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Stadia Review: One Year Later

Stadia Review: One Year Later

Written by Eric Hauter on 11/10/2020 for STA  
More On: Stadia

It is difficult to believe that Google Stadia has been around for a year now. But tucked into November among new console releases and a barrage of high profile AAA holiday games, Stadia’s one year anniversary has almost arrived. And while Stadia has made tremendous strides over the past twelve months – evolving from a minimum viable product into what I consider to be one of the best gaming experiences available –  the fact remains; Stadia is still considered a niche product by much of the gaming community. Though Google has delivered (almost) every desired usability feature and has expanded the Stadia library dramatically, the tech giant still hasn’t found the special sauce needed to convince the gaming mainstream to give the platform a shot. But that acceptance is creeping ever closer.

Last month’s seven-day free demo of Immortals: Fenyx Rising probably represented the biggest surge forward Stadia has had into the mainstream zeitgeist. For a brief time, new faces were showing up on Twitter saying stuff like “I just tried Fenyx Rising on Stadia, and it was awesome!”. The fact that Stadia was the only way to play the demo for such a major release was big news, and it forced the public to actually give Stadia a shot – with near-universal good results. It was a genius stroke of marketing, something that Stadia desperately needed.

Indeed, it seems that Stadia’s marketing team has had new life breathed into their efforts, and the platform is suddenly showing up in more conversations. But from the outside looking in, growth has been slow, and the Stadia faithful – weary of being mocked online - regularly comment that they wish that Google could figure out a way to evangelize its platform a little better. Too many internet chumps still refer to buying “a Stadia”, not really comprehending that Stadia is a place, rather than a thing. And though great new marketing videos have finally explained what the platform is (and is not) in plain English, creating videos and getting people to watch them are two different things.

 

For every great leap forward, Stadia seems to be hiding a stumble up its sleeve. The platform holds digital “connect” events to announce new games and events, then surprise-drops games that have never even been announced two days later. Major new features quietly arrive on the platform with nary an announcement. Google is quietly working on AAA exclusives for Stadia, but no one knows what they are. Google acquired Typhoon Studios, the makers of Journey to the Savage Planet – then failed to bring that game to Stadia, or announce what the team was working on. The cadence that Stadia has fallen into is odd - sometimes surprising and fun, sometimes obtuse and weird. It is easy to understand why fans get frustrated.

But before we go any further, lets get a few basic things out of the way. Last year, I opened my review of Stadia with the following statement: “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. They may very well figure Stadia out, and their taming this technology will benefit the entire gaming community.”

I would now like to clarify that, functionally, Stadia has reached the point where it is indeed awesome. Much of the platforms’ promise has been realized, and new features are being rolled out all the time. Hell, just this week Stadia popped Family Sharing into production, allowing my entire family to share my Stadia library – with their own save states and achievements - via our Google Family plan. That isn’t nothing.

 

My early concerns about the platforms’ instability have been completely resolved. I rarely, if ever, encounter anything on Stadia but a crystalline picture and stellar sound. I no longer see any hiccups or stutters, and have not had a problem with the platform crashing in ages. Recently, I had the choice to play Watch Dogs: Legion on PlayStation 4 or Stadia, and I chose to play the game on Stadia. Performance-wise, Stadia is just so much better than anything my aging PS4 can offer (Editor’s note: this article was written the week before the release of next generation consoles). For single-player epics, Stadia is my platform of choice, no question.

Convenience-wise, the ability to pop back and forth between my TV and PC without missing a beat is invaluable. As a father, I need a way to game away from my television, and Stadia allows me to skip off to another room and continue playing if my kids’ chatter gets too loud (or the game becomes too inappropriate). For that matter, I could simply fire the game up on my phone – Stadia now works perfectly on Android phones with or without a controller, and the ability to use mobile data instead of WiFi to play Stadia is a dangerous temptation when out and about.

So many features have been added to Stadia since its launch that they have been hard to keep track of. Achievements, Friends lists, the ability to use the Stadia controller on PCs via Bluetooth, the list goes on and on. Stream Connect allows players to see what is happening on teammates’ screens via picture-in-picture, State Share allows players to post a link that others can click on to pop into a game (perhaps you may have heard – I was the first on earth to use it. I’m kind of a big deal.). Crowd Play allows streamers to let their audiences vote on the next actions to be taken. It seems that every week Stadia quietly drops some new feature onto the platform, quietly announcing the arrival after the fact.

But then the company turns around and makes an enormous misstep – launching the fancy new Google Chromecast TV without Stadia support. When a company as big as Google drops the ball in such a spectacular manner, it deserves the backlash of thousands of fans screaming “What were they thinking?” on Twitter. A perfect opportunity for a synergistic promotion was completely ignored, leaving fans wondering if Stadia really has Google's support or attention at all.

Stadia has also still not released the much ballyhooed Google Assistant in-game guide feature – something that Sony capitalized on by including similar functionality on their new flagship console, the PlayStation 5. And Google has yet to bring integrated YouTube streaming to Stadia after a year – when Amazon’s Luna launched into closed beta with Twitter integration up and running on day one. (Although perhaps this is changing. See image below.)

Hey, where did this come from? It literally appeared while I was writing this article.

