Cloud Gaming as a Feature

So last week, pretty much to no one’s surprise, Google announced that they’ll be shutting down their gaming streaming service Stadia by January next year. Even at launch, aside from the rocky launch of the service itself, there were concerns about an eventual Stadia shutdown—both from a games-as-a-service standpoint where ownership only lasted as long as the servers stay up, but also from a how-reliable-is-Google standpoint given the company’s track record of sunsetting projects after only a couple of years of lukewarm investment and tepid reception. On that list, Stadia is just one of the latest side projects thrown into the Google’s services graveyard.

There are plenty of rapid reactions and hot takes from the news, but beyond the predictability of its demise, the other striking piece of follow up is how badly Google is burning bridges on its way out. The team didn’t bother letting developer partners know of the shutdown before publicly announcing the move, which has resulted in wasted time and money on ongoing projects to port games onto the doomed service. This is, of course, in character with the company and how it operates; for all its engineering and product chops, Google is shockingly bad at customer service and apparently that extends to managing partnerships with smaller game developers.

It’s easy to conclude that Stadia’s failure is an indictment on the immature state of gaming in the cloud—if the company with its own transocean fiber cables isn’t able to make streaming work for games, then maybe the tech just isn’t there yet. I had actually grabbed a Stadia kit1 from a YouTube Premium promotion a while back, and I saw no issues in testing various games on the service, albeit on a 1 Gbps connection with 802.11ac WiFi. Games that require millisecond-level reaction times2 didn’t work as well due to the added latency from streaming, but those were the exceptions, and Stadia wisely didn’t feature those types of games on its platform anyway.

Rather, Stadia employed a business strategy that proved woefully incomplete. Some analysts declared it “dead on arrival” upon its launch stumbles, but even after getting past that initial snafu, the core service itself is emphatically not a Netflix for games but a traditional digital storefront, with many of its first games selling for full price when they were already heavily discounted everywhere else. There is a Stadia Pro subscription service, but the thin list of titles—which had to be rotated in-and-out presumably due to time-limited contracts with those developers—made it a poor version of the Xbox Game Pass.

It never felt like Google put its full weight behind Stadia. Beyond the admittedly cool tech, it barely invested in the actual games that often end up making or breaking a console; on my desk is a copy of The Game Console 2.0, which photographically chronicles a history of video game consoles and the wide myriad of technically-advanced, content-deficient systems that now only exist as archaeological curiosities. Whereas Nintendo has always had strong internal game development studios, Sony started by courting third parties but eventually built up their own stable of developers, and Microsoft is running around buying their way to relevance—Google started a handful of internal studios but quickly ran out of patience and shuttered them a year ago3. Even Apple is building up its gaming cred with its Apple Arcade collection.

Strangely, Stadia’s best analog is a feature in the context of other gaming heavyweights: akin to PlayStation Now, or Xbox Cloud Gaming, or GeForce Now. If the service was built by a smaller company, it may have gone the way of Gaikai a decade ago, when they were acquired by Sony precisely to bolster their online streaming capabilities. Instead of being this revolution on how we play games, streaming is positioned as a subscription add-on, something that can be convenient in the moment but not really a full-fledged replacement for beefy hardware on your desk or in front of the television.

Table stakes.

  1. It was just a Stadia-branded controller plus a Chromecast.

  2. E.g., fighting games, sports games.

  3. I will note that Amazon is another tech giant that’s been leveraging technology to get into gaming, but to their credit, despite some high-profile failures, they’ve persisted for the better part of a decade. And picked up Twitch along the way.

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