“Creating a richer and more vibrant community for everyone to enjoy,” is what Phil Harrison, Google’s vice president, stated as the vision for Google Stadia, at 2019’s Game Developers Conference. This wasn’t the first time a cloud-gaming service was unleashed onto the world, but there certainly was a lot of buzz surrounding the service when it was announced.
Fast forward to today, over a year after Stadia’s launch, and it’s only available in 22 countries and still provides an incomplete experience. Oh, and that little thing about Stadia’s entire games development division being shut down. So how did it go from being potentially the “Netflix of video games” to 150 employees being laid off? More importantly, what is the future for the service?
The Beginning of the End
Before Stadia came into existence, word was going around about Google’s Project Stream in the latter portion of 2018. As beta testers for Project Stream, players could experience Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for free through Google Chrome—of course, only if their internet had the chops to keep up with Project Stream’s demands. The closed beta testing was limited to U.S. residents, and an internet connection of at least 25 megabits per second was required.
At the time, the game seemed to run at a stable 30 fps and teetered between 720 and 1080p resolution with some slight latency, but it worked relatively well, and held a lot of promise. There were already some deeming it as the “beginning of the end” for gaming consoles, and this was just during the testing. The beta period ended up lasting for about three months, before Project Stream wrapped up for the final reveal in the form of Google Stadia.
At the Game Developers Conference in 2019, Google pulled out all the stops for their announcement. Alphabet’s CEO himself, Sundar Pichai, gave the foreword, Ubisoft’s CEO and co-founder Yves Guillermot made an appearance in solidarity with Stadia and Ubisoft’s partnership, and a brand new Stadia controller was revealed. It’s here where emphasis was given on Stadia’s ability to switch between devices on the fly, getting rid of the loading screens and updates. Moreover, there was no need for powerful hardware, and it could run on even the most low-quality setup thanks to Google’s data centers doing all the heavy lifting.
Stadia’s more social features were highly accentuated. A feature exclusive to Stadia called State Share would enable players to share the conditions of their game at the time (such as stats, inventory, and character) and allow someone else to pick up from where they were playing. Crowd Play would allow creators to better engage with their audience and have them jump into the game and play along with them. Stream Connect would allow a player to directly stream their game to another screen. So on and so forth.
Furthermore, an in-house game development studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment, was announced to develop first-party games for the service. Former Ubisoft Toronto’s Jade Raymond would be the head. It was after GDC that Google would go all out in hiring developers for their studios in Los Angeles and Montreal.
The E3 Reveal
With that sort of sales pitch, of course it seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread. A few months down the line, at E3 2019, the first “Stadia Connect” took place, essentially Stadia’s online presentation, à la Nintendo Direct. Aside from a lineup of games including heavy hitters such as Mortal Kombat 11 and Red Dead Redemption 2 being available at launch, Stadia also offered the first look at Baldur’s Gate 3, and their first Stadia exclusive indie, Gylt being revealed. Further exclusives were said to be down the line, but there was no word on any projects from Stadia’s game development studio.
In terms of internet connection, the range at which Stadia would be able to operate was between 10 mbps and 35 mbps. Respectively, they’d provide users with an experience at 720p and 60 fps, and 4K and 60 fps. At launch, the service would be available to 14 countries.
It also seemed that Stadia wasn’t quite the “Netflix of gaming” that people hoped for. Stadia was still a service which expected players to buy the games they wanted, instead of paying a flat fee for their library. Instead, their subscription tier, Stadia Pro, offered the same base experience with the addition of access to Stadia’s free library for members, discounts on select game purchases, and access to 4k and HDR streaming.
While Stadia supported about any controller as well as a mouse and keyboard, the Stadia controller was to be launched at $69, and the Chromecast Ultra to play on a TV was also the same price. Moreover, a limited Founder’s Edition was launched for a limited time, which bundled three months of Stadia Pro for you and a friend, a limited-edition Stadia controller, and the Chromecast Ultra at the price of $129, as well as the complete (at the time) Destiny 2 experience.
For some people, it was an easy sell, and for others watching Stadia’s E3 stream lag on their devices, it was a hard pass, and for good reason.
The Slope Downwards
At launch, Stadia missed many of the features that were promised early on, the key one being that Stadia seemed to function differently with different devices, despite the fact that the service was to offer a uniform experience across multiple screens. On Google’s flagship phone, the Pixel 3, Destiny 2 would run at a stable 60 fps and no latency, but on a Chromecast there’d be crippling lag.
