It’s been one year since Google released Stadia. It was something truly new: fully-contained, full-quality games, streamed from a platform created for the cloud from the ground up. Stadia’s start was rocky, with many (including me!) calling it a “beta” and waiting for the true launch when new players could join a free tier earlier this year.
Google made many fascinating, tantalizing promises when it initially announced Stadia as not just a service or a console, but a platform. It said that Stadia would be capable of things we’d never seen before, both in terms of system capability and gameplay. After a year, has Google made good on these promises?
To be blunt: no. While Stadia still offers some functionality that can’t be replicated elsewhere, even from a growing stable of competitors, it’s simply lacking too much to be considered a real player in the market yet. And the competition is growing in a direction that Google doesn’t seem interested in following.
Without a major shift in Google’s approach, Stadia will only keep failing to woo both players and developers. Despite Google’s initially lofty goals, Stadia seems more of a curiosity than a revolution.
A Slow Rollout of Features
When I first called Stadia a beta, I did so because it seemed less like the fully-realized game platform Google first pitched than a proof of concept. The core game streaming itself worked—and worked quite well, delivering content at up to 4K on a solid connection—but that was about it.
In the 12 months since, Stadia has fleshed out a bit. In addition to the basic multiplayer it had at the start, Stadia has a few other things to offer these days. For instance, players can now share Stadia with family members, stream Stadia sessions directly to YouTube (this was possible before, but required third-party software), access their captured screenshots and videos from the web, and… that’s about it. More seasoned content creators can make use of a few other YouTube tools, but only if their viewers also own the same game and are using the right hardware.
There have been more creature comforts added too, to the point that I’d no longer call Stadia a beta. Those who have the official Stadia controller can now play it wirelessly from the browser. You can also use the Stadia Android app in landscape mode, and Google Assistant is now sometimes available in-game. Small touches, like the ability to adjust game volume on the web independently of system volume, make it less of a headache to leap in and out of play.
At this point, you could argue that Stadia is at least trying to approach some of the same functionality as some of its more conventional competition (the consoles plus the Steam and Epic stores). It’s nowhere near even the least of these, but most of the essentials are there.
(Still) Nothing to Write Home About
But Stadia’s creators didn’t set out to emulate games as they are; they intended to shatter expectations and deliver something revolutionary. And they haven’t. Not by a long shot.
Aside from the core cloud streaming functionality—which, again, is very good!—most of the lofty capabilities demonstrated at Stadia’s public debut at GDC 2019 haven’t come to fruition.
I went back through the initial announcement and made a list of claimed capabilities in Google’s “vision for the future of gaming.” Let’s take a look at them.
- Click from a YouTube game trailer to a “play now” Stadia session in “as quick as five seconds”: No. Fenyx Rising‘s trailer on the Stadia channel, one of its few bits of exclusive content, doesn’t do this.
- Instantly jump from playing on a PC, phone, or TV, to another platform: Sort of. You can disconnect from a session abruptly and get back in on another platform in about 10-15 seconds… but often the remote game just closes out once the app or tab isn’t active anymore.
- Stadia controller: Some of the initial promises for the Stadia controller have been fulfilled, now that you can use it wirelessly on the PC and use the Assistant on Chromecast. But not being able to use a Wi-Fi-powered controller with a phone or tablet still stings (it needs a USB-C cable), and the lack of Assistant integration anywhere except the Chromecast Ultra is exceedingly odd, given Google’s promotion of the latter.
- 4K 60 frames per second, HDR, and surround sound: Yes, Google supported all of this at launch. At this point, it should work on the Chromecast Ultra, on phones, and on Chrome browsers.
- Up to 8K, 120 FPS: Neither. 8K would be overkill at this point, but many console and PC gamers would love 120 FPS support for their gaming monitors and high-end TVs. The lack of 120 FPS is part of why I still prefer games I own on multiple platforms to be played off Stadia.
