Will Google stick with online gaming?

Article By : Brian Dipert

This engineer took Google's Stadia gaming service for a test run and it worked remarkably well. Will Google keep it around...

In one of last month’s posts, on my new UHDTV, I mentioned that I’d also acquired a new 4K video source for it. A confession upfront; after my purchase, I realized that I already had a 4K-capable Roku streaming player in inventory, which would have passably served for testing purposes. But hey, what’s the fun in that, versus buying another toy to try?

What I’m talking about is Google Stadia, an online gaming service conceptually similar to NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW or Sony’s PlayStation Now (although, as the saying goes, “the devil’s in the details“). It’s intended to enable you to play modern games on a diversity of hardware—Android smartphones and tablets (there’s an iOS client, but for the moment, at least, it only allows you to manage your account), Chrome browser-based computers (including Chrome OS-based devices), and TVs in conjunction with compatible Chromecasts—and without needing to buy (or build) and maintain a pricey PC, or purchase a game console, since most of the “heavy lifting” takes place on Google’s servers.

Theoretically, I could have tried out Stadia without buying any new hardware; I already had a Chromebook and two Android phones, along with multiple computers with the Chrome browser installed (albeit not as the default; I find it to be a resource hog compared to my preferred Firefox), and I’d also already bought an Xbox One controller for use with my Oculus Go VR headset. But a big part of trying out Stadia was to connect it to my 4K TV, right? For that I needed a dedicated Stadia game controller, along with a Chromecast Ultra. And I got both in one package by buying an unopened “Founders Edition” kit off Ebay:

photo of a white Google Stadia box

photo of the underside of a white Google Stadia box, reading "One place for all the ways we play."

photo of a midnight blue Google Stadia controller

photo of a white Google Stadia USB cable in the box

photo of the Google Stadia black power adapter and cord in the box

“Founders Edition” (which Wikipedia refers to as the “Founders Pack“) was the initial bundle that Google offered early adopters, and included the limited edition midnight blue-color controller shown above along with a Chromecast Ultra (4K resolution-supportive, and necessary for pairing to the controller) and coupons for three free months of “Pro” service for both the buyer and a friend. My particular resold unit was absent the coupon codes, but that was no big deal; the “capper” in my decision to try out the service was Google’s likely pandemic- and shelter-at-home-driven decision in early April to offer two free months of “Pro” service to all Stadia users (I signed up for the service later that same month).

The Pro service tier normally costs $10/month. With it, you get several free games (and expansion packs) each month, along with discounts on other games and support for surround sound and 4K resolution. If you later downgrade to the free service tier, you don’t lose access to games you’d previously purchased while Pro, although going forward they’ll “only” play in 1080p max resolution and two-channel (“stereo”) audio.

One thing I was quickly reminded of, in educating myself about the service and its implementation details, was the importance of binary compatibility between software and silicon. I’d initially assumed that the “cloud”-served games were fully running on “big iron” servers, presumably Linux-based. As it turns out, however, while I’m sure there’s still plenty of “big iron” behind the scenes managing the whole enterprise, the games themselves run on racks of single-board computers, each based on an Intel CPU, AMD GPU, 16 GBytes of DRAM, and local SSD storage, one for each account actively playing at the time.

Why? It’s obvious to me, at least in retrospect (as are many things, alas). Stadia’s games are (pretty much, if not completely) ports of titles that originated as Windows PC-based content, therefore were coded for x86 CPUs and graphics APIs such as DirectX, OpenGL, and Vulcan. Asking developers to re-port the titles to a dissimilar operating system and API set (not to mention, potentially, a different microprocessor instruction set), especially for a brand new service with no established customer base, would be a heavy lift. Instead, Google decided to leverage PC-compatible hardware as the emulation intermediary.

