The high cost of being an early adopter.
The promise of a game streaming service like Google Stadia is hard to reject. You can theoretically stream AAA console and PC games on your phone, TV, or in a browser, without much more than a bit of tech and a second thought. They can look great because of the powerful hardware in Google's servers, and they will always be up to date, cutting down on annoyances like having to periodically download game patches. Taken in good faith, that's a reality worth wishing for. And in many ways, Google has delivered on its streaming tech, but it's also failed in other, arguably more important areas. Google needs to sell Stadia as a platform, and it's here that it struggles the most. Unlike its competitors, Google isn't value-propping games as subscription filler. It's charging big bucks per game, sometimes as much or more than physical copies of PS4 or Xbox One copies of the same titles. And if you have a data cap, the costs don't stop there.
Having finally seen what Stadia is at launch--a basic and expensive yet capable version of the product that was pitched at GDC 2019--it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the other gaming giants next to Google at the raceline: Microsoft and Sony. Sony's PlayStation Now cloud service was recently priced down to $10 a month (w/discounts for longer-term commitments), and that gets you access to hundreds of PlayStation games from multiple console generations, on a few different devices. Microsoft's xCloud game streaming service only exists as a private beta, but our early experiences streaming to Android phones have been smooth. Microsoft also just expanded the available library of games from four to 50, simultaneously revealing that xCloud will become a part of the Xbox Game Pass subscription starting next year.
Neither Microsoft nor Sony, however, can match Stadia's framework today, which emphasizes extensive multiplatform support, quality-of-life features that seamlessly connect the experience across devices, and 4K, 60 FPS gameplay with HDR and Dolby 5.1 on your TV. Google is one of the few companies positioned to make cloud gaming an experience on par with dedicated consoles or PCs, and it's gotten us closer than any other service before.
Though you can make use of third-party console controllers in some scenarios, the official Stadia controller is the key to exciting new features to come in 2020. It's also just a great all-around controller. With a body akin to a Switch Pro controller and a layout similar to a DualShock, the Stadia controller is both familiar and new. Materially, it's good looking and pleasing to hold, and practically, it works like a charm. I only have good things to say about it, and it should only increase in value as Google continues to release new features centered around its built-in microphone and Wi-Fi connection.
A word of warning, though: The Google-recommended smartphone clip scratches at the Founder's Edition controller's finely textured finish, leaving permanent scuffs in its wake. The Claw, as it's called, has a very sturdy grip, and the tension of the phone clamp is equally intense. Definitely think twice before investing in a phone clip if you're sensitive to the cosmetic condition of your controller, but don't take the opportunity for granted, because the Claw positions the phone in an ideal way for mobile gaming.
Prior to launch, I played bits of Red Dead Redemption 2, Destiny 2, Mortal Kombat 11, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Kine, and the new Stadia exclusive, Gylt--a youthful adventure with Alan Wake vibes. After launch, I spent time playing Grid, Samurai Shodown, Thumper, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood. These tests took place on a Pixel 3 XL phone, on multiple PCs and laptops, and a 4K TV, primarily using Google's official Stadia controller.
And wouldn't you know it, Stadia usually worked well most of the time. On a good connection, I was looking at console-level graphics on a mobile device, and with the Founder's Edition controller and a custom plastic clip, I also had console-quality controls. When I got tired of squinting at the phone, which is admittedly a bit of an issue for most games, I might transfer over to a PC by opening the Stadia quick menu and redirecting the display drop-down to an open Chrome browser tab. You have to hardwire the Stadia controller to your PC for now, but you can alternatively use an Xbox One or DualShock 4 controller to play wirelessly. If 4K is what you're really after, you can point the Stadia stream towards your Chromecast Ultra (included in the Founder's Edition bundle). However, according to analysis from the technical experts at Digital Foundry, some games render at sub-4K resolutions (either 1080p or 1440p) and are instead upscaled into a 4K stream. In a recent response from Stadia head Phil Harrison, Google claims that such performance is up to game publishers, and that Stadia is fully equipped to handle native 4K games on its game-playing servers.
