Five reasons Google's Stadia will fail

This week, Google announced its brand new Stadia game streaming service, and promised a 2019 launch. It’s ambitious, exciting, and faces some tremendous challenges if it wants to succeed in the crowded, ultra-competitive gaming market.

Before I rain on Google’s parade, let me take a moment to say that I really want this to work. The idea of playing in 4K 60fps without having to pay for the requisite gaming hardware greatly appeals to me. I’m hoping Google addresses these worries and makes Stadia a smashing success.

For a look at the reasons why Google's ambitions may work out, read another writer's view on why Stadia will succeed.

Now, on to the challenges.

America’s lousy internet infrastructure

Given that we invented the damn thing, it’s pretty absurd that we have some of the slowest internet in the developed world. Even worse, we pay a lot more for it than other countries. You could write a long essay about the hows and whys, but the fact remains that we’re paying more for less. This is true even for the largest American cities like Los Angeles and New York. Even worse, there are many places in America where broadband is brutally slow, capped, or both.

Google claims that Stadia is a “game platform for everyone” but it leaves these folks behind. Forget gaming in 4K with HDR; they’ll never be able to use Stadia at all. When Google talked about Stadia, it talked about making gaming more accessible because expensive hardware wouldn’t be required. But fast internet is expensive, and all the money in the world can’t compensate for living in a place that lacks fast broadband options and the accompanying infrastructure.

However, that same gamer can invest in a console and play hard copies of games easily. They may miss out on DLC and updates / patches, but they can still enjoy the core game experience. And if they have friends with better broadband, they can lug their consoles over and download patches and new content that way. This is suboptimal, but it is an option.

Google Fiber could solve this problem, but its rollout is far from extensive, covering just 12 states. Given the promised 2019 roll out date, I doubt that Fiber has time to service the other thirty eight states.

Also, it’s worth keeping mind that ISPs already throttle Netflix and YouTube, and this has only gotten worse since the demise of net neutrality. I’m sure they’d throttle Stadia as well; streaming games at 4K 60fps requires a mountain of data, and that costs ISPs a ton money.

Without net neutrality, ISPs could require that users pay a monthly fee for a “Stadia fast lane,” damaging the service’s value proposition. Worst of all, this isn’t an innovation issue - it’s a political one. This doesn’t get solved through Moore’s Law; it gets solved through legislation. Given that the current administration just destroyed net neutrality, I doubt it’s going to bring it back just because you want to pwn noobs. Local ISPs are the “last mile” in terms of delivering your games, and it’s that last mile that Google can’t control, and may in fact be working against this service’s success.

In an interview with Polygon, Phil Harrison claims that 4K 60fps gameplay requires a mere 30 Mb/s connection. He goes on to say that “if you get a good YouTube experience, you’ll get a great Stadia experience.” The gamer in me wants that to be true, but this claim falls firmly into the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category. And even that low requirement still leaves some folks out in the cold.

Limited multiplayer

On existing American internet infrastructure, streaming competitive multiplayer gaming may be very difficult. Fortnite and Apex Legends are two of the biggest games in the world and lagless play on Stadia seems unlikely. Google teased id’s Doom Eternal, but the (admittedly impressive) gameplay looked like single player, not multiplayer.

Throughout Google’s presentation, there seemed to be an emphasis on persistent worlds and cooperative gameplay, but not competitive twitch-reaction multiplayer. As a shooting, racing, and fighting game fan, that worries me. In those genres, frames and milliseconds matter. They’re the difference between glorious victory and ignominious defeat. Can a game streaming service reliant upon your wonky local internet company provide a competitive environment?

So here’s a new game platform, from a company that’s wholly unproven in this field, and you can’t play competitive multiplayer with your friends. Even if they sell their hardware at a loss (which Sony and Microsoft do) and even if it’s far cheaper than the competition, how do you make that proposition appealing to a consumer?