Enough background info; how well (or not) does Stadia deliver on its promises? I tried out the service on five different hardware platforms:

  • my Windows 10-based Surface Pro hybrid, using the Chrome browser along with the USB-tethered Stadia controller (direct connection of not only the computer but also the controller to Stadia via Wi-Fi was subsequently added)
  • my MacOS 10.13-based 13″ Retina MacBook Pro laptop, again using Chrome and the USB-tethered Stadia controller
  • my Chrome OS-based Google Pixelbook, yet again in conjunction with the USB-tethered Stadia controller
  • the UHDTV, via the Chromecast Ultra and this time with the Stadia controller Wi-Fi-connected directly to the service
  • my two Google Pixel 3a smartphones, once more with the USB-tethered Stadia controller (Wi-Fi support for the controller is not yet available in this particular platform configuration) and in a unified arrangement courtesy of the Power Support CLAW:

Power Support PR image for the CLAW phone stand and Stadia controller
What’s the experience of playing a Stadia cloud-served game? Remarkably solid, I must say, especially given that my cable broadband connection is relatively modest in speed (~80 Mbps downstream, ~5.5 Mbps upstream, ~20 ms “ping”). Even with “fast twitch” games like GRID, it felt like I was running them on a local computer or game console. Quite cool.

On that note, I should clarify that (at least for now) smartphones are capable of running Stadia gaming only over Wi-Fi; cellular networks presumably are comparably deficient from both bandwidth and response time standpoints, not to mention their typically more restrictive data-usage “caps.”

I was able to save a game on one platform, and then start it up again on another platform from where I’d previously left off. Since the bulk of the rendering took place in the cloud, the effects of processing and other resource differences between platforms were minimized. Obviously, the experience still differed somewhat depending on the screen size and aspect ratio in use at any point in time, but it translated quite well from one platform to another; the high-resolution displays on my comparatively small-screen Android smartphones were particularly beneficial in this regard.

The Chromecast Ultra tethered to my UHDTV indeed reported it was outputting 4K, although in such situations one always wonders whether the images output by the game rendering engine were actually this high-res, or if they were initially rendered at some intermediary resolution and up-scaled from there at the destination client:

photo of the resolution display on a TV

All’s not perfect with Stadia, alas, especially according to hard-core gamers. Since they’d think nothing of assembling and regularly upgrading a pricey high-end computer, I’d argue they aren’t the key target customer demographic anyway, but I digress. Frequently cited complaints include:

  • few (and fewer notable) titles that are exclusive to the service,
  • a slow rollout of esoteric (IMHO) features, apparently a frustration to users and developers alike, and
  • the fact that, unlike with NVIDIA’s GeForce GO competitor (which, in the interest of full disclosure, has no shortage of problems of its own), you don’t “own” the content you purchase; were Google to pull the plug on Stadia, any titles and add-on packs you’d previously acquired would disappear.

I intentionally put own in that last bullet point in quotes. Not to be overly pedantic, but as with music and movies, you never actually own the content, the publisher does; you only purchase a usage license to it. My point here is simply that with titles running on GeForce GO, in contrast, they’re installed on your computer and you retain the option to alternatively play them that way even if the service goes down.

Regarding Stadia’s potential for demise by corporate decree, optimists might point to a raft of recent service enhancements as evidence that Google’s betting on online gaming for the long term:

And indeed, analytics data suggests that Google’s making tangible headway with Stadia. Back in late April, mobile app estimates suggested that 1 million people had to date tried the service at least once, although the app download trend was simultaneously trailing off at the time. And more recently, Stadia for Android hit the 1 million download mark on Google Play, although keep in mind that I have it installed on multiple pieces of hardware, each of which counted as a distinct download. Pessimists might alternatively claim that the recent flurry of promotions and updates is reflective of desperation on Google’s part. And longevity of user interest is also put in doubt by observations such as those in The Verge’srecent column, “Google Stadia is a Lonely Place.”

So will Google stick with Stadia, and if not, will the company make arrangements with content publishers to enable at least some form of game title usage to continue after pulling the cloud service plug? That’s anyone’s guess; one need only look at the Google+ social network for an example of a service that received heavy initial investment and promotion, only to eventually be disbanded when it didn’t achieve adequate ROI. What do you think of Stadia’s longevity likelihood and the service more generally? Sound off in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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