You can now pre-order Google’s game-streaming platform Stadia but the launch titles and pricing leaves a lot of questions unanswered
Getting its announcements in just before the madness of E3 kicks off, Google has finally revealed more information on its upcoming streaming platform, Stadia. In a live stream on Thursday, Google’s Phil Harrison, leading the Stadia project, detailed the launch window, pricing and hardware options.
The announcements gave us more insight into how the game-streaming platform would work, but do they convince that cloud gaming is the future of the medium? My main concern remains the viability of the service. Harrison claimed Stadia can deliver a 4K HDR gaming experience at 60fps with 5.1 surround sound, with only a 35Mbps connection. Despite Google having tested the backbone of the service in October 2018 as ‘Project Stream’ with a 1080p Assassin’s Creed Odyssey accessible via Chrome browsers, I’m skeptical.
I was watching the YouTube stream on a 100Mbps connection, set to fixed 1080p, and even then could still see artefacting. That’s with YouTube only being a video site, too – it doesn’t need to transmit controller inputs to and from a cloud-sourced game without any perceptible lag. That’s to say nothing of how Stadia might cope with periods of high demand, or exceedingly popular games which might exert added pressure. Perhaps there is some special sauce for Stadia that means it will work more smoothly – we’ll have to see.
When it comes to pricing structures, Google’s messaging for Stadia came across as muddled. There will be, essentially, two versions – Stadia Pro and Stadia Base. The former launches in November, and is a subscription service which will set you back £8.99 per month. That’s actually slightly less than the £10-£15 we estimated it would cost when Stadia was first announced back in March – and crucially undercuts Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass by a quid – but you’ll currently only be able to sign up if you pre-order the Founder’s Edition. This is the closest that the ethereal Stadia gets to a hardware bundle, packing in a limited edition “Night Blue” controller, a Chromecast Ultra, three month’s Stadia Pro access, a three-month “Buddy Pass” to gift Pro access to a friend, and first dibs on a user name. That will set you back £119.
Then there’s Stadia Base – a lower spec offering, delivering only 1080p/60fps video and stereo sound, but without the monthly subscription commitment – you simply buy the games you want on an ad hoc basis. This version of Stadia isn’t set to launch until 2020.
However, Stadia Pro isn’t quite a “Netflix of games”, with an all-you-can-eat buffet of titles. Instead, your monthly £8.99 is buying you access to the platform, with its 4K quality. While there will be a selection of freely accessible titles – starting with Destiny 2, which will offer the base game plus all expansions and DLC to date – these won’t permanently be accessible. If you want to play a game in perpetuity, you’ll still need to buy a copy to own.
This is confusing. A cursory glance of social media sees plenty of people thinking that Pro is a subscription to a gaming library; we had to confirm with a Google representative exactly what you’re getting from a Pro subscription. We were told “Stadia Pro is closer to an Amazon Prime subscription than a Netflix one – it’s the access to a service, playing across screens in up to 4K/60fps/HDR with 5.1 surround sound. You have to pay for the items you want [to keep].”
Which raises the matter of what people will be playing on Stadia. Google has confirmed more than 30 games set to come to the platform. Announced titles include shooters such as Metro Exodus, Rage 2 and DOOM, adventure games including the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy, fighting titles Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 and Mortal Kombat 11, RPGs both online and off – The Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XV, respectively – and even the sedate delights of Farming Simulator 19. Games from Capcom, EA, and Rockstar are also set to be available but these publishers will reveal their titles at a later date.
It’s a diverse selection, but these are mostly games players will have already experienced elsewhere, and while the stream landed one major reveal – Larian Studios’ upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3 – it isn’t exclusive to the platform and won’t launch alongside Stadia. Two exclusives that were shown were Coatsink Games’ Get Packed, a multiplayer, physics-based action game with shades of Overcooked, and Tequila Works’ Gylt, an eerie adventure through a nightmarish world of shadows. Both games look great – but will they be enough to bring in subscribers? Plus, there’s no word yet on which, if any, of the announced titles will be part of Stadia’s cycling library for Pro subscribers, and which will only be available for distinct purchase.
A real “wow” moment appeared to be missing from the announcement, which leaves me wondering if Stadia might struggle to entice consumers approaching subscription fatigue. Sure, £8.99 per month is a bargain at a glance, but will people be satisfied in paying merely for platform access, while still having to buy games on top – games that, given they’re in the cloud, they never truly own? Pro subscribers will get “exclusive discounts on select game purchases”, but is that enough to take the sting out of the tail? Or will Stadia’s rotating library of games satisfy people’s gaming needs?
For some it will, but more realistically we seem to be entering an era where you’ll need as many subs for gaming as you do for streaming video – especially if you want to get every big game regardless of platform exclusivity. Add Stadia’s £8.99 to the monthly fees for Xbox Game Pass (useful as a comparison for now, until Microsoft reveals its own streaming plans), PlayStation Now, and maybe even Humble Monthly Bundle, and your monthly gaming bill begins to look pricey. Factor in how disparate video platforms are getting as well – you already need Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Now TV to get access to most exclusive content, and the impending launch of Disney’s new platform will add another must-have – and there’s a risk people are going to start feeling driven to entertainment bankruptcy; death by a thousand subs. Stadia needs something big to stand out.
All that said, Google is one of only a few companies that could conceivably deliver game streaming in a manner that mechanically works, potentially erasing the choppy experience of past attempts such as OnLive. If the final experience matches the company’s claims of flawless lagless gaming in 4K HDR, it will have achieved something very special.
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