Gaming platform

See you soon, Stadia – why Google’s cloud gaming platform failed

Ok, Google, why is Stadia closing?

The streaming service’s impending shutdown in January 2023 surprised many, including developers who had been working on platform-exclusive releases until Stadia VP and GM Phil Harrison posted. a blog post. detailing the closure of the platform.

Studios like Tequilaworks have had to scramble to find new homes for their WIP projects. Rime developer Gylt’s next game was planned as a Stadiums exclusive before a quick emergency pivot to a cross-platform release. And they weren’t the only ones in this pickle.

It’s unclear so far how and, indeed, if Google will refund the studios that had worked on the Stadia releases. It’s also unclear why the tech giant backed out of its ambitious cloud gaming project in a way that seemed so abrupt from the outside.

“The underlying technology platform that powers Stadia is proven at scale and transcends games,” Harrison says in the post.

“We see clear opportunities to apply this technology to other parts of Google like YouTube, Google Play and our augmented reality (AR) efforts – as well as making it available to our industry partners, which which is where we see the future of gaming headed.

“We remain deeply committed to gaming and will continue to invest in new tools, technologies and platforms that fuel the success of developers, industry partners, cloud customers and creators.”

Technology over branding

Google Stadia

(Image credit: Google)

It’s worded in an interesting way, this statement. Google has proven the technology at scale and wants to use it elsewhere in the company. And he wants to sell it to other companies that might want to use it for gaming purposes. – form of play.

And perhaps it has less to do with the internal machinations of a vast and incomprehensible corporate juggernaut, and more with our behavior down here at ground level. Cloud gaming, it seems, just isn’t quite done yet.

It’s been in the oven since around 2003, when Finnish cloud pioneers G-Cluster first offered consumer-level server farm power via the best copper cables of the 2000s. Live had their respective attempts to take processing tasks off the local machine in the late 2000s, going public in the early 2010s with their offerings.

Looking back, it’s possible that those early glimpses of cloud gaming did more harm than good. Anyone who sampled OnLive circa 2011, patiently watching a vaseline-smeared image of Assassin’s Creed Revelations update, still an agonizing beat behind your controller inputs, surely felt pain when Stadia was announced.

dark skies

Google Stadia player using the controller with their phone

(Image credit: Google)

It wasn’t that the concepts behind OnLive or Gaikai were flawed. Sony has acknowledged that when they bought Gaikai for $380 million in 2013using technology for shared play, remote play and playstation now services. The first two weren’t transformative PS3 features or PS4but the latter still does trucking, although under the PlayStation Plus subscription umbrella these days. Nine years later, it’s fair to say that Sony has been happy to play the long game with cloud gaming.

Microsoft also seems happy to take a long-term view. Its own cloud gaming service is also tied to the platform holder’s monthly gaming subscription pass and currently resides in beta. And if you have an internet connection for that, that’s not bad. 1080p60 streaming is possible, and while there’s still a small feeling of input lag if you pay attention, it’s light years beyond OnLive.

And then there’s Nvidia. Propelled into the upper echelons of tech corporate wealth by mining Bitcoin, the California-based multinational also has several years of skin in the streaming game. GeForce nowformerly GeForce NOW and simply Grid before that, has been around since 2013 and also shows great improvement since its launch.

You can see why this was an attractive area for Google when Stadia launched in 2019. All current stakeholders were stepping forward. It must have seemed a bit of an open goal for a powerful figure like Google to come forward, legitimize all technology by virtue of its name, and finally attract a mainstream audience.

And then, when the world had to stay indoors indefinitely in 2020, Stadia got its reservation at Carnegie Hall. Surely these were the perfect conditions for a new gaming platform to break through.

That didn’t happen, of course. While gaming itself has boomed during the pandemic, most of that spending has come from mobile games. A smaller percentage came from revenue from traditional games – consoles, boxes and copies of digital games. As for cloud gaming revenue… by any measure, it was too small to count. I wrote a report earlier this year for game industry investors using sales data from 55 different countries. None of the datasets even bothered to count cloud gaming as a vertical. In the face of established platforms and distribution channels, this simply did not disrupt the market.

Light forecast

Google Stadia controller on a black surface

(Image credit: Shutterstock/Yasin Hasan)

I can’t tell you why. I can only tell you that I was never tempted to try it. As a long-time mainstream gamer who already owns a PC and consoles, I’ve never found an in. And by the way, the most alluring aspect of cloud gaming has already been captured by Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus – the Netflix subscription model.

This is the great advantage of streaming services over consoles and PC. Pay a flat monthly fee, get access to a huge library of games. It is better to pay $50 for each new version you want to try. Had Stadia been the only service to offer such a model, it might have taken people away from the console ecosystems they’ve been investing in for years.

Without that incentive, your eye is drawn to the cold reality of cloud gaming technology that’s barely shy of being fit for purpose. It’s fine, but it’s not indistinguishable from a game running locally at native resolution. Input lag is significantly reduced compared to those slow pioneers, but it’s still there, just a little. These are tiny little worries, but we are gamers. We pay thousands of dollars for machines that can render shadows using a slightly more complex algorithm. We pay top dollar for remasters of games released less than ten years ago. Noticing fractional differences in fidelity is our bread and butter.

Still, it feels like these are just teething troubles on the way to an inevitable future of absolutely flawless 4K60 game streaming. Microsoft, Sony, and Nvidia all seem happy to sit back and keep investing until that future becomes a reality. Whatever scared off Google, one wonders if time will make that decision foolish.