Google is going head-to-head against next-gen consoles during a fiercely competitive holiday season
Firing up a big-budget modern video game inside a Chrome browser window for the first time feels like you’re tapping into some arcane magic, like peeking around the corner of technological innovation to see a bright future we never thought would be so close at hand. At least that’s how it felt when I first used Google Stadia more than a year ago.
Last week, as I loaded into one of Stadia’s most high-profile releases to date — Ubisoft’s Nordic-themed Assassin’s Creed Valhalla — on my 13-inch MacBook Pro with a DualShock 4 controller, I was reminded of how much of a technical marvel cloud gaming truly is. Here is a brand-new cutting-edge game, streamed over the internet and playable with the click of a button, no expensive hardware or pricey television required.
But I was also confronted with just how little has changed about cloud gaming in the last 12 months.
My enthusiasm for Stadia faded very quickly after launch when I began running into both the technical and economic realities of Google’s take on cloud gaming. The service arrived in November 2019 half-baked, requiring customers to pay $130 for a Founder’s Edition and access to a platform that was missing key features Google promised earlier in the year. Even if better than cloud competitors, performance could be inconsistent, too, with sometimes-grainy visuals and general stutter and unresponsiveness that made certain games in a subpar network scenario downright untenable.
On top of that, there was a severe lack of available games, and there was little incentive to play those games on Stadia instead of other platforms. You had to buy your games, too, instead of getting to enjoy a fuller library as part of a Netflix-style subscription. And any multiplayer titles, like Destiny 2, felt like virtual ghost towns, hamstrung by the fact that Stadia players can’t play with those on console or PC.
Twelve months later, some key elements of Stadia remain painfully the same, and playing Valhalla only highlights the lack of progress the technology has made. For one, the game runs just fine, and that’s about as good as Google can hope for when it comes to Stadia performance. I still experience occasional audio syncing issues and latency hiccups over Wi-Fi, though the experience improves greatly when I plug an Ethernet cable in — to the point that it does feel almost indistinguishable from playing a game natively on a console or PC.
Games like Destiny 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider don’t look any better than they did last year when we showed you that Stadia’s definition of “4K” isn’t as good as the 4K you’d get from even an Xbox One X, much less a next-gen console or PC. And even then, you’ll need a fast internet connection, 4K monitor or TV, and want to stay plugged in via Ethernet at all times to get the most of it.
That all makes it sound as if Stadia hasn’t improved. While the experience of using the service does feel largely the same, it’s everything around the platform that Google has drastically updated in the last 12 months, and it’s those changes that now make the Stadia pitch much more convincing. For one, the service is now free — in fact, it’s the only totally restriction-free and zero-cost cloud gaming service on the market. You need only a Google account to borrow a powerful PC in the cloud and play whatever you want to buy from the Stadia store.
Google has also delivered dozens of new features over the last year, supported more phones, delivered most of the Stadia Controller’s promises, and expanded its game catalog to more than 85 titles, with the promise of more than 135 total games by year’s end. If you opt for the $9.99-a-month Stadia Pro subscription, you can play 35 games instantly with no extra cost.
Some of the biggest launches of the last 12 months, from Doom Eternal to Borderlands 3 to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, are on Stadia, too. Earlier this week, Google and developer Bungie announced that Destiny 2 would be moved from Stadia Pro to the service’s free tier, marking the first of what Google says will be many free-to-play games that will be playable on Stadia to anyone who signs up for an account, no extra cost required.
In that sense, I feel like Stadia is starting to deliver on its promise. Even if it’s not making a convincing argument to win over diehard console or PC players, I get the sense that Google is really starting to figure out its cloud gaming vision and communicate it to the casual players — those without console hardware or a gaming PC — it has a better chance of converting into paying customers.
But the key going forward will be moving beyond the “it’s good enough” strategy that has gotten Stadia to where it is now. That means convincing a prospective buyer of a game like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to buy it on Stadia and not one of the half-dozen other platforms it’s available on. That scenario represents Google’s biggest and most pivotal challenge going forward. It’s made only harder by the launch of next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony, with the Xbox Series X / S and PlayStation 5 offering many of the same (and in some cases, better) load times and performance benefits Stadia touted last year without any of the compromises of using a streaming platform.
Part of the process in pushing Stadia forward involves changing the perception of the platform, something Google is actively working on. Instead of trying to convince the gaming public that cloud gaming can replace the status quo, Google is instead now pitching Stadia as a promising and ever-improving alternative that is, above all else, free to use.
You don’t need next-gen consoles, an expensive TV, or a multithousand-dollar gaming PC, Google is arguing. You just need an internet connection, albeit a pretty good one. That’s a drastic shift from when the service launched and you had to pay for a controller, a Stadia Pro subscription, and a Chromecast Ultra just to be an early adopter, months before Google’s understated launch of the Stadia free tier back in April.
