Platform(s): Stadia
Genre: Hardware
Developer: Google
Release Date: 2019


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Hardware Preview - 'Stadia'

by Adam Pavlacka on March 26, 2019 @ 1:30 a.m. PDT

Stadia is a new video game platform that delivers instant access to your favorite games on any type of screen - whether it's a TV, laptop, desktop, tablet or mobile phone.

Heading into GDC 2019, the buzz was all about Google's mysterious new "console" offering. What was it going to be? Would it be a powerhouse? Would it be a basic Android box? Would it be an open system? Closed? Who would make games for it? How much would it cost?

While Google didn't answer every question, it did lay out a vision for a streaming future that is both exciting and frightening (depending on your particular point of view). Stadia is exciting because it promises a screen-agnostic future. Stadia is frightening because if you are streaming everything, can you really ever own anything?

The core of Stadia is the fact that the actual hardware doing the game processing is abstracted away, in the cloud. Your "console" is not a Stadia box sitting under your TV. It's a server blade in a data center, somewhere in your region. To play, you simply connect to Stadia and start streaming.

If the core idea sounds familiar, it's because it has been attempted before and currently has players trying to make it work. OnLive is generally considered the first major game streaming effort, though you won't hear much of it these days because the company went under. It was sadly before its time, given the infrastructure requirements. Sony is an active player in the space with PlayStation Now, while Nvidia is experimenting with its GeForce NOW beta. Microsoft is currently building out its Xbox One S-based xCloud service. Then there are the personal streaming options, such as Steam's in-home streaming, PlayStation 4 remote play, and Xbox One streaming to Windows 10 devices.

Why does Google think Stadia will stand above the rest? It all boils down to Stadia being screen agnostic. Ignore all the other bells and whistles for a second. Strip away every other feature, and this (along with a clear vision of game ownership) is what will ultimately help decide the winner in the streaming race.

One of the reasons why Movies Anywhere was successful in the movie streaming space is because it is device agnostic. You can watch owned films on multiple devices, across multiple services. This is also why digital music stores took off. It wasn't instant access to music. It was when DRM was removed and you could purchase from any storefront, knowing that your music would play on the device of your choice.

The Stadia blades are running Linux with Vulkan graphics on custom AMD hardware, but that only matters in that it guarantees a standard platform for developers. For end users, you don't really care about the hardware so long as the games are there. We saw this approach in action during the Project Stream beta, with Assassin's Creed Odyssey. So long as your computer had enough power to run the Chrome client and you had enough bandwidth, you could stream the game seamlessly. It didn't matter if it was a PC or a Mac. It didn't matter what controller you used. That was all abstracted away.

For the launch version of Stadia, Google plans on supporting Chrome browsers, Chromecast Ultra devices, Chromebooks, Pixel devices, and more. You can play at home on your big screen or hop on mobile while on a break at work. Bandwidth is obviously the major challenge, as lag destroys games, but Google seems well placed to address that here, with Google Cloud coverage in 19 regions, 58 zones, and more than 200 countries and territories, with a bit over 7,500 edge nodes. Google also plans on playing it safe by limiting its initial launch to the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the UK.

With the Stadia blades in Google data centers, the only piece of hardware that most consumers will ever end up seeing in person is the Stadia controller. Looking much like a standard game controller, the Stadia controller differentiates itself with its WiFi connection. In order to minimize latency, the controller connects directly to the data center. It doesn't route through your local display device. This may only make a difference of milliseconds, but depending on the game, it has the potential to be noticeable.

In addition to the standard buttons, the Stadia controller also has a capture button and a Google Assistant button. This is where Google's integration efforts come in. Simply playing games is a use case for Stadia, but it is a basic one. Google envisions Stadia as the center of a connected gaming experience. Want to start streaming your game on YouTube? Do it direct from the data center in extremely high quality, as you don't have to worry about upload bandwidth. Get stuck in a tough spot? Ask Google Assistant for help, and Stadia will pause your game while it displays a YouTube tutorial video.

Because everything is running in the data center, Stadia allows for split-screen multiplayer with no penalty. Instead of having one blade run all screen views, a separate blade can run each one. In theory, this allows for high-quality images in couch co-op (or competitive) games.

Traditional multiplayer also benefits, as all the instances for a party can be hosted in the same data center. You'll still have to worry about client bandwidth, but that's no different from single-player. Microsoft is taking the same multiplayer approach with xCloud. With these kind of setups, everyone is on an even field.

Save state sharing was also touted during the demo as a way to increase interactivity. Creators could share a save in a link, to allow fans to replay a specific game segment that a creator highlighted. A save state could be part of a demo link embedded in a YouTube trailer, so that you can jump right into a game after watching a video. With more than 50 billion hours (yes, billion with a "b") of gaming content viewed on YouTube in 2018 alone, there is a demonstrable demand for content. If Google can provide additional ways for creators to engage with fans, it will only drive that demand level higher.

Save state sharing has one other intriguing aspect that Google glossed over during GDC but was a key part of Project Stream, and that's the ability to share the state across platforms. As I noted earlier, an all-streaming future is frightening to many gamers. Seamless play is exciting. While hardcore fans are not likely to drop $60 on a streaming-only version of the latest Assassin's Creed (unless we're talking Switch players because Ubisoft makes a streaming version in Japan, and people have bought it!), those same fans would likely jump at Stadia if it were a value-add, like the Blu-ray model.

The best-case scenario for gamers would be for Google to partner with one (or more) storefronts so that a game purchased as a PC download would also grant a streaming version. Imagine if you purchased Assassin's Creed Odyssey from uPlay, and it not only included the Stadia version, but your save was synced. You would be able to play on your local PC at home, with all the visual features maxed out. You would be able to play on the go. You could even opt for TV play in the bedroom via Stadia because your PC was in the other room. Your save would always be synced in the cloud. This is the gaming future that would make Stadia a must-have.

Alas, that scenario is still just hypothetical, as Google didn't drop any hints as to how it plans to monetize Stadia. Given Google's history of jumping into projects and then dropping them after a few years, how it handles monetization and ownership is going to be a deciding factor for consumers. Stadia may be the latest in cool tech, but unlike free services, no one wants to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in games on a service that hasn't proven long-term viability.

At this point, Stadia hype is high, and it is loaded with potential. We'll likely find out more at E3, as Google has committed to a 2019 launch. Once the overall picture of the ecosystem is a bit clearer, we should be able to determine if Stadia's potential aligns with reality.

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