Additionally, all of Stadia’s multiplayer features—Stream Connect, State Share, and Crowd Play—were confirmed to not be available at launch. In fact, the Chromecast Ultra didn’t work with Stadia either, with only the ones shipped out in the Founder’s Edition having the proper firmware to run Stadia. Just the controllers took months to ship out to people who bought them.
Many rejoiced it even worked. Others ended up being disgruntled. Soon after the service’s launch, there was radio silence from Stadia. Consumers took to Reddit to express their woes, and Stadia’s community managers bore the brunt of it. For many using the service, they expressed that it felt like Stadia was already a dead project.
The pandemic ushered in a new wave of gaming, and Google were quick to jump on that. April 2020 onwards, Stadia became free to anyone with a Gmail account. The first free game was Destiny 2, with a handful of others added over time. While it was a valiant effort on Stadia's end, it didn't quite catch on as much as Animal Crossing did at the time.
On the bright side, the service was probably one of the better optimized platforms for Cyberpunk 2077. The slew of updates and patches for the game were (and continue to be) frustrating for PC and console owners, but Stadia allowed players to transition smoothly to cruising down Night City. Except well, it was still Cyberpunk 2077.
For something that was meant to be a literal game changer, it was certainly seeming like Stadia was mostly talk and no action. As a result of their poor planning and failure to woo gamers, Google ended up having to give away controllers, Chromecast Ultras, and months of Stadia Pro, in hopes of winning over loyal customers. At this point, it was more so about selling Stadia as a service rather than the games themselves.
In February of this year, news broke out that Stadia Games and Entertainment was being shut down, and inevitably so. More than a year after the service’s release, there was no word on first-party titles for Stadia. While Google was undoubtedly throwing money to make Stadia work, they didn’t quite understand what it took to make games. From Wired’s article, a former Stadia employee stated, “It seemed there were executive-level people not fully grasping how to navigate through a space that is highly creative, cross-disciplinary.”
150 employees were laid off, and Jade Raymond left Google altogether. To many former employees, it seemed as though Phil Harrison was never transparent with them. In his memo regarding the studio’s shut down, he states that the platform has shifted to focus on industry partners and rather than bringing exclusive content. The final sentence reads, “Our goal remains focused on creating the best possible platform for gamers and technology for our partners, bringing these experiences to life for people everywhere."
It’s here where it becomes evident that Stadia isn’t for the gamers anymore, and frankly, has never been. Rather than solving the shortcomings of video games today, it further contributes to the problem. For starters, all the 22 countries that Stadia is available in comprise only North American and European countries—probably because not every country has access to high-speed internet. Stadia’s minimum requirements are what would be the fastest internet speeds available in some places.
So no, Stadia never intended to “create a community for everyone to enjoy.” It was more of a community for the privileged to enjoy. It’s a crying shame, considering that conceptually, a proper subscription-based gaming service with no hardware would end up being a more affordable and accessible experience with less commitment.
Not to mention, the ownership people have over their games is entirely digital. Now, the debate of physical vs. digital games has been one that’s long-running (the answer is physical), but if Google decides to completely wrap up things with Stadia, there’s no real clue about what’s to happen with the games people have bought, as there isn’t any real ownership. With no first-party titles for the platform either, Stadia seems pretty much obsolete.
The Future of Stadia
The way things are looking with Stadia aren’t too hot at the moment. The promised State Share feature of Stadia got released only in January 2021, and the most exciting thing to happen to Stadia as of late was the addition of a search bar. So far at the time of writing, the newest Chromecast device, the Google TV, doesn’t officially support Stadia, whereas its competitors, Steam Link and GeForce Now, run perfectly fine on it. Supposedly, Google TV will support Stadia in the first half of 2021, but the clock's already ticking.
Justly, some developers weren't entirely keen on putting their games out on Stadia. Concerns ranged from either lack of proper incentive from Google to do so, to not enough confidence in the platform, to simply a waning player base. In the case of Super Bomberman R Online, a massive battle royale game that was a paid timed exclusive game for Stadia, bots would fill up the spaces of the many missing players, and ultimately, it just dragged the game. A few months later, the game became part of Stadia's free-to-play line-up. Konami announced earlier this year that Super Bomberman R Online would release on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, and Xbox One/X/S—pretty much every platform that's been a threat to Stadia.
It’s evident that time is ticking for Stadia, and while it really could have been a revolution in the gaming industry, it’s been anything but. This isn’t Google’s first rodeo when it comes to pulling the plug on promising projects (exhibit A: Google Lens). Needless to say, it will have a good place to rest.
Updated 5/8/2021 - Updated to correct some minor factual inaccuracies.