Google’s Stadia has every reason to be doing well, but its biggest problems may be out of its control
Cloud gaming has never really taken off before, and the closest we’ve ever had to a mainstream experience has been through the likes of Google Stadia. Stadia launched in 2019, boasting only a handful of games, and has expanded and grown with more games added every month to the service.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for anyone who wants to play on Stadia is the internet speed required, as both a consistently quick connection and a short geographical distance to the server are prerequisites for an enjoyable experience. Living in Ireland, I’m close to the data centers, and I have a gigabit fiber-to-the-home connection, making my location ideal for Stadia gameplay. I decided to try out Google Stadia in 2021 to see if the service deserves the hatred it gets, and I was pleasantly surprised.
About this article: This was written using my personal Stadia account through the free Stadia Pro trial that new users can sign up to. Google had no input in the contents of this article.
Netflix, but for games
The origins of cloud gaming stem from OnLive, a service that launched in 2010, and was bought by Sony in 2015. At the time, it was trying to be the Netflix of the video games world. Load up OnLive, select a game, and play it without any need for fumbling about downloading a game and waiting for that to complete. You could also play games in high resolution, no matter your hardware. We’ve seen several takes on cloud gaming since then, and Stadia is the one many believe will inevitably die off, particularly as Google only recently shut down its in-house Stadia-exclusive games studio. Journey to the Savage Planet ended up being the only game that was produced by the studio before its closure.
Stadia’s premise is rather simple, and it integrates with Google’s existing products. You can buy the Stadia Premiere Edition from Google which packs a Stadia controller and a Chromecast Ultra, effectively acting as a mini-console that you can hook up to a TV. You can play either with a PC or a mobile phone. Simply load up Stadia’s website, select a game you want to play, and the game will launch on a nearby Google server and stream to your screen for you. You can then switch it over to another screen that’s convenient for you if you want to move to another computer, a laptop, your phone, or any other compatible device.
Unlike Netflix (or most other streaming services), it’s not seamless. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify work because there’s no need for interactivity — a minor streaming delay is generally completely unnoticeable, as long as there isn’t any buffering. In the case of game streaming, there’s no such room for leeway. It needs to be consistent, quick, and low-latency, all three of which are some pretty high standards to maintain at all times throughout play. If you’re not close enough to a data center, then you’re already at a disadvantage, as the latency may be high enough that input lag is a problem.
In fact, this is likely what is happening in the U.S. The U.S. is such a large country that there’s no guarantee you’re always near a data center, so Stadia’s playability may be entirely luck of the draw. I’m at an advantage though — living in Ireland, the size of my country means anywhere is “close” to me when it comes to network conditions and latency (>5ms to Irish servers), solving that part of the equation. I also have a fiber-to-the-home connection (meaning my home is the only one using the entire line, guaranteeing consistency), and I have gigabit speeds, too. All three major criteria for game streaming are fulfilled, making my network conditions the “ideal” candidate for Google Stadia.
I’ve been playing through the games Stadia Pro gives you for free. There aren’t many big titles, but games like PUBG, the Hitman trilogy, and Hotline Miami 2 are some of the games you get. Every month too, Stadia adds new games to the service you can claim for free with a Pro subscription, so I also managed to grab July 2021‘s games like Terraria for free. When this happens, some games from previous months may be removed from Stadia Pro, though if you claimed them before, you have them “forever”.
That’s another problem with game streaming though — if the service dies, you no longer own your games. All the games claimed with Stadia Pro will no longer be yours if the service dies, and worryingly, the games you’ve bought in the store might not be available at some point in the future either.
Stadia is a lot of fun, though with some bugs
I’m a competitive gamer, and I’m active in the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive esports scene here in Ireland. I generally find myself sensitive to input lag and dropped frames, and I was curious whether or not I could handle the input lag without getting frustrated. Surprisingly it’s quite unnoticeable, and I found myself enjoying games like Avicii: Invector and Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated, while at times even forgetting they were being streamed to my computer rather than being played locally. It’s a seamless experience most of the time, and these are games I’d have never even thought about playing had it not been for my Stadia Pro subscription.
I’ve experienced some frame drops, and I can’t help but feel that at times, I was at a disadvantage playing Avicii: Invector thanks to timings, though there’s a calibration option in-game to allow for that slight delay that you can configure. Even still, it’s a lot of fun and a nice way to chill and pass the time. While Stadia Pro has 4K support, the free trial only gives you up to 1080p and 60 FPS. There are no high refresh rate options either, so I’m playing at 1080p, 60 FPS on my 1440p 144Hz monitor. I can’t help but feel the lack of inclusion of high refresh rates is a bit of a missed opportunity, particularly as the horsepower required to render at 144 FPS is often lower than what’s required for 4K.
