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The world is waiting for Google Stadia to flop

On November 19th, Google will officially become a game company, one with its very own console, controller, and distribution platform for the latest triple-A games. If all goes well, it may stand shoulder to shoulder with Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo and Steam, or even surpass them someday.

That’s because Google is the biggest, best-positioned company to ever throw its weight behind cloud gaming — a technology that lets you play a game without discs or downloads, by streaming them from remote servers, just like you’d stream a YouTube video to your TV, laptop, or even the phone in your pocket.

But it also means this may be a make-or-break moment for cloud gaming if its champion fails to impress — and it’s not looking good.

On the eve of launch, it feels like the deck is stacked against Stadia. Skeptics wonder how it could possibly work given today’s internet speeds, the possibility of blowing through your data cap, and the requirement that gamers pay full price for titles that may only live in the cloud. Critics speculate that cloud gaming might eliminate the used game market and modding scene, and impact the ability to preserve games for future generations. Potential adopters worry what might happen if it isn’t quite as much of a success as Google hopes, since Google is infamous for walking away from products when they don’t have the desired impact. Nobody wants to buy games that might disappear, after all.

One of Google’s own Stadia partners recently admitted that game developers are afraid of that possibility too: “The biggest complaint most developers have with Stadia is the fear that Google is just going to cancel it,” Kine developer Gwen Frey told GamesIndustry.biz. (Note: The thrust of her argument was that devs shouldn’t be afraid, because it’s a risk worth taking. “It’s not like Google cancels every fucking thing they make,” she pointed out.)

But perhaps the biggest blow against Stadia is how Google keeps proving the platform isn’t fully ready. Google has spent the past few months retroactively revealing that early adopters who paid $130 are buying into a glorified beta test — with few games, many missing features, and a wireless controller that requires a wire on phones and PCs.

Here’s a brief timeline of events:

  • March 19th: Google announces Stadia, a cloud gaming service that can instantly stream games to TV, desktop, laptop, tablet or phone; seamlessly swap between them, thanks to a wireless controller that connects directly to Google’s cloud; instantly stream to YouTube in 4K or summon the Google Assistant for game tips with the press of a dedicated button; let viewers instantly play alongside YouTube creators and relive the exact gaming moments they share just by clicking a link (Crowd Play, State Share); offer cross-platform multiplayer with PC and console; allow gamers to share their entire screen with teammates (Stream Connect); and deliver games with advanced graphics and physics that are impossible to offer on consoles today by combining the power of multiple cloud servers.
  • June 6th: Google opens pre-orders for the $130 Founder’s Edition, including a Buddy Pass that will let you bring a friend along for the ride, but also reveals Stadia won’t be a Netflix-style all-you-can-eat subscription but mostly require you to pay full price for games; Google reveals a who’s who of participating game publishers but no killer apps, pointing out that the existing Destiny 2 will be its flagship title for the time being.
  • June 15th: Bungie reveals Destiny 2 on Stadia will be a “closed ecosystem” with no cross-platform multiplayer.
  • July 18th: Stadia’s product director reveals that the wireless controller won’t support wireless headphones for TV play on day one.
  • October 16th: Google is caught adding a disclaimer that you’ll initially have to plug a USB-C cable into the wireless controller to use it with PCs and phones.
  • October 22nd: It turns out your Stadia pre-order won’t necessarily arrive on launch day, because Google isn’t shipping them all at once.
  • October 24th: Google studio lead Jade Raymond admits it “may be several years” before a big game takes full advantage of the cloud.
  • November 11th: Google reveals that only 12 games will be available at launch.
  • November 13th: In a Reddit AMA, Google says that at launch, Stadia won’t give you that Buddy Pass for a friend for the first couple weeks; won’t offer Google Assistant features except asking Google to launch a game; won’t stream 4K or HDR to Chrome PCs; won’t offer any games with key Stream Connect, State Share or Crowd Play multiplayer and YouTube features; won’t work on Chromecast Ultras that weren’t purchased as part of the Founder’s Edition package until they get a firmware update, and more.

It’s also worth noting that Koei Tecmo president and Stadia partner Hisashi Koinuma told The Wall Street Journal he wasn’t wholly satisfied with Stadia after months of testing, saying that he anticipates some “unexpected technological troubles” at launch. The honesty is refreshing, but it’s not a great sign when your own partners throw you under the bus.

None of this is the end of the world, particularly since Stadia will have a free tier in 2020 that doesn’t require you to buy any hardware or subscription at all — you’ll only need to pay for the games. Perhaps Google will simply reset expectations by calling that the true “launch,” and that by then everything else will be ironed out.

And some of the criticisms of cloud gaming are unfair. The idea that you could play a game entirely over the internet was proven nearly a decade ago by OnLive and Gaikai (which later became PlayStation Now). Both were playable with a good internet connection back in 2010.

They just didn’t make much sense because the servers weren’t distributed broadly enough, the average US internet connection wasn’t fast enough, and the economics of maintaining a single PS3 console or server in the datacenter for each and every player meant they cost too much money to attract gamers and developers effectively. But Google has existing internet infrastructure that spans the globe, average home internet speeds have shot up, and Google has never shied away from throwing massive amounts of servers at money-losing projects like nigh-infinite Gmail or Google Photos storage if that means it can dominate an industry afterwards.

That’s probably why potential competitors like Sony, Microsoft, EA, Nvidia and Valve are being so cautious right now: rolling out early technical previews of their cloud gaming services, or tweaking their prices to be more reasonable, or edging in sideways with cloud-adjacent features instead of revealing their hand too early, or striking mysterious deals to hedge their bets, or rolling out invite-only betas to a few more devices first. They can’t outspend Google, and they don’t want to bet too much if Stadia winds up poisoning the cloud gaming well.

Like the rest of us, they’re waiting to see if Stadia will flop. I hope it won’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if it does.