"I am not a gamer" probably wasn't the best choice of words for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to open the company's tell-all presentation at the 2019 Game Developers' Conference yesterday. Nonetheless, there might not be words any more fitting to illustrate the mega-corporation's foray into gaming with the reveal of their new gaming platform, dubbed "Stadia." Unlike the big three with Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, this aspiring fourth player is forgoing the traditional route of home consoles and intends to upend the gaming industry as we know it with an exclusively digital, streaming-based service. "The Future of Gaming" is not a claim to make lightly, so let's take a closer look into Google Stadia and what it means to accomplish in the industry.
Google Stadia tried to make a good first impression yesterday, and on the surface level, I will say it accomplished just that. With a catchy name, simple premise, and sleek controller design, it also presented the following:
- To the average consumer, Stadia spoke of the ability to pick up and play games off of any device that runs Google Chrome, which sounds like a great idea on paper. And not simple games like the running dinosaur when you're not connected to the internet (more on that later), but rather big-budget AAA titles like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Odyssey and id Software's upcoming Doom Eternal.
- To developers, it spoke of untapped potential and no barriers. Cross-platform multiplayer, transferrable save data without console barriers, games that can host up to a thousand simultaneous players in a single lobby, a wide variety of development tools right out of the gate—if studios can think it, Stadia can make it happen.
- To players on top of game performance and graphics, Stadia spoke of graphical prowess and visual fidelity that far outshines the high-end PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X. The two most powerful consoles currently on the market were snidely referred to as being from "the last generation." Stadia plans to run games at 4K and 60fps by default, and then evolve to the presumed future industry standards of 8K and 120+fps.
- To content creators old and new trying to make ends meet, it spoke of integration with YouTube in recording in-game footage at 4K and 60fps, looking up walkthroughs, hosting seamless multiplayer matches, and sharing save-states with your audience. It spoke of high-quality offerings coming soon for creators to enjoy under Google's newly founded studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment, run by former Ubisoft and Electronic Arts exec Jade Raymond.
This all sounds way too good to be true. After all, deals with the devil often come with a catch or two.
It's clear as day what Google is poised to accomplish with Stadia. It isn't just looking to join the big three in competing for your hard-earned dollar in the gaming industry. It isn't just happy with YouTube Gaming playing second fiddle to Twitch, or YouTube itself simply hosting Let's Plays and walkthroughs. It wants to become the textbook definition of gaming.
Google is attempting to paint a golden future of gaming in its own image, but all I saw during the keynote were red flags.
I admit, I love the idea of picking up and playing any game off of any device with the Chrome browser, regardless of hardware performance limitations, be it PCs, laptops, phones, or tablets. What I don't love is how that idea is wholly dependent on my unreliable internet connection. Regardless of how Stadia struts its stuff, the promise of native 4K resolution and 60fps stability means jack if my connection isn't smooth, let alone existent on bad days. Meanwhile, there are a ton of gamers out there who have worse experiences with internet connectivity than I do.
Additionally, Google may have the technology and be ever eager to launch it in North America and Europe later this year, but existing infrastructure and pricing models for internet connectivity, owned by oligarchic ISPs, aren't prepared to accommodate such a radical shift. As Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad put it, it's a matter of saving up thousands of dollars to invest in a PC or console and games, versus spending thousands on your internet bills for exceeding your cap because you spent several hours playing games on Stadia. At this point, Stadia as an avenue for gaming stops being affordable for serious but non-wealthy gamers.
This is without getting into mobile providers and their own paltry data caps, because what good is there in streaming a game on my phone when I only have so much data to go around? I'm better off staying at home and hoping my wifi doesn't suddenly decide to shut down. Hell, what good is stable internet in this fragile political age where net neutrality can be stripped away by corporate lobbyists and their political allies, who can then hobble or cut off the average consumer's internet without notice or reproach? They gleefully do so without shame, even while human life is threatened, such as when Verizon erroneously throttled internet connection for firefighters during the California wildfires last year. What worth does stable streaming have in such a world, and why should ISPs be trusted to not exploit Stadia?
Speaking of streaming, our next crimson banner raises the issue of Google Stadia being a stream-based digital-exclusive platform. While physical media ages and decays with the passage of time, the conveniences of digital media are hard to overlook, but consumer rights have not quite caught up with the rise of digital storefronts compared to physical products. This is not an issue exclusive to Stadia, but for the most part, you don't own digital games at the end of the day, be it on the Nintendo eShop or your iPhone's App Store—you purchase a license to download and access the software. While it varies by region, that typically means no refunds (what with grace periods being a very recent thing on PC), no preorder cancellations (to note, Germany has recently taken Nintendo to court over exactly that), and no trading said software licenses with other users. Plus, when a digital-only game disappears, it disappears forever if without a physical alternative, piracy notwithstanding. Titles like Konami's P.T. demo and Ubisoft's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game are two such examples.
At the very least, if you already have a given game downloaded onto your system, the risk of losing it or having it pulled from your account is far less likely, which is more than can be said about Stadia. Google's keynote joked about egregious download sizes on existing consoles before grandstanding on the convenience of streaming their games, but if shaky internet is one obstacle, a consumer's already tenuous "ownership" of a digital game on Stadia is another big one. On a digital store, titles can already be pulled at any time, be it due to questionable content, expiring license agreements, a publisher pulling support altogether or filing for bankruptcy, or what have you. On any other system, if you had the hindsight of buying and downloading said game, you can still enjoy it. On a stream-based, online-only platform? It'll be gone forever, regardless of whether Stadia may be subscription-based or its software can be "purchased." And this is all without considering retail games with heavy monetization practices thrown into the mix.