Even if it doesn't fully deliver on every technical promise, Stadia makes game streaming, finally, feel like an effective way to play games. But as the old saying goes, just because you can doesn't mean you should, especially if you've got traditional gaming hardware within reach. Even though there were plenty of good times had over the past two weeks, playing games on Stadia comes with compromises big and small. Video compression is an ever-present reality, usually only in large areas of dark or desaturated colors, but occasionally over the entire screen when connected to less-than-ideal Wi-Fi networks. When it gets that bad, you can probably expect some frame skips and a huge increase in input latency. It's always impressive that Stadia works, but it's all too easy to focus on the little technical annoyances that make it feel like a less-than alternative to traditional console or PC gaming. Even at its best, you can spot symptoms of the cloud-based experience.
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With high speeds comes big amounts of data. According to Google, Stadia will potentially stream up to 20 GB of data an hour for 4K gameplay, or 4.5 GB an hour at 720p. A balanced option exists where Google will calculate a data rate somewhere in the middle, based on your network environment. But no matter how you look at it, there's going to be a very noticeable increase in your internet usage, and that might come at a cost. To make a long story short, I had to drop $50 extra on my internet bill to unlock my data cap to play Stadia as intended because I already hit, or come close to hitting, my data cap every month. It's an added cost I can afford because it's for work, but when I try to imagine the impact that would have on me as a typical consumer, I dare say it's a dealbreaker.
If anything is going to convince me otherwise, it's the games I can play on Stadia. Because it's free for all Stadia Pro user, Destiny 2 is bound to be one of the most popular games out of the gate. Under ideal conditions, Destiny 2 plays decently, with responsive controls and good-enough graphics. If, however, you encounter lag, you will struggle during firefights while your reticle darts and stalls. It's also one of the more challenging games to play on a phone screen due to the relative size of distant enemies that you'd otherwise be able to see on a TV, but which appear miniscule when shrunken to fit the smaller screen.
Mortal Kombat 11 is another one of many games that becomes unplayable without a connection strong enough to support quick actions and reactions. That almost goes without saying for most video games, but it's especially true with a fighting game like MK. But when everything works as it should, MK doesn't feel too far off from the real deal--though its easy to detect a touch of input latency if you're looking for it.
Once Stadia launched, I was also able to test games like Thumper, a demanding and trippy rhythm game by Drool, and the new Codemasters racing game, Grid. It was great to see that I could earn S ranks consistently, and place in first at the end of races, despite the fact that these games were streaming. But playing Grid drove home that some things can fall short even if a game plays well on Stadia. Sadly, like many multiplayer Stadia games, finding competitors online in Grid was mostly a crapshoot, and I often just had to settle for the single-player experience. Outside of evening hours, the same was true for Samurai Shodown.
I can play games for long periods of time under generally acceptable conditions, but it's all too easy to focus on the little annoyances that make Stadia feel like a less-than alternative to traditional console or PC gaming.
Tequila Works' Gylt is the one exclusive game in the package, but it is a far cry from a system seller, leaning into basic stealth design and a childlike definition of horror as its main selling points. As mentioned earlier, it evokes an atmosphere that can best be compared to Alan Wake, with strange supernatural disturbances wreaking havoc on the real world. There are monsters standing between you and the next item or puzzle, and your best bet for staying alive is to sneak undetected, or fight back using a flashlight to defeat monsters. After a couple hours of playing Gylt, my interest dried up. I can see how it might entertain someone who isn't dedicated to keeping up with the latest games, but it's derivative design is likely too middle-of-the-road to satisfy the gaming enthusiast waiting to see what Stadia's all about.
Stadia Launch Lineup Pricing
I have experienced less than half of Stadia's launch library at this time, but when I think about it a different way, I've actually played almost everything on the list, just on other platforms. We know that there are a bunch of Google game studios working on future products today, but right here and now, Stadia relies on games from the past to sell its tech of the future, which goes over about as well as it sounds.
The good news is that the ball is mostly in Google's court. Stadia has a strong foundation as a streaming service, and its biggest issues seem solvable. Google needs to address the pricing structure and figure out how to make it work for customers who are trained to view streaming as a subscription service. It may not be possible to do a one-size-fits-all fee given that Google hopes to offer the most popular games day-and-date with consoles and PC, but there has to be a better middle road between a flat fee and the high per-game cost at Stadia's launch. Until it gets there, Stadia will struggle to be viewed as anything more than a costly curiosity.
The good and bad:
+ Low-latency game streaming technology
+ Unrivaled device flexibility
+ A Wi-Fi-connected controller that's on par with first-party console alternatives
- An unexciting launch lineup with a single disappointing exclusive
- Pricing model feels at odds with the market
- Caveats and missing features color the Stadia experience
Google Stadia News