Tom Caswell

Gaming

Google Stadia is a total failure. Here's how it can be fixed.

If Google wants to own the YouTube of games, that's what they should be making.

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Google Graveyard is a website dedicated to nearly 200 products the monolithic corporate entity has laid to rest over the years. From Google+, their failed social network, to the beloved Google Reader, the company's track record on stepping outside of their comfort zone has predominantly ended in whimpers rather than bangs. So when their new video game streaming service, Stadia, was announced almost exactly a year ago at the 2019 Game Developers Conference, many online refused to trust Google’s ability to faithfully execute their vision.

Well, it's been nearly six months since Stadia's release, and it's hard to see how Stadia won’t become the latest body buried in the Google Graveyard. Missing features, limited communication, and a depressingly paltry library have been some of the key factors in this morbid evaluation. Despite a disastrous launch, however, Google seems fully intent on staking their claim in the gaming space with a brand new studio and an indie developer program. But if the company truly cares about Stadia’s potential, there are a few key steps they must take to give that new studio and developer program a solid foundation to build upon.

Missing features, limited communication, and a depressingly paltry library

Stadia is rife with problems, but most of those issues stem from the company's lack of honesty and transparency. At their initial presentation, Google promised games running at true 4K and 60fps, with virtually no difference between it and a high-end PC — as long as you had an internet connection with a minimum of 35Mbps. It was a huge claim, and one that has turned out to be, in many cases, untrue. Stadia is built on a custom version of Linux, an open-source operating system, and therefore games must be custom built for the service, not simply the PC version. Doom Eternal, the marquee title Stadia used to promote its capabilities, was promised to "be capable of running at true 4K resolution." But in the official spec description for the game, it runs at 1800p upscaled to 4K on Stadia, the same output as the Xbox One X.

This is not Doom Eternal's fault.

In all fairness, running Doom Eternal at 4K60fps on a PC requires a very high end and very expensive graphics card. But when Google discovered that Bethesda's promise on their stage would not be achieved by their service, that information should have been expressed. Recently, both Microsoft and Sony have released detail upon detail of their upcoming consoles' technology. Google’s lack of information on Stadia's true capabilities are its biggest roadblock. Why would we believe their claim of eventually running games at 8K120fps when it doesn't perform as promised right now? Going forward, the company must get ahead of any realities that contradict their initial pitch by being sincere with their users. They can/t go another 40 days of little to no communication with their playerbase.

Google opening a full studio in Playa Vista, with one of the minds behind the revamped God of War at its helm, is an impressive commitment to Stadia. Likewise, their new Stadia Makers program is a great sign that they understand the importance of courting indie developers. But it's all too nebulous. These initiatives are almost irrelevant until we know what games are born from them. Stadia needs to woo new users now, and nothing entices players like details of new games. Games that cannot be missed. Games that will spawn franchises that last years and even decades.

Usually, announcing titles long before they're ready to be released is a problematic move. But Stadia does not have the luxury of its competitors' prestige. Microsoft has Halo, one of the most iconic series in gaming. Sony has masterful exclusive after masterful exclusive, such as God of War and The Last of Us. We need to hear what Shannon Studstill and her Playa Vista studio are up to sooner rather than later, even if it's just a pitch accompanied by a logo and concept art. In a perfect world, Google would have waited to release Stadia until it had a killer app, like the 1,000-person Battle Royale they claimed the platform was capable of supporting. But they didn't, so it finds itself in the unfortunate position of putting the cart before the horse. As long as they don't over promise and ultimately underdeliver, better make sure that cart is loaded with amazing wares.

I'm sure it took a lot to bring Studstill over from running Sony Santa Monica, the studio behind 2018's God of War. Maybe they offered her carte blanche on any project she wanted to make or perhaps they gave her a more reasonable work schedule, as it was evident that God of War's development took quite the personal toll. Whatever it was, it was the right move. Studstill is an industry legend, and having her up to bat is only a good thing for Stadia.

Unfortunately, it does not seem like Google is bringing that much to the table for other talent. Several prominent indie developers have expressed that the company's offers have been minimal and "so low that it wasn't even part of the conversation." Yikes. A robust library of games is critical to a platform's success, and Google should be doing anything and everything they can to obtain developer talent. Its Stadia Makers program is a step in the right direction, but it could be doing so much more. If the service is based on Linux, its development tools should be open. Google owns YouTube, a company that they purchased and grew into the defacto platform for video content, but it is nothing without its community of creators. A similar opportunity for unbridled creation should be deployed here.

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That platform by the way? It's in beta, despite what Google may tell you. As launch approached, Google positioned a "Founder's Edition" for early adopters. This included three months of a "Pro" membership, allowing access to playing games in "4K," as well as a low-latency controller. But those games aren't running in the resolutions Founders expected. And the special controller packaged in that bundle only has that low-latency capability when playing Stadia via a TV. The other features promised by the platform, such as YouTube integration, are completely absent, as is the free tier of Stadia that caps resolutions at 1080p. On top of all this, most of Stadia's catalogue is full price titles, with only a handful accessible at no additional cost via users' Pro subscriptions.

Let's compare this to Stadia's biggest competitor, xCloud. Microsoft launched xCloud as a limited beta in October to select users and restricted the platform to Android phones. But it cost those players nothing, and the games on the platform were also freely accessible to them. Since then, xCloud has become available to pretty much anyone who signs up for it, and it even runs on iOS, a milestone not yet reached by Stadia. In addition, numerous games have been added, and it all costs its users zero dollars. That means, when xCloud doesn't work, Microsoft has insulated itself from criticism. It has also positioned xCloud's beta as a way to understand the capabilities and limitations of the service. Streaming video games over the internet is uncharted territory for the industry, and it must therefore be ventured into with caution and curiosity.

Stadia should pivot toward this model. Drop the "Pro" membership. Make Stadia completely free and make as many deals as you can to include titles with the platform until a time when the service lives up to its promises. Even then, streaming trends would dictate Stadia return with a subscription model that increases the cost of its membership but gives players complete access to its library, similar to Xbox Game Pass, to become the "Netflix of Games." The beauty of Game Pass is no paywall to get around and the ability to recommend a game to a friend. Bundle that with Stadia's feature to load entire games in a matter of seconds and you have a winning formula. Of course, doing all this would result in a lot of money being left on the table, but it is probably dwarfed by the revenue squandered from alienating new customers and potentially having to shut down the project in its entirety.

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Because, let's be honest, the Graveyard is the destination Stadia is headed. There are no official metrics on the platform at this juncture, but based on player counts for Destiny 2, there are likely only a little over 10,000 active Stadia users. There might have been a bump with the recent release of Doom Eternal, which was partnered with a one-day price cut to $99 dollars for that "Pro" bundle, but that won't be enough. Google has to get aggressive if it wants Stadia to remain relevant in a space that grows more populated with services such as xCloud and GeForce Now, both of which allow you to play games on physical hardware, another luxury not afforded to Google's offering.

Can Stadia be saved? Yes. The history of gaming is littered with titles that have had disastrous starts, only to totally revamp and relaunch to a welcoming audience. But examples such as Final Fantasy XIV had to essentially be remade from the ground up. Whether that's a challenge Google is willing and capable of rising to is another question entirely.