Stadia has some bugs though, particularly when it comes to using a Nintendo Switch Pro controller. I don’t have a Stadia controller, nor do I have a PlayStation or Xbox controller. The Switch Pro controller is officially supported, but Stadia doesn’t seem to like it very much, and I’m certainly not alone. A quick search on the Stadia subreddit shows a lot of people running into problems with their Switch Pro controller, and you can check out the video below to see what happens when I try to play with just the controller. It erratically switches between controller and keyboard input, which can be seen even in the settings menu.
This same issue doesn’t affect every game, but I’ve run into controller-related issues in other games. For example, PUBG requires holding down the left analog stick for certain actions, but holding it down brings up an in-game keyboard menu. I’m not sure how to actually fix this, but I assume it’s not a problem that affects every game or other controllers too, because it doesn’t seem to be a widespread issue. Using a Switch controller on Android works fine for gaming, though you’ll need to connect your controller physically using a USB OTG adapter.
The problem with Stadia
There are a lot of problems with Stadia, and all of them contribute to why the service likely hasn’t taken off. For starters, you need to meet the three criteria for actually being able to play Stadia. While you may have a low-latency connection that’s consistent, maybe it’s not fast enough to use game streaming services. Maybe it is fast enough, but you live too far away from your nearest data center. What’s more, if you’re primarily using Stadia for game streaming to avoid having to download games because that takes too long, then your internet likely can’t even handle Stadia in the first place.
As a result, the reception has been mixed, with many expecting (and perhaps even wanting) Stadia to fail. I’m hoping that in the future I can test the input lag between offline versions of the games and their cloud-streamed counterparts because I’d love to see scientifically if the input lag is significantly increased. When Cyberpunk 2077 came out, one of the best ways to play it was actually through Stadia thanks to the sheer processing power that’s required to run the game at high settings.
That’s another thing too; given the situation with chip shortages and graphics cards being practically unattainable, cloud streaming services let you skip the need for beefy gaming hardware. You can (and I did) play full triple-A PC games on your smartphone using Stadia and a controller. It works on a laptop, on a Chromecast, or anything that can install the Stadia app. That includes the Nintendo Switch running Android. While it’s a feature Google may as well offer for a game streaming service, most people don’t want to play console games on their smartphones.
Anyone who meets the network requirements to play Stadia likely has at the very least a laptop, and that’s all that’s needed for the vast majority of games. There are a few that need a controller (PUBG, for one), but most work just fine with mouse and keyboard. Why play on a small smartphone screen using finicky touch inputs when you can play on a bigger laptop with better controls?
There’s a lot of problems Stadia has that are more inherent to game streaming rather than the service itself, but it’s these problems in particular that have the masses writing off the service before even trying it out. I didn’t see the practicality myself until I tried it, and the convenience factor of having games not take up storage on my computer is a plus. If I’m honest though, the biggest draw for me to the service is how it works like any other streaming service — I have access to a large library of games I can play at any time, some of which I’ve never even heard of.
Stadia Pro is the service’s best hope
If Stadia wants to take off, I personally believe it needs to lean a whole lot more on Stadia Pro. The service is fleshed out and filled with useful features, and it feels close to a finished product with very few hitches during games. But here’s the problem: how many times have you launched Netflix and browsed through to choose a random movie or TV show to watch? I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point, and that’s the factor that Stadia is missing currently. If you’re going to a service to pick a particular game to play that you want to play, then you’re more likely to buy it on Steam, Origin, or whatever store it’s on instead of purchasing what is effectively a long-term rental of the game. The likes of Steam and Origin are convenient and, more importantly, secure.
Online stores like Steam are here to stay, but people are afraid to buy on Stadia, meaning it’s a self-perpetuating downwards cycle. People are afraid to put money into Stadia in case it dies, and therefore because there’s no money, it’s genuinely in danger of dying, and Google has a pretty consistent history of killing random services. Using Stadia Pro to give people free games monthly I believe is the right idea, because it gives people a reason to play games they were never going to before. Nobody goes to Amazon Prime Video to pick a random movie to buy on digital rental, they just rent a movie they already know they want. With Stadia, people will do the same thing if they have to buy all of the content, but the problem is there are better places to buy it.
The monthly subscription model for free games is the best way to go currently and has been the most enjoyable part of the service. I don’t want to buy DOOM: Eternal on a game streaming service when I can play it locally, especially when it often goes on sale for much cheaper than on Stadia anyway. €9.99 a month in order to receive free games monthly along with an already pretty-big back catalog sounds like a win to me, and I can see Google attempting to partner with bigger developers like Epic Games did to give away free games in order to draw in new users.
No matter what though, it won’t solve the internet issues people have. It can have all the best features in the world, but if people can’t even play it, then the writing stays on the wall.