Google Stadia can succeed

Pitching the new streaming service as a competitor to PlayStation is bound to failure, but there is a market that Google could cultivate and own

Google’s Stadia streaming service is out in the open, and it’s, well, pretty much exactly what you might have expected it to be.

Details are admittedly thin on the ground at this point; aside from what the controller will look like and an admittedly impressive demo of moving gameplay seamlessly between devices, Google’s presentation was far heavier on telling us how great this will be for YouTube than it was on telling us what it’ll actually offer to game consumers or creators. More details — minor things like, say, a business model — will no doubt be forthcoming in the next few months, but thus far Stadia remains essentially a tech demo with the actual service still merely a promise.

Plenty has been written about Stadia, predictably enough, in the days since it was shown off, and much of it has been very well considered and insightful. The broad conclusions of the specialist coverage are that the technology is impressive and some of the features genuinely interesting (alongside the seamless device switching, the ability to turn a game state into a shareable link also looks like a genuinely good innovation), but that Google faces a steep uphill struggle in many other regards.

Many commentators have skirted politely around a conclusion that the giant tech firm doesn’t quite “get” games or their consumers; announcing a new service by focusing so heavily on YouTube rather than on the games themselves felt rather like the tail wagging a dog. Compounded by a sense of “look how great Stadia will be for YouTube” rather than “look how we can leverage YouTube to help Stadia,” the presentation left a flavour not dissimilar to Microsoft’s disastrous television focus at the original launch of the Xbox One.

Nobody wants to dismiss Stadia, of course, nor should they. Google’s track record of entering highly competitive new markets is far from spotless (getting an email reminder to download old pictures from the soon to be deleted Google Plus just a couple of days before the Stadia launch felt a little fateful) but its deep pockets and strong competitive advantage in cloud services is not to be sniffed at. This is a company that could be a major player in the games industry, given the right approach. The real question is what the right approach might be.

We’ve all been assuming, to some extent, that Google is going to make a quixotic charge directly at the market leaders. The presentation of Stadia did little to shift that perception, with bombastic lines like “the future of gaming is not a box,” not to mention the only titles presently associated with the platform being console/PC AAA games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Doom Eternal.

The pitch thus far is that this is a service that will replace your console; you won’t buy a PlayStation 5 because you’ve got access to Stadia. It’s a big claim, especially stacked up against the more moderate pitch both Sony and Microsoft are making for their own cloud streaming services, which are both shaping up (for the time being) as “snack between meal” offerings — something you do alongside and in between sessions on a fully-specced Xbox, PlayStation or PC.

If that’s Google’s pitch, I’ll call it now; short of some kind of dramatic loss-leading subscription pricing (of the kind that destroys industry value in fairly short order and in which no developer or publisher in their right mind should participate), this is going to flop hard. For the vast majority of PC and console gamers, Stadia is going to offer an objectively worse game experience — more latency, worse picture quality — in return for convenience features that few will find all that important. Of course, it’s true that consumers gave up some of the quality of the experience of things like music and movies in return for the convenience of cloud services, but the quality difference was smaller (thanks to the possibility of buffering) and the convenience factor higher (since immediate access to a diverse library is much more important for short-form media than it is for large games).

A large part of the core market are people who have spent the past ten years arguing the toss between 30 and 60 frames-per-second, fanboying over GeForce or Radeon, and counting pixels to see which console is giving a clearer picture in a multiplatform game. I may not personally think that’s a particularly fun or interesting way to think about games as a medium, but I’m damned sure those people aren’t about to give up graphical fidelity and controller latency for the sake of not having to download a few gigabytes before starting a game. The pixel-counting contingent may be small, but the broad sentiment is pervasive; most existing consumers of AAA games are used to buying hardware — note that literally nobody ever suggested that the USP of Netflix should be “you won’t have to spend a few hundred bucks on a nice Blu-Ray player” — and do pay attention to graphical fidelity.

That, however, isn’t the only audience Google could be looking towards, and it’s more interesting to think about the audience that might actually be receptive to Stadia than to come up with more reasons why the existing core market is going to largely ignore it. There are other potentially significant audiences out there for whom buying a console or gaming PC is a major barrier and a service like Stadia could really work. Essentially, you’re looking for the kind of gaming consumer who isn’t engaged enough to buy expensive hardware or invest a lot of time in the hobby, but remains interested in trying out the latest major games or perhaps playing online with friends occasionally.

That’s a not insignificant market; a combination of lapsed gamers who can’t quite justify a PlayStation 4 under the TV any more, casual gamers who have started to develop more core tastes, or perhaps kids without access to the latest hardware but who still want to play recent titles online with friends. It’s a whole lot of different interest groups sitting in a somewhat untapped layer between the casual smartphone gaming market and the core AAA gaming market, and it’s arguably ripe for a service like Stadia.

The challenge is two-fold. Firstly, the business model has to be right; a market of people who are too casually engaged with games to spend money on hardware are going to be incredibly price sensitive, much more so than the core gamers who routinely drop $60 or more on a new game. Secondly, the games have to be right; Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a great game which I’ve personally played for many hours (and I’m sure Doom Eternal will be too), but there’s a reason why smartphone games are so very different to console and PC titles and it’s not just down to the free-to-play model or the touchscreen interface.

The usage scenarios for more casual players are simply different; you or I may be able to sit down for several hours on end to play a game like Assassin’s Creed (though god knows even the most core of gamers starts to lose those opportunities for lengthy play-time as we get older), but the more casual someone gets, the more they’re looking for engagements that fill shorter time periods.

Many, many years ago, when World of Warcraft first launched, one of Blizzard’s major innovations was creating quests around the idea that you should be able to log in and accomplish something in 30 minutes. It was a revolutionary idea in a time when MMOs routinely expected a time commitment of hours. Smartphone games have busted that down to a minute or two. I have uninstalled games on my phone for the cardinal sin of taking more than 30 seconds to get through logo and loading screens on startup, which can eat a not insignificant chunk of my short commute in the morning.

That kind of timing remains an underappreciated and extremely important part of targeting a game to a specific kind of audience. Note that far and away the most successful game to target (intentionally or otherwise) the middle ground between casual and core is Fortnite, which has play sessions that last for about 15 minutes. That’s the kind of interaction model a service like Stadia should be looking at; a game you can click on and launch, play for 15 minutes, and then shut down with the sense that you’ve accomplished something.

This isn’t to say that longer (or shorter) game sessions won’t happen routinely on the service, but the size of the interaction will absolutely need to be shorter and more manageable than for a console game. The aim has to be something that people will think, “Oh, I could do a round of that game on Stadia before bed / before my flight / during my lunch break,” rather than, “I could settle down on the sofa for a couple of hours with this game.”

Thinking about how Stadia could target this “above casual, below core” layer isn’t entirely idle speculation. There is some indication that Google’s nascent games team is being staffed with the kind of people who will understand how to target the platform a bit more intelligently than “what PlayStation does, but on the Internet and worse quality.” Jade Raymond has worked on a mix of console AAA and more casual titles like The Sims in her career, and Phil Harrison was deeply involved in Sony’s various efforts to expand PlayStation’s appeal to broader audiences and more casual consumers.

Moreover, games like Fortnite provide a helpful proof of concept for what could be accomplished here. The success of battle royale titles as free-to-play games supported by a large streaming ecosystem and running on a huge range of platforms including mobile phones is highly suggestive of where a service like Stadia could really make its mark. If that’s where Google goes with this, it stands to become a significant market player — one that likely won’t make the slightest dent in sales of PlayStation, Xbox and gaming PCs, but that could instead grow and develop a whole new market sector alongside them.

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