Pray for the brave soldiers of the Stadia Reddit community. They stand against the growing drumbeat of the next generation hype, posting in service of a cloud-streaming platform that often feels abandoned. Little moments bring them joy; the confirmation that a triple-AAA game is launching on Stadia along with other platforms (a given for other consoles), the drips of information about an unannounced hardware update (developers reportedly got dev kits over the summer!).
The utility of Stadia continues to entrance them — countless photos are posted every week showing Stadia being used in unique circumstances — and the tortured handling of the service has become a meme. When the official Stadia Twitter account began building hype for an announcement a few weeks ago, the community rallied, sure that this would be the moment Google recommitted to the service. When the announcement ended up being a free Pac-Man-but-it's-battle-royale demo, the community seemed unfazed. That’s just Stadia.
This is the tension inherent in Stadia. Google’s cloud gaming service is a shockingly capable way to play games without paying for any new hardware. Stadia’s very existence is an achievement; an economically accessible gateway to AAA gaming. Yet one year into existence, Stadia fails to match the soaring ambition Google promised or the possibilities the technology is so obviously capable of.
With the next generation of consoles hitting, Stadia deserves a second examination as a way to play the newest games without shelling out hundreds for a Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. Looking at it through this lens, I found a platform with terrific potential, weighed down by a service that's perpetually adrift.
Stadia works really well
The first thing you need to know about Stadia is that it is functional.
To understand the significance of this, you need to know some history. Cloud gaming has been mythologized for years in the gaming industry. A decade ago, OnLive and Gaikai both launched to breathless press coverage, promising low-latency cloud streaming that would allow anyone with an internet connection access to the newest games. IGN called the technology “the future of gaming”; both services fizzled out when it became clear internet infrastructure was not sufficiently mature to stream games with playable latency. Eurogamer wrote that the streaming technology powering Onlive “raises so many technical questions and seemingly overcomes so many impossible challenges that it can’t possibly work.”
Stadia works. Leveraging Google’s expansive network of server farms (more than 7,500 across the world), Stadia can stream graphically demanding games in resolutions up to 4K without any noticeable latency. Each server instance is outfitted with 16GB of RAM and an AMD GPU with 10.7 teraflops of power. That puts the specs of Stadia significantly above the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, but below the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. Digital Foundry breakdowns show that Stadia games generally perform inline with the upper-tier of PC graphical settings, which seems accurate based on my experience. The Stadia version of Red Dead Redemption 2 runs at a consistent 60 frames a second at 1080p, which is significantly better than the PlayStation 4 version I played when the game was released. It’s even better than what I can manage running the game on my expensive gaming PC.
Stadia can stream graphically demanding games ... without any noticeable latency.
I’ve been playing games like Destiny 2, Watch Dogs: Legion and Red Dead Redemption 2 using my tablet and an old Xbox controller, and it feels mostly equivalent to playing on a high-end PC. (Google will sell you a custom controller that connects directly to the server through WiFi to minimize latency even further, but it’s optional.) Latency is imperceptible and everything runs smoothly. The vast majority of the time I simply forgot I was streaming in the first place. Even using a hack-y workaround to get Stadia running on iOS (more on that in a bit) I’ve gotten solid performance running on a 100mbps up-and-down internet connection. There have been a few moments of stuttering and compressed images, but this seems to be due to my WiFi connection rather than Google’s technology. When I used Stadia with an Ethernet cable, I never encountered any issues. It’s a better experience than I’ve had with competing services like GeForce Now, and it’s somehow even better than my experiments streaming from a local PC with Steam Link.
The only catch is that Stadia requires a ton of bandwidth to stream games; if you have a data cap, this might not be the service for you. Google recommends at least 10mbps to use Stadia; when I tried the service using my phone as a 4G hotspot with around a 15mbps download speed, it worked fine albeit at a noticeably lower resolution.
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The library of games available on Stadia is also surprisingly excellent. One year into its life, Stadia is getting new titles from Ubisoft, IO Interactive, Sega, Codemasters, and Square-Enix day-and-date with other platforms. Bigger publishers like Activision and EA are starting to experiment with releasing games on Stadia, although you still can’t play blockbusters like Call of Duty. Insurgent game platforms live and die on the strength of their third-party support, and after a year, Stadia’s ecosystem is surprisingly healthy. Even more encouragingly, it’s an ecosystem that is actively growing.
Google has accomplished something with Stadia that was long thought to be impossible. It makes game streaming viable. The technology underpinning Stadia feels like the groundwork for a revolution, but it exists in support of a service that still feels underdeveloped.
An afterthought for Google
Let’s talk about pricing models. Going into the next generation, Microsoft is aggressively betting on the viability of subscription services; you can access Microsoft’s gigantic library of Game Pass games across Android, PC, and Xbox for $15 a month. PlayStation is moving in a similar direction with its PlayStation Plus Collection, which gives PlayStation 5 owners access to a number of legacy first-party games for $7 a month. The advantages to this model are obvious; you get access to a ton of games for a monthly subscription fee that is significantly less than buying a single game. But you commit yourself to yet another recurring monthly charge, you lose access to the games the second you unsubscribe, and these subscription services rarely include big third-party games at launch.
