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Google Stadia: Dreaming of Game Streaming
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Google Stadia: Dreaming of Game Streaming

Google’s erratic attempt to bring cloud-based gaming mainstream gets off to a sputtering start.

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We need to sell video games to more people! We’re not making enough money! What to do? Well, one option is to make gaming a little more accessible, which might involve eliminating upfront costs of new hardware and messy connections. That means streaming, as in delivering a fully playable and competent gaming experience the same way Netflix delivers movies and shows.

Games, of course, aren’t movies; aside from Netflix’s strange interactive experience with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, gaming is a fluid, synchronous experience where timing – and input lag – matter. We’ve come to accept network buffering when binge-watching Stranger Things, but even the slightest stutter when Nazi hunting in Wolfenstein: Youngblood and you’re as good as dead. So far, pure game streaming options have been frustrating, ugly experiences hounded with graphical hitching and input lag. Remember OnLive? How about Sony’s PlayStation Now?

Enter Google Stadia, a streaming-only gaming service from the search king designed to run on displays, phones, computers, tablets and just about anything that will run the software. It’s fairly ambitious, and we tested an early iteration of the tech last year when it was still called Project Stream, playing Ubisoft’s massively massive Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and came away impressed. It seemed like Google might’ve finally cracked the streaming code, succeeding where many others had tried and failed.

Like it or not, it does appear like we’ll all be living in the stream, in some form or another, at some point in the near-future as other big name contenders include Nvidia’s GeForce NOW and Microsoft’s xCloud are just over the horizon as well. As the first commercially viable game streaming service out in the wild Google has everyone’s attention

(with associated hardware, like a controller) that’s basically a frustrating, ugly experience hounded with graphical hitching and input lag! Sometimes, anyway. Sometimes it works relatively well. Let’s talk about it.

Getting online with Stadia is a pretty straightforward process, provided you’ve done your homework in advance. You’re going to need a speedy and robust internet connection to join this streaming revolution (minimum 10Mbps) and a much stronger one to fully take advantage of its maximum 4K/HDR potential (35Mbps). I recommend testing your connection first using Google’s own online tools in the location you plan on gaming in before going any further using both WiFi and (if available) a wired connection. Latency really matters here.

Mostly Easy, Stable Connection

Stadia isn’t a gaming console – but it still kinda is! It’s a little of both, at least currently. Make sure you’ve got a free HDMI port and power outlet for the Chromecast Ultra, connect both, and get ready to go through a guided process on your smartphone (iOS or Android) to finish the process. If you’ve connected a modern smart speaker or similar device the process is remarkably similar – and easy. Just make sure you’ve used that precious access code so you have Stadia access on your Google account.

One last step is pairing that lovely new Stadia controller and you’re good to go. Oh, about that controller? It’s pretty nice, to be honest. It looks like someone actually cared about making a proper gamepad you’ll actually want to use. Three colors are available for you to choose from: Clearly White, Just Black and cool Wasabi.

The entire process took about ten minutes, though admittedly I didn’t run into any hiccups and this sort of multi-device setup is bound to cause some issues in anything but an ideal scenario.

Connect, Stream, Buy, Play

Now that you’ve connected into the Stadia service, you’re going to need a game to play. The easiest way to go about this is to sign up for a Stadia Pro subscription, which runs $10/month after the first three months you likely got with the Stadia hardware itself. Doing so will, at present, give you access to the full collection of Destiny 2 content, Samurai Shodown (without the DLC), Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition and…Farming Simulator 19. I’m certain there will be more games later, but for now you’re getting those four.

It’s not exactly an expansive default library and you’ll want more games before too long. That means browsing the available catalog and buying them at a significant markup over most other purchasing options, given the age of most of the games available on the Stadia store. To be clear: a subscription DOES NOT give you full access to the available gaming catalog, and you’ll still have to buy individual games as you would on any other platform, minus Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service.

Moreover, if you’re a “core” gamer who might be interested in these titles, chances are that you’ve already got ways of playing these games already – or purchased them elsewhere. Honestly, this only exacerbates a major flaw in the entire Stadia prospect, which we’ll discuss here in a bit.

So you’ve got a bunch of games available for less money on other, more established platforms that are technically superior to the hardware you’re getting here. If that sounds like a familiar marketing strategy, that’s because it is! Sort of! Companies like OnLive and LiquidSky have been trying this kind of thing for a while with a couple changes, like allowing you to play your own games. Stadia doesn’t do that. Stadia wants you to buy their games from Google’s proprietary store only, expensive games that you probably own on a PC or console already.

Yeah. Did I mention Stadia games run on their own multiplayer servers? Because they do. The Stadia version of Destiny 2 is a barren, empty wasteland. It’s kind of sad.

Anyway, you’ve got games, however you’ve chosen to get them. For what it’s worth, there’s a single Stadia-exclusive game available at the time of this overview: Gylt, a short horror title from Tequila Works that isn’t bad. So maybe you’re playing that one.

Playing Games, Games, Games

Now it’s time to get started! And, well, it’s not all that bad, all things considered. Yes, your display is going to often look like a YouTube video even during the best of times, but every game streaming service from PlayStation Now to Valve’s Steam Link looks like that. Yes, there’s going to be some input lag here and there, though a game like Samurai Shodown is less execution-heavy and it won’t matter so much there. I didn’t get to play the other big arcade fighter, Mortal Kombat 11, where latency and precise inputs really do matter…and I’m not sure I want to.

Slower-paced games that don’t rely on intense precision, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey fare a little better. A calmer, more methodical pace serves this game well in an environment where your control can vary in precision from moment to moment. As one of the more content-rich games available on Stadia, I’d be inclined to call this the service’s “killer app” insofar as one exists – it’s no surprise this was also the game that Project Stream demonstrated.