- Sharing 4K, 60 fps stream directly to YouTube: Yes. At the time of writing, I see four channels with a combined 26 viewers live-streaming to YouTube with “Stadia” in the description. This needs to be set up before your session starts.
- Dynamically expanded data centers: This was explained as the ability to scale up or down Stadia’s data center usage based on the needs of the game at the time. If this is implemented in any significant way, I haven’t yet seen it.
- Multi-GPU graphical performance: Nope. There’s no indication that different levels of graphics are available to either players or developers, aside from 4K resolution with Stadia Pro.
- Scalable multiplayer for developers: The developers of GRID claim that its 40-driver racing mode is not possible outside of Stadia. Other than that, this doesn’t seem to be used in anything—Google tantalizingly hinted at things like battle royale modes with thousands of live players. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds is on Stadia, with the same 100-player matches it has everywhere else.
- No cheating, no hacking: Google’s all-server-side platform should prevent this. I haven’t yet heard of cheaters on Stadia… but then again, I’ve seen so few people actually playing it that this might be a case of security through obscurity.
- Full cross-platform play: This is a developer side feature, and it seems to be enabled in at least some games.
- Massive, complex online environments with hundreds of simultaneous players: Nothing shown so far exceeds the current capabilities of conventional platforms or matches the GDC demo from Tangent Games.
- Splitscreen local co-op powered by multiple Stadia instances: Nope.
- Co-op with asymmetric gameplay powered by multiple Stadia instances: Nope.
- Real-time, cloud-powered “Style Transfer” visuals based on machine learning: If developers are using this feature, it isn’t evident.
- State Share: This feature was sold as the ability for players to share a simple link on social media and allow other players to jump directly into a multiplayer instance or position on a level almost instantly. State Share is currently available only in the game “creation engine” Crayta, and it’s massively underwhelming. A representative of Q-Games, developer of Nom Nom Galaxy, said that State Share was so impressive that he’d designed an entirely new game around it, “the biggest title ever for Q-Games”… but that it was under wraps and would be shown later in 2019. That game has not yet arrived, nor is there any Q-Games title for Stadia. Yesterday, Google announced that Hitman 3 will be the first game to get the “full” version of State Share at some point next year.
- Crowd Play: This was sold as the ability for YouTube streamers to offer a link to viewers to let them jump into the same multiplayer game with management built-in. It’s enabled in Orcs Must Die 3, The Division 3, Baldur’s Gate III, Super Bomberman R Online, and Dead By Daylight. Unfortunately, the viewer has to own the game in order to jump in. With Stadia’s limited penetration into YouTube, this seems like a feature that’s almost never actively being used.
- Google Assistant in-game hints: Nope.
- Stadia games available on the Google Play Store on Android: No.
- Stadia Games and Entertainment game publishing: This new studio, headed by Jade Raymond (the producer of multiple Assassin’s Creed games), was supposed to foster the creation of new games that would take advantage of Stadia’s unique capabilities. So far, it hasn’t so much as shown a trailer.
Where Are the Games?
That last point is a crucial one. At the time of writing, Stadia had about 90 games in its catalog, not counting special editions. A pretty big chunk of that comes from Ubisoft, Google’s initial partner for Project Stream. And a lot of them are several years old. Some highlights that came out either at or near the same time as other platforms include:
- Red Dead Redemption II
- Orcs Must Die 3
- DOOM: Eternal
- Baldur’s Gate III (early access)
- Borderlands 3
- Marvel’s Avengers
- Superhot: Mind Control Delete
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
- Watch Dogs Legion
Stadia has precious few exclusives so far. Here they are:
- Gylt (launch title)
- Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle
- Super Bomberman R Online (a battle-royale version of a Switch game)
- Immortals: Fenyx Rising demo (just the demo—the full game will soon be released on Stadia and everywhere else)
Stadia’s notable upcoming games, advertised on the store at the time of writing, are:
- CyberPunk 2077
- Destiny 2: Beyond Light
- Hitman 3
- Immortals: Fenyx Rising
All of these games will also be available on multiple other platforms.
