Last night at GDC Google unveiled their big play for the future of gaming, Stadia, and when so many expect the future of gaming to be heading into the cloud over the next decade, they provide a real threat to the status quo that we’ve had over the last 15 years. Maybe not now, maybe not in five years, but Google are almost uniquely positioned to challenge Microsoft and Sony for control of gaming.
Of course, Stadia is not a new concept by any means. We’ve had streaming services like Onlive come and go, we’ve had half a decade with PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s Project xCloud is set to break down the barriers of Microsoft’s own vision for gaming, but Google are bigger, they’re positioned better to seize this emerging market.
In many ways Onlive was ahead of its time, and you can see a lot of the seeds that it sowed coming together in Google’s vision for Stadia. You have the ability to watch other players who are almost automatically streaming, the ability to dip in and out of games in a matter of moments, to party up and have your multiplayer sessions graced by low server or peer latency. Stadia takes it further in a few logical areas, though, such as with couch co-op that will be uncompromised by a drop in frame rate or visuals, because you’re each playing with a dedicated stream, the potential to have specifically designed games or with the controller connecting to the server via Wi-Fi, helping to cut out one of the increased points of latency between you and the game.
There’s other innovations, feeding off the power of their server farms to create the kinds of huge worlds that MMOs feed upon and destruction that Crackdown 3 and Microsoft promised with the cloud and Xbox One, but their real advantage will be in simply having a ‘Play Now’ button under every YouTube trailer, every stream, and being able to use their global reach that is almost without compare. All the data centres across the world that power their search engines, emails and, most relevantly, vast amounts of YouTube video can all be taken and expanded upon to accommodate games. Microsoft are closest with their Azure cloud, but without as many data centres, Amazon and Twitch have yet to act, and while Sony have the most practical knowledge after running PS Now since 2014, they’re only in 19 countries, seven of which joined in the last week.
With the start of a new console generation looming, Google are a step ahead of the curve with their announcement and the hardware that they will provide on demand to players:
- CPU: Custom 2.7GHz hyper-threaded x86 CPU with AVX2 SIMD and 9.5MB L2+L3 cache
- GPU: Custom AMD GPU with HBM2 memory and 56 compute units, capable of 10.7 teraflops
- Memory: 16GB of RAM with up to 484GB/s of performance
- SSD cloud storage
You look at those specs and you think “Yup, I’d be happy with that in a PlayStation 5.” The one major thing a PS5 almost certainly won’t have is an SSD, and that’s where Google’s promise of instant gaming without downloads, without patches and installs to worry about will be able to flourish. Of course, this is also just the first iteration of Google’s Stadia hardware, and they’ll be able to iterate upon it much more easily as new hardware arrives and they look toward 8K.
For now they’re gunning for 4K60, but it will scale up and down depending on your connection, and that’s part of the problem: the connection. Onlive was well ahead of its time, and even now there’s an awful lot of people around the world that feel the pain of low internet speeds, poor latency and download limits. Google and everyone else still have a lot of convincing to do that this is a good idea for everyone when Stadia demanded 25Mbps for 1080p60 during its technical tests – this is being reduced to 30Mbps for 4K at launch. That’s 10GB for an hour of 1080p gaming. Got a 300GB data limit? You’ll hit your limit while bingeing on the latest game before you know it. Streaming’s greatest obstacle right now is, ironically, the infrastructure that enables it and the ISPs that build it.
A lot of technical partners have already jumped on board, but the big question is what this means for the sustainable future of the industry. Google point to streaming music and film and how they’ve grown to dominate their industries, but the impact that they’ve had on the creators has been undeniable. The amount that musicians make from streams on Spotify pales in comparison to album and single purchases, and the amount that they pay out per stream dropped several times over the last few years. Many smaller developers are already struggling to get noticed in the oceans of games releasing each week, and while we don’t know the model that Google will pursue, if direct purchases go away in favour of streaming subscriptions, that revenue could shrink even further. It’s not just Google pushing this, but Microsoft and Sony as well.
We might have expected this shift to come from Microsoft and Sony, a more connected future built around next generation consoles and complimentary streaming, but Google have outlined a more meaningful vision for what gaming in the cloud can actually mean. It might not truly take hold for quite some time yet, but after fifteen years of relative stability in the games industry, it’s clear that times are changing whether we like the look of it or not.