[As Google readies to debut its cloud-based game platform Google Stadia, Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft shares hands-on impressions of what it's like to use the nascent service ahead of its November 19 launch date, and weighs in on how Google's offering stacks up against more established platforms and streaming services.]
Google Stadia works great. But the technical side of game streaming might have been the "easiest" problem to solve when it comes to Stadia's overall acceptance and success.
So let's get this out of the way: Stadia's streaming technology, as I experienced it through the Founder's Edition review kit I received, exhibits the most solid, lowest latency, high-end cloud gaming experience yet. I haven't gotten a chance to test out Microsoft's xCloud yet, but compared to PlayStation Now, and even my own in-home streaming, Stadia outperforms on speed and visuals.
Is Stadia the same as playing a locally-installed game? No, it's not. Naturally there is more latency due to the time it takes for information to travel to and from data centers and sometimes there are hints of compression in the visuals.
But Stadia's latency is virtually imperceptible even in faster-paced games like Mortal Kombat 11 and Destiny 2 when playing hardwired to the internet on a Chromecast Ultra on a TV. Latency over wifi on a phone and a laptop via Chrome browser was similarly minimal, though there were some hitches depending on the quality of your wifi signal. There probably won't be twitchy professional game tournaments happening over Stadia any time soon, but for most games, Stadia is more than responsive enough.
For these kinds of network-dependent services, it's important I lay out what Stadia was running on in my home. I have AT&T's 1GB fiber service, and am able to hardline Stadia directly. I've yet to invest in a 4K television (a crime in my line of work, I know), so my resolution is maxed out at 1080p even though the Chromecast Ultra, which facilitates the Stadia connection on TVs, can handle 4K. The review kit included a Chromecast Ultra, Stadia controller, Pixel 3a XL phone and a phone mount for the controller.
I don't have data logs that would show what kind of latency I was clocking, but I will say for me, even though I was trying to remain aware of it while playing games like Destiny 2 on Stadia, there were plenty of times -- most of the time, really -- where my attention turned toward actually playing the game. I simply wasn't thinking about how this was streaming from some far-off data center. Most people wouldn't be able to tell that they were playing remotely. If you handed me a controller that was playing a streamed Stadia game, I probably would just assume it was locally installed. There really is some Google streaming voodoo happening here.
Part of Premiere Edition [$129 - inc. controller, Chromecast Ultra, 3 mos. Stadia Pro]
Three months included in Premiere Edition.
Resolution: Up to 4K
Frame rate: 60 FPS
Sound: 5.1 surround sound
Buy games whenever you want: Yes
Additional free games released regularly: Yes, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection
Stadia Pro-exclusive discounts on select game purchases: Yes
Coming next year
Resolution: Up to 1080p
Frame rate: 60 FPS
Buy games whenever you want: Yes
Additional free games released regularly: No
Stadia Pro-exclusive discounts on select game purchases: No
Wifi via Chromecast on a TV, and wifi via Pixel, were similarly good experiences, particularly for someone who is blessed with fast internet. When near my router with a 100 percent connection, the experience was close to that of a wired connection. When further away using a wireless connection (about two-thirds connection strength), games were completely playable, but skipped now and again. Of course, as with all streaming services, your mileage with vary depending on the quality of your connection.
Destiny 2 was the game that I played most, as it was one of the faster-paced games in the Stadia's slim review library in which latency would be more noticeable. I was able to play several multiplayer strikes with real people, and it was just as fun as any time I had with Destiny 2 on non-streaming platforms.
Loading speeds for games were notably faster on Stadia than on Xbox One X or my (aging) PC. One can tell that there is some monstrous computing happening on the other side of the network to make that happen. Stadia does deliver on the promise to streamline the effort that it takes to get into a game. Whereas you can almost feel the network spooling up to stream games on PS Now, Stadia is practically instantaneous, and switching between screens (TV to phone to Chrome browser and back) is seamless. Framerates for me were a steady 60 fps for Destiny 2, making the Stadia version a smoother experience than on an Xbox One X with a local install (Destiny 2 runs at 30 fps on an Xbox One X).
