Yesterday was the day Google Stadia launched. I guess I’ve seen worse product launches, but not many.
So here’s the deal. Back in June Google urged gamers to pre-order the Stadia Founders Edition in order to start playing Stadia as soon as possible and (potentially more importantly), to be able to reserve your Stadia name. The promise was that codes to reserve names would be sent out in the order that pre-orders were received. So the earlier you pre-ordered, the more likely you were to get your name.
My story isn’t so bad. I pre-ordered that day, within minutes of the pre-order page going live. I paid an extra $14 for expedited shipping. Here we are on Launch Day+1 and I still don’t have my Founder’s Edition. Meanwhile people who ordered in August got theirs first thing in the morning yesterday.
However I DID get my code shortly after noon yesterday and was able to reserve my username. Also since Stadia isn’t really hardware, I was able to use the service via Chrome on a PC. More on that in a minute, but I hope that $14 I paid for expedited shipping bought someone a nice lunch because it sure didn’t get me expedited shipping!
Other people had a much worse time. Plenty are still waiting on codes, or Founder’s Kits, or both. Over on Reddit folks are sharing when they got their codes vs when they pre-ordered and it is pretty clear there’s neither rhyme nor reason to how the codes are being sent out. I saw folks getting very upset that a person who pre-ordered much later than they did got their code first and snagged a username that a June 6th pre-orderer was hoping to get. People are rightfully pissed.
Of course this will all pass. But that isn’t all that is wrong with the launch. The service is just not ready. You can play games, there’s a Friends list and that’s about it. All the whiz-bang gee-gaws that Google promised, like being able to launch a game directly from a YouTube video, are MIA. You can take screenshots and record clips, but when you do you can ONLY view them on your phone, with no way to share or export them. Lots of little “Uh, wut?” issues like that.
Also for some reason a LOT of people got the idea that you paid for Stadia and got access to a whole library of games. I’m not sure where that came from but I think it was from dodgy game journalism. It isn’t the case. There are 2 tiers of Stadia. A free tier (not available yet) and a $10/month Pro tier (you get 3 months of that with the Founder’s Edition). The Pro tier is similar to Playstation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. It gets you 1 or 2 free games per month, discounts on game purchases and (in theory) better quality streams. The free games for this month are Destiny 2 and Samurai Showdown. Beyond that, Stadia offers a digital store offering mostly full price games.
So I wish that was all the bad news, but it is not. Despite all of Google’s talk about the processing power of the Stadia servers, (10.7 teraflops!) games seem to be running at pretty modest settings. I had hoped Stadia would be the way I could play PC games at max or near-max settings; games that my laptop couldn’t handle. So far, at least, that has not proven to be the case. The Stadia version of Destiny 2, according to Bungie, runs at roughly the same as middle PC settings.
So Stadia… dead in the water, right? Well, maybe not. Fact is, it works. When you push all this cruft aside and try to play a game, it works really well, at least from Chrome. Yes Destiny 2 looks prettier when playing through Steam, but my laptop’s fan is screaming in protest the whole time. Playing Destiny 2 on Stadia feels kind of magical. I open a browser window to stadia.google.com, (leaving open the the dozen programs I have running) click an arrow that looks like the Play arrow on a YouTube video, and I’m in the game. The laptop’s fan is silent. Loading times are much faster than on my local machines. If Stadia introduces lag (and it must) it isn’t enough for me to feel. I tend to get motion sick with too much input lag (before I got my new TV with a low input lag, I couldn’t play FPS on consoles without getting queasy) but Stadia is totally comfortable.
So there is hope. And in fact the ideal audience is already happy. Over on the Stadia sub-reddit there’s a group calling themselves “Dadias”. These are folk who used to be gamers but got married, had kids, and don’t have gaming PCs or modern consoles because they don’t game enough for them to be worth the investment. These guys & gals last played games on a PS3 (or earlier) and they LOVE Stadia. They love that when they’re playing on the TV and the kids want to watch a show, they can just switch seamlessly to a laptop (or even a Chromebook) and continue playing. They didn’t have to clear a $250-$300 console purchase with the spouse, or clutter up the living room with an ugly box. I think these people are the near-term audience for Stadia.
IF Google actually invests in this service and gets the graphics quality up, then Stadia could be a contender for me in years to come. When some new PC game comes out and my laptop can only run it at medium settings, and Stadia can run it at high, I’ll probably buy the Stadia version rather than upgrading my PC. I just don’t anticipate this happening much before 2021.
That’s the possible future. For today there’s not a lot of reason for you to get Stadia if you have a gaming PC, PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. Those systems all run the games better than Stadia is running them today. (If you have a base PS4 or Xbox One, then the Stadia versions would probably be an upgrade for you.)
Oh one last note. A lot of journalists are comparing Stadia to Microsoft’s xCloud and pointing out that XCloud is a better deal. Keep in mind the xCloud is running on Xbox One S units back in the data center and it only runs on mobile phones for now. The output is 720P. Stadia is definitely more powerful than that. We also don’t know what the pricing of XCloud will be. If all you want to do is run games on your tiny phone screen than yes, xCloud is probably the way to go. But for monitors and big-screen TVs you’re probably going to want more power. At some point I suppose xCloud will transition to Project Scarlet units but that won’t be for a few years yet. I just think it is too early to call a winner between these two services.