If Google’s radical, cloud-based gaming platform functions as proclaimed, it will alter the fabric of gaming, but just how substantial that ‘if’ proves to be remains to be determined.
On 19th March, at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), an annual convention of video game developers organised since 1988 at San Francisco, Google announced its cloud-based game-streaming platform, Google Stadia, scheduled to launch in the latter half of 2019.
The ramifications of the announcement of the US tech giant are immense. If Stadia functions in real-world conditions with the visual fidelity and operational fluidity as exhibited during Google’s demo at GDC, it could spell a paradigm shift in the existing video gaming sphere.
While the announcement was received with much fanfare and enthusiasm, a healthy scepticism from some corners was apparent. After all, Stadia would not be the first occurrence of a promising game streaming platform that arrived with a roar but ultimately disappeared with a whimper.The cloud gaming service OnLive is an example in this respect, which came into existence in 2009 only to be acquired and shut down in 2015 by the Playstation maker Sony Entertainment. In 2014, Sony also acquired another similar US-based service called Gaikai which was integrated into the Japanese company’s cloud gaming platform Playstation Now. However, none of the platforms had the backing of the all-encompassing behemoth that is Google. The argument for reasonable optimism is strong, yet while Google’s claim to have heralded the “future of gaming” might prove prescient when the service commences, it is a future veiled in mystery, for the launch raised as many questions as it answered.
How It Works
Phil Harrison, Stadia’s head, presented a thorough breakdown of the platform’s functioning at the GDC. Unlike traditional gaming platforms such as the PlayStation, Xbox or Gaming PCs, Stadia doesn’t require a physical device to process the game. The Stadia isn’t a console; Google’s data centres will handle the heavy-duty processing and stream the games to the devices, whether it is TVs, laptops, phones or tablets - any device that supports Google Chrome can run Stadia. The only other prerequisite is a high-speed internet connection. Harrison claimed that a stable connection of 30 megabits per second (Mbps) will allow for 4K streaming at 60 frames per second (fps). For reference, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video recommend 25 and 15 Mbps respectively for 4K video streaming.
Google will also launch a proprietary controller, dubbed the ‘Stadia Controller,’ with a variety of features such as Google Assistant, instant sharing, and live streaming on YouTube.
Delivering on Stadia’s potential is a gargantuan task but considering the computing capability of Google’s data centre servers, the service apparently does not lack in terms of raw specs. According to Google, each game will be streamed by Stadia servers, with each having 56 compute units. Each unit will have graphics processing unit (GPU) of 10.7 teraflops clearly indicates that Stadia’s capacityto process and stream games will be more than the combined power of two top-end current generation consoles of Sony and Microsoft, namely PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.
Although Google has been at the forefront of providing cloud-computing services in the last decade, Stadia represents its first significant foray into the gaming arena. While the cost of developing Stadia is placed under lock and key, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, acknowledged that the company would spend USD 13 billion on infrastructure expansion (data centres and offices) in 2019. It seems that a large chunk of this investment will go to the establishment of Stadia with an upsurge in the number of data centres. According to Newzoo, a marketing intelligence firm, there are 2.3 billion gamers worldwide and the global video games industry generated USD 137.9 billion in 2018, with mobile players accounting for over half of the revenue. With Stadia, Google is staking a claim at that sizeable pie. Further, considering Stadia’s ubiquitous nature and the fact that it’s not tied down to a specific platform or device, it can make a play on all fronts – PC, console and mobile gaming.
The gaming industry has been functioning on autopilot, with its three principal players – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo alongside PC brands including Dell, Lenovo, HP, Asus and MSI, ruling the roost. Stadia’s impending arrival signals a disruption of substantial proportions, the likes of which gaming hasn’t encountered for a while. The service has the potential to upend the current gaming paradigm and effectively alter how games are produced, purchased and played.
Further, if Stadia is successful, it will doubtless encourage other corporations to enter the fold. As it stands, Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, Apple, Verizon and even Walmart are working on their cloud gaming service, at differing stages of completion. Microsoft’s platform, dubbed ‘Project xCloud’, is scheduled to begin public trials in 2019.
Furthermore, Google Stadia will be a giant steptowards realising the ‘games as a service’ (GaaS) concept, a controversial revenue model being pursued by some big video game publishers such as Electronics Arts and Activision for continuous monetisation of the video games they release and criticised by many gamers and industryanalysts for being too profit centric.
The most significant hurdle facing Stadia is high-speed internet connectivity, or rather, the lack of it. In 2018, Cable, a UK-based broadband company found that the global average internet speed at the time of testing was 9.1 Mbps, based on over 163 million speed tests. More pertinently, since Stadia is rolling out first in USA, UK, Canada and parts of Europe - the average speeds in three of those regions are 25.86, 18.57 and 19.48 Mbps, respectively.
Google hasn’t explicitly stated which countries in Europe will receive the service. However, Europe has the world’s largest concentration of countries with fast internet. All three of the specific regions (excluding parts of Europe) Stadia is launching in fall shy of Google’s preliminary 30 Mbps requirement for uninterrupted 4K streaming, and two of them fall short of the 1080p streaming bar, set at 25 Mbps.
Even for those with optimum internet speeds, data caps imposed by internet service providers (ISPs) are yet another impediment for game streaming. It’s not apparent at this stage how much data Stadia will consume. For reference, streaming 4K content on Netflix consumes seven GBs of data per hour. However, that content is shot at 24 fps; Google’s claimed 60 fps streaming is likely to devour considerably more data. Even the combined might of Google’s resources and technological wizardry can’t compensate for customers’ insufficient data caps. One solution could be Google potentially collaborating with certain ISPs to mitigate the problem.
Further, while Stadia may run smoothly in urban areas that are near Google’s data centres, consumers in rural or remote parts may not find the performance up to the mark. Game ownership too becomes a consideration on a cloud-based platform because unlike traditional games, which once purchased belong to the customer indefinitely, Stadia’s games can disappear from the platform at any moment on Google’s behest. Much like how Netflix continuously adds and removes content.
Lastly, the biggest mystery of all, and an aspect that will go a long way towards determining Stadia’s reception, is the price. Google has not yet disclosed the cost, nor have they revealed the purchase model. It is not clear whether Stadia is a subscription service or whether customers have to purchase games individually.
Google Stadia may well herald the future of gaming, but until the internet giant sheds more light on the operational sundries of its revolutionary platform, gamers across the world remain in a state of limbo- torn between cautious optimism and cynical realism.
For now, we wait.