Has Google got its head in the cloud, or can its sheer size help it succeed where many have failed in building a hardware-free future for gamers?
Google’s announcement of game-streaming service Stadia may not have been a huge industry revelation; Google has made no secret of its ambitions to enter the video game market, and it was somewhat given away by public trials last September. Instead, it was the things that weren’t revealed at Tuesday’s Game Developers Conference keynote that took many by surprise. Ahead of the event, a long list of big-name reveals had been rumoured – but none materialised, except Bethesda’s Doom: Eternal, which was not shown actually running on Stadia. And of course everyone was on tenterhooks to find out how much it was all going to cost, information that was also absent.
“There’s just so much that I didn’t learn today that I really wanted to,” says Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz. “And that makes me nervous about it.”
Video-game streaming services are certainly nothing new. OnLive launched a cloud-based game subscription business in 2010, but had ceased operations by 2015. It is one of at least 10 other companies that have tried and failed. The survivors are Nvidia’s GeForce NOW, Shadow and Loudplay, and of course Sony’s own Playstation Now. But Google believes it is bringing something new to this market, based on the sheer scale of its infrastructure, and the technology it is putting at the other end of the cable.
“The specs were really impressive,” adds Cranz. “Those were on par with a 2080 [GPU] from Nvidia and a really nice Intel processor, so [equivalent to] a really good gaming PC. But it’s a completely new platform that people will have to develop games for, so I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to translate games that are already developed for console or PC. This [keynote] felt like less like something for the general public, and more like a pitch to the developers.”
“I’ve always been super-sceptical about streaming games,” says Ragnar Tørnquist, founder of Red Thread Games and veteran developer. “I was told 10 years ago it was going to be everything, and I said no, that’s impossible. But I do think this is the beginning of a sea-change.”
Chet Faliszek, Valve alumnus and co-founder of new development studio Stray Bombay, agrees the time seems to be right for gaming to move toward streaming. “Digital downloads brought us closer,” he tells us. “Stadia seems like the natural progression in our always-connected world.”
The point of game streaming, in theory, is to liberate games and players from consoles and PCs: to enable them to play on any screen, without having to purchase a £350 box to sit under the TV. There is general agreement in the games industry that this would open games up to millions (even billions) more people. “Removing friction between gamers and the game is always the goal,” says Faliszek, enthused to see what the tools will be able to deliver. Tørnquist agrees: “I think that removing technology as a barrier is interesting. It’s interesting for creators as well, as we can get people into our games who don’t have the hardware for it.”
The question is whether most people in the world have access to a fast enough internet connection to make it work. What sort of internet connection would be required to achieve Google’s ambitious 4K streaming? Cranz estimates it would need to be fairly sizeable. “Right now that requires 40-50Mbps, which most Americans do not have. More than half the United States won’t be able to play any of this.”
“But half of people do have internet good enough,” points out Tørnquist –his argument being, for Stadia to succeed, it doesn’t need to include everyone, just enough people.
Competition is always welcome too, for developers as well as players: the more ways there are to reach customers, the less of a stranglehold over the market each competitor has. “I think [streaming] is going to eat into the PC and console market, which is a good thing,” says Tørnquist. Oxenfree developer Night School Studio’s Sean Krankel agrees. “I think more competition is good. I like the idea of things being shaken up.”
Krankel is also rather taken with some of the new possibilities that Stadia opens up, including what Google is calling State Share, a feature that will allow players to share an exact moment in a game with others. He is also enthusiastic about the instant YouTube sharing built into Stadia. “For people who grew up with it, this is just a part of gaming. Video streaming culture has become vital for studios, as opposed to a thing to be afraid of.”
There is also less nervousness from developers around the idea of subscription services, as Stadia is likely to be. Microsoft’s Game Pass has led the way on this, offering a catalogue of games for a monthly price. “Game Pass has been extraordinary for us, because it lets people who would not otherwise play our games try our stuff,” says Krankel. “We’ve seen a lift – when we put [Oxenfree] on Game Pass, sales did better elsewhere. It was crazy!”
It is bizarre that any kind of pricing model was totally absent from Google’s announcement. The audience was shown a huge array of ways players could see a trailer, or glance at a tweet, and be just a single click away from streaming the game on whatever device they were using. But not how much it will cost. “Is this is going to be something I subscribe to monthly? Is it something where I own the game? Am I going to have to reinvest in games I already own?” asks Alex Cranz. “There were just so many questions there, and no answers.”
This raises questions about the idea of ownership. Though perhaps, as in the music and TV industries with Spotify and Netflix, the idea of ownership is becoming less important to players. “The Netflixisation of the industry is going to happen,” says Tørnquist with certainty. “Which is good for us in the short term, but in the long term, maybe not. If you lose your games on Stadia, do you lose what you purchased there? Do you lose your saves? [With streaming] you lose the permanence of it. No copy of that game exists anywhere you can access. You’d have to physically break into their data centre to steal it! Games are going to appear and disappear as the industry moves further into the cloud. People will just carry on with their lives – but what we’ve made could go away forever.”
A potentially sticky fact about Google is that the company does have a habit of losing interest in its less successful projects. Emails are being sent out this week warning people to back up any data they may have in Google Plus, before it’s entirely closed down next month. Its 2016 answer to Facebook’s Messenger, Google Allo, was switched off just last week. And anyone who moved on from the ageing Gmail to the much superior Inbox is having to move back again when that’s shut down in a week. People may well wonder if they should trust Google with their games as much as they would trust established gaming names like Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony.
Everyone we spoke to at the Game Developers Conference was interested in what Stadia could be, although most were hedging their bets until a lot of the questions are answered. How easy will it be for developers to adapt existing games for Stadia? How will pricing work? Which games will be playable on release later this year? What kind of internet connection will be required to use it? And what happens down the line if Google’s attention drifts on to something else?
Yesterday’s presentation offered up more questions than answers about Stadia. It’ll be summer before the picture becomes clearer.