Header art by Redline XIII.
On March 18, Google unveiled a new service that, if successful, is poised to rock the world of gaming to its very core.
The service, named Stadia, aims to stream AAA video game content to any device capable of running Chrome in 4K HDR at 60 fps. On its face, the idea sounds too good to be true, but Google’s keynote at GDC 2019 proved they’ve been working on the idea for a while and finally have all the pieces in place to make it a reality.
Under the hood, Stadia is powered by a host of custom hardware developed in a partnership with AMD. Each instance of Stadia is powered by a 10.7 teraflop GPU (which puts it between an Nvidia GTX 1080 and 1080 Ti in power), a 2.7 GHz processor, and 16 gigabytes of RAM. Each instance will run a Linux-based operating system and use the open graphics API Vulkan. The entire system is scalable, so games can use as many physical hardware elements as needed to provide a smooth experience.
All of this processing power is designed to allow gamers to stream a game to any screen without the need for a box or hardware, all in the Chrome browser.
As an added bonus, Stadia will feature native support for wired controllers or mouse and keyboard, though Google is developing its own controller. Stadia will use a Wi-Fi connection instead of Bluetooth, directly linking to the platform and game being played. It will feature a share button (kind of like the one on the PlayStation controller) that will allow players to upload clips directly to YouTube. Further, Google is integrating Google Assistant into the controller, providing help with the press of a button. Supposedly, the assistant will find a related YouTube video and scan to the proper place.
Games and More
As far as games, there are only a few titles to speak of at the moment. All of the early tests were done using Assassins Creed: Odyssey, which should be available at release. Id Software has also reworked Doom Eternal to work on Stadia. Google has already shipped dev kits to over 100 studios around the world, and have stated that over 1000 developers are hard at work creating new content for the platform.
Beyond general development, Google is producing other tools to make the development process easier on Stadia. Using machine learning, they’ve created a tool called Style Transfer ML. Basically, it utilizes a pre-rendered world using a specific piece of art, or a color scheme, as a palette. It’s an interesting bit of technology that looks more useful to smaller studios with a longer development cycle.
Finally, Google announced the creation of a first-party game studio called Stadia Games and Entertainment. Their goal is to take games to the next level using all of the technologies built into Stadia.
One of the most mind blowing features of Stadia is that it allows players to immediately jump into play. If you’re watching a YouTube video for a specific game, a single click of a “Play” button on the page is supposed to launch the game in as little as five seconds. And shifting between modes of play (computer, television, cell phone, tablet, etc.) is supposed to be seamless, with no lag time or loss of progress, all while delivering highest fidelity visuals.
But beyond that, Google went the extra mile to make sure that Stadia uses every single feature of the YouTube platform.
State Share allows someone to save a specific situation in a game – like an extra-hard boss battle or a unique event – and share it to YouTube. Someone can watch that scenario, then press a “Play” button to experience it for themselves.
They’ve also added something called Crowd Play for creators, which allows fans to instantly connect with the creator in a multiplayer session with the press of a button. The creators will have total control over this feature, but it’s designed to blur the lines separating creators from their fan base.
Speaking of multiplayer, Google insists that since the server and client are on the same network, multiplayer games will be smoother than ever, with better security, no cheating, and no hacking. And, since the technology is so robust, it will allow multiplayer games to grow and evolve in ways that have never been seen. What that looks like or whether it will actually happens remains to be seen, but that’s a bold claim by Google.
They rounded out the multiplayer segment by announcing cross play with all other platforms.
All of this sounds great, but over the course of the hour-long keynote, one thing stuck out at me above all others. Near the end of the presentation, this line was uttered:
“With Stadia, any link can be an access point to a game, so for a developer, the entire internet can become your store.”
The presenter went on to reference the Stadia store, text messages, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Google search results, YouTube videos, Gmail, and the Google Play Store.
While it’s nice to have such easy access to such a robust gaming experience, I’m not sure the end result will be as carefree as it sounds. Sure, developers will have an easier time than ever pushing their games out to the public, but I think there’s something to be said about too much connectivity.
Right now, I buy my PC games off of a variety of storefronts, and on console I have to go to a retail location to buy a game (unless I get it online). But if Stadia’s instant access is built into everything, what will this do to the gaming world? Will YouTube start to push me towards joining Stadia whenever I watch a Let’s Play? And if so, how hard will it push? Will I have to be careful about clicking links to reviews for fear that the link will bring me to a store front instead of an article? To me, the entire statement stinks of the complete and utter monetization of gaming in every aspect possible. I love games, but I don’t want every interaction with anything gaming related to turn into a sales pitch.
At the end of the day, Stadia sounds like a really cool idea. The ability to play games anywhere without needing to buy a console or insanely expensive PC sounds like it would appeal to a lot of people. And if Stadia turns out to be something like a Netflix for video games, I can see it going a long way.
That said, I’m not sure how I feel about Stadia being integrated into every facet of Google. I, like many others, use Google and YouTube every day, so the thought of Stadia being shoehorned everywhere in the Google formula just doesn’t sit well.
I’m also wondering about how technically sound Stadia will be over the long term. Even though Google is bending a massive amount of resources towards making this work, and it supposedly did great during initial tests, I’m wondering how the entire thing will perform with millions of people streaming games at the same time. How will each individual’s experience be? What level of internet will be required to maintain a decent quality? How will input lag be? Supposedly, Google’s got all this figured out, but I’ll remain somewhat skeptical until I have an opportunity to get my hands on the system.
Stadia will release later this year, and we should be hearing a lot more about it this summer.