Stay or die? Stadia is Google’s stab at the cloud gaming dilemma

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 whom accepted 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 FTTH premises paying big bucks for top broadband packages with the most powerful gateways.

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. Faultline Online Reporter has dissected and hand-picked the most relevant comments from the in-depth ~7,000 word interview which can be viewed in its entirety here.

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 otherwise stifled those before it is its datacenter clout, not exactly the sexiest technology to spark pandemonium in the gaming industry, yet VP Phil Harrison told Eurogamer that by using some very intelligent networking routing, Google can churn out the required performance at the datacenter 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, speaking to Eurogamer.

Google’s datacenter 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 200 million people streaming games content on YouTube every single day with an insane 50 billion 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.

But surely then Google can just make USB games controllers from third party suppliers compatible with Stadia? Wrong. The Stadia controller is a much more integral part of the ecosystem than games controllers have ever been before and their existence is pivotal to Google’s gaming goals. As we said, the Stadia controller is a WiFi device – not connected to the local device on which the gaming is being enjoyed but directly to the game itself inside the datacenter via the home router.

For all its investment in datacenters and talk of intelligent networking techniques to power an unrivaled video game streaming platform, it would be typical for Google to fall foul of government agency rules.

As for overcoming hurdles on the consumer side, Harrison told Eurogamer, “We have to help our users understand what’s happening inside their own infrastructure as best we can and we’ll invest in both information that will help a gamer tune their set-up for the optimum gameplay experience, but we’ll also use our own technologies to help performance to a great degree as well. Remember that a lot of Google technologies are the fundamental fabric of the internet, so I think we have a pretty good understanding of how the bits leave our datacenter and how they land on someone’s eyeball – and we want to optimize that as best we can.”