After months of rumors, speculation, and some recent teases from the company itself, Google finally unveiled its big gaming announcement during a Game Developers Conference keynote in San Francisco earlier this month. Rather than a console, however, Google revealed Stadia, a cloud gaming platform that allows users to stream games to any device. The GDC 2019 presentation showcased what it's capable of, as well as the controller Google has designed for it, the first-party development studio it's established, and much more.
The presentation began with Google CEO Sundar Pichai talking about how the company has been experimenting with streaming game technology for several years. He explained how the goal is to essentially create a streamlined experience where you can play on any device at any time, without any of the hassle. This is also when he announced the Stadia name and handed the reins off to Phil Harrison, the former Sony exec who is now a VP at Google. During GDC, we also had an extensive chat with Harrison in which we discuss everything from exclusive games to latency concerns to data caps to whether Stadia will ever allow offline downloads (answer: nope).
While Google was certainly pitching the public in general on the potential of Stadia, some of its messaging was also directed at developers. "As a developer, you're used to being forced to tone down your creative ambitions that are limited by the hardware, but our vision with Stadia is the processing resources available will scale up to match your imagination. In this new generation, the data center is your platform," Stadia's head of engineering Maj Baker said during the Stadia briefing. That's potentially tantalizing for devs, although we can all daydream about what super-powerful hardware could mean.
While many details--including how much Stadia games will cost and a specific release date--have not been announced, below you'll find a roundup of everything we've learned so far. We also have some thoughts on why Stadia could be a big deal. Meanwhile, Apple has revealed its next foray into games, which takes the form of a very different (and arguably much more modest) service: Apple Arcade.
Does It Work?
Maybe the most pressing question of all is whether Stadia works. We got to go hands-on with Stadia at GDC and have written up our impressions. Given the conditions, we can't draw any definitive conclusions, and even once it's released, each person's experience is sure to be different, given the varying levels of network quality. While we did experience some input lag, the service did seem promising based on our time checking out 2016's Doom and Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
For its part, Google insists latency won't be a problem. Phil Harrison told us at GDC that he's "absolutely, unequivocally" certain that it won't be an issue, and pointed to Doom Eternal (the upcoming sequel, which we didn't get to try on Stadia for ourselves) as evidence.
"Having a studio with the very, very high threshold of quality and functionality from id; having id on our stage was very purposeful because the way [producer Marty Stratton] tells the story is spot on," he said. "They were skeptical when we first started talking to them. they were skeptical that a streaming platform could support the level of quality and responsiveness that they needed to deliver on their game experience. What they have delivered with Doom Eternal absolutely demonstrates that."
Is Stadia A Console?
Stadia is not a console--nor is it tied to any specific hardware. Unlike a traditional console, Stadia isn't tied to a specialized box in your home or your hands. Instead, it streams the game data to any platform with an internet connection. That means you can play high-fidelity games through anything from a mobile phone to a Chromebook. You can play on your TV, too, through a Chromecast Ultra HDMI streamer.
The decentralized nature of Stadia is a major feature of the platform, and the one Google has built most of its new product features around. It's set to launch in 2019, with more release details coming this summer.
Its usage will likely depend greatly on where you live and the quality of your internet connection. As such, you probably shouldn't expect it to outright consoles, at least in the short term. Speaking with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, we were told to think of Stadia as more "complementary" to PCs and consoles.
On a PC you can play Stadia through existing supported controllers. Google is also releasing its own specialized Stadia controller, pictured below. The Stadia controller has a few extra features built to work with the platform: smart device detection, a share button, and a Google Assistant button.
Is There A Price? Does It Work Like Netflix?
Google knows how pricing will work but isn't sharing those details yet. At this point, Google has focused primarily on showcasing what Stadia is capable of--both the fact that it works and the types of features that it enables. It has not at all broached the subject of how much it will cost. Maybe even more importantly, we don't know if you'll buy games directly, buy limited-time access to games, subscribe to a Netflix-style subscription, or some combination of these.
In an interview with GameSpot, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot suggested that all of these pricing options are on the table. "I think we will have a multitude of ways," he said. "Either you buy full price and you play; or you will be able to also register, possibly, to play either one hour or two hours a day. There will be plenty of ways."
What Can It Do?
Stadia is built around the natural advantages of being a streaming platform. For example, Google showed seamless switching between various devices, similar to Nintendo Switch's different play modes. This also means that games can be played at high fidelity regardless of the device. At launch it will stream in 4K at 60 FPS with surround sound and HDR support, and in the future Google is planning to support 8K resolution and frame-rates upwards of 120 FPS.
Since the actual rendering is being done through a server farm, developers are encouraged to take advantage of the extra processing power. One tech demo showed real-time destructible environments. Another showed a multiplayer game that fed several video feeds into a single player's stream. Because of how Stadia is built, Google has emphatically stated it won't allow offline downloads. Doing so would "compromise" the company's vision.
Two consumer-facing features, State Share and Crowd Play, are aimed at encouraging interaction between friends, or between streamers and audiences. State Share lets you create moments for friends or stream viewers to play from exactly the same point in a game. Crowd Play lets streamers form a queue of viewers who can jump in and play a multiplayer game with them.
What Are The Games? Will There Be Exclusives?
Though the presentation was ostensibly for a dedicated gaming platform, Google has not yet announced very many games. Id Software's Marty Stratton appeared on stage to promise Doom Eternal will come to Stadia, and Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert said he's working on a game built around the State Share feature. Tequila Works' Luz Sancho appeared on stage, but did not commit to a specific game project.
Former EA and Ubisoft studio head Jade Raymond is also heading up the newly formed Stadia Games and Entertainment division, which will create first-party games. The studio will also work with third-party developers to help use the technology.
Ubisoft is also likely on-board, having helped test the Project Stream platform last year that served as a test bed for Stadia. Assassin's Creed Odyssey--the game from that test--was specifically shown during the Stadia presentation, and it seems clear that you can expect future Ubisoft games to also be available.
In terms of exclusives, Phil Harrison says those will be important, but that he's more concerned with games being built to run on data servers, even if they also end up being available on other streaming services. "I understand that [for a gamer] the word 'exclusive' can sometimes be a challenging terminology," he told us. "[I would] rather we moved the narrative towards [games] that are built specifically for a data center. And if those games also show up on other streaming platforms, that's okay, because what that means is that the developers are starting to innovate and think about the future and [build] a 21st century game, rather than a 20th century game."
In a fun little nod for longtime gaming fans, the rear of the Stadia controller hides a little secret: the Konami code. You can actually input the code on the Stadia website to check out a model of the controller. There doesn't appear to be anything more to it than that, but it's still a nice touch.
Why Is Cloud Gaming A Big Deal?
Cloud gaming isn't new by any means; PlayStation Now, for instance, has been around for a while. But we're finally reaching the point at which it stands to become a more significant component of how games are distributed. That doesn't necessarily mean cloud gaming will replace consoles and dedicated hardware, as it could be a matter of complementing those things. To get you up to speed, we've put together an explainer on why cloud gaming is the future.
Who's The Competition?
As noted above, PlayStation Now already exists, and Microsoft just recently showcased its xCloud streaming technology, with Forza Horizon 4 being played on a phone. Microsoft also announced plans to begin public testing this year. To help you keep track of all this, we've assembled a list of the top companies in the cloud gaming space. There are more than you likely realize.