After playing around with Google Stadia for the better part of a week, I’ve still got more questions about it than answers. I can see the value of it, and imagine situations in which it’d be useful, but Stadia has a lot of issues that Google doesn’t seem able or willing to confront. Simply put, it came out too soon, in a couple of different ways.
Announced back in March at the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, Stadia represents Google’s entrance into both cloud-based gaming and video game publishing. It’s a service that lets you stream your games directly from Google’s data centers, as long as you’ve got a Pixel phone, a Chromecast device, and/or a computer that can run Chrome. Stadia competes directly with Microsoft’s Project xCloud, which rolled out last month in a public preview.
You can subscribe to Stadia Pro for $9.99 a month, which gets you exclusive monthly discounts on select titles and the occasional free game, or simply use Stadia as an online storefront. Games on Stadia cost roughly the same as they do on other platforms, ranging from $19.99 to $59.99.
The upside to Stadia is that you don’t have to download anything on your end. An average mainstream game in 2019 can take an hour or more of installation and patching before it’s ready to play, but on Stadia, you can go from purchasing a game to starting it up in about 30 seconds flat. If cloud-based gaming has one thing going for it, it’s that immediacy.
I was initially having real problems with lag, trying to run Stadia on a residential DSL line. Games felt awkward, with missed inputs and strange, “icy” reactions; characters would keep moving after I let go of the stick, or suddenly veer off in unexpected directions. Destiny 2 was virtually unplayable, whether it was by myself or in a 3-man vanguard strike, and I couldn’t get through a single match vs. an AI opponent in Mortal Kombat 11 without massive slowdown.
Eventually, I figured out how to throttle back Stadia’s connection, and things immediately improved. I got through the opening level of Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 720p without a hiccup, and it was generally as responsive as it would’ve been if I’d been playing it on a local system. I’d played with the Stadia a bit at PAX West in September, and I’d been concerned that the service seemed to need a super-fast wired connection to work, but it was a lot more adaptable than I’d assumed it would be.
However, the process of troubleshooting that problem was a lot harder than it should’ve been, which leads to the primary issue with Stadia: it just isn’t ready for prime time yet.
The weeks leading up to Stadia’s launch, coming this Tuesday, have been punctuated by occasional unfortunate revelations, like numerous promised features such as Crowd Play that simply won’t be initially available. There’s a lot about Stadia in general that feels unfinished. It’s got menus without options, features without explanation, and basic options that are hidden or absent.
The Stadia’s official controller has an entire button specifically dedicated to the Google Assistant, and as of right now, you get a “not yet available” message when you push it. If you want to redeem a game code, you can’t do it on your TV or phone; that requires you to load Stadia up in a Chrome window. If you want to dial back Stadia’s bandwidth like I did, you can’t do that in a browser or on a TV; you have to use the mobile app, which in turn is only available for Pixel phones.
The controller has another button that’s just for taking in-game screenshots, but absolutely nothing in the UI that tells you where those screenshots end up — Google Drive? The phone running the Stadia app? A single lonely hard drive somewhere in outer Mongolia? — or how you could copy them to somewhere else.
Even the setup process is bizarre. Google sent along a helpful step-by-step guide to configuring a Chromecast to work with Stadia, but the one I have simply refused to work … then suddenly kicked itself into gear, seemingly of its own volition. I think ghosts were involved.
Our launch lineup has just expanded! We now have 22 titles available to play starting November 19, with even more games arriving by the end of 2019. pic.twitter.com/mN8WbLjuBW
— Stadia (@GoogleStadia) November 18, 2019
Stadia was initially scheduled to launch with a lineup of 12 games, but Google made a surprise announcement on Sunday night that it added 10 more. Of those 22 games at launch, the only original exclusive is Tequila Works’ creepy anti-bullying horror game Gylt (which is admittedly pretty great). The rest are all ports and re-releases. While most of them are genuinely good games — Mortal Kombat 11, Red Dead Redemption 2, Final Fantasy XV, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — they’re all months or even years old.
It’s hard to overstate just how weird this is. Stadia was already working with an experimental technology and a questionable business plan (I’m always going to be wary of a deal where a game I “bought” is permanently stuck on a remote server that I do not control, and is only “mine” for as long as the owner of that server decides to keep it around).
Now its launch lineup is a bunch of re-runs, its UI is jacked, it only runs on Google-brand phones, and the setup process is much harder than it has to be.
Back in March, it seemed like Google, with the help of game industry veterans, was going to bootstrap a new market into existence. Now, it’s hard to tell what its plan was actually supposed to be in the first place.
What I’m wondering is if Google decided to rush Stadia to market now, before it was quite ready, in order to avoid having to launch next year. 2020’s video game calendar is insane, with a lot of high-profile releases — Cyberpunk 2077, Doom Eternal, Iron Man VR, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, The Last of Us Part II, Marvel’s Avengers, Wasteland 3, etc. — on top of the debuts of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Project Scarlett. If Google had tried to release Stadia in the middle of all of that, there’s a very good chance that it could’ve simply ended up lost in the noise.
It’s not that Stadia’s necessarily a bad idea. Cloud-based gaming in general has some potential, as it means you don’t need high-end hardware to run big games. In theory, Stadia and other cloud services could do a lot to make video games less expensive and more accessible, which is something the hobby desperately needs.
Bare minimum, though, Stadia needs another few months of development time before it’s seriously worth considering. It isn’t quite dead on arrival, but it does feel like it shipped disassembled, and Google’s has a lot of work on its hands to put it back together.