CTRL: Google Stadia Isn’t the Future of Gaming

In mid-November, Google’s new video game streaming service—Google Stadia—finally launched, with mixed results.

 If you haven’t heard of Stadia—which frankly unless you’re a dedicated reader of gaming news you probably haven’t—I’ll give a brief overview of how it works. If you want to play top-tier video games today, you’d normally need to either buy a gaming PC or a console, like the PS4 or Xbox One. Throw in a subscription fee for playing online, maybe an extra controller or two, a few 60 dollar games and you’re looking at least at a 500 dollars USD investment. 

For many people, this cost is obviously prohibitive. Stadia tackles that problem by questioning whether you even need a machine to run games on at all. Instead of buying a dedicated gaming system, Stadia allows you to simply pay a one-time admission fee to play games on Google’s computers, and simply stream those back to your screen. Theoretically, the user experience is identical to playing on your own computer. Except that instead of booting up your PS4 and inserting a game disc, you simply switch to the Stadia input and choose the game you want to play. 

Cost-wise, Stadia makes sense. The 130 dollar fee gives you permanent access to Stadia, a Cromecast Ultra to allow your TV to connect to Stadia and a generic Xbox-esque controller. You still have to buy games at full prices, but this is true regardless of whether you’re on Stadia or a console.

So on paper, Stadia actually seems like a convenient and cost-effective way to play games, without compromising on experience. So what’s the catch? Well, unfortunately, there’s quite a few of them. In fact, I’ll have to watch my word count to cover them all in time.

Firstly, signing up for a Google service expecting it to have any sort of longevity is a fool’s errand. Just over the last year, I’ve seen my favorite email, internet-based messaging and trip organization apps completely shut down because Google decided it didn’t feel like upkeeping Google Inbox, Allo or Google Trips. Google’s wanton disposal of services is so infamous that there’s even a website to keep track of all the services, apps and websites Google has killed off.

Secondly, video games don’t just go from Google’s computer to your TV magically. No, this process relies on high-speed internet connections, which is problematic for a few reasons. Stadia might be cost-effective, but affording the internet good enough to stream 4K at 60fps—much less at 8K and 120fps, which Google has promised is coming—for potentially hundreds of hours a month sure isn’t. Even if your internet is fast enough, you’ll probably end up hitting a usage cap. Also, transmitting through internet introduces serious input latency issues, since you hitting a button on a controller has to get transmitted first to your system, then to Google’s machines, then back to your TV. And, if your internet is out of commission, then you simply cannot play any games—a serious barrier to blissful, uninterrupted gaming.

Clearly, Stadia has serious technical barriers. Early reviews have confirmed these aren’t just “potential” barriers, but are actually present in Stadia now. A Verge article confirmed Stadia only works stably on top-tier networks and found that games on Stadia look noticeably worse than on PC or consoles. 

Some of these problems that Stadia faces are easier to fix than others, sure. I’m sure Stadia’s lack of features and inferior graphical quality will improve over time. But, its reliance on high-speed networks is fundamental to how it functions, and the lack of any physical ownership over the games you buy means the latent fear that the service will be shut down in the future will never go away, and with Google’s reputation, those fears aren’t unfounded.

The high cost of top-tier gaming is definitely a problem, but cloud gaming isn’t the solution. Instead, the solution is cheaper versions of top-tier consoles like the 199 dollar Switch Lite or the PS4 Slim, which was widely available for 200 dollars this Black Friday. Time might prove me wrong, but I don’t think gamers are ready to relinquish all ownership of games and gaming platforms to the cloud. And maybe they shouldn’t, or at least not to Google.