Something like Trials: Rising, on the other hand, hits the middle of the road. There’s some precision involved in the classic motocross flip-’em-up, but it’s nothing like what you’d need from a fighting game. Constantly starting and restarting in order to perfect your runs is already part of what you do in Trials, so Stadia issues causing a mistake isn’t especially different from poor planning or flawed execution. As usual, this isn’t the ideal way to play Trials: Rising, but it works.

Oh, and Ubisoft’s Just Dance 2020 is here. It’s Just Dance! Move recognition is already pretty generous so Stadia issues aren’t a huge concern here, and, well, isn’t music and video streaming one of the things this technology was originally designed for? Beep beep, I’m a Stadia sheep.

As for Gylt, the sole Stadia-exclusive title, it’s…not bad. It’s a short, pretty horror adventure reminiscent of something like Alan Wake with a focus on puzzle-solving and evading monsters. You control young Sally as she explores a monster-filled school with an ample supply of flashlight batteries and inhalers to keep her going. What makes Gylt different is the special features that Stadia brings to the table, like…uh, actually, I’m joking, there’s basically no reason for this to be exclusive to the streaming system other than ensuring that you have to have Stadia to play it. Ain’t the future grand?

If you already have a Stadia then Gylt is a must-play as a novelty if nothing else, though it’s telling that this exclusivity means that Stadia’s many foibles and irritation are, by definition, an issue with Gylt as a game.

Generally, however, from a presentation and gameplay standpoint Stadia mostly works. Well, it mostly works if you’re in the ideal environment for Stadia play. As mentioned above, a solid and reliable internet connection is required to use Stadia effectively, as well as a lack of data caps so your ISP doesn’t start throttling your speeds (or worse). Google hasn’t addressed these real and potentially expensive problems,

I’m not going to get into the nerdy details of how Google is able to deliver its magic to your screen, but I will say that – currently – Stadia struggles to keep pace with the company’s most optimistic promises to deliver a 4K/HDR experience. And by struggle, I mean it doesn’t, as other reviewers have pointed out. At best (and I do mean under the most ideal and perfect conditions) Stadia seems to deliver a resolution that’s “technically” 4K but appears to have been upscaled from 1440p.

If your connection wavers, you’re going to have problems, and if you don’t have enough bandwidth then things will be prohibitively laggy and stuttery, often to the point where a streaming-only service itself becomes pointless.

A Streaming Advantage?

So we’ve established gaming on Stadia is a finicky way of playing expensive versions of games that are available elsewhere – with one fairly short exception in Gylt. What’s Stadia good for? Well, it turns out there are some actual use cases where such innovation might be worthwhile, as long as everything is in order.

The first is that you can play Stadia games on a lower-powered PC, or Mac or Linux. Or even Google’s own Chromebook platform. Google promises Stadia will be the most hardware agnostic platform ever, giving fans access to premium AAA games with high technical requirements that will run on a toaster, provided the toaster meets the minimum spec requirements. It’s never going to be as ideal as playing on your tricked out, heavily customized $3000 PC gaming rig, but you also don’t have to drop $3000 for the experience. There’s something to be said for that.

Platform agnostic, on-the-fly streaming with minimal downloads? This is the same argument that Netflix offered movie fans when introducing their own streaming service over traditional discs and what Spotify offered music fans over CDs and MP3 downloads. Defray upfront investment costs (i.e. hardware and media) and in turn you’ll get a buffet of content to gorge yourself silly.

Well, it’s mostly the same argument; Netflix and Spotify (as well as challengers like Amazon, Hulu, Apple, etc.) offer full-access entertainment buffets where consumers and binge and gorge themselves silly on unlimited content. Stadia doesn’t open its entire catalog to subscribers; it’s less a buffet than a la carte, requiring that individual games like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 or Just Dance 2020 be purchased individually, or again (if you’ve bought them elsewhere).

The second is that Stadia represents one of the most portable options around, provided all its network conditions are met. You can run Destiny 2 pretty much anywhere! You won’t have anyone to play with since you’re trapped on the Stadia servers, but still! The Chromecast is tiny, and the browser version of Stadia is little more than a browser app. You can play these games (practically) anywhere if you’re willing to deal with Stadia’s many quirks and have the requisite internet connection.

Conclusion: A Stuttering Debut

Look, I get it. Selling games to “core” gamers isn’t going to pay the bills forever, especially as they become more and more expensive to make. It’s important to find a wider audience if the industry is going to survive…or, well, that would be one way of fixing it. Packaging the same products for more money with inferior infrastructure onto a new platform that only performs as advertised in the most ideal of situations probably wasn’t the best way to introduce something like Google Stadia to the world.

Maybe we’re trying to sell this to clueless holiday shoppers who see the Google name and think it’s an easy win, but it only takes one friend who has any idea about video games at all to make all the Stadia’s faults clear. All that, and Google is (in)famous for shutting down services that aren’t clear – or quick – wins. Stadia isn’t just a questionable purchase, it’s one that’s not likely to work for very long.

With both Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series Whatever due late next year it’s tempting to consider a platform switch, especially with their upfront costs expected to be higher than ever. That also means picking up a perfectly serviceable “older” platform like the PS4 or Xbox One is cheaper than ever, and thanks to robust competition it’s never been easier (or cost-effective) to build your own high-quality gaming PC.

Also, Nintendo’s Switch costs roughly the same as Stadia, will happily run inferior versions of many “core” games if you’re cool with that, and remains the only way to play Nintendo’s peerless library of exclusives. It’s also super-portable and doesn’t require ideal Internet, weather and astrological conditions to run as expected. You have solid options vying for your gaming dollar, and may want to stick with them instead. For now anyway. The future may be coming, but it’s not quite here yet.

About the Author: Cory Galliher