Google Stadia Had Big, Disruptive Ideas That Others Should Steal
A Stadia that resembled Google's original pitch could have had a major impact on the industry.
Though it's easy to forget after watching Google struggle for years to provide a game-streaming experience on-par with a traditional PC or console, the mega-corporation originally pitched its Stadia service with much broader ambitions. The vision outlined in Stadia's 2019 announcement promised several features that actually could have been disruptive game-changers for the industry--if only any of them had been available at launch or gotten more widespread distribution once they did arrive.
Now to be clear, I'm not talking about laughably pie-in-the-sky promises like "negative latency." Some of its tech promises were nothing more than smoke and mirrors, attempting to assuage reasonable concerns about streaming tech as the backbone of its video game offerings. Instead, I'm talking about synergistic goals that should have been perfectly achievable for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world that's already operating a huge and successful video streaming site and server infrastructure network.
Features like State Share, Stream Connect, Crowd Play, and Crowd Choice had a chance to integrate video games and the popular advent of game streaming for an audience like never before. But each of those features were absent from launch and weren't really integrated at a platform level--individual developers had to implement them piecemeal, making the experience of using the service inconsistent. As of late 2021, Google boasted that more than 20 games in total included one or more of these features. That was less than 10% of the total library, and even among those games, many of them only included one or two of the features, not all four.
In concept, at least, these were great ideas.
State Share would allow you to send a captured game state to your friends, letting you help them through a difficult part of the game and then send it back, or challenge them to outdo your own accomplishments. In the end this was used mostly as a bootstrapped challenge mode, letting players and developers like id Software share Doom Eternal Horde mode loadouts.
Stream Connect promised a tightly integrated co-op multiplayer experience, showing each player in a game a live video feed of their teammates' screens for better coordination. In the end, it was mostly supported by a handful of Ubisoft games--a solid use-case given its slate of tactical first-person shooters, but not enough to put Stadia on the map.
Crowd Play, a feature targeted toward giving video game streamers more tools to interact with their community, could have been incredible. YouTube streamers could invite viewers to jump right into the game and play alongside or against them. In theory, you could organize tournaments or create massive and asynchronous multiplayer experiences. This was the concept that would most centrally leverage Google's YouTube business into its video game offerings, and it seemed like a perfect marriage of both. In the end, it was supported by roughly 10 games, which would create a queue for players to join. That also presented the obvious problem: the more popular the streamer, the bigger the queue. No one wants to wait behind 1000 other people just to play in a four-player session of Borderlands 3.
And finally, Crowd Choice wasn't an especially innovative idea--an audience poll, basically--but the feature was meant to integrate into the games themselves. Viewers could vote on meaningful choices in games and the streamer would live by what the audience suggested. Granted, plenty of streamers functionally do this already by setting up audience polls and just committing to the bit, but this was a cleaner way to do it.
All in all, these platform-level features weren't available across the entire platform, which meant the elements that could have set Stadia apart were so sporadic that they never made much of an impact. Imagine if Xbox left a major platform-level feature like Smart Delivery up to individual developers to figure out, and so it only appeared on roughly 10% of games. The inconsistency itself dooms the feature to fail.
This was exacerbated by the lack of first-party development on Stadia. While Google talked a big game about starting its own internal development studios that would optimize games for the platform, none of those materialized. As we've seen in successful consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, first-party development is more than just a way to score exclusives. Platform-holders have a vested interest in making sure their internal development shows off the unique features of the hardware and serves as a guidepost for third-party developers to follow. Stadia had no first-party development, just vague notions that we would get exclusive games eventually.
Imagine a world where State Share was integrated into every game, letting players pass their progress back and forth at will, and letting developers and streamers share their own builds to democratize their experiences. Imagine a multiplayer game built around Stream Connect, in which seeing through each others' eyes was a vital part of the tactical experience instead of a nice-but-not-necessary add-on. Imagine a game made for Crowd Play, which could scale up based on audience size to allow small groups or massive streaming communities to play together. And imagine a game built for Crowd Choice, in which watching your favorite streamer live by your choices was not just incidental, but centralized to the experience.
Those concepts were strong, and Stadia presented a vision for the future of gaming that was compelling. Where and how exactly Google went wrong will be the subject of much speculation and discussion as the service winds down. But those concepts are still viable, smart, and worth pursuing. Google had every opportunity to make good on its promises, especially since it also owned the video streaming service at the heart of some of its coolest feature ideas. But other platforms can and should pick up the slack and work to implement those and similarly ambitious concepts.
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