For years, we played video games in arcades. Then we huddled in front of specialized consoles hooked up to our living room televisions. The most dedicated of us built our own expensive PCs for the best experience.
Google is hoping to push another big change in gaming.
The selling point for Stadia is convenience: You don’t need a chunky game console or expensive PC. Just a TV, set-top box, browser, phone or low-end PC that can surf the web using Google’s Chrome browser. You can use your own keyboard, mouse and a controller you have lying around, or you can use a specialized controller from Google that connects to its service over Wi-Fi.
“Our ambition is far beyond a single game,” said Google’s Phil Harrison. Instead, the company sees the opportunity to give players “instant access” to a game by clicking a link. “The power of instant access is magical, and it’s already transformed the music and movie industries.”
The project will launch in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe in 2019. Google didn’t say how much games will cost to play, though it plans to say more in the summer.
Google sees gaming as a new way to seep into your life — as if email, search, YouTube and its Android software aren’t enough — through the promise of massive convenience. Who needs to spend hundreds of dollars on Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s Switch or a PC when you can just play a game over the internet on a scrawny laptop?
Though Google isn’t the first company to offer game streaming, its entry into the space could make waves within the video game world. Google has lots of money, and it’s made its name by offering reliable services like Gmail, Google Maps and Google Photos for free or on the cheap.
With Google’s streaming service you’ll no longer have to go to a retailer like Amazon, Best Buy or GameStop to get the latest title. Nor will you have to potentially wait hours to download it from online stores like Valve’s Steam. Instead, Google says, all you’ll need is a fast internet connection and a controller, and you’re set.
“Google has a lot going for it,” wrote IHS analyst Piers Harding-Rolls. He noted that between all of Google’s various services, it has a strong brand with consumers. The question, he said, is whether that can translate to the game world.
“Cloud is the new platform dynamic for the games sector and will be where the future competitive landscape resides,” he added. Google just needs to offer the right games to make it work.
A decade coming
I played my first streamed game about a decade ago, through a service run by a now-defunct startup called OnLive. Back then, the company offered to sell me access to hit games like the sci-fi shooting title Borderlands, playable through a PC, Mac or a little set-top box and a controller.
Just like with Netflix, all I had to do was log in, choose what I wanted to play and start. Sometimes the visuals would garble, just like they did back then with movie streaming too. But it worked. It felt like the future.
I’ve been waiting for that future ever since.
OnLive shut down in 2015, but other contenders have popped up. Sony launched its PlayStation Now streaming game service in 2014, as a complement to its popular PlayStation 4 game console. Microsoft and Electronic Arts, meanwhile, have said they’re developing competing services as well, though they haven’t offered firm launch dates. Even Comcast, the TV and internet provider, has dabbled in game streaming, most recently considering a purchase of the Korean game company Nexon, rumors say.
All these companies are betting that the streaming approach will eventually upend the way we play video games, much in the same way Netflix did our movie watching a decade ago. The question is when.
“What’s good is, in this industry you can play on mobile or PC, and now it’s starting to be the same game,” said Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, who’s been working with Google for six years on streaming game technology. “It’s one more possibility to experience the worlds we create, and it gives opportunities to creators to take full advantage of mobile.”
A new promise
Google pitched its service as a way to bring together different people in the game industry, including players, streamers and coders.
The company said it’s developed ways for people to start playing a game after clicking a link in YouTube, for example. The ease of sharing and starting a game with just a link could change the way we think of playing, Google’s Harrison.
“We just gave the development community a vision of the future of what it means when your data center is a platform, and you are no longer bound by the device you’re playing, and that you are now screen agnostic,” Harrison said. “That’s really exciting.”
Google has also partnered with game developers like Epic Games and Unity. As a result, Google’s high-performance servers will stream games at up to 4K ultrahigh-definition video at 60 frames per second, meaning animations should move smoothly.
Already, Google said, Stadia is able to deliver games with more performance than Microsoft’s Xbox One X and Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro combined. And Google said it eventually expects to double that performance as game developers create even more complex games.
Google won’t rely just on other game makers though. The company said it’ll follow Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo in building its own specialized games for its service, through a studio called Stadia Games and Entertainment.
“We are on the brink of a huge revolution in gaming,” said Jade Raymond, head of Google’s game making group and an industry veteran.
For its part, Microsoft said in a statement that it’s “a great time to be a gamer,” and noted that it’s devoted to offering choice as well through its upcoming Project xCloud service. Sony and Nintendo didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, Google said it plans to closely knit its game service with YouTube, offering new ways for people to compete and play with one another. That’s particularly exciting to Matthew Patrick, a popular YouTube gaming personality known as MatPat.
“It unites technology and entertainment in ways we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Originally published March 19, 11:05 a.m. PT.
Updates, 12:20 p.m.: Adds analyst comment; 2:20 p.m.: Includes additional industry comments; March 20: Adds more technical details; March 21: Includes details about game design ideas from Phil Harrison interview.