A few days ago, I finally came off the fence and cancelled my Google Stadia Founder’s Edition pre-order. I said a silent goodbye to “my” exclusive night blue controller that never was. Farewell to having first dibs at those fresh, unclaimed gamertags., and adios to the chance to be an early adopter – a player/pioneer exploring new frontiers in the quest for gaming’s future. Yeah, that’s the only one that’s actually going to hurt a little to be honest.
I’ve always been a sucker for new and shiny things, so I was intrigued by Stadia as soon as I saw those early “Project Stream” demos in 2018. The opportunity to play games anywhere and on multiple devices would fit perfectly into my setup and lifestyle. Removing the need to buy and upgrade hardware would allow me to play all the latest games without the cost (and waste) of my current multi-platform rig. And being able to jump straight in to a game without any giant and time-consuming downloads is surely something that anyone who’s bought into the current console generation can get behind.
And when Stadia was formally announced in March 2019, my excitement only grew. Building on the strong foundations of those earlier technical tests, we were treated to some impressive specs and demonstrations. Stadia’s servers would deliver far greater graphical power than the current generation consoles and all with relatively low internet speed requirements, for a 1080p stream at least. Those of us with superfast, more stable connections could expect a top-tier experience – 4K, HDR visuals at 60FPS and with 5.1 sound. And all this would be playable on TVs using just a Chromecast and a controller, or on any device running a Chrome browser.
Besides power and flexibility, we also learnt that Stadia would introduce some interesting new functionality. Native YouTube and Google Assistant integration both sounded kind of neat but something like “Stream Connect” (which allows Google to simultaneously present multiple streams on the players screen) had me genuinely excited for the opportunities it would bring – including new online multiplayer experiences and, this was absolute music to my ears, the potential return of widespread couch co-op. Finally, we were told there will be exclusives too, overseen by new boss Jade Raymond, although details were noticeably absent. And, unfortunately, they still are.
Some Things Missing
And it’s all those missing details and features that have transformed a “yes from me” to “wait and see” when it comes to Google’s imminent game-streaming platform. Less than three weeks away from my expected delivery date and there is still much we don’t know, or simply won’t be getting at launch. Stadia’s first few months now look to me like being more of a paid beta than a legitimate fully-fledged product launch. Will features like Stream Connect be available at launch? How about within 6 months? On how many titles? And how much, exactly, will games actually cost? It’s frustratingly unclear.
That “play anywhere” vision will initially be limited to just the Chromecast Ultra, PCs, Laptops and Pixel phones. No tablets, other Android phones or iOS devices allowed, for the time being at least. And on a TV or without a wired connection, only the Stadia controller will work – as the ability to use existing controllers is not ready either – ruling out local multiplayer without taking the total spending to £180. Perhaps individually these issues are not exactly deal-breakers, but together they form an accumulation of questions, compromises and caveats that, for a time at least, make Stadia feel incomplete.
Where’s The Bang For My Buck?
Another factor is that, for the time being (and once the included 3 months pass has expired), the only way you’ll be able to experience Stadia is through another £8.99 per month for the Stadia Pro tier. For that you’ll get access to 4K streams and 5.1 sound and a still-indeterminate number of free games, released “regularly” and yours to play while you stay subscribed. It’s the PS Plus or Xbox Games with Gold model but with a sprinkling of added uncertainty and a premium price.
While those services are established and offer two and four games respectively, so far Google have only announced one title – Destiny 2: The Collection – and given no indication of how regularly new games will be added. It’s an impressively recent release (when considering the annual pass content and the Shadowkeep expansion) but still built on a two-year old base game that’s now free-to-play on other platforms. It’s also a game that many of the target customers will own or have had a chance to buy already, should they have wanted to. There is value there for sure, I just wonder to whom it will appeal.
