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Google Stadia

Google Stadia

Written by Eric Hauter on 12/16/2019 for
More On: Stadia

Google Stadia is going to be awesome.

To be clear, Stadia is not awesome yet. The system is unstable. The picture hiccups. The business model is unusual, and not very consumer friendly. But after the initial wave of suspicion and backlash dies down, the gaming community in general should probably cut Google a little slack. It is Google, one of the largest tech powerhouses in the world. They may very well figure Stadia out, and their taming this technology will benefit the entire gaming community.

It is important to remember that almost no online service gets off the ground without some bloodshed. Every online game title that releases is a disaster during its first weeks, and gamers all conspire to act surprised and outraged—every time. Netflix’s video streaming service was a pixelated mess during its first years. Hell, Disney Plus just launched a month or so ago with an app that was an absolute train wreck, but we communally gave them the benefit of the doubt because we knew they would eventually get their act together. Google is the same. They are proceeding in a slow and measured manner, ironing out the kinks, steadily advancing their technology.

If you are going to jump in on Stadia and become an early adopter, it is best to remember what Stadia currently is. In software development, the term is "minimal viable product" (MVP). The idea behind an MVP is that you get the core of your product up and running, and then push it out the door to the public. Once you have actual consumers banging on the thing and giving you feedback, you start refining the workflows, adding bells and whistles as you go. Features are slowly tacked onto the MVP, until finally, it isn’t an MVP anymore. It is an actual, functioning, desirable product. Sound familiar?

The issue with the current state of Stadia is this: gamers have no patience for MVPs. It has been shown time and again that the gaming community expects a product to be 100% done and functional by the time it hits store shelves (or shows up on your doorstep via UPS, as the case may be). The gaming community can be very black and white in their judgments; things are either awesome or they are garbage. There is no gray area. And Google Stadia exists very much in a gray area right now. It is not complete. Nowhere near, actually. But Google is working on it, and it is fairly premature to call the product a disaster.

Because if there is anything the gaming public loves more than declaring some new product to be a disastrous rip-off, it’s watching a former disastrous rip-off claw its way back into gaming’s good graces. And Google Stadia could very well pull off one of these miracle rebounds.

For now, yes, the Stadia has a lot of issues. That’s where it is in its product development life cycle. And to be clear, Google had to release this seemingly incomplete product to the public. They could never progress the tech further if they hadn’t. But the fact that Stadia works at all is a technological science-fiction miracle. If you had told me even 10 years ago that this platform would ever be possible, I would have laughed in your face.

Listen to this, it sounds like an Arthur C. Clarke fever dream: Google runs a game on some mysterious ethereal cloud server. Where is it geographically? Can it be defined in those terms? Is it even a solid object? Who knows? All I know is that they run the game on their system and stream the image to my device.

I hold a controller in my hands. I press the X button on the controller. That impulse leaves the controller, travels through the air to my Wi-Fi router, leaves my home via my terrible internet provider’s terrible tech, and goes who knows where? Outer space? I’m sure outer space plays into this somewhere.

Through some magic voodoo, the impulse arrives at Google’s mystical cloud servers, and tells my character to jump. Google processes the command, and on my screen the character jumps. Instantly. It’s amazing. In the 40+ hours I’ve spent playing games on Stadia in the last week, I have never once experienced any sort of controller lag or latency. You click the button, and the action happens immediately.

We’ve all seen the videos of the dude clicking a button and his character jumping a couple of seconds later. It makes for a good internet video, getting lots of self-satisfied clicks. But then, I never experienced any dragons flying upside-down in Skyrim, either, but those were some pretty entertaining YouTube clips. My point? Sure, that latency happened to that guy (and dragons flew upside down for some people). But that is an outlier, an edge case. It is not the norm experienced by an everyday user on Stadia. For all the problems the system has right now at launch, controller latency is not one of them. Mortal Kombat works. Thumper works. Grid works. Stadia’s controller just…works.

The controller itself is a very nice piece of tech. I love the deep matte colors that Google chose, and the controller feels solid and reliable in your hands. The button, analog stick and trigger layout will be immediately familiar to modern gamers—the closest comparison to be made would probably be to the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. The controller holds a charge well too. I went on a marathon eight-hour Red Dead rampage the other day, and the controller held steady the entire time. I don’t even know what happens when the charge on the Stadia controller runs low, because it never happened to me.

In addition to the standard buttons, sticks and buttons, the Stadia has two additional buttons. A Google Assistant button, which really doesn’t do much right now, and a capture button, which really doesn’t do much right now either. Well, the capture button does do a screen grab, but there are two big issues with it. A) it only sends the picture to the Stadia app, where it is trapped in amber and can’t be forwarded out (I had to take screenshots of the screenshots on my phone), and B) the screen grab snags the image Google is sending you, not necessarily the image you are seeing. Don’t try to grab an image of your pixelization problem, because the image you get will be shiny and clear.