The gamepad build quality is standard fare, which to be honest, is a pretty high bar to achieve judging by some of the mediocre third-party controllers we often see. The Stadia controller is most comparable in layout and feel to the DualShock 4, which is a good thing. It charges via USB and has a (currently non-functioning) Google Assistant button and a screenshot and video share button that sends images directly to the phone app, which is a nice feature. Google touted that the controller connects to servers via wifi, and that innovation seems to contribute to the low latency I experienced.
The controller is wireless when playing via the Chromecast, but if you want to play Stadia through a PC or phone, you'll need a USB cable, which is a wonky but hopefully short-term solution.
The smartphone app is barebones and currently you can only stream Stadia games to Pixel phones, though the app is available on iOS and Android. Everything is connected to the Gmail account you associate with Stadia. TV setup is just a matter of downloading the Google Home and Stadia apps and connecting to a Stadia-supporting Chromecast -- though the Stadia team noted in a recent Reddit AMA that Chromecast Ultra's currently out in the wild will only have Stadia support "soon" after launch following an update.
There are other features that will be missing at launch which Google hyped quite extravagantly when it unveiled Stadia earlier this year. The link-based features State Share and Crowd Play -- touted as defining, game-changing features of the Stadia platform -- will not be available at launch. Stream Connect, the compelling multiplayer screen sharing feature on Stadia, won't be available at launch but Google said it will arrive by the end of this year. Other features are also going to miss the launch date.
These are important features in the long-term and if you haven't noticed yet, this sounds a lot like a paid early access or beta launch, which it essentially is. But the absence of these features at launch isn't the biggest challenge facing the Stadia.
It works. So now what?
It's easy to forget how far game streaming has come in the past decade. OnLive was announced exactly 10 years before Stadia, also at GDC. The issue back then was "does it work?" And that's kind of the same question that is at the forefront of the Stadia launch: "does it offer a similar game experience to locally-installed video games."
For OnLive, the question was appropriate because it was such a nascent technology (the answer was "no, it didn't work so great"). For Stadia the question is still important -- and the answer is "yes, it works." But as exciting as that affirmation should be, once we get above that bar of basic functionality, as magical as it is, then what? Well, now we have to talk about boring, non-magical yet exceedingly important stuff like pricing models, content offerings, user experience, and overall value.
Stadia Launch Games Pricing
Assassin's Creed Odyssey -
$59.99$30.00 Stadia Pro Deal
Gylt - $29.99
Just Dance 2020 - $49.99
Kine - $19.99
Mortal Kombat 11 -
$59.99$41.99 Stadia Pro Deal
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Launch Edition - $59.99
Samurai Shodown - $59.99
Thumper - $19.99
Shadow of the Tomb Raider - $59.99
Rise of the Tomb Raider - $29.99
Tomb Raider 2013 -
$19.99$10.00 Stadia Pro Deal
Final Fantasy XV -
$39.99$29.99 Stadia Pro Deal
Assassin's Creed Odyssey Stadia Ultimate Edition -
$119.99- $60.00 Stadia Pro Deal
Mortal Kombat 11 Premium Edition -
$89.99$62.99 Stadia Pro Deal
Red Dead Redemption 2 Special Edition - $79.99
Red Dead Redemption 2 Ultimate Edition - $99.99
Now that we're able to acknowledge that Stadia basically works, it will be measured against other game subscription services. That's where the competition lies going forward. Does Stadia Pro for $9.99 a month offer the kind of products, services, and perks that competing, established options currently offer? The answer right now, unsurprisingly, is no. Even Stadia's key feature -- low-latency cloud gaming that you can access from any screen -- is going to be further challenged with Microsoft's Project xCloud and continuing evolution of Sony's PS Now. Having streaming tech that works great may not be a distinguishing feature for much longer.
