Google Stadia: Future of Gaming, or Video Ad Platform?

Stadia is Google’s long expected foray into the world of video games (mobile apps on Google Play notwithstanding). Unveiled to the world at the 2019 Game Developers Conference (“GDC”) in San Francisco, the service seeks to leverage Google’s competitive advantages to deliver low-latency game streaming alongside deep, native integration with YouTube. As with most things within its sphere of influence, Stadia’s introduction proved polarizing to the gaming word. On the one hand, the promise of AAA titles on underpowered machines and mobile devices is undoubtedly enticing; however, a lack of content and issues with internet speeds and stability for vast swaths of the American population could limit Stadia’s adoption before it has an opportunity to truly get up and running.

Google’s Stadia offering is expected to deliver 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (“FPS”) to desktops, laptops, Chromecasts, and Android-powered devices once it launches, with Google claiming that 8K at 60 FPS streaming will come online in the future. The catch here is that Stadia will require a stable internet connection of 30 megabits per second (Mbps) to push 4K at 60 FPS – and there is no clarification as to whether that is bi-directional (e.g. upload and download). While approximately 92% of Americans had download speeds of at least 25 Mbps as of year-end 2016 via fixed, terrestrial broadband, upload speeds were a paltry 3 Mbps (according to the FCC).  Online gaming has not historically been resource demanding on the upload side, but the impact of the switch to a streaming mechanism (as opposed to local storage) could increase the burden borne by data uploads.

Perhaps more damaging than the potential for downgrading content from 4K at 60 FPS to 1080p at 60 FPS (or worse), is the issue of latency. While a relative unknown for casual, mobile-based gamers, latency is a significant performance issue for more mechanically demanding games. Latency comes in many forms, with multiple potential bottlenecks arising along the way. All games face input lag, e.g. the amount of time it takes the game itself to register an action that was initiated via an input device. This input lag is also exacerbated by network ping when playing online, multiplayer elements of a game (or, streaming games from the cloud). Lastly, there is draw lag that is specific to the screen you are using to play the game in question. Draw lag can range from 30 millisecond (ms) on performance-oriented monitors to upwards of 100 ms on non-optimized television screens. Screen refresh rates (measured in Hz) and response times (measured in ms) can further mitigate the performance of a game and platform.

Google has assured the public that its experience and robust network of data centers will address concerns around latency, and most will be inclined to take their word for it. Of the existing gaming companies, perhaps only Microsoft is similarly poised to leverage distributed data centers to provide a low(er) latency streaming game service. Furthermore, Google unveiled a singular piece of hardware, the Stadia controller, that could go a long way towards mitigating issues surrounding latency. The Stadia controller most closely resembles the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and has made an appeal to life-long gamers via the inclusion of the Konami Code on the rear of the controller. However, unlike conventional controllers, the Stadia controller connects directly to WiFi, in theory mitigating the input lag associated with legacy Bluetooth and wired controllers. By bypassing the streaming device, the Stadia controller is able to bypass at least part of the input lag train, thus improving performance.

In addition to its WiFi connectivity feature, the Stadia controller will also include two features not found on conventional controllers. In addition to the standard pause/menu select buttons, Google’s new controller will include two additional buttons: one which activates Google Assistant and can query walkthroughs for the specific portion of the game you are in at the moment of activation, and a second button that will capture and save content for direct uploading to YouTube. It’s here that I believe Google is showing the true rationale behind the introduction of Stadia – content generation for YouTube. Twitch is unequivocally the dominant force when it comes to live game streaming, however, many Twitch streamers (and general content creators) use YouTube as an engagement tool to which they post walkthroughs as well as recaps of live streaming sessions.

Anyone who had an opportunity to visit Google’s booth at GDC saw that the focus was on monetization of content, not on gameplay itself. This was further evidenced by the introduction of just two games on the platform, Assassins Creed Odyssey (released in October 2015 on all major platforms except Nintendo’s Switch) and the upcoming Doom Eternal (which will release on all major platforms). While Google did announce a first party development studio, not a single exclusive title was teased (upon launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft announced Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5; Sony’s PS4 saw five exclusive titles at launch, including Killzone: Shadow Fall). While monetization is essential to any platform, it would have been nice to see Google a little more concerned with games themselves, rather than how to generate revenue from YouTube content.

At the end of the day, Google’s Stadia announcement seemed light on details in the areas that mattered and, from a gamer’s perspective, too focused on elements that don’t. Nonetheless, gaming has undergone significant changes in just the last decade, whether it be the proliferation of Esports, the rise of streaming content and personalities, or how multiplayer games are structured (e.g. the proliferation of battle royale). Google’s Stadia offering could represent a paradigm shifting technology if executed properly, or could find itself in the graveyard of failed Google initiatives (alongside the likes of Google+). At the very least, it will be interesting to see just what Phil Spencer and the Xbox team at Microsoft respond with at E3 this June.

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