A Month of Stadia

Streaming game service Google Stadia has been available for about a month now and I thought I’d recap what’s been happening with the service

The launch was a mess and it unfortunately set the tone among “influencers” who decided that Stadia was going to be their “negative videos draw eyeballs” topic for a while (I’m sure Anthem breathed a sigh of relief) but at this point most of them seem to have moved on.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The elephant in the room is performance. While Stadia works really well in terms of lag/latency (for me at least), we’re constantly left scratching our heads when it comes to graphics quality. Stadia offers 10.7 teraflops of processing power, we are told, but generally speaking the graphic quality of games seems to land right around that of an Xbox One X (6 teraflops).

So if you have a PS4, Xbox One S, or a Switch, Stadia can offer you a graphics upgrade. Those of us with reasonably powerful PCs, Xbox One Xs or PS4 Pros are looking at a cross-grade situation, and gamers with high end gaming PCs are looking at a downgrade.

This leads to a lot of “What does Stadia offer me?” questions from serious gamers and the answer is, frankly, “Not very much.” Stadia is reasonably portable; you can play on a cheap laptop at a coffee shop, or on a selection of phones (or basically any device that you can run Chrome on) but it requires a steady Wi-Fi connection. It’s hard to justify purchasing a game twice just to be able to play at a coffee shop, particularly since Destiny 2 is the only cross-save game on the service, as far as I know.

There’s also the issue of the still very small library of game titles, but presumably that issue will sort itself out over time. The price of games keeps springing up as an issue but I’m not sure how fair that is. Borderlands 3 is $38.99, for example. That’s a “Pro” deal but everyone on the service now is a “Pro” so… Anyway price controversy sometimes seems to be based on perception as well. For example Darksiders Genesis launched on Steam for $30 and on Stadia for $40 which caused an uproar, but the price on Xbox and PS4 will be $40 when the game launches. People seem to think of Stadia as another place to play PC games, rather than a separate platform, so they expect pricing parity with Steam. (Why a game is more expensive on consoles is a valid question, but that’s a question for the publishers, not the platform holders.)

With all the bad news out of the way, Stadia seems to be a hit with a certain segment of the community. If you hang out on the Stadia or particularly the StadiaDadia sub-reddits you’ll find a community of “used-to-be” gamers who’re getting back into the hobby thanks to Stadia. The no-fuss, no-hardware Stadia experience appeals to these people who have no interesting in spending money on a console or gaming PC.

At launch Stadia was ‘missing’ a lot of features. I put that in quotes because it seems like some of the missing features are really “features that game developers haven’t taken advantage of yet.” For example last week Ghost Recon Breakpoint launched on Stadia and it’s the first game to support “Stream Connect.” This allows you to let other players see your stream.

In other words, say you’re in a 4-man fireteam in Breakpoint. You could have 3 picture-in-picture windows showing you what the other three members of your team are currently seeing. The idea is that this allows tightly coordinated actions to take place. I could see it being useful as a teaching tool as well.

Other missing features weren’t dependent on developers, and these are slowly being rolled out. We can finally buy games through a web browser, and the Achievement System (or at least, a first pass at it) came out last week.

So what about me? I confess I’m pretty disappointed in the graphical quality of games. I was hoping Stadia would be an improvement over the Xbox One X and/or my mid-tier gaming PC; sadly it is not. It’s hard to justify buying a game on Stadia at this point; why fracture my game collection? These days I’m back to reaching for the Xbox controller rather than the Stadia one most of the time. I DO really love the load times of Stadia games (Destiny 2 loads SO much faster than on the Xbox or Steam) and it’s kind of cool to buy a game and be playing it literally seconds later.

I still have hope for the service in the long term, but with Xbox Series X and PS5 coming out in less than a year I think Stadia needs to get better fast. Or maybe Google is content to gather in all the folks who can’t be bothered with having a bulky console in the entertainment center.

Bottom line: if you’re reading my blog you’re probably a serious enough gamer that you have hardware that can offer a better experience than Stadia currently does; I really hope that eventually changes.

The Stadia launch

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.