selling point is, in my opinion, being able to play AAA games (and more) without having to own a gaming PC or gaming console. That in itself is pretty appealing and would be reason enough to get most people excited...except anyone who is even slightly familiar with past gaming streaming services and those who privilege a stable performance while playing their games. Those who do (core gamers, or at least mildly well informed consumers) would probably prefer to continue owning their own hardware and playing the fully optimized experience without having to worry about lag, and other annoyances/compromises. But even for those, the appeal is there, if only Google could guarantee the experience could hold up, which it realistically can’t for now (plus, you still can’t get 4K on Stadia without paying for “Stadia Pro”, which puts the free service in disadvantage when compared to consoles and PC).
So, Stadia really is for those who don’t care so much about visual and performance fidelity (even if Google wants you to believe the experience will be seamless), don’t own dedicated gaming machines (either because they can’t afford it, or it’s not a high enough priority), but are still interested in AAA games and willing to pay full price for those said games. Who is this target consumer exactly? It’s the in-between consumer. Not the super casual, not the core gamer (definitely not the hardcore gamer), not for the granny or the “soccer mom” who wants to gift some games to the kids at Christmas (they have no idea what Stadia is, and Google has not been targeting them at all), not the mobile gamer, not the competitive online gamer. It’s for that kind of consumer who buys 2 or 3 titles a year and dedicates gaming time to those only, while remaining mostly oblivious to whatever is happening in the gaming industry. The average/casual FIFA player, the Call of Duty player, the Madden player, the Mortal Kombat player, etc. The problem is, this kind of consumer, for the most part, has no idea Stadia even exists or what it is because Google has been introducing Stadia almost exclusively at gaming-centric venues and events!
What Stadia Should Be!
My first instinct when I heard of Stadia was “Oh, this will be great for big untapped markets, like India and China, Latin America, Russia, Indonesia...”. But that was when I assumed Stadia would be a one paid-subscription service that would allow users to stream and play all the games supported by Stadia, at no additional cost. Having to pay $60 for each game will certainly remain a big impediment for consumers in those markets. And for the more “mature markets” (North America, Europe, Japan...) Stadia just sounds like a very hard sell at the moment.
And before anyone starts saying “China! China!”, remember Google is banned in China, so Stadia won’t be an option in the country, and local giant Tencent already started its own similar service...
What Google Stadia should be is a solution. Instead, it’s creating solutions for problems that don’t exist, all wrapped in a very confusing and mistargeted message. Stadia should be simple: a paid subscription service allowing its users to stream content at no additional cost across all compatible devices. Nothing more, nothing less. Instead, Google is targeting the core gaming audience with a service that overall comes across as just a whole lot of compromises and more effort than it’s worth. And that is why Stadia will fail at launch: because the audience Stadia is targeting doesn’t care about it, and the audience Stadia should be targeting has no idea the service is even a thing, for now.
To be clear, I do believe streaming is the inevitable future of gaming (and digital content distribution in general), and I do think Stadia has a very good chance of establishing itself as one of the big players in the market (if not the biggest). Just not on the short term. It’s a long term investment, and granted, Google (and all the others I mentioned) are wise to start building the foundations as quickly as possible...