“Stadia is free. The platform is free, multiplayer is free, you can get games how you want to get games,” Stadia vice president and product chief John Justice tells The Verge. “For a lot of people that’s very compelling.” Justice says Stadia’s core focus right now is improving its library. Google knows it needs more games if it wants to position Stadia as a viable PlayStation, Xbox, or PC alternative, and it knows it needs a more robust library than the competition if it hopes players will choose Stadia over, say, xCloud and Xbox Game Pass or Amazon Luna.
Google is also ready to start expanding Stadia to more platforms and, in doing so, hoping it can turn more casual players into cloud gaming believers. The company currently allows the game to run in the Chrome browser and on Android phones as well as on the big screen with a Chromecast Ultra. But in the coming weeks, the company plans to begin testing an iOS web app, circumventing Apple’s restrictions; the iPhone maker said it would not allow cloud gaming services in their current forms onto the App Store. Support for Apple devices could open up all-new modes of play for Stadia and turn the countless iPhone and iPad owners, people who may not own TVs or like to game on a laptop, into cloud gaming users.
All of the above makes Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, which releases on December 10th, crucial moments for Stadia. These releases, especially Cyberpunk 2077, will define Stadia in the coming months, and Justice knows it’s imperative Google treat CD Projekt Red’s big holiday launch as a make-or-break moment for the platform.
“We want to be able to deliver something and the developer says, ‘This represents our vision and this is great,’” Justice says. And for consumers, he adds, he wants the experience to also be partly defined by not having to own the necessary hardware or jump through all of the hoops modern video games require.
Justice emphasizes that a game on Stadia doesn’t need to be downloaded before it can be played, and you don’t need to wait for new updates to install, as many modern PC and console games require on an almost weekly basis. You don’t need to make room on your space-constrained hard drive for it or worry about whether it will get even more bloated and force you to delete an older title to make room. Meanwhile, next-gen consoles are so big that some users have had to rearrange their living rooms to accommodate them.
With Stadia, everything works in the cloud without you having to worry about anything. Those benefits make the prospect of having a workable version of Cyberpunk 2077 wherever I go much more enticing, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the moment when I can boot that game on my iPad and play it on the go.
Google is going a step further and sweetening the deal around Cyberpunk 2077’s launch with a free Stadia Premiere Edition (including the Stadia Controller and Chromecast you’ll need to play on a TV) for anyone who preorders the game on the platform before December 10th. Anyone who buys it after launch up to December 17th is also eligible. (The deal is “while supplies last,” Google says, though it won’t specify just how many Premiere bundles it will give out.)
Justice also concedes that the future of Stadia might mean competing less with other platforms rather than working with them in a complementary fashion through initiatives like crossplay and the ability to move save files between platforms. That way, let players take their games with them on the go using Stadia.
“We’re working with more developers than we count right now on cross-play and cross-progression,” he says. “Those are key to this generation of gaming and that’s something Stadia has welcomed and supported since day one.” He says the “mobility of experience is expected now” and that one of Stadia’s primary goals now is to “meet players where they are and give them something valuable,” even if that means Stadia isn’t the primary place they play a game like Destiny 2.
One of Stadia’s biggest hurdles so far has been its business model, which requires customers to buy most of their games unless they subscribe to Stadia Pro, and even then, only select titles are made available for free. The push for more free-to-play titles will help with that, of course, but Justice said Google is not exploring other models at this time that would position Stadia closer to xCloud or Luna, meaning the primarily a la carte model is the one the company plans on sticking with the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen the best focus from us that’s resonated with players has been convenience. Not having to buy expensive hardware is very valuable to people. We’ve always seen that the ability to buy a la carte or get games via subscription has been very important,” Justice said. “People want choices — some people want to buy one game and play it and play it without any subscription.”
Google is also remaining tight-lipped about its own developers working on made-for-Stadia exclusives. The company now operates two studios, one in Montreal and one in Los Angeles, and has courted top industry talent, from former Microsoft and Sony executive Phil Harrison to Ubisoft developer and game lead Jade Raymond. But we’ve yet to see any of the results of Google’s immense in-house investment.
Regardless of what Google is planning to do come next year, much of Stadia’s success over the next few critical months will depend on whether it can both handle a successful Cyberpunk 2077 launch and position Stadia as a viable next-gen console alternative. Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles, as well as Nvidia’s newest graphics cards, are almost impossible to find and will likely be severely supply-constrained well into 2021. That gives Google a crucial window of opportunity to advertise Stadia as an easy and cost-effective way to enjoy some of the biggest game launches of the year while consumers scramble trying to buy new hardware.
“Play on Stadia because it’s free and accessible” is perhaps not as futuristic a pitch as Google offered for the platform last year when it was selling people the future of gaming. But it’s a more realistic one that just might win over people who want to play the latest and greatest titles without needing anything more than a computer screen and an internet connection.