On Tuesday at GDC 2019, Google announced Stadia, a new game-streaming service that will let you play AAA video games — the industry’s blockbusters — on almost every device you own, including your laptop, phone, TV, or even a Chromecast. If it works as advertised — a big “if” — it could end the gaming hardware market as we know it.
With Stadia, which is slated to launch later this year, Google is aiming for nothing less than entirely detaching video games from the hardware you own. Instead of downloading a game to your computer or putting a disc in your console, the game would be installed on a remote server that Google owns and operates.
You won’t have to buy a new console or build a new PC to run the latest generation of games. Instead, Google can upgrade Stadia servers entirely behind the scenes. You’ll just wake up one day and find that you can play games with better graphics. This presumably means high-end gaming is about to get a lot cheaper — a top-of-the-line PlayStation 4 Pro costs about $400 — though Google declined to share pricing details with OneZero.
We don’t tend to think about it too much, but video games have an unusually intimate connection with the hardware they run on. Every few years, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and PC hardware manufacturers release new devices that add more power and features to the games you play. Microsoft made 4K gaming possible with the Xbox One X, NVIDIA launched graphics cards capable of ray tracing, and Nintendo had that weird expansion pack that made Donkey Kong 64 not crash. For as long as they’ve existed, video games and their hardware have been intrinsically linked. Think The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, for instance, and you’ll picture the Nintendo 64 it ran on.
But while this relationship is widely accepted in gaming, the same isn’t true for most other kinds of software. A professional video editor might need a better machine to squeeze more out of Adobe Premiere, but no one has to upgrade their phone every couple years to use Gmail or buy a new laptop to run the latest version of Microsoft Word.
This kind of cloud gaming service has been tried many times before, from the failed OnLive to PlayStation Now and to the still-in-beta NVIDIA GeForce Now. But two key factors set Google’s attempt apart. First, you may already own a device capable of running Stadia. GeForce Now is the closest to this platform-agnostic dream, with support for both Mac and Windows computers, but Stadia goes a step further by including Chromebooks, phones, and even the modest Chromecast streaming device. If you have a gadget capable of running YouTube, Google says you can play the newest high-end games using Stadia.
Second, the servers these games will run on are owned by Google. And Google is very good at building servers. Video games, especially the visually rich AAA games that most modern consoles can play, are among the most resource-hungry applications any computer can run. For an individual player, keeping up with the pace of hardware innovation can be a Sisyphean task — and an obscenely expensive one at that. For Google, upgrading massive systems with the latest hardware is done routinely.
Consider the current gold standard of gaming: 4K resolution, running at 60 frames per second. If you have a 4K TV today, you have a few options available to play games that can get the most out of it. You can buy an Xbox One X or a PlayStation 4 Pro, or you could build a PC capable of playing 4K games.
According to Google, Stadia will launch with support for playing games at 4K HDR at 60 fps right off the bat. For a new service launching in 2019, perhaps that’s to be expected. However, the company went a step further, announcing that it would scale up to 8K and 120 fps in the future. The company didn’t give a timeline for when this would happen, but since the first consumer-level 8K TVs were only just announced this year, few consumers are likely to be in any rush.
This approach also removes the roadblock for more subtle innovations. For example, NVIDIA’s new ray-tracing graphics cards simulate the way light works in the real world, creating instant shadows and realistic reflections and simplifying a lot of the work game developers have to do to make a game look good. The benefit is so immediately obvious that it spawned its own meme.
But ray tracing presents a problem for game developers: It only works on NVIDIA graphics cards that support the feature. The company is expanding the list of supported cards, but that still leaves a potential audience that’s limited to a subset of PC gamers who have a small selection of relatively high-end graphics cards. With such a minuscule audience, few outside of the biggest studios will invest resources into developing games for it. It’s just not worth it yet.
Were that technology to be incorporated into Stadia servers, however, the potential audience would be massive. Instead of waiting for consumers to slowly migrate to new hardware, bigger and better games can be shipped as soon as Google’s data servers are upgraded. Companies like NVIDIA would also be more likely to sell their new high-end hardware directly to Google, rather than trying to incrementally sell $600-plus cards to average consumers.
There are still a lot of potential stumbling blocks for Stadia. The biggest bottleneck is home internet speeds, which, in the United States, have not always had the bandwidth to support something as intense as 4K game streaming. There’s also the price: $20 a month for access to a library of games — as is the case for PlayStation Now — might be reasonable, but if the company makes users pay separately for additional features like 4K streaming or ray tracing, it might end up a wash compared to just buying a console.
What’s not in question is the earth-shattering effect Stadia will have on gaming hardware in the home if the service works as advertised. To use a soon-to-be-timely pop culture analogy, the industry has resembled the endlessly turning wheel of power in Westeros that Daenerys Targaryen describes in Games of Thrones: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, NVIDIA, each taking their turn on top with successive and expensive upgrades. Consumers have accepted the need to buy new consoles or graphics cards every few years, because there has been no other way to play the latest games. In a world where you can play the newest Tomb Raider in perfect 4K HDR on something as simple as a Chromecast, however, the endlessly turning wheel of hardware upgrades won’t just stop—it will break altogether.