One way to do that is through exclusive single player experiences. And I think that Google knows that, judging by the fact that they hired Jade Raymond, original producer of the Assassin’s Creed series. There’s no doubt that she knows how to make a good game; there are few comparable franchises in terms of number of installments and copies sold. Folks around the Gamecrate office got a chance to try Assassin’s Creed Odyssey during Google’s Project Stream back in January and really enjoyed the experience.

If it’s cheap and easily accessible, it won’t take too many excellent exclusives to sell people on Stadia; I joined the PS4 ecosystem on the basis of sad dad God of War, The Last of Us 2, and robot revolutionary Detroit: Become Human (which ended up being mediocre, but thank goodness for Spider-Man). If it doesn’t have competitive multiplayer, it may end up riding sidecar to another game system. If its exclusives are lackluster, gamers may shrug at it and just pick up a next gen console that does everything. 

Also, it’s a minor sidenote, but if streaming game platforms take off, you can probably kiss user-generated mods and fan-created textures goodbye. I don’t use them, but I know some folks swear by them for games like Civilization and Skyrim.

Developer Buy-In

Making games is hard, particularly AAA single player experiences. It costs millions of dollars and requires thousands of work hours, as well as the talents of hundreds of highly trained engineers and artists. Google’s internal development team looks strong, but one development team can’t keep an entire platform afloat.

Google claimed that Stadia will benefit developers and creators, but their platform presents some serious challenges that devs will need to overcome.

The Stadia presentation promised powerful, scaleable data centers that will allow developers to escape the constraints of console hardware. But streaming games mean that you’re constrained by something far worse - your user’s internet connection, which can be unstable and highly variable. You can develop around that concern, or you can stick with PC, XBOX, and Playstation platforms - known quantities that aren’t demanding that you mess with unproven technology.

The AMD’s Stadia-specific GPU promises 10.7 TFLOPS. Google made a point of comparing this to the current console generation, noting that it’s more powerful than PS4 Pro and XBOX One X combined. But the current generation is more than five years old, and no longer  very impressive. AMD’s own Radeon VII can already push 13.8 TFLOPs. The RTX 2080 Ti manages 13.4 TFLOPs and has ray-tracing cores and DLSS.

How often will the specs of Stadia instances change? If it follows the five-ish year cycle of console generations, Stadia will look just as long in the tooth by 2024 as the PS4 Pro and XBOX One X do now. If it changes more frequently than that, will that disrupt game devs’ long development cycle?

Google mentioned the unique opportunities presented by the scalable nature of their datacenters, particularly the ability to use multiple Stadia instances to render multiple players’ viewpoints on a single screen.

While I think that could be a great experience, it may also mean that a game developed to take advantage of this can only be played on Stadia. This could lead to awesome exclusives that will help sell the platform, but third parties may not bother developing for it if they aren’t already planned as Stadia exclusives. This may lead to either a small pool of third party games or (more likely) games that don’t bother to take advantage of this feature at all.

Another one of Stadia’s selling points is that you can seamlessly transition from playing on your PC to your tablet to your smartphone. That’s a nice thought, but these formats have different needs. Smartphone games are simple bordering on simplistic, and are meant for short, time-killing game sessions between home and work/school. Console and PC games deliver deeper and more complicated experiences. Some games port well (Sup, Banner Saga!), but I can’t imagine that most will.

Moreover, mobile and console games are meant to be played on vastly different screens. Devs already struggle with implementing readable text on a standard 1080p screen (God of War, looking at you) and you’re telling me that they’re going to make games that seamlessly transition from a 65” 4K HDR TV to your 6” smartphone screen? What about all the HUD elements? The inventory screen? Think about how different Diablo 3’s inventory looks on the Switch versus PC. Making a game that works on multiple platforms is more complicated and more expensive. That’s a cost that developers are going to need to absorb and then recoup to make it worth developing games for Stadia. 

Community moderation

Google has been largely hands-off in moderating its largest social network, YouTube. Has that approach worked out? In terms of profitability, yes. But a quick trip through any YouTube comments section is a hideous experience. 

