While November 19th 2020 is set to be a big day for gaming in the UK thanks to the release of the highly sought-after PlayStation 5, it also marks the one year anniversary for another gaming platform. Google’s Stadia streaming service is set to complete its first circuit around the Sun on the same day, and it’s fair to say that the overall feeling about it in the gaming community remains tepid at best. It’s now under attack from all sides, with new home consoles to the left and upstart new game streaming rivals to the right, but with a still unique spread of features and a slowly growing library of games, can there still be a place for Stadia in the future of gaming?
Google Stadia didn’t launch with very much in place. The past year though has seen the platform grow into its shoes, from the simple expectations of things like Achievements or Party Chat through to impressive Stadia-exclusive features like Stream Connect that lets you see streams of your teammate’s screens in real-time. It is capable of doing things that no other platform can, and occasionally Google remembers to tell you.
As it stands today there are approximately 96 games available for Stadia, give or take an Ultimate Edition or two. That’s a fairly disappointing figure for 12 months of work, particularly when you consider that the vast majority of those are ports of games that were already available elsewhere. This winter has seen an improved level of parity with other platforms, with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Marvel’s Avengers and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 all arriving alongside the other consoles, but next year’s line-up is worryingly unclear for a platform that just gained another two competitors.
Without the extensive love that Ubisoft have heaped on the platform, things would be looking even more bleak. The French developer is always a sucker for an underdog – check out its library of Wii U games for proof – but in a lot of ways it’s the perfect match.
Stadia is a gaming platform for people that don’t like gaming. That might sound reductive – let’s be fair, it is – but its main selling point is as a system that doesn’t require much in the way of hardware and can slot seamlessly into any home setup. It’s not fundamentally aimed at someone who’s going to want to pick up a new game every week, and the inclusion of Ubisoft’s immense open-world offerings are the perfect sort of thing for Stadia owners to dip in and out of across many months without ever wanting more.
While the numbers aren’t that impressive, Google have been pretty canny in the types of game they’ve leveraged onto their platform. Destiny 2, Elder Scrolls Online, Red Dead Redemption 2 and of course Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Valhalla are the kind of games that suck up all your time in such a way that you might never look for anything else. With the incoming support of EA securing Madden and FIFA to go alongside 2K’s NBA series, Google Stadia is equipped with nearly everything a casual gamer could want.
As I stepped away from my Xbox Series X on launch day, I realised that there wass very little I can do with it in that moment. I’d plugged it in, hooked it up to the TV, and then used the app on the phone to set it up. It’s all seamless, welcoming and even manages to not be as big in the flesh as expected… but now I must wait. The games I’ve bought digitally have to download, and the ones I’ve bought physically need to download huge patches to make the most of the Series X’s power. Even with super speedy broadband has to be one of the slowest starts to a new generation I’ve ever experienced – and it’s excruciating.
As we enter this next generation of gaming, Google’s Stadia still gives a glimpse of a gaming future that no one else does – the instant arrival of content and the complete lack of updates or patches. One of the most confounding elements of my recent gaming life has been turning on a console or logging into Steam to discover that the game I want to play needs a patch. It won’t work online without it either, so in most cases you simply have to sit and wait.
You don’t with Stadia, and it’s my most-loved advancement in the last year of gaming. Yes, you’re reliant on your internet connection – I obviously can’t recommend Stadia if you don’t have a decent speed on your internet, or any data caps either – but beyond that increasingly universal starting point you can get started straight away. No downloads, no patches, just playing the game. You can go from buying a game to playing it in seconds. Fancy picking up Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on Stadia? You could be playing it in as much time as it takes just to fire up the Microsoft Store or PSN elsewhere.
Of course, it’s now got an even greater fight to stay relevant. The Xbox Series X|S and the PlayStation 5 have just arrived, and despite Stadia’s alleged power seemingly keeping step on paper, the performance on a game by game basis doesn’t play that out. We’ve seen time and time again that even with the Stadia’s top tier Pro subscription pumping out a 4K signal, the image and performance that makes it there struggles to match that seen on Xbox One X or PS4 Pro.