And right now, there are just so many other options for a gamer’s money. Even in a quieter than normal Christmas run-in, we’ve just had the latest Call of Duty release and we’re only a few weeks away from the fantastic-looking Jedi: Fallen Order. PS4 owners are probably be gearing up to play Death Stranding or Shenmue III, or looking forward to The Last of Us Part II in the spring. Xbox players have Game Pass, with games like Gears 5 and The Outer Worlds included on day one, and all for a lower monthly fee than Stadia Pro’s. And it’s worth noting that, while none of these games are currently listed for Stadia, there are no titles announced for Stadia that are not playable on one of the existing platforms. Where, beyond the novelty, is the incentive to jump in at launch?
Streaming Without Subscription
Going back to Game Pass for a moment, it seems particularly odd to me that Stadia doesn’t offer a similar service – or, more accurately, a streaming subscription along the lines of PS Now or the long-fabled “Netflix for games”. Not only would this give choice and value to consumers but it seems to fit better with a cloud-based service – showcasing the “no downloads, no patches” strengths of the platform and sidestepping the legitimate concerns many have about the impermanence of digital games “ownership”. Based on a recent interview in Edge, it’s clearly the direction that Stadia boss Phil Harrison sees things going too – so I do expect this to change in due course.
Because now, in November 2019, it just feels like a major omission. Subscription services rule nearly all forms of media and that’s clearly the direction of travel in the gaming space. Xbox Game Pass has continued to grow and evolve with Game Pass Ultimate. PlayStation Now is finally a legitimate competitor, after Sony halved the price and added massive titles like God of War and Uncharted 4 to the mix. EA Access has come to PS4 and will soon be joining Steam, and Apple have launched Arcade on iOS devices. For the future of gaming, Stadia is looking surprisingly out of date before it’s even launched.
For the same monthly price as Stadia Pro – gamers with access to an entry level PC or laptop (a Core i3 and 2GB of RAM) can subscribe to PlayStation Now and have access to over 650 games via Sony’s streaming service. Sure, the technology is weaker, but if they are also one of the 6.8 million people who own a PS4, they can also download and play over 300 of those titles, enjoying a full-fidelity experience and avoiding any of the reliability or bandwidth concerns that they might have with streaming.
It’s by no means a like-for-like comparison but when you compare the value of these services, it certainly makes it hard to justify the value of Stadia Pro. Perhaps Google realised this too by linking up with Ubisoft to bring UPlay+ to the platform. However, although that service will be available through Stadia, it will cost an additional £12.99 – and with Gods and Monsters, Watch Dogs: Legion and Rainbow Six Quarantine all delayed until at least April 2020 (and Ghost Recon Breakpoint reviewing horribly) I can’t see that being a compelling option for many between now and E3 either.
Not Now, But Soon?
And I mention E3 as I do think that it’s around then where things will get interesting. By then, I’d expect many if not all of the issues I have mentioned to have been resolved. We’ll have seen how something like Cyberpunk 2077 runs on Stadia versus the current and maybe even next generation consoles. We’ll know more about Microsoft’s plans for xCloud and how quickly Sony intend to upgrade the technology behind PlayStation Now (as they set out on a recent investor call). We’ll know how well cross-platform play is working and how widely it has been adopted – including whether Call of Duty was the tipping point as I’d hoped or an anomaly before the platform-holders got cold feet.
And, by the summer, everyone should also know what to expect in terms of the next generation too. Just how much will the new consoles set us back? Just what will they be capable of? How will backwards compatibility work? What games will they play? Gamers (who, like me, may be saving their pennies now) will no longer have an idealised version of those machines formed in their minds but will have real, solid information on which to make decisions about how to spend their real, hard cash. And, crucially, how will that stack up to Stadia’s zero entry-cost, play-instantly model that they could dive into immediately?
So I’m still excited about Stadia, it’s just that my pre-order had to go. For the next six months, instead of being on the cutting edge of gaming, you’ll find me ploughing through my shameful backlog and saving my cash for whatever next year, and the next generation, holds. It’s not “no”, but “not now” and it was surprisingly easy for me to cancel despite the constant temptation of the shiny and new. Come the summer, I expect to face a much tougher decision – between the next incarnations of both Xbox and PlayStation and Google’s cloud-based service in a proper three horse race.
One thing is for sure, 2020 is going to be an exciting year to be a gamer.