Regardless of the need to expand on the function of these extra buttons, the controller is nice. But how is the actual experience of playing games? The answer to that is going to vary dramatically depending on where you live and what your internet service is like.

My first experience with the Google Stadia actually started in a deeply disappointing way. The process for setting the system up appears at first to be complicated, but in practice isn’t as bad as it seems. You install a Chromecast Ultra on your television with the Google Home app. After that, you download the Google Stadia app and create an account. Enter a few codes and passwords, hit a couple of buttons on the controller to sync it to the Chromecast, and you are good to go. The entire process from end to end took maybe 10 minutes.

Excited to get started, I immediately loaded up the original 2013 Tomb Raider—figuring that even though it originally released in 2013, the recent remaster likely made it the most graphically intensive title of the four available freebies (I later received some more games, but at first I just had the four Pro-level giveaways; more on that in a bit). For my first experience, I wanted something pretty.

Following my delight in watching the game crank to life when I hit the Start button, I was immediately plunged into disappointment and despair. All of my excitement for Stadia washed away in a rush as I watched the opening cut scene of Tomb Raider pixelate, hiccup and stutter. Just about everything that could be wrong with the presentation appeared in the first few minutes of Tomb Raider. The visuals dissolved into indecipherable pixels. The sound was out of sync. The visuals would freeze, then rush at 4x regular speed to catch up to where they should be. Tomb Raider was frankly an unplayable disaster.

But then I remembered that I could hardwire the Chromecast to my router with an ethernet cord. Still holding out hope for my shiny new toy, I yanked the ethernet cable from my PS4 and shoved it into the Chromecast. Tomb Raider immediately snapped into shape, crisp and clean. Gorgeous, even. All the previous artifacting was nowhere to be seen, and the frame rate was smooth as butter.

When it is running at optimal levels, the Stadia delivers visuals that are noticeably better than those produced by my base-model PS4. I’m not really a frame rate or pixel counter, so I’m not prepared to enter the argument as to whether Stadia is producing true 4K. I frankly don’t care all that much. What I can say is that Tomb Raider looked good enough that when I saw it running properly for the first time, I just sat there staring at it, whispering awed curse words under my breath.

And my excitement for the Google Stadia came surging back.

Of course, my results have varied. For the most part, I have been able to play games smoothly via my hard-wired Chromecast, but there have been some exceptions. On certain evenings, when my entire neighborhood fires up their Netflix and Hulu streams at once, the performance on my Stadia takes a serious dive. I found myself unable to play Tomb Raider one evening, as the stuttering and freezing made any sort of firefights with Lara a losing proposition.

It isn’t really Stadia’s fault that my internet provider can’t keep up with my area’s prime time viewing habits, but it isn’t really mine, either. It is disappointing when you want to play a game and you can’t because the tech is crapping out. I was hoping that Stadia would be able to scale to these sudden changes in internet speed dynamically, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Stadia offers three streaming settings, which you select via the phone app. The highest is reserved for Stadia Pro members, and allows up to 4K resolution, with data usage of up to 20 GB an hour. The median level is called “Balanced”, which is described as follows: “Let Stadia determine the best experience based on your internet connection speed.” The final option, “Limited data usage,” restricts things to 720p, which seems to be configured for those with fairly dire internet connections. Conspicuously missing is a setting to lock in 1080p. Weird.

It was my hope that by selecting Balanced that Stadia would scale performance based on my internet speed on the fly, dropping down the resolution if my internet connection starts slipping. But that does not seem to be the case.

From what I can tell, the Stadia is pinging my internet connection at the beginning of a session, getting a good result, and then marching forward as though that originally detected internet speed were locked in for the session. Something else might be going on under the hood, but it certainly appears that Stadia is attempting to soldier through sudden dips and dives in my connection. The end result is…undesirable.

It occurs to me that the solutions that Netflix and the like have likely instituted to solve for uneven internet will not work for Stadia. Whereas video streaming applications can front load a few seconds of video to plug in and keep things smooth during bandwidth shortages, Stadia needs to maintain image immediacy. Video games are interactive, after all. You can’t exactly front load something that hasn’t happened yet.

Grabbing my phone and adjusting the data settings down to 720p does help alleviate many of the problems, but then I’m playing a gorgeous game like Red Dead Redemption 2 on old-timey hi-def. No matter what your level of tech savvy, that experience is going to be a little disappointing.

I’ve had somewhat better luck streaming Stadia to my laptop and phone. Any laptop running Chrome can be used to stream Stadia games, and the functionality is slick and smooth. Simply go to Stadia.com, log into your account, and click play on a game. The system launches the game full screen at 1080p, and I’ve found the experience to be much more consistent than playing via Chromecast. It takes a few moments to get warmed up, but once Stadia locks in, gameplay is smooth sailing. I jammed a wired Xbox one controller into my PC, and Stadia immediately recognized it, even going so far as to change the in-game button prompts to match Xbox’s color scheme.

