Google Stadia One Month In: It’s Nothing Like Playing on a Console — and That’s Okay
Fears that Google will abandon its game streaming service look as though they’ll go unrealized
I like the Darksiders franchise, but I don’t love it. It’s the kind of game I’d pick up if I had nothing better to do, rather than the kind I’d set aside a couple hours on the weekend to play. Which makes it perfect for Google’s game streaming platform Stadia.
Stadia launched in November to mixed reviews, to put it politely. It was missing features that Google had touted before launch, like an achievement system or even support for the Chromecast Ultra you might already have in your home, and it still lacked support for more than a handful of phones.
But after a month and a half with the streaming platform, I’ve found where it fits in my life: It’s ideal for casual gaming, where being able to play on multiple devices might matter more than getting the absolute best picture quality, and for games that don’t require the fastest reflexes. Under the best circumstances, Stadia is technically able to play fast-paced, highly detailed games, but it’s a lot better at the more easygoing, addictive games that you wish you could play anywhere.
Stadia works, and that’s unprecedented
Video games require incredibly low latency, so that when you press a button, your character acts immediately. Dropping frames isn’t just an annoyance, it can be the difference between winning and losing. Not too long ago, streaming a game seemed like a task that was just too demanding for mass-market internet connections.
Today, streaming games works. I was able to play Tomb Raider, Gylt (Stadia’s only exclusive), and the new Darksiders: Genesis all without performance hiccups on both my home internet — a high-speed gigabit service delivered over standard copper cable — as well as, briefly, on my local Starbucks’ Wi-Fi.
The latter feat was the most impressive. With an 8 Mbps download speed, my Starbucks’ Wi-Fi was below the minimum 10 Mbps that Google says is required for Stadia. Still, I was able to fire up Darksiders and play for a few minutes without interruption or lag. I didn’t play for long because it’s rude to use up that much bandwidth on shared Wi-Fi, but the fact that I could slay demons without so much as moderate input lag is a testament to how far game streaming has come.
To say that Stadia can replicate the console experience perfectly is hyperbole best left in the commercials. But for games that don’t push the boundaries of rapid-fire action in high-end graphics, Stadia works.
That doesn’t mean Stadia works equally for everything. I noticed the tiniest lag while gunning down enemies in Destiny 2 on my home internet connection. This is likely because first-person shooter games require more bandwidth, as they update nearly every part of the image frame every time a player turns their camera. Gylt is a slower-pace game, and Darksiders has a locked camera perspective, both of which reduce the bandwidth load and make for a smoother experience.
After playing Stadia for a few weeks, I’ve realized Stadia won’t be the go-to platform for all types of games. To say that Stadia can replicate the console experience perfectly is hyperbole best left to commercials. For some people with the best internet connections, the fastest-pace games might work, but not everyone has that option. However, for games that don’t push the boundaries of rapid-fire action in high-end graphics, Stadia works and can easily work even on many slower internet connections.
Think of it this way: If you want to watch a special effects extravaganza like Avengers: Endgame at home in the highest quality possible, your best option is to buy a physical Blu-ray player, get the movie on a 4K HDR disc, and play it locally on your high-end TV. On the other hand, if you want to watch old Simpsons reruns, streaming works fine. In the same way, Stadia may not be perfectly suited for everyone’s gaming habits across every type of game on the market (even if it’s trying to be), but much like Nintendo’s Switch, it has a lot of potential as a platform for freeing lower-power games from the couch they’ve been stuck on.
Stadia has changed a lot since launch, but it still has road to travel
Stadia didn’t earn harsh reviews for being less-than-ideal for a small subset of fast-paced games. It earned critics’ ire for being, as a platform, unfinished. Right now, you can only get access to Stadia by purchasing a $130 Premiere Edition kit, or getting an invite (or bonus invite) from someone who has purchased the Founder’s Edition kit, which is similar to the Premiere Edition for people who bought it before Stadia launched. But those who paid or were invited in found core features like an achievement system missing. In other words, Stadia is an unofficial beta in everything but name.
