Google's streaming platform has struggled to find its footing, and now Microsoft is poised to beat it at its own game.
It's fair to say that Google Stadia hasn't lit the world on fire. Despite a promising technical test and the deep coffers of one of America's largest companies, the tech has been underwhelming and the library is anemic. This would be a problem for any new emerging technology, but a weak launch can be course-corrected given enough time. For Google, that time is running short now that Microsoft has announced its own, much more robust streaming plans and is leveraging the Xbox brand to do it.
Due to some combination of curiosity and poor impulse control, I bought both an OnLive and a Stadia Founder's Edition at launch. Streaming has always been a fascinating concept, and I've wanted to see it firsthand, for better and for worse.
Stadia has failed to impress. Pro customers get discounts and a couple of free games, but other promised features like 4K output have been inconsistent. (Google pointedly blamed developers for this.) When Stadia does announce a new slate of games coming to the service, it's often ones that have already been out on other platforms for months. It has precious few exclusives. The promise of Stadia is to play anywhere, but I don't travel all that often even in the best of times, much less in the midst of a global pandemic. To top it all off, the games on Stadia are full-priced, often going for the standard price on other platforms, sometimes long after other platforms have offered significant discounts for older games that are marked as "New Releases" on Stadia.
With all this, I'm left with a platform that offers me full-priced games that I've already played, that are cheaper elsewhere, with at least some degree of lag, using a less-than-ideal controller on a service that could vanish if Google decides to scrap the project.
It's in this environment that Microsoft recently announced plans for its xCloud streaming tech. Starting in September, xCloud will be bundled with Game Pass Ultimate, the all-you-can-eat subscription service that also includes Xbox Live Gold. Game Pass has long been an impressive value proposition, and Microsoft has been pushing hard to promote Ultimate as the go-to version of the service thanks to it bundling together the console and PC libraries.
Just in terms of sheer value, this will immediately make Game Pass Ultimate run rings around Stadia Pro. A Stadia Pro subscription grants you one or two games per month, similar to Xbox Live Gold, along with some discounts on full-priced games, for $10/month. Game Pass Ultimate, by comparison, is $15/month and will grant you the ability to stream the Game Pass library--and it also gives you Gold for a few free games and associated discounts. Microsoft hasn't said if the entire Game Pass library will be streaming on xCloud from day one, but even just a fraction would be more free games than Stadia offers, with the promise of scaling up from there. What's more, the Game Pass library includes Microsoft's first-party games, which ensures games from recognizable franchises like Halo, Forza, and Gears are represented.
This is even more impressive in light of Microsoft's Xbox Series X event. The company opened its showcase by stating that every single game shown would be available through Xbox Game Pass. That means the streaming service xCloud will offer the likes of Halo Infinite, Fable, Hellblade 2, and many more.
But it's not just pure pound-for-pound game libraries where Microsoft is challenging Google. Microsoft's xCloud is compatible with any Android device running firmware 6.0 or greater, while Stadia is still relegated to a list of specified mobile devices. (Neither is compatible with Apple's iOS yet, though Microsoft has begun testing.) And Microsoft already has a firm foothold in the video game industry, lending greater assurance to the future of xCloud as part of its existing ecosystem.
Within that ecosystem, xCloud fits comfortably as a part of Microsoft's overall strategy. Assuming xCloud streaming comes to Microsoft's own consoles as well, it provides an on-ramp for current-gen Xbox One users to sample games at Xbox Series X fidelity, with cross-saves and Smart Delivery easing the transition when they decide to make the jump to next-gen. Relying on streaming as an augmented part of your library access makes more sense for most gamers than locking themselves into Stadia alone. Microsoft could even drop the price of the All-Digital Edition, or come up with a similar digital-focused console, to compete directly with Stadia's Chromecast package as a streaming-focused device.
To be clear, it's possible that Microsoft could drop the ball somehow. In comparing a current service to the promise of a future one, it's impossible to foresee all the possible pitfalls and shortcomings of the emergent technology. Microsoft's service could end up being more limited than it has suggested, or the streaming performance itself could be severely worse. There are ways for all of this to go very wrong. Google could also directly respond to Microsoft by expanding its own service to compete.
Assuming none of that happens, though, Microsoft's plans contribute to the feeling that its push into streaming is part of a larger vision for the future of the industry. The company is leveraging its decades of cache and experience into a streaming service that fits alongside the rest of its game offerings and offers a better overall value. Google will have a hard time keeping up with that.