Yesterday’s reveal of Stadia, the boxless 'future of gaming' from Google, was certainly intriguing. It promises seamless browser-based streaming of AAA games at 4K and 60 frames-per-second to all manner of devices you already own. The proposition is a clear and clean one for people with cluttered houses chock full of tech that’s slowly turning obsolete with every annual hardware revision. Google’s message is strong: everyone, everywhere can join in.
Setting aside the massive hit to office productivity that implies, Stadia has the potential to transform the gaming industry and affect every company working in it. While Google’s presentation itself was formulaic and dry, the content spoke for itself and initial hands-on reports and first impressions signal that the tech appears to perform admirably.
If this turns out to be the case in a ‘real-world’ context, it should give the ‘big three’ players in the console market something to think about, especially as the next hardware generation peeks its head over the horizon. If Stadia’s launch later this year is a success, how is that likely to affect Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft?
Obviously, as a Nintendo site, we’re primarily concerned with the House of Mario, and from what we’ve seen so far, Nintendo should be somewhat insulated thanks to the portable nature of Switch. As toweringly impressive as the Stadia tech may be, WiFi blackspots and disruptions will still scupper your entire game, not just the online portion. Switch’s modest chipset is hardly bleeding edge, but it’s able to deliver incredible gaming experiences without being tied to an internet connection, meaning it’s likely to be the best portable gaming option for a good while yet. You can’t stop Switch by going through a tunnel.
The need for a strong and stable internet connection will always be Stadia’s Achilles’ heel, but homes where that isn’t an issue present more of a worry for the traditional console companies. While Nintendo may well be affected inside the home – where every screen is turned into a more powerful console – the company has some breathing space until 5G (and beyond) really takes off and lightning fast WiFi (with reasonable data plan pricing) is the norm when you’re out and about. The section of the Stadia presentation detailing Stream Connect has the potential to usurp Nintendo as king of couch co-op, but there's a big difference between a tech demo and an actual game. It'll be a while before Switch isn't a fixture at the hip roof-top barbecue parties we throw every weekend.
Nintendo also has its enviable catalogue of IP to bolster its hand. Those video game franchises cultivated for over three and a half decades are hugely valuable and have seen the company through some rocky periods. Content is king for all platforms, and putting aside some colossal hardware misstep, people will continue to go to Nintendo systems for Nintendo content.
One of the most potent weapons Google used in its presentation was the elimination of the update bar, and this should be more of a worry for Sony and Microsoft. Anybody with one of their consoles is all-too-familiar with the process of firing it up for a quick session and facing a barrage of firmware and software updates, often at comically slow download speeds, before you can finally play the damn thing. We had half an hour spare the other day, sat down for a little Forza Horizon 4 and 27 minutes later the game finally booted. It’s okay, we played some Switch while we waited.
The other huge advantage Google has is that ‘boxless’ selling point. Offering a very similar AAA experience to the competition over devices you already have in your house with no £300 hardware purchase is massive. Hardcore gamers may baulk at the latency figures, but Google’s proposition could be hugely disruptive for a more casual audience or for gamers that only really play one game (FIFA, say). Although it may well depend on the type of game you’re playing, spending $400 on a big noisy console and having to wait for installation, update bars and all that bother may well seem like far too much trouble. Stadia removes a very large barrier to entry for a lot of people, and that's good for the industry as a whole.
Microsoft is reportedly lining up its own cloud-based streaming solution – perhaps in a very similar mould; it certainly has the resources to do something similar. Whether Sony is in a position to compete is up for debate, although it's been in the streaming space for a long time already with PS Now, the platform formerly known as Gaikai. Stadia appears to be a significant upgrade to that streaming tech, though, with broad and powerful integration across the web. Whether Sony’s system could be broadened to compete is difficult to know at this stage, but it has more than a foot in the door.
There are still many unknowns and ‘unspokens’ regarding Stadia at present; namely the price. A subscription model would be the obvious choice, although subscription fatigue seems to be setting in already – there must be a limit to the number of services consumers are willing – and are able to – pay for on a monthly basis. Google is likely to offer a suite of options, perhaps billing based on playtime or the number of games you access. Outright ‘purchase’ of games is certainly possible, although that would seem strange seeing as you can only ever 'access' the games rather than download and ‘own’ them.