Looking at Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on both Xbox Series X and Stadia, the version arriving through the streaming service is visually much softer than that seen on the new powerhouse, but the art direction still shines through in what is an attractive image and it loads slightly faster on Stadia from a standing start.
Then again, this isn’t a fair comparison in a lot of ways. With Stadia I can play Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on my mobile phone, my laptop, my desktop and my TV. Thanks to Ubisoft’s new Connect service it even hoovers up the save game from my Xbox Series X and lets me carry on from where I was. This is the kind of thing I want from the new generation of gaming, and in this way Stadia’s right in the mix.
It’s also not alone though in the streaming space anymore. In the last 12 months we’ve seen NVIDIA’s Geforce Now appear in full release, Xbox’s Cloud Streaming make it to everyone with Game Pass Ultimate, and Amazon soft launch its own Luna service which straight out of the gate offers more games than Stadia has accrued in 12 months. Oh, and let’s not forget PlayStation Now as well. Stadia is the only one sticking with a traditional business model as well, while most of the others embrace subscriptions to access their full libraries of games.
Stadia still has the edge on these other platforms thanks to its more universal availability. Load up Chrome on any old PC or Mac and you can play Stadia directly in your browser, it’s got full Android and ChromeOS support and it uses an unassuming Chromecast dongle for TV play.
Xbox is only available on Android right now, Luna’s only available in the US, and Geforce Now has lost the ability to stream a huge number of games thanks to licensing shenanigans. Stadia still gives the quickest, most universal, and most straightforward access to your games but if any of its new competitors ups their game things are going to become increasingly tough.
We don’t really know how many users Stadia has right now, but we would imagine it’s not a particularly impressive number or Google would have been flashing the figures in front of our eyes for months. Things also don’t look all that amazing when they’re currently sending out free Stadia Premium packs to Youtube Premium subscribers – most recently they were selling for £100 and include a Stadia controller and Chromecast Ultra.
It doesn’t speak to a platform in the rudest health, and that’s a worry when Google has a history of mothballing projects that aren’t really working. You have to hope that they stick with Stadia, as there is something there. For me, someone who’s ostensibly not Stadia’s primary audience, I’ve still found myself turning to it for regular gaming fixes thanks to where I can play it. I’m regularly playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on my phone, and that remains ridiculously cool, and undoubtedly useful.
In its current iteration, Stadia boasts 10.7 Teraflops of computing power, which on paper sits between the PS5’s 10.3 and the Xbox Series X’s, though Stadia’s particular flops might not be as efficiently used through an older GPU architracture. Still, its spec should ensure it can happily hold its own amongst what’s going on on Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, and Google have spoken of being able to move up to 120fps and 8K support. Google could bump its performance whenever it wants to, modifying the hardware found in its many server farms without needing any new purchases from its users.
As a straight up value proposition, Stadia holds its own. You can simply buy one game and play it in a bunch of places you probably already own. If you want 4K and surround sound you’ll need to grab the Stadia Pro subscription, but that in itself brings a relatively healthy 31 game library with it as well, with more added each month. It’s not up there with Xbox GamePass, but then few things are.
You don’t even really need to buy much else; you can use a bunch of controllers you might have hanging around or even play using touchscreen controls. Alternatively if you grab the proper Stadia controller – a comfortable option that has stood up to a year of consistent use – and a Chromecast Ultra you’re still looking at an investment well below £100 (or free if you’re a Youtube Premium subscriber). You’ll likely already know if Stadia is going to be the right pick for you, but you won’t necessarily have to pay much to find out.
Stadia remains full of potential, a small amount of which it’s managed to fulfil in its first year. Its streaming technology works impressively well, its hardware is robust (though you don’t need it), and it plays host to a batch of games that most people would want to play. Its second year though is going to be a battle for relevance, and the question remains whether Google has the necessary commitment for a war.