Even the biggest, most experienced game companies have struggled with this issue. Google is coming in cold, with a moderation philosophy that can be generously described as “hands off”.  When you consider how many Nazis hang out on YouTube, one could refer to that philosophy as “grossly negligent”.

Given how it wants to combine the playing and streaming space, what happens when gaming’s documented sexism problems smash headfirst into Stadia? It offers users the option to leap into a lobby to challenge your favorite streamer, which sounds great until you consider how quickly that can turn into a cavalcade of trolls.

Imagine a streamer trying to engage her audience, and troll after troll joins the game, screams a misogynistic slur, and logs off. Google claims that the streamer is in control, but if trolls have decided to target you, moderation can become a truly overwhelming task, especially for a solo content creator. So what’s the best option? Just turn it off? There goes another key Stadia feature.

There’s just a lot of horrible crap in the world, and running a game platform means that you have to handle that crap. I hope Google is ready, because I’m sure there’s some kid who saw the Stadia announcement and can’t wait to use a swastika as his player icon. If the hands-off approach continues, toxic gamers will drive away normal folks, further limiting your audience. No one wants to be the Gab of game platforms.

And forget the outright racism for a second. Stadia is also going to have to handle trolls who intentionally sabotage co-op games, kids who won’t stop screaming over the mic, and decide what does and doesn’t merit a perma-ban. Your days of moderation-less platforms are over, Google.

Consumer confidence

The tech startup motto is “fail faster.” Google is no longer a lean, mean startup, but it retains some of that philosophy in its DNA. While that’s a good philosophy when you’re attempting to disrupt calcified analog industries, I’m not sure how well it will work for gamers.

Who remembers Google Buzz? Google Plus? Orkut? Google Spaces? Google Play Music? YouTube Music? Most of them are dead or exist only nominally. I’m a Google Play Music user, and that app hasn’t gotten a significant update since its launch years ago. Spotify has spanked Google, and I think they know it, and have shifted development resources elsewhere. But what happens if Nintendo or Sony dunk on Stadia? What does Google do then?

Google doesn’t deactivate its services overnight, but it’s no stranger to shuttering underperforming products. That’s more worrisome when you consider that we don’t know how Stadia’s business model works. Do you buy games and “own” them the way you do on Steam? Do you pay a small monthly subscription fee? Google hasn’t told us, and that makes it a lot easier to worry.

What happens to Stadia users if Google bails? What happens to all your games? Your saves? What if you were in the middle of an episodic story game experience, and you’re one episode away from the final chapter, which hasn’t been released yet? I can’t imagine that Microsoft or Sony would let you port all your data over to their servers and systems, and they certainly won’t give you games for free.

All of this might lead to a “wait and see” attitude from the gaming community, which could keep Stadia’s numbers low, which could make it look like a failure, so more folks refuse to join. Meanwhile, third party devs don’t want to spend money porting their games to reach such a small player base. So the pool of games remains small. Which keeps people away. Lather, rinse, repeat, and deprecate.

On our best day, gamers are very critical. On our worst day, we’re ready to throw any and every one under the bus for failing to meet our expectations. Even with a rocky start, Google has the kind of war chest to hang on for the long run, but they need to want to hang on. Oh hey, Google Glass, didn’t see you over there in the dustbin of history. See why Stadia makes me nervous?

If they want to convince us, Google needs to make a profound commitment to Stadia, while allowing gamers to make no commitment at all. Make Stadia an impulse buy. Charge $50 for an Stadia HDMI dongle you can buy at any electronics store, and charge me $15 per month for every game on your platform, free to cancel at any time. Make sure Stadia works with the devices and TV I already own, because if I have to upgrade my hardware to take advantage of Stadia, then I might as well buy a console.

Does that seem absurd, Google execs? Good. Because streaming 4K 60fps on American internet infrastructure seems absurd to me. Let’s prove each other wrong.