Google’s failure in setting expectations shouldn’t be overlooked, but since launch, the company has been busy making changes and updates, including:
- Adding new free games to Stadia Pro such as Farming Simulator 19 and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition in December. Unfortunately, some players had already purchased these games — particularly Tomb Raider, which was one of Stadia’s highest-profile launch games — so Google offered refunds to anyone who purchased the games already. Later the company announced Rise of the Tomb Raider and Thumper would be free for Stadia Pro users in January.
- Releasing Darksiders: Genesis, the latest in the Darksiders franchise, on the same day it launched on PC, but before it launched on consoles like the PS4, Xbox One, or Switch. The Stadia version costs $40, which is $10 more than its PC counterpart, but this was a choice made by developer THQ. The other console versions are also listed at $40, but won’t come out until February.
- Adding new games to Stadia’s library, and delivering all of the games that Stadia promised to include by the end of the year. This included the first game that made use of Stream Connect, a feature that allows multiple complete copies of a game to run on Stadia’s servers, making it possible to stream several viewpoints or add local split-screen multiplayer in games where it might be too taxing on a single console to do so otherwise.
- Updating all Chromecast Ultras to work with Stadia, which means players can start using the platform by simply buying a Stadia controller. Previously, only the Chromecast Ultras that came with Stadia kits were supported, a decision that seemed to unnecessarily limit access to the platform. Other casting-capable devices like Android TV are still waiting for support.
- Acquiring Typhoon Studios, the indie developer behind upcoming game Journey to the Savage Planet. Typhoon will join the existing Stadia Games and Entertainment studio, which will develop first-party, exclusive games for the platform. Google is aiming to release exclusive games every year.
- Finally enabling users to buy games from the web. At launch you could only buy games through the phone, which was a bit inconvenient. That said, Stadia still hasn’t made it possible to buy games through the Chromecast interface, which is odd since it’s the main method of playing Stadia that Google is promoting (and charging money for).
- Launching Stadia’s achievement system. Sort of. Players using the Chrome web browser or Chromecast can now see notifications when they get an achievement, and browse achievements on their profile. However, Google says that mobile users should “hang tight!” as the feature won’t come to mobile devices until sometime in 2020.
This is a lot of progress to make in a month and a half. Which is good, because Stadia still has a long way to go. The Wi-Fi-enabled controller still requires a cable when connecting to anything other than a Chromecast, streaming only works on a few Pixel phones, third-party controllers aren’t supported yet, and users still can’t sign up without buying hardware from Google. To say nothing of the still-meager game library or the absence of Stadia-exclusive features like State Share — which will let players save and transfer files to other players — or Crowd Play — which will let remote players join each others’ games via a YouTube stream — that Google showed off at Stadia’s first announcement.
Google has a deadline to get Stadia up to speed
Google has yet to announce Stadia’s most valuable feature: the free version. Right now, Stadia requires a subscription to pay for a 4K-capable streaming platform where you still have to buy most of your games (though at the rate Stadia Pro is going, it might give away its entire library before long). Google has promised a free version that’s limited to 1080p streaming and will launch in 2020. Unlike Stadia Pro, this one won’t require a subscription, or even any specific hardware. In other words, it will be a flood of new users trying out the service who, in some cases, don’t have to pay a cent for the privilege.
When that happens, Stadia needs to be ready. Microsoft is currently ramping up its own version of game streaming and Sony’s version — which is still limited to a mere 720p — already has a million subscribers. Meanwhile, the new physical Xbox and PlayStation consoles are set to launch during the 2020 holiday season. Stadia can gain ground in the market by offering a free platform (so long as you don’t mind buying games), but with basic features still missing, it would be a non-starter.
Google often plays a long game with its biggest services, and the ultimate measure of its success will not be how well it does out of the gate, but how quickly it can improve. In the past, Google has let some services rot on the vine, updating only every few months or even years, and with very little new when those updates do roll out.
The good news is that Stadia is already breaking from that pattern. The upgrades and changes Stadia has made in a month and a half have been substantial. They don’t fix every problem (and there are still a lot of problems left), but they’re a promising start. If Google can keep this pace up, we might be looking at a much different Stadia by the time customers start buying consoles next holiday season.