For the years that cloud gaming has existed in some capacity, 2019 is the year it went full-steam-ahead, with Google as one of the major companies leading the way. From what we've seen from game streaming platforms so far, there's an equal amount of potential, hurdles, and questions—as there would be for any emerging technology.
But when Google announced its game streaming platform, Stadia, at GDC 2019, it seemed to stir up more commotion than most. Maybe because Google is a newcomer to the gaming sphere. Maybe because there's a lot of concern around Google's privacy practices. Or maybe just because it was the first time people paid attention to cloud gaming on a large scale.
Whatever the case, we're keeping a watchful eye on all things Google Stadia. Here's what we know so far.
How does Google Stadia work?
Game streaming (or cloud gaming) services render games on a remote server instead of your local machine, and then stream the video back to you while your input is simultaneously sent to the server. At the moment, there are two different ways that you can play games via the cloud, all with a monthly subscription of course. You can either access a library of games on a remote server directly from your computer (eg, PlayStation Now), or you can access a remote, virtual PC on which you can install your own games (eg, Shadow). Think of that one like the remote desktop tool, only you are renting a gaming PC somewhere else that you can connect to.
In some cases you'll need to install the appropriate game launcher if you want to play any games via the cloud. Game streaming services like Jump and PlayStation Now curate their own catalog of games, so you won't need to install or login to a specific launcher. However, cloud gaming service GeForce Now operates as a sort of middle ground between those two game streaming methods. GeForce Now requires you to own the games in their catalog and install them on their remote servers—but you don't get a dedicated virtual PC like Shadow.
In Stadia's case, you'll be able to play games on your TV, desktop PC, laptop, tablet and Pixel smart phones, both the 3 and 3a models, without a game launcher. You'll pay a monthly fee to access their top-tier game streaming service, but you have to purchase the games separately to play them. For those who pay a monthly fee, games will be discounted, but when Google rolls out its Stadia base package next year with no monthly fee, games will not be discounted.
What are Google Stadia's specs?
With Stadia, you can stream up to 4K, 60fps, with 5.1 surround sound, at a minimum internet connection of 35Mbps. On Google's end, it's using the following hardware specifications:
- Custom x86 processor clocked at 2.7GHz w/ AVX2 SIMD and 9.5MB of L2+L3 cache
- Custom AMD GPU w/ HBM2 memory, 56 compute units, and 10.7TFLOPs
- 16GB of RAM (shared between CPU and GPU), up to 484GB/s of bandwidth
- SSD cloud storage
From a hardware standpoint, this would provide an excellent gaming experience via local machine, but it remains to be seen just how Google will combat common internet connection issues, like latency, that cause dips in framerates and other performance issues when run via the cloud.
We had some hands-on time with Stadia at GDC, and it seemed like the games were running on a test system designed to simulate different network conditions. Playing Doom felt like it had a latency of 200ms, where running the same game on a Windows PC at 60 fps would be in the 50-70ms latency range.
Digital Foundry did their own testing and analysis of Stadia as well, and discovered that Stadia had 166ms of latency compared to the 79ms of latency while playing on a PC at 60fps. For Stadia to work now, you'll need a minimum streaming rate of 15Mbps, latency below 40ms, and data loss below five percent. Stadia needs a minimum streaming rate of 10Mbps to work at 720p, 60fps, with stereo sound.
But there's also the issue of monthly data caps, should you have one; streaming on Stadia at 4K will use up 1TB of data in 65 hours. That comes out to 15.75GB per hour of 4K streaming.
What's the release date, pricing, and game availability?
Right now, you can pre-order the Stadia Founders Edition for $129, which includes Chromecast Ultra, a limited edition night blue Stadia controller, a free three-month subscription of Stadia Pro for you and a friend, and to be among the first to pick your username.
Stadia Pro, which is part of its Founders Edition, will be available sometime in November 2019 for $9.99 a month. For monthly subscribers, additional games will release for free on a regular basis, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection, and games can purchased individually at a discount. Monthly subscribers will also be able to stream games up to 4K at 60fps with 5.1 surround sound.
Next year, Google will have a Stadia Base subscription available for free, sans any of the special perks at the paid tier—and free users will only be able to stream games up to 1080p at 60fps in stereo sound, regardless of their internet connection.
These are the games that will be available on Google Stadia:
The Crew 2
Saban's Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid
Mortal Kombat 11
Farming Simulator 19
Elder Scrolls Online
Baldur's Gate III
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Dragonball Xenoverse 2
Final Fantasy XV
Ghost Recond Breakpoint
The Division 2
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
What do developers think of Google Stadia?
Developers, particularly indie developers, had a lot of questions about cloud gaming leading up to GDC, and even more after Stadia was announced. Revenue models and contracts, privacy, content control, and consumer accessibility were at the front of everyone's minds, but designing games for a cloud streaming future was the biggest one. Google will have its own cloud-based dev tools that will supposedly allow developers to make bigger and better games in the cloud—and specifically to run exclusively on Google Stadia, assuming. But no one knows what designing games in the cloud looks like right now. Well, no one except maybe for Google's own game studio.
Additionally, developers want to know if Google will pay developers in a traditional revenue model (like Steam and Epic) or if it will pay by the number of hours consumers spend playing a particular game. Other big questions are who is the target demographic for cloud gaming, considering the 24 million Americans who do not have access to high-speed internet, and who will own all the gameplay data Stadia collects?
It seems that the goal of cloud gaming in general is to remove one key barrier to high-end gaming: the hardware. As our senior writer Jarred Walton pointed out, Stadia has potential, but it will never beat the performance of local hardware—but for those who aren't hardware enthusiasts or who can't afford a high-end rig, cloud gaming is supposed to, theoretically, provide the same experience of playing on a high-end rig. We're still skeptical about that.
Anything else I should know?
In an interview with Eurogamer, Google revealed it's planning to integrate Stadia into its core services; your Gmail account would be your login for Stadia, for example. This means there will be no account sharing right now, but you can have a guest account for splitscreen. However, a Google spokesperson did reach out to Kotaku today and confirmed that family sharing will be available in the future.
Google also plans to have something it calls State Share with Stadia, which will allow players to enter a game at a specific moment in time. If you're watching a game stream of someone playing via Stadia, you could potentially hop in and start playing from that same point.
Also, it will work with other supported peripherals, so you don't have to use its controller if you don't want to.
Stadia could shake up the gaming industry, or it could flop. Even with a few announcements on the horizon about pricing and when it will be available, it's still too hard to predict just how—or when—cloud gaming and game streaming services will catch on, and to what extent. Still, we're curious as to how Stadia and all its extra features will work in practice.