I recently went to Google headquarters to play on the Stadia, the company’s upcoming game-streaming platform. While I was on the tube, I had visions of recreating the scene, in Spider-Man 2, in which the star, stuck fast to the front of a hurtling train, digs his heels into the track, ploughing through the sleepers like a farmer tilling the soil. If the Google Stadia really is going to sweep us into the roaring stream of the future, banishing the boxes from under our televisions and ensnaring the Earth with fiber-optic tendrils, then I’m surely justified in my resistance to a notion that bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Death Stranding. “Covering the world in cable didn’t put an end to war and suffering,” says that game’s hero. True enough, but it might improve the input latency while you’re hunting for headshots in Destiny 2.
On that note, I am pleased to report that the internet at Google HQ is fantastic, but then, it would be something of an alarming news item if it wasn’t. My speed at home hovers unsteadily around the 20mbps mark—I live in London, but in one of those randomly gloomy gullies in which the internet gutters for no apparent reason. This means that I’ll be more than equipped to play the Stadia at 720p resolution, which requires 10mbps; it means I can, on a good day, when my flatmates have flown the coop, strive for the 20mbps needed for 1080p; but it means, from my beleaguered position in the gutter, I can only gaze up and dream of the 35mbps necessary for 4K with high dynamic range colours and 5.1 surround sound.
I won’t be the only one, either. According to an Ofcom report from this year—but based on a data sample of only 4,918 homes, collected in 2018—the average download speed in the UK is 54.2Mbps, a number that seems to me as distant as the stars. However a far larger data sample was used (276 million homes worldwide) in a study conducted by M-Lab and Cable.co.uk, which found the average UK speed to be 22.37Mbps. We are all in the gutter. None of which is really the point. Stadia hardly seems aimed at the tech-brained—those for whom life is measured out in frames and resolution is a near-religion. It seems to be pitched, with its comparatively low price (£119 for the Premiere Edition, which is the name of the launch model) at an audience somewhere in the upper-middle class of casual play, coffee-table gadgeteers, and, based on the blistering speed with which the Founders Edition sold out, the Google-eyed.
The point of Google Stadia, as far as I can tell, is the unfettered freedom you have to breeze from phone to tablet, and thence to television, without leaving your game. The way that, in theory, you won’t need to upgrade your hardware again, with Google’s servers taking the strain as industry standards surge ever upwards. And the way that you can (provided you have set up your credit card, and, presumably, instructed the Stadia never to ask you for confirmation) immediately purchase and jump into a game after seeing a YouTube video of it, minus any download time. All of which promises the sort of bright and voguish vision of life viewed in advert, in which people move, with well-oiled ease, over the rough patches of life—the spinning roundels that signify buffering, the connection errors, the housing crisis.
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And it’s a point I can get behind. While playing Destiny 2—first on a phone, then on a sweeping expanse of television—I kept my eyes peeled for any plunges in frame-rate, and found none; likewise, the latency bore no noticeable lag; and hopping from one platform to the next was done in a matter of seconds. (Though I do wonder over the specifics of the situation that would call for such fleet feet; you would need to be hustled off the television, only to be ousted from your humble tablet, with weighty-enough reason, and end up hunched over your phone, in a solitary refuge of your own forging.) The biggest plus for me, as far as features go, is the notion of not worrying about updates, downloads, and day-one patches; it feels as if I have schedule games in weeks in advance, these days, to account for the inevitable deluge of delays. Second is the hardware itself, which is to say the controller: a soft chunk of matte plastic moulded pleasingly to the hand—think of the Switch Pro controller joined with a DualShock 4.
The highlight of the session came about halfway through, after a few bouts of Mortal Kombat 11, when I was given time with Gylt, a Stadia-exclusive game from developer Tequila Works, which will be available from launch. It may sound pat and predictable, but the success of any platform is dependant on games. The Stadia’s launch lineup is studded with a generous crop of relatively recent releases, including the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2, Samurai Shodown, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint. But the platform’s future, along with its power to pull our attention away from its competitors, surely rests on exclusives. Gylt resembled The Last of Us if it were envisioned by John Lassiter; its hero, a small, saucer-eyed girl, explores a deserted school, whose halls are prowled by monsters. Will that shift warehouses of Stadia hardware? I don’t know, but it was the most intriguing thing I glimpsed that day.
“There are a lot of things that being cloud native enables that you’re just not going to be able to see on other platforms, and I think that’s the job of first-party, to really show that off and let people imagine what those things are.” So says Jade Raymond, Google vice president and Stadia Games and Entertainment studio head. She spoke with GamesIndustry.biz, about the opening of a new Stadia-centred studio, in Montreal. It’s exactly the sentiment that must seize the day if the Stadia is to succeed. Changing the way we play will always depend on changing what we play.