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Stadia technically could suspend games; it just won’t

by: Eric -
More On: Stadia

Lately, I’ve been considering the Google Stadia a lot, and why it doesn’t suspend games. As an erstwhile business analyst, I can't help but ponder issues like this. And after chewing on it for a couple of weeks, I’ve come to the same conclusion as the Google BA’s and devs likely have: Google Stadia will never allow players to suspend games. It’s a bummer, but it’s totally true. And in their place, I would make the same decision.

As a parent with two small kids in the house, the ability to suspend a game is vital to me. Though I love Google Stadia more and more each day, the lack of a suspend function is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle that is missing for me. Suspending a game goes beyond pausing. It basically gives me the ability to stop a game wherever I am if one of my kids starts screaming about some nonsense, and pick it up hours or even days later. In the middle of a race, during a boss fight, in the depths of a dungeon far from a save point – wherever. The ability to jump back in right where I left off, without booting the game or reloading a previous save, is a lifesaver.

Unfortunately, Stadia can’t (or to be more precise, won’t) do this. And it probably never will. In general, Stadia must rely on a game’s save functionality. From a player’s perspective, autosaving and quick-saving both work fine, but suspending a game is a different proposition altogether.

This is a simplified version of what happens, but I think it works for the sake of this discussion:

When you save a game and exit it, the game shuts down entirely. The save function takes a snapshot of a giant database that is keeping track of all the stuff you have done in the game: which weapons you have, which old ladies you’ve spoken to, which chests you’ve opened. All that stuff. When you boot the game back up, it boots in its default state: the giant database that defines your experience is empty. When you load an old save, the save file populates the database into the exact configuration that it was in when you saved. The chests you’ve opened are now open; the old ladies remember your conversations.

Suspending a game is different. When you suspend a game, the game is still quietly running in the background of your console – in a frozen state. No data is cleared from the database. It is using less resources, but it is still using some of your machine’s memory. That way, when you jump back into a suspended game, it just picks up right where you left off. No need to boot the game, or to populate the database. It’s all there already. It is instantly gratifying to jump directly into your boss fight without the need to sit through three minutes of load screens.

The problem with Stadia is this: when you play a game on Stadia, the system running the game is not your own. It is a shared resource, with Google temporarily allotting the space on their servers for your game to run correctly. These servers are likely configured to give the player just enough space to run their game at the configured settings, and not an iota more. Due to the ebb and flow of traffic, Google simply doesn’t have the resources (or the desire) to leave a game running in a suspended state for days on end waiting for you to come back (or not).

Remember, we are talking about potentially millions and millions of games. Sure, there are only a couple of hundred thousand Stadias out in the wild right now, but even if each of those accounts has five games suspended, we are already to a point where we could conceivably have one million suspended games running in the background. Stadia is an infant; it will surely grow.

Even when you pause a game on Stadia, you are immediately placed on a timer. Stadia will leave your game paused for a period, then it will boot you from its servers. If this happens, Stadia will still hold your game in a suspended state for a while longer, giving you a chance to pick up where you left off. After that, its up to you to reload your most recent save.

The same thing happens if you lose your connection with Stadia. If your internet craps out (or your kids open one Netflix stream too many), Stadia will suspend your game for 15 minutes to allow you to log back in. But after that, the game shuts down, and those resources are reallocated to make room for the next person’s Red Dead Redemption 2 to boot up.

I’ve spent a few days quietly considering ways for Google to work around this, but to make a long story short, none of them are viable. They all involve Google leaving games running in the background on their servers – either your particular iteration of a game, or just a substantial number of each game onto which they could flash-load an image of your database. Long story short – it ain’t gonna happen.

Even going down the path of utilizing the future-tech save-state-sharing functionality that Google was trumpeting when Stadia was announced leads to a technical dead-end. This function will simply allow one user access to another’s save/database (minus a few fields like user name). You will likely still have to boot up the game before applying the save-state. Or, they may make the UI function so that you click on the shared save, and the game auto-boots in the background. But however they do it (and just thinking through this one gives me a headache – it is likely far more complex than it seems), the game will still have to boot up somewhere. Google simply isn’t going to leave empty versions of all of these games running in the background waiting for potential save-state users to possibly load into them. Again, it is possible, it just isn’t optimal. It might even be environmentally irresponsible to leave all of those games running when you consider the eventual accumulated energy usage.

With all products, companies must consider a number of factors before bringing them to market. In all likelihood, the suspension of games came up in a whiteboard meeting early in Stadia’s ideation. Somebody likely said “Well, why can’t we just leave games running suspended?” and then someone else explained it to them. Then the first person said “To hell with that, players can just load the game when they want to play it.” And everybody nodded in agreement. I know I would.