Google unveils Stadia cloud gaming service, looks forward to 5G

The idea of gaming fully over IP, without any local expensive hardware aside from a controller and a screen, has remained exactly that – a concept – despite the enormous success of online gaming in general. Sony has had a few cracks at the nut with OnLive, PlayStation Now and Gaikai, as has Microsoft with project xCloud, all ultimately seeing lower than expected uptake. Google is the latest to chance its arm, unveiling its upcoming cloud gaming service Stadia – for which Google has been oozing unnerving levels of confidence given the size of the task ahead.

Stadia’s unveiling sent latency connoisseurs into meltdown on Twitter and elsewhere, all of them accepting indisputably that streaming games is the future, all the while inherently doubting Stadia’s disruptive ability relative to the average gamer paying an average price for average internet speeds. That is why the general reaction is that Google has jumped the gun and therefore Stadia will become exclusive to fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) premises paying big bucks for top broadband packages with the most powerful gateways – at least until Google evolves the mobile, 5G-enabled version.

For that reason, spending some time reading a lengthy interview from Eurogamer with Google VPs Phil Harrison and Majd Bakar this week provided some invaluable insights to top up Google’s initially vague marketing launch around Stadia.

There are two fundamental key elements to which Stadia’s success is riding. First of all, Google’s big claim for overcoming obstacles which have stifled those before it is its data center power. VP Phil Harrison told Eurogamer that by using some very intelligent networking routing, Google can churn out the required performance at the data center level. The second ingredient is YouTube, involving tight integration on a technical level, as well as the user experience level, which we will touch on in more depth shorty.

“In our platform, the client and the server are inside the same architecture, and so whereas historically you’d be talking about milliseconds of ping times between client and server, in our architecture you’re talking about microseconds in some cases, and so that allows us to scale up in a very dramatic way the numbers of players that can be combined in a single instance,” said Harrison.

Google’s data center dexterity might indeed be difficult to rival, yet some industry analysts have cited the likes of Microsoft, with its advanced Azure architecture, along with Chinese giant Tencent which boasts a hefty content portfolio, as being two examples of technology giants better positioned to launch cloud gaming services – in terms of a combination of technology might and content clout.

If Stadia succeeds in proving wrong the many doubters of Google’s cloud computing prowess, then it still has to scale the major hurdle of rolling out a compelling content portfolio – and Google hopes to attract top developers into building games for Stadia by claiming development on the new cloud gaming platform will be as easy as developing for PlayStation and Xbox.

Initial details on specific titles or genres are scant, other than Doom Eternal being one of the first, while an example of the YouTube integration (pictured below) – whereby someone who has just viewed a trailer on YouTube can play the game instantly on Stadia at the click of a button – features Assassin’s Creed from esteemed developers Ubisoft and Gameloft. This implies Google could be about to pull off some major development deals to disrupt the gaming industry, as well as later forming its own first-party games studios called Stadia Games and Entertainment.

You could argue though that Google already has a loyal gaming audience, with 200m people streaming games content on YouTube every single day with an insane 50bn hours of watch time in 2018. No other video streaming platform on the planet (outside of China) has that sort of reach so – in theory – Google is incredibly well positioned to permeate Stadia into a sizable slice of its huge worldwide audience.

The press release says Stadia will be available on TVs, laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones, although Harrison elaborated on this to Eurogamer, saying reaching TV sets will initially come through its own Chromecast streaming dongles, rather than an integration with the YouTube app on smart TVs.

Stadia aims to deliver resolutions up to 4K and 60 frames per second with HDR and surround sound – looking to launch later this year in select countries including the US, Canada, UK and much of Europe.

As for the dedicated Stadia controller, Google says developing a direct connection from the controller hardware to its data center via WiFi was a priority for the best possible gaming experience. The device will come equipped with a Google Assistant button, built in microphone with natural language understanding and conversational understanding, as well as an instant capture button to share gameplay. Naturally, a Stadia membership will be part of your Google account and is expected to be subscription based, although a monthly fee has yet to be realized. But surely one half of the advertising duopoly will find a way to worm advertisements into Stadia.

Stadia will also support the Unreal Engine 4, a suite of integrated tools for games developers to design and build games, simulations and visualizations – provided by Epic Games.

Of all the hurdles facing Google in this ambitious venture, chiefly poor connectivity in a home’s last mile WiFi connectivity, it signed off on a slightly amusing caveat stating the Stadia controller is pending authorization by the FCC and may never reach retail.