The concept of streaming content to a device, obviously, isn’t new. Music companies like Pandora and Spotify found a way to bring your favorite music to you on any device years ago. Meanwhile, Netflix found a way to deliver TV and film content at high-quality resolutions to phones, tablets, TVs, game consoles and more. It was only a matter of time until game streaming became a primary focus within the industry. That isn’t to say there haven’t been attempts (i.e., Onlive, Gaikai, GeForce Now), but there have always been obstacles, including latency, bandwidth speeds, lack of content and general availability. These are all obstacles Google aims to jettison with its entry into the games industry, Stadia.
A cloud-streaming gaming platform, Stadia’s pitch is that you can take any of your devices and play your games immediately. No hardware, no downloads and no extended load times. It was an ambitious vision that Google unveiled back at GDC 2019 and now it’s time to see if Google has executed on that vision. Does Google Stadia change the way we play and interact with our games, or does it fall short?
Yes. In an age where services and games launch in fundamentally broken states, Stadia stands out as a rare product that just works. The idea is simple. Google hosts powerful data centers that power the game. You, meanwhile, tap into those centers to stream the game to your screen. The data centers handle all the processing power and you get the end result, as long as you have a powerful enough internet connection.
There are three ways to play Stadia, through the Chrome Browser on a PC, through a Chromecast on a TV, or straight to a mobile device. Through the use of the Stadia app, players can immediately switch between any compatible screens. For the most part, it’s a smooth feature that makes taking the experience on-the-go easy and painless. Not all modes of play, however, are equal.
Playing on a laptop or desktop through the Chrome browser offers the best experience despite some drawbacks. Capped at 1080p, the Chrome experience doesn’t provide the same visual flair as the TV option, but it’s far more accessible. Whether playing on a high-end gaming desktop or a low-powered laptop, Stadia just works and it allows you to play how you want to. In addition to the Stadia Controller, the Chrome option allows for mouse and keyboard support alongside support for third-party controllers.
Playing on a TV is the next best option, but a tiresome setup process makes it a hassle, especially if you want to take your Chromecast someplace else. First, you’ll need to download the Google Home app to set up the Chromecast. After that, it’s time to open the Stadia app and link the controller, which you need to have at launch to play on the TV. A pesky controller linking process then stands between you and gaming and there are times it just refuses to link. After all that, should you be successful, hopping into games is a breeze.
Of the options, TV play offers the best visual fidelity, though it’s hard to tell what resolutions and settings each game uses. While Destiny 2 runs super smoothly with vastly shorter load times compared to consoles, its visuals don’t appear entirely on par with PC. Meanwhile, Red Dead Redemption 2 never takes advantage of the power of Google’s data centers and only delivers an experience on par with the Xbox One X. Still, the TV option is the best way to visually experience games at launch.
Mobile is an entirely different beast, thanks to heavy restrictions. While it’s impressive to see high-fidelity games like Destiny 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider running on a portable platform without compromises, it’s clear that these games aren’t built for such small screens. For launch, Stadia only supports wired connections for controllers, meaning a controller always always has to be plugged in to your phone. Worse yet, Google is restricting Stadia access to select Pixel devices. While understandable that Google would want to keep initial access exclusive to their products, there’s no getting around the fact that iOS and other Android phones are more ubiquitous. This is an unfortunate limitation.
While Stadia delivers on the promise to play anywhere, it does so with limitations. This is a platform that allows you to play games wherever you want, but it doesn’t quite reach the ubiquity Google promised at the event.
A platform’s UI and features have become just about as important as the games they play. After years of watching Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo grow and evolve their platforms, how does Stadia stack up to the competition?
What Google promised back at GDC 2019 hasn’t materialized at launch. Family sharing, Stream Connect, instant gameplay share to YouTube, and achievements are just some of the many features missing at this point. Stadia is, currently, merely a launching pad that allows players to play and purchase games directly from the cloud. For a platform years in the making, Stadia doesn’t have anything going for it outside playing games. These are problems that the competition didn’t have at their launches and it’s disappointing that Google couldn’t at least launch with some comparable features.
Likewise, the UI is basic, though simple to navigate. For the full UI experience, you’ll need to either use the Stadia app or have Stadia open in the Chrome browser. TV mode does have a UI, but with minimal functionality. On the TV, all you can do is switch between games, look at your friend’s list, start a party chat and check your connection.
