Will Google Stadia Boost Linux Gaming ?


Following my recent article on Steam Machines, there were quite a few comments on the interwebs. Among them, someone remarked that my final point about Linux Gaming being too reliant on Valve was missing the fact that Google Stadia exists. And therefore this would be akin to having several companies for which Linux gaming matters.

This is a valid point. I had to address it.

What is Stadia? Stadia is a solution designed by Google to stream games to any device with little latency, as long as such devices have a Google Stadia client or the Chrome web browser. There is a free tier where you can use Stadia and purchase games as you go, and a Pro version which costs about 10 bucks per month after you buy the Premiere Edition with the controller (120 USD). The Pro version will let you access some games for free and offer discounts on existing games. Additional perks include streaming in 4k with 5.1 surround sound. Note that you cannot bring your own games over to Stadia - you have to purchase them again even if you owned them on other platforms. This contrasts with GeForce Now where Nvidia lets you sync your Steam Library with the supported games on their platform. Not all games run on GeForce Now (published need to opt in), but they have a much larger library than Stadia for now.

Let’s go back to Stadia. How does it work in practice? Well, Stadia apparently employs (virtual) servers to render games across the world to provide this service. Think of it like the Netflix for video games. Such servers certainly include GPU clusters to make it possible to render games efficiently following the demand. Google being a Linux shop, it is very likely that such servers use some fashion of Linux (although, probably nothing like your Debian installation).

As far as the specs for the servers are concerned, they are as follows:

The servers behind the service, Google has confirmed, will be powered by customised AMD graphics processors which sound eerily similar to the Radeon RX Vega 56: 56 Compute Units offering 10.7 teraflops of compute performance, up slightly from a stock RX Vega 56’s 10.5 teraflops, and an unspecified amount of integrated HBM2 memory - likely to be 8GB, if it is indeed a tweaked RX Vega 56. The CPU side, meanwhile, is said to be customised x86 processors running at 2.7GHz with ‘hyperthreaded’ support and AVX2 - though it’s not clear whether these, too, are from AMD. Each system has 16GB of combined memory - likely 8GB on the GPU and 8GB system memory - and runs a custom Linux operating system and the Vulkan graphics application programming interface (API).

You need not compare the performance of one of such servers to existing PCs or consoles. These servers are clustered and most likely engaged in clustered processing/rendering for each game they run.

We also know that games need to be “ported” to the Stadia platform in order to work. And this includes using the Vulkan renderer as well, through AMD drivers. What kind of AMD drivers is used is not clear at this stage.

Now, it’s all good right? Linux as an official platform for gaming, and Vulkan as the main graphics API?

Yes. It’s good for the ecosystem. However, this brings almost nothing to the table for Linux desktop gamers who do not use Stadia. Granted, the state of AMD drivers might benefit from such a partnership, regardless of the server or desktop usage. However, we already know that games ported to Stadia do not make it to the official (?) Linux games store, aka Steam. PUBG has a Stadia version but no Linux version on Steam. The same goes for Red Dead Redemption 2, Borderlands 3, etc…

We have seen absolutely no sign that the existence of a Stadia version increases the likelihood of an official Linux port on Steam. It’s very likely that Google is actively pushing (i.e. paying?) for such ports to exist in the first place, so this may not be done by the simple good will of publishers.

Additionally, we should expect that games running on Stadia would not work exactly the same way on the desktop. Just like file management on a single local drive is very different from dealing with files on Spark.

A user on Twitter asked:

Im curious, what are in brief the difference between Stadia (based on Linux) and ‘Vanilla’ Linux that make distributing the Stadia SKU standalone on Linux as a seperate SKU. Is it a technical hurdle, or a Financial Hurdle re QA costs etc?

Miles Jacobson (the studio director behind the Football Manager games) responded:

QA costs - financial. The other question not only doesn’t have a quick answer, it would also break NDA’s to answer fully. But in the cloud and not in the cloud are very different.

“cloud and not in the cloud are very different” hints at the fact that the porting process to Stadia is probably not straightfoward. This would explain why relatively few games are available to the platform right now.

The Linux gaming revolution on the desktop is powered by Valve’s integration of Proton. There is absolutely no indication that Stadia is making any use of Proton at this stage. If Google were to make use of Proton and contribute to it in the future, this would be huge in terms of investment in the project. Will it ever happen? Will they partner with Valve to solidy the technical foundations? It is hard to say.

Last but not least, Google has a well known reputation for killing services and projects in short order, within a few years of launch. We have no idea if Stadia is going to be more resilient in that sense, or shut down in a year or two should it not meet expectations. Google’s main business model does not revolve around games. It’s unlikely that this becomes a very strategic branch of revenue anytime soon.

So, is Stadia an actual gaming platform reliant on desktop Linux?

Not so much. In many ways, Stadia is pretty much its own thing. It does share nor bring much to regular desktop Linux gamers. Do not expect Stadia support to result in more ports coming your way. Google is not putting its weight to support Proton either.

To be fair, the biggest impact is probably in regard to Vulkan: Stadia will help certainly accelerate the development and improvement of Vulkan as a robust API - and we will all benefit from that, indirectly (as Proton relies heavily on Vulkan drivers and its capabilities).

Therefore, my earlier assessment is unchanged by the existence of Stadia.