See the common denominator here? A year after launch, Stadia’s game library—the most crucial, competitive element of any platform, both physical or digital—has nothing even approaching a “killer app.”
It could be argued that neither does the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, at least not yet. But those platforms have pedigrees stretching back decades. Players are invested in them, comfortable with them—they even trust them, to a degree. Stadia has no such backing, aside from the Google name.
When Stadia was first announced, I said that it absolutely had to get the games in 2020 in order to be competitive. That could have come either with a huge, diverse library or with a few must-have exclusives. Stadia has neither—the closest thing it has to a killer app is Cyberpunk 2077, a frequently delayed title that should shine on Stadia if only because many gaming PCs might not even be able to run it.
Compared to any other gaming platform, Stadia just doesn’t compete.
A Hard Bargain
But a lack of games is just the start of Stadia’s worries. As the industry shifts away from conventional game-by-game sales to Netflix-style subscription models, spearheaded by Xbox Game Pass, Stadia’s game store model seems at odds with its all-in-one streaming platform appeal.
Make no mistake: Xbox Game Pass, with its built-in game streaming for Android (and soon iOS and possibly even Windows), is raising the bar. It’s a fantastic library, already bigger than Stadia, which is constantly being bolstered by new releases from Microsoft and its partners. At $15 a month, it’s also a bargain, even before you throw in reduced prices for new Xbox consoles.
Stadia, even with its frequent freebies (for $10-a-month Stadia Pro subscribers only), isn’t even coming close. My free games with Stadia Pro right now include a lot of older indie titles like Republique, Celeste, and Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris—small change in comparison. Heck, even the free PC games I get every week from the Epic Game Store, which don’t require a subscription to access, have been better over the last year. Google says it’s going to be offering more completely free-to-play games, no Pro required, starting with Destiny 2: New Light.
Competing with the ever-expanding options of consoles isn’t Google’s only problem. From one side, NVIDIA is fighting hard to gain ground in streaming, capturing the market for PC gamers who already have large libraries of games to stream on GeForce NOW. NVIDIA’s service is free to access at the low-tier level for all games, and it’s adding new games from Steam, Epic, and uPlay as they come out.
And Google’s web services competitor, Amazon, is trialing Luna, a system that will work much like its Prime Video setup. You can pay a small fee to access a large library of games, with extra small fees added to expand it with broader premium collections. Luna has many of the same features as Stadia, including a low-latency Wi-Fi controller (albeit one nowhere near as nice, by all accounts), and is using a much more forward-looking pricing structure.
It’s worth pointing out that Luna, GeForce NOW, and Xbox Game Pass have all announced their intention to get around Apple’s de facto block of streaming game services. Stadia announced its intention to finish a browser-based iOS version within the next few weeks.
Beware the Google Graveyard
I had hoped that Stadia would utilize its unique features to attract developers. Or, having failed in that, that Google would just back a truckload of money onto developers’ doorsteps and buy a bunch of great games I could play in the browser or on my phone.
However, with a few notable exceptions (Ubisoft seems to want to play in every streaming sandbox it can find!), that simply hasn’t happened. And if Google discounting and straight-up giving away what little Stadia hardware exists is any indication, it may be less than enthusiastic about its gaming platform already.
Take a look at this promotional video for Google’s refreshed Chromecast, now packing more complex apps from Google TV. You’ll see YouTube TV, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime Video—lots of Google’s own competition. What you won’t see is Stadia, because Stadia doesn’t work on the new Chromecast yet. You’ll have to wait until next year to get it on any dongle aside from the Chromecast Ultra… which, by the way, isn’t even available on the Google Store anymore.
In short, things don’t look too good for Stadia. What could have been a year full of opportunity for the platform, with cash-strapped gamers stuck in their homes due to the quarantine and hesitant to drop huge sums on a new console, has turned out to be a slow crawl to get to where it should have been at launch.
With Google apparently tightening its belt on web services, I fear it may lose its resolve to take on the competitive gaming market sooner rather than later.