Google Stadia wants to sell players something they already have.
When Google announced it was halting all first-hand game development for its innovative cloud gaming service, Stadia faced a major block this week. The company closed not one but two development studios and bid farewell to visionary producer Jade Raymond, who greenlighted Assassin’s Creed. Google claims stadia will now focus on building strong partnerships with third-party studios.
In other words: Stadia lost her best chance to stand apart from the rest of the game alliances. For a service that has always struggled to create its own identity, this is a huge blow. Although she’s not dead yet, it’s reasonable to wonder if Stadia will still be out there a few years later.
Without any exclusive games, there is nothing to separate Google Stadia from PC, PS5 or Xbox Series X. Stadia’s saving grace was the ability to play games on platforms you’ve always had, eliminating the need for a $500 console or an even more expensive computer.
The question is whether there are a large number of people who need this feature. Tom’s Guide argues in its Google Stadia review that this may not be the case. And if this audience doesn’t show up in piles in the next few years, Google Stadia will be nothing more than a simple solution in search of problems.
We write numerous reviews between mice, keyboards, headphones, monitors, desktops, laptops, games, streaming services and Web browsers. And no matter what kind of product it is, every time we sit down to write one, the first question is always the same: “Who’s this for?”
Without specifications, price or features, the most important thing about any product is its target audience. If an extremely defective product can be beneficial to its potential audience, on some level, it is still worth considering. If an almost perfect product does not provide a certain benefit to its potential audience, it would probably be best to ignore it.
While we were very awe-inspiring about Google Stadia, we couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to the question “Who’s this for?”
History has more or less confirmed this situation. While Google has been extremely cautious about exact sales figures, we know that as of last April, nearly a million people had downloaded the app. It’s a big number on her own, and no doubt Stadia has grown since then. But consider that the PS5 sells more than four times as much in less time – and while the PS5 costs at least $400, the Stadia app is free.
Stadia’s library consists mostly of “basic” games. These are large, generously produced adventures that usually take dozens of hours to complete, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Final Fantasy XV, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat 11, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Jedi: Fallen Order and so on. Generally speaking, unlike simpler productions that work well on a mobile phone, you need a console or PC to run these games.
But when selected between paying $500 for a brand new console and buying and publishing only à la carte games, gamers seem to at least four times the initial option.
Proving this point beyond a shadow of doubt requires more data than we can access. The common sense, however, is that Stadia’s plays in general appeal to an audience that does not require Stadia’s services. If you’re a player who wants to play Doom or Watch Dogs 2 or Octopath Traveler, you probably already have a system that can do the same.
Declining benefits of Stadia
Google Stadia offers several features that consoles and PCs can’t match – at least when it first comes out. If you buy a game in Stadia, you don’t have to live in a large black box in your living room. You can play your game on a PC; You can play it on TV; you can play on a smartphone; you can even play it on a Mac – a feature that on its own almost justified Google’s entire experiment.
But while these ideas were almost revolutionary in 2019, they have since become much more common. With Xbox Game Pass, services like Nvidia GeForce Now and Cloud Gaming (Beta) also allow you to broadcast games to any computer and most smartphones.
The biggest difference — and the reason GeForce Now and Xbox Cloud Gaming are generally better than Stadia — is that Nvidia and Microsoft’s services allow you to take full advantage of the hardware you already have. If you have an Xbox or PC, you can download a game and run it in real time, even offline, if you want. If you prefer to use a different platform, you can publish the game.
By offering basic games, but locking players into a streaming delivery system, Stadia is actually nming out the powerful technology that its audience already has. This ignores the fact that players often feel connected to their equipment, such as the familiarity of a console or the hard work spent creating a PC.
More importantly, it completely put your experience in Google’s hands. If Stadia’s servers don’t play well — and sometimes they don’t — even if you play a single-player game, you have no choice but to wait. If the game occasionally drops a few frames or does not create the background textures properly or syncs the sound incorrectly, this is (probably) a worse experience than using the console or computer that you already have.
A familiar choice
Still, if Stadia had a lot of special games, these issues wouldn’t really matter. Players didn’t see any problems buying PS5 to play Nintendo Switch or Demon’s Souls to play Breath of the Wild; since there is no hardware cost, buying an exciting custom game on Stadia will be less of a problem. (There’s a $10-a-month subscription fee if you want to play in 4K, but that’s still much less than $300-$500 for a brand new console.)
Despite being on the market for more than a year, Stadia has few special games: Gylt, Crayta and Orcs Must Die 3. All three games are good, but not what you call “system will sell.” Other than that, it seems that they will all play just fine on a PC or console; There’s nothing stadia about games. Now that Stadia’s first-class expectations are essentially zero, a special boom seems an even more remote possibility.
This brings us back to the famous millstone around Stadia’s neck: it’s a service that sells games to people with better tools to play games, and it always has been. We do not deny that there is a limited audience of real equipment that benefits. But all indicators show that this audience is very small and traditional gaming systems are as popular as ever.
To end with a concrete example, Cyberpunk 2077 was a game that could have caused Stadia to have a big bang. Although Cyberpunk 2077 is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X, it only works correctly on PC (somehow). And Stadia actually offers users a high-quality PC for the price of a single game.
But as veteran producer Jacob Novik points out, Cyberpunk 2077 will be (almost) as good as most other platforms after it’s patched up, leaving Stadia where it started again. When the choice is made between something familiar that works well and something new that works almost the same way, people will often prefer the first one.