Moving on, I find it perplexing that Google would speak highly about a symbiotic relationship between Stadia and YouTube, as though it will be this upcoming golden age of content creation and monetization for gamers. The truth of the matter is that this golden age has already come and gone, and Google has already proven time and again that it takes YouTube for granted. Ever since Google assimilated YouTube as a subsidiary in 2006, their attitude towards its userbase has been a neglectful one, to the point where YouTube seems to be flagrantly flippant towards content creators. Moderation is left to some arbitrary algorithm that constantly changes against the content creators' wishes without warning. This, among many other issues, includes:
- continuing to bury smaller channels and supposedly "unsafe" LGBTQA+ content while happily recommending alt-right conspiracy videos
- falsely and randomly copyright-striking videos in a system that has no qualms about upholding the doctrine of "Fair Use," with video game footage among the usual suspects, leading to stolen ad revenue the creator won't ever get to reclaim
- heavily favoring entities who flag videos with copyright violations for any reason, whether they own the source content or not, which gives victimized channels—who can't afford to take legal action or have their appeals to YouTube denied—little recourse except to pull the video or risk having their channels deleted
- burying videos from channels users are already subscribed to, to the point subscribers need to click on an additional bell icon just to be notified of new content from their favorite YouTubers
- pulling monetization at random because the video suddenly isn't deemed "advertiser-friendly," again without proper cause
That is the platform Google wishes to piggyback Stadia onto. If gaming really is "the backbone of YouTube" as they claim, then Google should be putting more visible effort into supporting the platform in this light, rather than pay lip service and turn the other cheek. If they really want to find ways to connect to creators, they should start by properly moderating their own network with a human approach rather than operating an imperfect piece of coding analyzing content without context, which has continued to harm creators rather than support them. In this case, why should YouTubers feel confident in Stadia at all, when they always find themselves punished and undermined by the video platform they've been trying to support and make a living on?
The only real reason YouTube kept getting away with this for so long is because there is no viable alternative to a video platform as massive as YouTube, aside from Twitch streaming. What about the likes of Dailymotion and Vimeo, you say? Well, they certainly exist at least, but they are no competition.
Finally, Google is way too big an entity to be trusted with acting with self-accountability in perpetuity. Cynically speaking, their handling of YouTube implies that they are seemingly content with letting it stagnate for content creators while they continue to cater to the big name advertisers and cable networks. On a much more worrisome note, however, the amount of personal information Google tracks from its users should be considered uncomfortably invasive—while Google does not sell this information to outside parties and isn't known for data breaches like, say, Facebook, how long will that accountability last? Why should we, as gamers, allow Google to further broaden the scope of their international surveillance into our consumer habits and commercial intentions unchecked?
If anything, I felt uncomfortable watching the Stadia conference unfold with that in mind. Google's long-term plans hinge on being a one-stop-shop for all things video games. Google is painting itself as the future of gaming, and it puts the onus on its competition with their obsolete, clunky consoles of yesteryear. The Stadia is being fashioned as the Netflix to the big three's mistakenly labeled Blockbuster, encouraging players to abandon consoles and go Google in spite of the Stadia's own glaring shortcomings.
In short, the old adage goes "There are no stupid people—only stupid questions," and yet Google Stadia seems to pride itself on being the answer to a question nobody posed except Google. Cloud-based, always connected, streaming-powered games may well be a future avenue of gaming, but it certainly isn't the future. There are way too many obstacles and faults that need to be corrected both within and outside of Google before Stadia can confidently pose such an inquiry. At best, Stadia's boasting comes off as naive in light of all of the above. At worst, it comes off as arrogant and pompous, not unlike certain crowdfunding campaign bombs such as the Ouya.
Microsoft and Sony have always been neck and neck on console performance, and seeing Google try to raise the graphical standard will only push them to do the same. Nintendo, on the other hand, has always been content to do its own thing, and this approach has paid off tremendously for them lately with the Switch. These companies aren't going to go the way of Google Health or Google+ anytime soon, even with Google's lofty ambition for a Chrome-powered, homogenized gaming landscape with the Stadia.
When people think "Google," phrases often associated with the company include "innovation," "the future," and "that thing grandma calls the internet." Yet all I saw was a worrying lack of self-awareness—befitting both Google's status as one of the leaders in tech today, and Pichai's opening line of "I am not a gamer"—in Stadia's nascent steps. It's heavily reminiscent of the ill-fated OnLive service, what with Google pitching Stadia to a wide crowd of developers in hopes of garnering more support for the exact same product. Hopefully for the company, those missteps won't lead to a repeat performance, provided more concrete details come soon that could either make or break the Stadia's enterprising appeal.
The future of gaming can include Chrome, there's no argument against that, and I am curious about how the new studio's first-party offerings will shape up. Despite all of its hopes, however, there is no immediate danger of Google Stadia becoming the blatant "be all, end all" of gaming that will substitute or replace the real thing anytime soon, so long as Google continues to misunderstand what gamers actually want.