The same smoother experience can be found streaming Stadia to a phone. Currently, only Google Pixel phones support the Stadia app, but Android and iPhone apps have been promised. The contraption used to attach the phone to the controller is funny-looking, but it works great. And the novelty of streaming some big budget game like Rage 2 to my phone is going to keep me entertained for quite a while.

There are still a lot of usability issues within the phone app, but I’m sure those will get smoothed out with time, just like the streaming issues. For example, there are fields in the phone app that aren’t in the desktop, and vice versa. And navigating the app can be a bit frustrating. But again, its early days.

Another drawback to Stadia, but less technology driven: players must resign themselves for now to playing in multiplayer worlds that feel pretty empty. During my eight-hour Red Dead binge, for example, there was only one other player online. We would both enter into the periodic timed events and play against each other, but it still felt a little lonely. He would beat me at the fishing contest, then I would slaughter him in the gold armor shoot-off. When he finally logged off, I realized that I was never going to progress in Red Dead’s multiplayer, because the game refuses to allow me to play story missions by myself. Another minor irritant: Stadia refuses to acknowledge my Twitch Prime goodies, which would give me free access to Red Dead’s Bounty Hunter missions. My Stadia account is tied into the Rockstar Social Club, but Stadia won’t play nice with Amazon, apparently.

I imagine, with time, Google will resolve many of these playability, UI, and compatibility issues, and the audience will grow. Lord knows Google has the resources to throw money at the problem. And with the problems resolved, Google Stadia will graduate from stuttering curiosity to viable system. When it is running at its best, I forget that I’m not playing on a dedicated console. That will soon be the norm. But when Stadia gets to the point where it delivers console-level performance 100% of the time, will anyone still be around to care?

The real question with Stadia isn’t whether the service will smooth out. The real question is what Stadia will offer in the long run to seduce players away from tried and true consoles. Right now, the offerings aren’t too convincing. Pro players—who pay ten bucks a month for a subscription that allows 4K streaming and a library of freebies—are probably underwhelmed by the current offerings. The free games right now are Destiny 2 (basically free-to-play everywhere else), Tomb Raider (a five-year-old PS3 port, but still nice), Samurai Showdown (niche) and Farming Simulator 19 (super niche).

An eventual free version of Stadia is promised in 2020, which will allow players to purchase Stadia games and play them at 1080p over the network. But I don’t imagine that given the choice between a nice console download and a hiccuping streaming version many players are going to pick the stream for new release purchases. Even older titles are priced much higher on Stadia than they are on consoles. Why would I pay 30 bucks for a hiccuping version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider when I can download the same game on sale from PlayStation for $6.99?

 

So, with all that said, what would move the needle to bring more people into the Stadia fold? Better freebies and bigger exclusives.

Right now, the big splash in subscriptions is Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, which offers an enormous swath of games to play for a similar amount, including all of Microsoft’s considerable exclusive library. It is a foregone conclusion that Google is working on exclusives for the Stadia beyond its single exclusive launch title Gylt, but if it hopes to get anyone beyond early adopters, or if they want to keep these adopters, for that matter, they will get with the free games, and quick. Google, a much bigger company that Epic, needs to emulate that smaller company’s relentless expansion model, and throw money at the problem. Google seems particularly situated to making it rain, and so make it rain they should.

Content is the name of the game if Google wants to succeed with Stadia. I currently pay Google 15 bucks a month to give my family access to Google Play’s music library. I would happily do the same for a curated, but large, library of games. But Google will need to step it up on the quantity and quality, big time.

For all my examination of Google Stadia’s current issues, I hope that it is clear that I have faith in both Google’s and the Stadia platform’s ability to improve. I was an early VR adopter, and I’ve rather enjoyed following along with that format’s infancy and growing pains. I expect that Google Stadia will be much the same. I’m in, and I’m going to enjoy the ride.

The cost of entry for Google Stadia is relatively low. If you are the sort of person that is interested in new tech, I would go ahead and jump in now, just for the fun of playing around with it. Just understand that you are going to be helping push the needle on Stadia; it isn’t a complete product yet. At this point, Stadia is a team effort. If you aren’t interested in helping to push the plow, best to wait for a bit.

If you do decide to join the Stadia early adopters, give me a holler in Red Dead Online. I need some friends in there. Those horses aren’t going to steal themselves.

Gaming Nexus will be revisiting this review at a later date to examine Stadia’s progress as new features and games roll out. Probably more than once.

Google Stadia is still very much a work in progress, but the parts that are in place are impressive. While the tech has a long way to go to be on par with the consoles of today, the price of entry is low enough that the curious will likely find playing around with the platform worth the small investment. Proceed with caution if you have dicey internet service, and understand that the pricing for individual games is totally out of whack. But if you are an early adopter (you know who you are), I wouldn’t hesitate to give Stadia a whirl.

Rating: 7 Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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