With Stadia, you’re mostly going to be buying games outright. And you know what? That’s fine. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Marvel’s Avengers, and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 are unlikely to ever be added to subscription services like Game Pass, meaning that you’ll always need to buy them if you want to play them. Stadia’s low barrier to entry makes simply buying games upfront more appealing. If you’re a fan of Marvel and want to check out The Avengers, the only money you need to spend is the $60 to buy the game itself. If you’re a lapsed gamer — or someone more casually interested in games — this is an incredibly accessible option.
If Stadia were to shut down, it’s unclear what would happen to purchased games.
What I can say is that nothing in the massive Google Graveyard has led to users losing access to purchased media. When Google Play Music merged with YouTube Music earlier this fall, users were able to transfer purchases to YouTube Music and download their songs as MP3s. Investing in Stadia is inherently predicated on uneasy assumptions about content ownership, but Google at least has precedent for doing the right thing for consumers when it comes to purchased media.
Stadia does offer a monthly subscription service, though, and that’s where things begin to go undeniably sideways for Google. Stadia Pro gives you access to a set library of games and lets you stream in 4K HDR for $10 a month. Streaming at this resolution requires significantly higher bandwidth and is only available on certain PCs and Chromecasts — unless you have a Chromecast Ultra lying around, you’ll likely need to buy dedicated hardware to play in 4K. The true bummer is the games offered as part of Stadia Pro. The lineup isn’t terrible — some highlights include Thumper, Superhot, and Risk of Rain 2 — but it’s a slight list of games compared to what’s available on competing options. The biggest game in the lineup, Destiny 2: The Collection, is leaving Stadia Pro at the end of November. Google has established a couple of first-party studios, but there’s little in the way of exclusives at this point.
The massive Google Graveyard has led to users losing access to purchased media.
Building a compelling games subscription service inherently requires taking big swings. Microsoft just spent billions of dollars on Bethesda specifically to boost its Game Pass library. But one year in, Stadia’s biggest problem is that Google refuses to commit to its amazing potential. This is felt acutely in the Stadia Pro lineup, but the issue extends across the entire platform.
Google’s lack of care for Stadia is apparent every moment you’re using it for something other than playing a game. The store lacks a search button, you can only quick-resume games for a limited period of time, it’s impossible to see patch notes for game updates, and you can’t live stream directly to services like Twitch. These are all basic features present on every other major competing platform. Stadia feels oddly siloed from the rest of Google — there’s only barebones integration with YouTube and the newest Chromecast doesn’t even currently support it. Features promised at launch — like easy transfer of save states and game-specific Google Assistant integration — are all missing or stuck in beta.
Then there’s platform availability, perhaps the most egregious example of how little progress Stadia has made in a year. Google promised a gaming platform that existed everywhere from a YouTube window to a television set-top box. At the moment, you can only play Stadia on recent Android devices, in a Chrome webpage, and through the Chromecast Ultra. After a year on the market, there are still no smart television clients, no set-top box apps, and nothing beyond a basic storefront on iOS. I’ve been using Stadia on my iPad through an unofficial app called Stadium, but the developer has been in constant conflict with Apple since launch. Amazon and Nvidia are both using web apps to allow iOS users to use their services, and Google has just announced they'll be doing the same at some point.
Google’s neglect of Stadia has bled into its third-party offerings. Marquee features of Stadia are barely supported. You can see a picture-in-picture view of your squadmates in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint through a nifty Stadia feature called Stream Connect, but the same option isn’t available in The Avengers. Ditto with the interesting streamer-focused Crowd Play and Crowd Choice features, which only works with Mortal Kombat 11 and Dead by Daylight respectively. Of course, when Google is barely advertising these features, can you even blame the developers for not including them?
In the coming months, Google is supposedly going to be launching a bunch of new features for Stadia. You’ll be able to connect Stadia to the Ubisoft+ subscription service, giving players access to subscription models with stronger libraries than Google’s own offering. EA is going to be bringing Madden to Stadia for the first time, hopefully a harbinger of greater support from gaming’s biggest publishers. Then there’s the looming Stadia 2.0 hardware update, which will bring raytracing and higher-frame rates to the service. Right now, cross-generation games like Watch Dogs: Legion on Stadia lack some of the graphical features found on the next-generation version. If Google wants the platform to stay competitive visually, it's going to have to roll out a hardware update sooner rather than later.
So much potential, so little effort
There’s a reason that Stadia has maintained a dedicated community despite Google’s weak update schedule. The underlying technology powering Stadia is remarkably effective, a clear glimpse of a more accessible and more mobile gaming future.
You can see how Stadia could dominate. By allowing anyone to play games without investing in expensive consoles, Google has immediately broadened the gaming audience. The buy-as-you-want model empowers consumers to choose exactly what games they want to play without locking themselves into a recurring subscription service, a model that works because the platform’s third-party support is surprisingly strong.
Stadia could dominate.
Staring down the prospect of spending half a grand on a new console, I found myself drawn to the value of Stadia. Committing to Stadia requires playing by Google’s loose definition of ownership, but not having to manage limited hard drive space helps take the sting out. It also requires sacrificing a few visual bells and whistles right now, but when Stadia gets that promised ray-tracing hardware update, I’ll be able to experience it without paying for any new hardware.
Of course, that’s assuming those hardware updates ever happen.
I hope they do. One year into being, Stadia is gaming’s most frustrating platform. I want it to be better than it is. It deserves to be better than it is.