So, it isn’t a yeti afterall. Google gave a presentation at GDC on Tuesday in which it revealed some details on its upcoming streaming platform. It’s called Google Stadia, but last year it was rumoured to be called the Google Yeti; that it’s no longer called that is the bad news. The good news is that Stadia looks ambitious enough to shake up the way that we play games. Is this something to be excited about, or is the Stadia the beginning of the end? Will we wake up plugged into the Google motherboard as one collective cloud-based consciousness?
Google is calling Stadia a ‘cloud native’ system, which sounds like it was forged on Mount Olympus. What it, in fact, means is that server farms around the world will run the games – and will apparently support 4K at 60FPS and HDR, with 8K on the horizon – and beam them to your device. The devices mentioned in the presentation were desktops, laptops, televisions, tablets and phones. All of which, of course, makes me unbelievably grumpy. But, then, grumbles are important: if Google Stadia is the parade of the future, it needs to make it through a decent downpour of skepticism.
I felt an overwhelming urge, having watched the announcement, to have Phil Harrison and Majd Bakar work their Moscone-Center suave routines on the lovely Linda, from TalkTalk. If they could persuade her to bump my 5-ish mbps average internet speed up to the 25mbps required for 1080/60 – preferably without the price increasing by thirteen times – that would be brilliant. By way of comfort there was talk of 7,500 edge nodes dotted discreetly across the globe, sub-sea cables, and the Google network backbone, all of which would supposedly speed the process up. But it all sounded more like the sort of operation that Ethan Hunt might thwart in the next Mission Impossible film.
Grumble number two comes half-way between sentimentality and stubborn insecurity. It must have long slipped into the realm of cliche, but I do mourn the dissolving of discs – just as I mourned game booklets as they flew away, flapping their pages, into the sunset. I like weight; I like physical media; and while I like to believe in a pluralist ecosystem, the money that companies save going completely digital is surely too hard to pass up.
And at the risk of sounding like someone who stashes their money under their mattress, when it comes to streaming I still haven’t banished the nagging notion that I don’t definitely own things – that they could be snatched away at the tyrannous whim of a tech giant. This isn’t that paranoid either; you need only look at the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game and P.T. – both of which released for their respective consoles, only to be banished into the ether – to see the cruel reality.
Then there’s the matter of my own tyranny. My approach to streaming – whether that be TV shows, films, or music – is that of an empowered goldfish. Whenever I’m faced with the selection on Netflix, I’m always startled by the wealth of options, so much so that there are scores of shows with little red media-bar-bites taken out of them – each an episode I’ve nibbled and neglected like a picky fish turning its nose up at a hundred hooks. Likewise, Xbox Game Pass, while a wonderful dalliance, devalues the things I play; they are all there but not there, like game-shaped ghosts.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that those services are subscription-based, and we don’t yet know how Stadia will wirelessly stream away the contents of your wallet. During the presentation, one of the features shown off was the ability to hit a ‘Play Now’ button on the latest game trailers (hosted on official channels like Ubisoft’s, for example) and begin playing immediately. Presumably this would entail a swift transaction behind the scenes, or, if Stadia is a subscription model, then the selection of games available can hardly be the most recent releases. Unless Google goes on a splurging spree, like Microsoft did, and starts forging partnerships and exclusives of its own.
Putting cash concerns to one side, there are some ingenious flourishes to Stadia. I relish the thought of being able to capture and save a game-state and upload it for people to play themselves – a particularly triumphant boss fight, say, or a low-ammo, back-to-the-wall situation that I’ve manoeuvred out of. This would come in handy for shoving in people’s faces and gloating in smug fashion at how much more brilliant I am than them. And on days when I’m feeling markedly less brilliant, the Google assistant support – whereby you can ask Google how to get unstuck on a game, and receive immediate support as the Google brain recognises exactly at what point you’re at – sounds ideal for my inner sluggard.
Of course, this also means giving up one’s privacy to the overlords. The Stadia controller – which you don’t have to use – comes with a built-in microphone for use with its integrative features, and I doubt I’ll be able to shake the suspicion that it’s always listening. For those out there, like me, for whom ritualistic profanity is a core part of the gaming experience, this is cause for self-consciousness. Likewise, the prospect of hooking up any controller to my phone and playing the likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on the bus isn’t remotely appealing (my morning journey through Hammersmith traffic is already enough of an odyssey as it is). But there are those for whom the prospect is cause for giddiness.
And this is the thing: there is much we don’t know about Stadia – pricing models, minimum internet connection requirements, minimum tech requirements for phones and tablets and PCs – and much cause for both grumpiness and excitement. Whatever impact it ends up making on the industry, it’s going to take time to measure; for now, I’m going to go back to my base model PS4, play a game hot off a disc, and act absurdly wistfully, as if I’m witnessing the last days of the Roman empire. (Oh, and one thing we do know is that its name is rubbish.)