How about this for an idea: a digital entertainment platform which can stream high-quality content from a remote data center to any device, anywhere in the world. Sound familiar? How about one step further, offering spectators the chance to either sit back and watch or jump straight into the screen.
Enter Google Stadia. The announcement of the tech giant’s new cloud gaming service may look initially as the Netflix model for gamers, delivering digital game entertainment to the masses, followed closely by April’s announcement of “Start” from Chinese tech giant Tencent, who similarly offer to put high-quality gaming within the reach of any device, at any time, through the cloud.
But there’s a major development. Stadia is promising to give you the complete free will to either sit back and spectate people all over the world playing live games or deciding to get involved and play too — all in real time. Everyone could be a protagonist in what could be the greatest show on earth.
When I first started working in games development, it was a much more solitary experience which grew exciting when we moved into multi-player modes and you could invite friends over to play together. Then came X-Box’s release of Halo and suddenly you could play against someone on the other side of the world, on consoles instead of PC. Although tech lagged and it wasn’t always smooth sailing, the Halo effect was transformative. With the rise of sites like YouTube and Twitch, a parallel trend was a rise in people keen to spectate gaming as a sport, watching impressive players online as they went from level to level. Now Google wants to combine these behaviors and give people the choice on whether to watch or play.
Currently, a player’s gaming experiences are usually defined by what physical equipment you have. Whether it is through a console or a PC, users have to invest in expensive hardware to get a high-quality gaming experience. Stadia promises to disrupt this status quo entirely — allowing players to stream games that are being powered on Google’s servers.
Sounds too good to be true, right? It will be down to the technical capability and content quality to decide.
Made for mobile?
For Netflix, the streaming model is relatively simple as it does not require interaction beyond choosing what you want to watch, whereas a gaming streaming service like Stadia will require an infinitely more complex level of interaction between server and user, with Stadia having to respond to constant user inputs in real-time speed. The speed and stability of Stadia’s streaming will be fundamental to it succeeding.
This represents a huge technical challenge — but if any company is equipped to undertake such a task, it is likely Google. Google already has a huge global infrastructure of more than 400,000 miles of fiber-optic cables linking its data centers around the world and has developed compression algorithms which shrink the size of data files to allow more information to be transmitted on a lower bandwidth.
Despite this, users will still be dependent on their home internet service provider, or their 4G connection from a mobile provider. Google has stated that “to get 1080p, 60-frames-per-second, required approximately 25 megabits per second (Mbps). In fact, we use less than that, but that’s where we put our recommended limit at.” For most broadband connections, this is a reasonable speed of connectivity to expect; however, it raises questions for the mobile capacity for Stadia.
The average 4G connection has a download speed of between 5Mbps and 12Mbps, which is less than half of the required speed for Stadia. This does not factor in the significant amount of regions that are still limited to 3G coverage — which is 10 times slower than a 4G connection. It would seem then that a large part of Stadia being accessible to mobile devices would depend on the roll out of 5G coverage, which still appears to be years away from widespread public use.
To offer a truly mobile experience, in its current form Stadia may be too fast for the infrastructure that supports it.
Questions on content?
Stadia raises even more interesting questions about the future of gaming content. A key indicator of what the next generation of gaming will look like depends largely on how Google attempt to price its product. Speculation is that Stadia will be a subscription-based model – disrupting the existing model and undoubtedly having an effect on gamers, developers and publishers alike.
The bigger players who create specifically for the platform will get a lot of attention for their games which could make it a trickier landscape for independent developers to be seen – but equally it’s an opportunity for these businesses to adapt. The likes of Sony and Microsoft will also want to maintain their dominance in the console market and protect their audience of gamers who enjoy their consoles and plugging in. But the exciting aspect is that it’s another route to market for content creators and ultimately the more avenues available to connect creators with consumers can only be a good thing.
I think Stadia is another example of a growing trend in all aspects of media and entertainment; the importance of the medium is diminishing. Audiences want to have the best and broadest choice of content possible – how that content is delivered is increasingly less relevant. This makes an interesting shift from the war of exclusives we have seen on consoles in particular, which created an almost tribal divide between Xbox and PlayStation players.
For Stadia this means two things: firstly, that the key to its success will be having a vast encyclopedia of content available – you wonder how keen Sony or Microsoft would be to hand over access to their exclusive titles to a competitor. Secondly, if it wants to bring the Netflix model to gaming, it must understand that users are not always loyal to the platform itself and the best content will surely win out, wherever it is.
Stadia is an exciting glimpse into the future of our relationship with games — but it must answer some decisive questions around connectivity and content ahead of its launch later this year. If it can address these concerns, then it could really make a splash.
Jason Kingsley is co-founder and CEO of game developer Rebellion.