The total loss of ownership is one thing which may give many gamers pause. While we technically only purchase licences to play digital games on Switch, for example, we can download them, back them up on multiple microSD cards and ‘have’ them indefinitely. Stadia moves away from all this, enabling some impressive integration with YouTube and distilling game states and sharable experiences to a mere hyperlink; a true streaming platform. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and the like, the world is now very comfortable with streaming, although gamers are historically very protective of their physical media.
While Google has always been an online entity, Nintendo’s history with the physical product gives its products a kind of prestige that enthusiasts cherish. For everyone who’s gone digital-only on Switch, there’s someone else who’s willing to pay through the nose for boxed physical copies of games for a number of reasons. Make no mistake, physical media is destined to go the way of the dodo, but many Nintendo fans, young and old, still value it, giving the company another small (and ever-shrinking) cushion for the inevitable, fast-approaching bump when the ephemeral digital option becomes the only option.
This inflection point heralded by Stadia’s arrival could have a startling knock-on effect on game design itself. The technology requires Google to register (and presumably log) every single byte of player input, enabling constant analysis, tweaking and honing. This information will no-doubt influence design choices, with bottlenecks, player trends and choices examined and planned around. ‘Games as a service’ has primed us for this – the product shipped on disc in the beginning may have very little in common with the live game six months down the line – but the elimination of client-side code or calculation means gamers are truly at the mercy of Google and developers.
If successful, this has ramifications across all facets of gaming. What will happen to mods, for example? And as exciting as playing on any screen in the house may be, it’s also concerning for game preservationists – if code only ever exists on mainframes at Google’s ominous sounding ‘data centres’, how do you preserve these games for posterity? This is something that video game historians are already struggling with as thousands of iOS and Android titles are taken offline each year and vanish forever.
Hardcore gamers may well be bristling at this relinquishment of ownership and control, let alone the unavoidable lag which will likely keep high-level players of fighting games and twitch-based first-person shooters playing locally. Realistically, it could be another decade or more before the tech reduces lag to the point where it’s indistinguishable to a game running under the TV in a way that will satisfy the hardcore community, but Google isn’t really making a play for hardcore gamers – a difficult-to-please and small (in Google terms) demographic that isn’t worth chasing, at least at this stage. As Nintendo has done in the past with its Blue Ocean strategising, it’s looking to access a wider audience instead, to grow the market in a broader sense through the scalability of its platform and the fact that Chrome is already sitting on millions of devices across the globe.
All this begs the question: Could Switch become one of these ‘screens’ we play Stadia on at some point? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s conceivable it could work as well on Switch as any other device and as we’ve seen with the Japanese cloud-based experiments with Resident Evil 7 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, there’s plenty of room for improvement over the existing methods companies are employing to get around the limitations of Switch’s silicon. As an aside, it’s curious to note that Stadia isn’t scheduled to launch in Japan this year – a country with an excellent internet infrastructure.
All the possibilities Stadia offers and the direction in which Nintendo and others might head if it’s a success are dizzying, but there’s also a tinge of sadness in the air. Instant access and gratification is a concept that younger gamers today naturally take for granted, and the further elimination of that delicious moment of anticipation puts dinosaurs like us in a melancholy mood. In the presentation, industry veteran Phil Harrison – part of the team that launched the original PlayStation, for crying out loud – highlighted how you could click a button in a YouTube trailer and be playing the game in as little as five seconds. Incredibly impressive, certainly, but for people who used to pore over tiny screenshots in games mags and devour instruction manuals in the car on the way home until we could finally plug our fresh cart into the console, the reality of always-online, always-accessible is bittersweet. As attention spans get ever shorter, we’ve got nostalgia for the old ways (because we’re old) and that anticipation from our youth – something we even occasionally try to emulate now by not tearing directly into a present or new purchase – is now reduced to a click and five short seconds. Oy.
But that’s been the past for a long time already. The future arrived a while ago but if Google can make a success of Stadia, we’re on the cusp of a massive leap towards the console-less future people have been predicting for years. Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting…