Musings of an Eon...

Google Stadia Review

Published 2019 Nov 23 @ 04:33

I had a $150 credit on my Google Store account after my purchase of a Pixel 3 XL and there is nothing on the Google Store, beside the Pixel phones, that is really worth spending any money on. Except maybe a Chromecast. But then Google Stadia came out for pre-order, it was around $150, so I said “why not?” And I bought it. I received my copy November 21, 2019, and so far I’ve only played Destiny 2 on it, but I feel it makes for a great test game since it’s an online multiplayer game that deals in fast-paced first-person shooting. Although I don’t typically post reviews for things, I felt like posting this one because I was originally a huge proponent for OnLive, which I consider to be the spiritual precursor to Stadia.

A Little History

OnLive was a streaming video game service that launched almost a decade ago, in June 2010. The comparison between OnLive and Stadia is difficult not to make due to just how similar they are. OnLive had a collection of servers across the country that would run the games. A controller would transmit user input over the Internet to a server running that user’s specific game instance. The output from the game (the audio and visual data) would then be streamed back to the user’s device. This is a very high-level view of how the technology works, but it’s the exact same high-level view of how Stadia works today. The software and hardware are certainly more sophisticated, but all the same principles are there.

OnLive launched as a subscription service (again, just like Stadia), priced at $15/month. This fee allowed access to the platform, not necessarily any of the games running on it. However, OnLive introduced a means to rent and demo games as part of the monthly subscription.

Initial feedback was that it performed better than expected, but that quality was inconsistent. Obviously, if your Internet connection has spikes in latency or shares bandwidth with others, the quality of your OnLive play experience will be inconsistent because your internet quality is inconsistent. No matter how advanced the hardware or software solutions were by OnLive, they could not control the quality of service provided by ISPs. Over time, the reviews became far more mixed, mostly due to concerns around consistency and cost.

Stadia Experience

There have been a slew of disappointments surrounding the Stadia launch. I won’t go into them here, but it hasn’t been handled well. This doesn’t surprise me too much since Google has a habit of going through extensive “beta” periods of their products and although typically you get something that’s very high quality, you also get a fair share of problems. Stadia seems to be no different.

My own personal experience has been somewhat limited, just playing Destiny 2. For 99% of the time I spent playing, however, I was exceptionally pleased with the nearly-non-existent input lag and the high audio and picture quality. At the very least it was on par with the Xbox One and PS4 versions of Destiny 2, so there wasn’t any noticeable loss of quality or higher-than-acceptable lag. However, that 1% that I wasn’t pleased by, I was extremely displeased by. It wasn’t simply a bit of latency, it was a drop in quality so severe that you would be forgiven for thinking that I was playing Atari’s E.T. video game. This was lower than 480p resolution by far, and the sound was extremely lagged behind the gameplay; either that or the input lag had become tremendously severe because I had to judge audio lag based on how long it was after I pulled the trigger until I heard shots fired since the visuals were so awful that you couldn’t see anything that was happening.

And ultimately, this is one of the major problems that killed OnLive. And we need to remember that OnLive was launched almost 10 years ago. That means that over the course of a decade, Internet service quality has not gone up to a point where a video game streaming service like OnLive, or its newer clone Stadia, could provide a consistently positive experience. Sure, speeds might have increased by varying degrees and latencies might be lower now, but quality has not increased. My Internet turns to crap periodically no matter which provider I’m using and regardless of what I’ve got connected to/running through my modem. And ultimately that’s the problem that Google needed to solve to make something like Stadia come into better reviews than its predecessor.

Again, a vast majority of the time it works amazingly well. Far better than I would have expected it to. But not better than owning a digital copy of Destiny 2 on the Xbox One or PS4. If your gaming experience is on-par with current consoles in the best case, that’s not a viable competitor. It should be on-par in the worst case if you want to compete. And there’s not an overwhelming appeal to packing your Stadia Controller and Chromecast Ultra into a suitcase and being able to play your games anywhere, because if you’re going to a hotel then you’re definitely not getting speeds that would allow your to properly game on the Stadia. And even if you did, you’re probably paying a ton of money, per day, for the “privilege” of having decent internet at the hotel. If you’re going to a friend’s house, chances are better that you’ll either do a LAN party thing or a single-console multiplayer game, or literally anything other than plugging in your Stadia stuff.

Ownership and Fees, The Final Nails

Google has tons of money and a lot of brute strength when it comes to internet initiatives. They might be able to put enough pressure on governments and ISPs to actually get higher Internet service quality, although it would be a slow process. But let’s say they do eventually get to that point, and people almost never have the kind of connection problems that make your game look like the original Pong. Can Stadia replace modern gaming as we know it?

I would argue no, it cannot, for two reasons: ownership and fees.

Ownership

Let’s say you go to a store, or shop online, and buy a game disc for a console or a PC. You own that medium. You can take it with you wherever you want, play it on any compatible hardware, even resell it/give it away; it’s yours and you own it. Digitally owned content is similar, despite BS DRM; you bought it, you own it. The only difference is the “give it away” part but I won’t get into topics like pirating. The point I’m making is that right now, if you buy a game, you own that game and can take it with you and play it almost anywhere, anytime.

Now let’s say you go to the Stadia store and you buy a game. You aren’t given a physical disc or other storage medium. You aren’t given access to download the game files to a computer. You don’t technically own the game. If Stadia shuts down, the thing you spent money on disappears with the service, which isn’t something that would happen with any present-day console or PC. And that’s a major problem when games still cost full-price to effectively license rather than own.

Take, for example, Red Dead Redemption 2. On Stadia, that’ll run you $60. Rage 2? $60. Shadow of the Tomb Raider? You guessed it! $60. You’re shoveling out full price for a license that gives you access to play/stream the game so long as the Stadia service remains active. If the service experiences downtime, or if it shuts down completely, then you don’t get to play that game you just paid full price for.

If Google wants game purchases to succeed on Stadia then they either need to guarantee copies of all purchased games for different gaming mediums (e.g. PC) or they need to introduce a new pricing scheme. One solution might be to have a set monthly fee that lets you access anything in their library. Or maybe a 2-tier system where a lower fee gets you access to games that have been out for, say, 3 or more months, and a higher fee gets you access to games the moment they launch on the platform. Or they could charge significantly reduced fees to buy licenses for the games, e.g. Rage 2 for $10 to $20. If you paid $20 for a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, you could easily get your money’s worth even if it’s only available for a limited time. But if you spend $60 to get it on Stadia and then a month later the service vanishes, you probably won’t be pleased.

Fees

This ties heavily into ownership. Without ownership, the cost of having a games library on Stadia is too great. You have to pay monthly for the service (if you want an experience comparable to modern consoles and PCs) in addition to paying full price to merely license games for play/streaming. If you buy and play non-online games that might not have a monthly cost already associated with it, you probably won’t be switching to a platform that requires you to pay a monthly fee to play your single-player game that you just paid $60 for.

Services like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus work because you pay a flat monthly fee and you get access to tons of games, no additional cost. If Stadia doesn’t offer that, then it won’t be able to compete. People aren’t going to pay $60 to stream a game that they won’t own (note: I shouldn’t say people aren’t going to because some people definitely are, I just don’t believe it will be in numbers high enough to be profitable for Google).

In Closing…

I actually enjoy playing Destiny 2 on my Stadia from time to time. But that and Samurai Showdown are the only two games available to me without forking over an obscene amount of money to not-own a new game to play. Google needs to find a way to either grant lasting ownership of games to people that buy them or they need to create a better monthly membership program that gives access to a significantly larger games library, otherwise there’s just no competition. As it stands now, there’s just not a compelling reason to own Stadia over, say, a Nintendo Switch. And if you have the extra cash, you’re better off owning a PC or Xbox One or PS4.

If I could pay a single monthly fee for the purely-streaming equivalent of Xbox Game Pass, that would be a compelling purchase. But without the infrastructure to support high-quality game streaming wherever you are, I just don’t see this gaining widespread traction.