It’s been a while since we have seen a new actor in video games, and this time it’s none other than Google which enters the battlefield. However, they take a very different approach from everyone else, by launching a service entirely based on games streaming rather than your typical binary/data games distribution.
Stadia is the name of their upcoming service to launch in 2019, and on the paper it has several advantages:
- Runs on every device out there (Google Chrome, iOS, Android, etc…) regardless of the host system.
- Makes it seamless to stop a game on one device and continue on another.
- Jump in a game in a matter of seconds if we believe their demo.
- Up to 4k in 60 fps for all games, and possibly 8k at some point.
- No lag (so they say) thanks to 7500 server locations worldwide
- Using a specific Google Stadia Controller, you will be able to reduce input lag by having the controller directly communicate (via your model) with Google servers and support specific services.
- Game streaming, etc… is supported out of the box.
From a technical side, Google is planning to invest in the infrastructure needed for rendering games on server farms. Apparently they may be using some kind of Linux flavor on the backend, and Vulkan as a graphics API.
There are still several unknowns at this stage:
- How much will the service cost? Will it be subscription-based?
- What kind of games will be available to play? A fraction or a large majority of current popular games?
- Will games not working with Vulkan work via a translation layer? (DXVK like?)
The above points are just details, as far as I am concerned. I am pretty sure Google will, with their deep pockets, provide very good value (maybe 5USD or 10USD per month for a set selection of games?) in order to capture some part of the market. “Netflix for games” is probably a good analogy.
Game streaming is far from being a new concept. We had OnLive back in the 2000s, then Gaikai which was integrated with Playstation – and in more recent history Nvidia provides similar offering for Shield owners (if I recall correctly you can connect your Steam account and stream any of your games via the Shield streaming service). The big difference this time around is that a major player, not involved in hardware, is going to provide such a service. Since Google Chrome and Android represent a huge chunk of the market already both on computers and smartphones, the hurdle for adoption will most likely be minor.
What is more interesting is the implications of such a service. Provided it’s successful, it could at the same time threaten a good chunk of the current gaming market, and expand it significantly as well. Imagine the number of folks who have no gaming machine nowadays and who instead play silly games on their smartphones or tablets. With Stadia they could be offered PC gaming level of quality on the go.
For current “el cheapo” gamers who can’t afford to keep upgrading their PC on a regular basis, this could prepresent a good way to play the latest games at reduced investment cost.
Even for your most typical hardcore PC gamers, there’s the alluring point of being able to continue playing no matter where you are on your mobile device, which is not really possible for now.
For Linux gamers this would also represent a clear path to “not worry about games anymore” since one could play them regardless of the OS – the whole complexity of WINE/DXVK/Lutris and the like would be gone, replaced by a service based on convenience.
Going forward, if the lag is as low as they say, Stadia may prove to be a great way to spread VR adoption, and that could be what Google tries to do next as they build up on the offering.
Of course, there are many things where Stadia could fail to deliver:
- Pricing the service too high is a risk (I don’t think it’s likely).
- Lots of mobile devices are constrainted by monthly data caps imposed by providers, this may reduce the attractiveness of such a service for mobile-only users.
- For PC gamers, not being able to play the latest games from Valve/Epic/EA/Sony/Microsoft would reduce the actual utility of the service.
- If they fail to deliver on the framerate/resolution/no lag claims, this may also impact how good the service will be perceived.
- Requiring a Google Account may alienate some users (a minority, probably).
I don’t expect Google to get everything right from the get go, but even if they get half-way there, Stadia could have a serious impact on the current market. Just like Microsoft when they launched the Xbox, they can also afford not to make much money from such a service in the short run and play the long game to profitability.
Am I interested in Stadia, personally? Not too much. I don’t like the idea of Google becoming the center for every service out there. I like having a powerful workstation not just for games but for everything else, too. I like owning things (at least as far as I am allowed to own them) and therefore subscription services that make you a lifelong payer do not sound too enticing to me. But I am clearly aware that behavior-wise I am in the minority of minorities, which is why I think Stadia will be somewhat successful.
Back to Linux, the good thing is that it will be yet another way to play games on our OS, with few restrictions. It’s probably positive for us too.
We will know more as Stadia launches in Canada, the US and “most of Europe” within this year.
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