For consumers then, it's about that monthly payment, and what you get for that. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo (we'll mention Nintendo although it isn't into cloud-based game tech yet) have those deep partnerships with publishers and game makers, and also own their own development studios. Microsoft can come out with a new first-party blockbuster-level game and release it as part of Xbox Game Pass. Sony can do the same if they choose to on its own subscription plans. Google can't do that yet. The company recognizes the value of Stadia-exclusive, internally-developed games (after all, Stadia boss Phil Harrison worked at both Microsoft and Sony as a game exec) and has founded one studio, but who knows when those games will launch.
This is a content problem, and it's one that won't go away any time soon. Harrison himself acknowledged that publishers aren't yet willing to go all-in on streaming. A Stadia Pro subscription will get customers a discount on some streaming games, and Google plans on regularly adding "free" playable games for subscribers, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection. But right now, Stadia Pro users will pay $9.99 a month and still need to buy most games at a normal retail price (
at launch, there will only be 12 games Google announced Sunday night that it would add 10 more games to the launch lineup). The $9.99 isn't really for the content -- it's for the ability to play games "anywhere." Google plans on releasing a Stadia base plan that's free, with limited features, sometime next year.
Stadia's full day one lineup
1. Assassin's Creed Odyssey
2. Attack on Titan: Final Battle 2
3. Destiny 2: The Collection (available in Stadia Pro)
4. Farming Simulator 2019
5. Final Fantasy XV
6. Football Manager 2020
7. Grid 2019
9. Just Dance 2020
11. Metro Exodus
12. Mortal Kombat 11
13. NBA 2K20
14. Rage 2
15. Rise of the Tomb Raider
16. Red Dead Redemption 2
17. Samurai Shodown (available in Stadia Pro)
18. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
20. Tomb Raider 2013
21. Trials Rising
22. Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Do people want to pay for a subscription service whose value proposition is 'you can play games anywhere that has a decent internet connection'? And why would people want to pay for another subscription when similarly-priced plans are (or will be) bolstered by exclusive content, larger libraries that are playable at no extra cost, and the option for local installs? Can a streaming service be worthy of standing on its own, as opposed to a supplemental feature of a more expansive and fleshed out service like Game Pass? Google is in a position where it's leaping right over this transitionary period that Microsoft and Sony are catering to, and going straight to "everything is in the cloud," and it'll be interesting to see how people react to that.
And we should acknowledge that no matter how well streaming tech itself works, for the foreseeable future there will be a swath of the video game audience who prefers physical games, or ones that are locally installed. There's a psychological aspect there where people want to feel ownership of stuff, and cloud-based libraries will never be able to address that. I do think that people will get over this like they have with movies, books, music, and for that matter, digital, locally-installed games.
Long road ahead
With Stadia, Google has essentially earned its way into a subscription war with other more established platforms. When the novelty of the tech wears off -- and it wears off fairly quickly -- you're left with a subscription service that will be compared to those of other platforms. Right now, the other platforms offer more of everything.
And of course Google understands that. It's still extremely early days. The hours I spent with Stadia were enjoyable. It's just interesting how over the past week or so, I went from the excitement of "wow this actually works!" to realizing how that won't be enough. I like the idea of a high quality streaming service like Stadia and the convenience it affords. It would bring games to so many more people by bringing down the barrier of entry for PC and console games that require expensive hardware. And I'm interested to see what kind of exclusive games come out of Google that fully utilize everything that Stadia is capable of, and how being able to share games with a hyperlink might change game marketing. That's not to mention I like the idea of popping a Chromecast and controller in my bag, and having that be my traveling game system.
The foundation is very solid, but there's still a long road ahead for Stadia. Now that Google has shown the next evolution of a streaming games service, it'll need to deliver the games and value to become a competitive factor in the games market.