And still, Stadia fans remain loyal. Cheering every new announcement, snapping up new controller colors and bitterly debating which is best (it’s Wasabi, y’all). Stadia fans have a great deal of fun expressing disappointment after Stadia Connect events, which are fine to me, but never seem to satisfy anyone else. Creating video content and written blogs, refuting the haters and patting each other on the back, this is a committed, if still a little unsure, fanbase. And there are likely many more Stadia fans out in the world that remain silent out of a desire to avoid the backlash and scorn heaped upon them by console fanboys.

Content-wise, Stadia continues to improve over it's initial "Greatest hits of 2018" offering. Over the last year, Stadia’s library has grown exponentially. From an initial “Free with Pro” offering of four games, Stadia has steadily added six games a month, giving $10-a-month members a rather sizable library for their membership. Currently, new members receive instant access to thirty games, including Sniper Elite 4, PUBG, Dead by Daylight, Hitman, both Superhot games, Orcs Must Die 3, and the entire SteamWorld series. And every month, like clockwork, six more games get added. The flow of games is so heavy, it is impossible for any but the most committed gamers to keep up.

More AAA new releases are starting to creep onto the platform as well. Marvel’s Avengers was available on Stadia day and date, as were Doom Eternal, NBA2K21, Watch Dogs: Legion, and PGA Tour 2K21. Many major publishers seem to be interested in supporting Stadia – though it is unclear what deals have been made behind the scenes to ensure this support – or how long it will last. UbiSoft seems all in, with their latest slate of giant open world games all appearing on Stadia day one. Early Access for Baldur’s Gate III was released two ways, on PC and on Stadia – consoles need not apply. SquareEnix has committed to releasing several of their future titles on Stadia. And EA announced that Madden and FIFA would be on Stadia this year – but neither have materialized anywhere close to those games’ release dates. Bethesda seemed like an early supporter – but following that publishers purchase by Microsoft, the flow of Bethesda games seems all but sure to dry up.

Stadia has also become a home for interesting indie titles. Windbound, Spiritfarer, and Rock of Ages III (among others) all released on Stadia on day one. And Stadia has shown remarkably good taste in selecting indies as exclusives, firing off a series of winners with Spitlings, Lost Words, Get Packed, Stacks on Stacks (on Stacks), Wave Break, and perhaps its biggest coup – Crayta. Stadia’s investment in Crayta’s ongoing community efforts – sponsoring awards for Black creative voices, for example – has been admirable.

Stadia’s continuing investment in high-profile battle royale games – Super Bomberman Online and Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle – seems odd, however. Games like this are extremely popular, but with a limited player base, these games seem doomed to wither on the vine. Either that or they will eventually need to expand beyond Stadia to offer a bigger audience via cross-play. Indeed, with any multiplayer game on Stadia (at least for now) the writing on the wall is clear – open the game up to crossplay, or watch the game struggle to find a steady audience. It’s not a knock on Stadia, its just the reality of the situation. While no user numbers have been made public, it is still pretty obvious to regular Stadia players that the base is too small to sustain multiplayer games for more than a week after release.

However, by offering crossplay, some games ported to Stadia have found steady audiences. The Elder Scrolls Online, Dead by Daylight, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and Just Dance 2020 all feel healthy when jumping into them on Stadia, due to a large PC player base to supplement Stadia’s players. One only wonders why multiplayer giants like Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Marvel’s Avengers – all of which often feel like ghost towns – haven’t followed suit.

Still, though, with over 100 games in its library and a massive amount of functionality added over the last year, Stadia is much closer to the initial product promised by Google than it was upon launch. For players like me that tend to focus more on single player experiences, Stadia is a very exciting and viable way to play games – and in many ways is preferable to self-contained consoles. However, competition is in the wind.

Amazon’s Luna has launched into closed beta – and with a very different business model and extremely high quality game streaming tech, Luna may start nipping at Stadia’s heels. Xbox and PlayStation each have their own streaming solutions, of course, though they vary greatly in offering and quality. Nvidia GeForce Now offers players a way to stream games they already own, played on high-end PCs. Even Facebook has gotten into the act, with their wack-a-doodle freemium mobile streaming solution. The pressure is on Stadia to continue evolving and prove its case to gaming public at large, or get gobbled up by the competition.

Stadia has been a fascinating platform to watch over the last year, and it will be interesting to see how Stadia reacts to the incursion of new consoles into the marketplace. Stadia’s marketing hasn’t focused much on the fact that its performance rivals that of its competition – and right now, performance is all the video game public wants to talk about. The fact that Stadia hasn't flagrantly thrown down the gauntlet - when it can surely compete with next-gen consoles - is intriguing.

Google Stadia is a very solid product. In many ways, playing on Stadia feels like the future of gaming. Being able to simply click on a game and jump right in without downloading or installing patches still feels revolutionary, even after a year. But somehow, Google needs to figure out how to overcome the initial bad word of mouth that still lingers in comments and reddit threads all over the internet. Stadia is a solid – even amazing – way to experience gaming, but mentioning that online invariably results in some joker commenting “Oh, is Stadia still a thing?” In the coming year, Stadia must find a way to continue expanding their content and user base, all the while making the case for its continued existence and overcoming these endless objections. If it does not or cannot, Stadia will risk being eclipsed by all of the other offerings competing for gamers’ attention once and for all. And this will have been for naught.

* 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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