To buy games, switch screens, link controllers, manage your account and alter visual settings, you’ll need to dive deep into the app. Unremarkable, yet clean and usable, Stadia’s UI is easy to navigate and find what you’re seeking. The store will need tweaks as more games come to the platform and it would be nice to select the desired resolution directly (currently, it’s broken down into the vague ‘Best Visual Quality,’ ‘Balanced’ and ‘Limited Data Usage’ categories). There’s a solid base UI for Stadia to grow into, though it’d be nice to have more functionality in TV mode.
A gaming platform ultimately comes down to one thing, games. Games ultimately lift or sink the platform. They’re why the PS2 is the most successful platform of all time, and why the Wii U is one of the biggest failures. Google ultimately launched the platform with 22 titles, up from the previously announced 12.
The titles available range from massive AAA productions (Red Dead Redemption 2, Destiny 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider) to indie titles (Kine, Thumper, GYLT). There’s a lot on offer with something for everyone, and Google has secured strong support from Bethesda Softworks, Take-Two Interactive, Square Enix, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Ubisoft and other third-party developers. On paper, it’s an abundant launch lineup that’s on-par with PS4 and Xbox One, and significantly crushes Switch’s six launch offerings. Look a bit deeper, however, and the picture isn’t as rosy.
There’s no hiding the fact that Stadia’s lineup is filled with games readily available on other platforms and at lower prices. Some, like Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy XV have been available for more than three years. Meanwhile, it appears that EA and Activision are entirely skipping the platform with recent titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order absent from the lineup.
Then there’s the exclusive problem. GYLT, from Tequila Works, is the only Stadia exclusive at launch. It’s a solid title, but it’s not the type of huge launch title that would drive players to the platform. As stated before, Stadia has been years in the making. Why Google has no exclusive titles by their studios that take advantage of Stadia’s strengths is baffling.
As for playing the games, you’ll need a rock-solid internet connection. Running with an average 130MBps off AT&T Fiber, there was no problem getting the games to stream at top settings on any device. Mileage will vary, though, depending on your internet speeds and bandwidth caps. At the highest possible graphical setting, Google says that streaming could cost 20GB an hour. So far, that average isn’t a lie. Stadia loves to eat up bandwidth and it’s something you’ll need to keep tabs on as you play. While our experience playing games on Stadia was excellent, there’s no guarantee it’ll work well with everyone’s setup.
Overall, it’s best to play on a wired connection or your Wi-Fi. While it is possible to get Stadia running at your local Starbucks, you aren’t going to get the best experience. Stadia runs well and you’ll be up and playing your games in no time. Just don’t expect the available games to wow you in any way.
Getting into the Stadia ecosystem is, at launch, confusing and can become pricey. You’ll either need the no longer available Founder’s Edition or the currently available Premiere Edition. Both editions cost $129.99 and come with a Stadia Controller, three months of access to Stadia Pro ($9.99/month after that period), and a Chromecast Ultra. It’s not a bad price to get into the ecosystem, but things start to get pricey when it comes to getting games.
While Google aims to revolutionize how we play games, they’re taking a much more conservative approach to game pricing. That subscription to Stadia Pro isn’t for a streaming service ala Netflix or Spotify, but rather to unlock features like 4K streaming. To get games, you’ll need to pay the full MSRP. That means when, for example, Cyberpunk 2077 launches in April 2020, it’ll cost $59.99, just like on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, knowing that you’re paying full price to access a stream. With PS4, Xbox One, and PC, there’s still some tangibility to the product since you can either buy a retail copy or download a digital copy onto your HDD. On Stadia, you never own the product in any way and it’s hard to shake the fear that what you just spent a full $59.99 on something that might disappear.
Some of this might be alleviated in 2020 when Google launches its free version of Stadia. At that point, it might not be too hard of a pill to swallow when there’s practically no barrier to entry. Until then, Stadia is asking a bit too much to stream games you’ll never tangibly own.
Google Stadia is a double-edged sword. From a technical perspective, what Google has been able to achieve is astounding. Just the fact that Google has built a service capable of delivering high-quality 4K streams across multiple different screens is impressive. Stadia functions, and though the service hits a few snags depending on your connection, it’s still the most remarkable game streaming service on the market. On the other hand, from a platform perspective, Stadia falls flat. From a lack of basic features to the basic UI to the lackluster lineup of games, Stadia never offers a compelling reason for why someone should choose it over its competitors. That may come in time, possibly when the free version launches, but as it stands at launch, there’s not a practical or monetary reason for someone to pick Stadia as their primary gaming platform. Google has developed an impressive tech demo for what the future of cloud-gaming could look like with Stadia, but it’s not quite there just yet.