Google is finally taking the game business seriously. Not satisfied with its role as owner of Android and the operator of the Google Play store, the company announced Stadia at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. It was one of the most ambitious announcements of the last decade — a full declaration that Google cares about games. And it was the talk of the show.
Stadia is a cloud gaming platform that resides in Google’s data centers, which compute the graphics and actions in a game and then send the results in the form of a video to the player, regardless of which machine the player is on. It lets gamers play high-end games on low-end machines, including TVs, smartphones, tablets, PCs, and lightweight laptops. It will be able to run single-player games like Doom Eternal at 60 frames per second in 4K resolution with HDR (or high-dynamic range).
It comes with a controller that has a button that lets you capture your gameplay and share it directly to YouTube. Fans who watch the YouTube video can click on a link and immediately go into a game to try it out, or even join a streamer in a match. The controller will connect to WiFi networking that will lead you to Google’s backbone network that will minimize interaction delays, or latency. Stadia will also be able to play games in a split-screen mode.
To lead the business, Google turned to an industry operator who has a lot of cred. Phil Harrison ran Sony’s worldwide game studios and served as an executive at Microsoft’s Xbox game business. And this week, he made his first public appearance onstage as a vice president and general manager in charge of Google’s Stadia business. I’ve known Harrison for years, and I was able to sit down with him and quiz him about the big questions of the Stadia business.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I get the feeling that Google and Stadia have been the talk of the show.
Phil Harrison: That’s kind of intentional. [laughs] But it’s nice to know it was all worthwhile.
GamesBeat: What convinced you to sign up with Google in the first place?
Harrison: I wouldn’t say I was done, but I was as far away from corporate life as you could possibly imagine. I got a call — long story short, I said, “No, I’m not looking for a position, but let me see if I can be helpful to you in maybe finding the right person.” But I was convinced to take a phone call, which turned into a video call, and I said, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.”
I met with Sundar and Rick and Ruth, and I started to understand not just the vision that Google had, but also the constellation of capabilities that Google had. If we could line up the planets properly, it would be, no pun intended, a game-changer. I decided that I was so excited by that that I would move from the U.K. to the U.S. and bring my family. You can get a sense of my commitment.
GamesBeat: Somewhere there they convinced you that the cloud for games was going to work.
Harrison: My analysis was that cloud streaming, the math and the science of cloud streaming, was proven. It was more the scale of infrastructure required. It’s all very well doing it in a test or a trial or a regional basis, but to get to the kind of scale takes a Google. I think you run out of companies before you run out of fingers on one hand, that can do this on a global scale.
Nobody else has YouTube. Nobody else has the investment in the fundamental hardware architecture fabric inside the data center, which we don’t actually talk about publicly as to what is. But the level of innovation and hardware that Google has been investing in for 20 years is extraordinary. Coupled with — Google likes hard problems. We like to go for the difficult things that will transform an industry and take it to a completely different level.
GamesBeat: Very quickly, what are all the questions you’re not answering right now? Nothing about business model, nothing about subscriptions, nothing about launch dates. What else?
Harrison: We did have a launch date. We’re launching 2019.
GamesBeat: That’s a bit of a vague one.
Harrison: I’ll give you more specificity. It’s going to be closer to the end of 2019 than the middle of 2019. [laughs]
GamesBeat: One thing I heard when talking to people was, “Oh, there’s a gotcha here. They never mentioned the actual latency.” But I thought that if you could play Doom Eternal to the satisfaction of people like id, you must have solved that.
Harrison: We believe we have solved it. While we objectively have solved it with Doom Eternal, and we’ll encourage you to form your own opinions, we also would point you to a very technically astute, deep editorial on Digital Foundry. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Digital Foundry. They had a chance to look deeply into our latency, and they said that it was — I’m summarizing, but basically the same as an Xbox One X locally. Completely independently.
We will continue to make investments on our codecs, on the hardware inside our data centers, and on the intelligent networking traffic that we’ll build on top of that. We’re not done. We’ll continue to innovate on that. Then the final piece of the puzzle is the proximity of our data centers to the general population. The 7,500 edge node locations around the world we talked about yesterday, that’s a very significant capital investment, which allows us to get close and cheat the speed of light as much as we can.
GamesBeat: The controller had a clever thing in it that shaves some milliseconds off?
Harrison: Yeah, quite a significant amount of time. It’s WiFi directly to the data center in the cloud. It does not pair at all locally with your device.
GamesBeat: How is it making that hop?
Harrison: It’s effectively a computer inside it that talks directly to your WiFi network, and then connects directly to the game instance in the cloud.
GamesBeat: Is it okay to have this be wireless, then, and to have it communicate?
Harrison: It’s absolutely wireless, yeah. We showed it connecting to the TV yesterday for purely presentation reasons. You invite 1,500 people into a room full of WiFi, you can cause some unintentional consequences. That’s why we started with it being wired. But it’s a wireless controller.
GamesBeat: I’ve been talking to more people about data centers recently. I talked to Equinix, and they said they can get 60 milliseconds anywhere in the country [and with four corners of the U.S. covered, that comes down to 15 milliseconds]. The crucial thing for them is to have the handoffs between different parties, like AT&T to Comcast or whatever it is. I’ve heard other people also talk about that, saying you can get delays in the last mile of some kind. How do you help solve that part?
Harrison: It’s two parts to that equation. One is what I call the pairing relationships that you have with the ISPs, and the other is the distribution of your physical infrastructure. Crucially for Google is the fact that all of our data centers are then connected together by our own proprietary backend, hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable.
GamesBeat: Less handing off or no handing off.
Harrison: Almost no handing off in many cases. That means that across the country, New York to San Francisco, for us, is 20 milliseconds.
GamesBeat: Valve said their network needs to do 30 to 60 milliseconds in response time in order to run Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2. That’s the way they do it, not as a cloud game. But if you have that, then players are happy.
Harrison: Sure, that makes sense.
GamesBeat: Does it mean you guys have to operate in that sort of realm, under 60 milliseconds?
Harrison: Some games are very latency-dependent. That’s why we showcased Doom Eternal. Talk to Martin and the team at id and they will tell you what their experience was like. They were satisfied, and they were rightly a tough customer, a tough partner to bring to our platform, because they were skeptical, as Marty said on stage yesterday. They didn’t think it would be possible, but when they understand exactly how it works, they said, “Okay, we’re all in.”
Other games are much more latency-insensitive. By demonstrating an action FPS with a very high framerate requirement, then all the other games that you can imagine go from there.
GamesBeat: As far as convincing the triple-A game companies, what part of that is difficult? How are you accomplishing that?
Harrison: I’m not going to answer the question in the way that you would hope, but you’ll see in the summer what our launch lineup and beyond looks like. We should have that conversation again. I think you’ll be impressed with the partners that we have brought to the table, brought to the party so to speak.
I would point you to what we did with Project Stream back in October of last year. We landed, day and date, with Ubisoft, the latest version of their most successful franchise. That should give you a sense of the direction of travel that we have for the kind of partners and the kind of games that we’ll be bringing to Stadia.