Last time I wrote about this topic, I took a positive outlook, noting that while Stadia, on the surface, is just another also-running online game streaming service that promises to deliver AAA gameplay on anything anywhere, it also makes a bolder promise – one that pledges to use the innate platform of streaming gameplay to enable new modes of gaming in terms of co-op, instance trading, longer-running and larger games.
All of this, to me, is worthwhile for a new platform and is a hell of a pitch that distinguishes the service from its core competitors in GeForce Now and Playstation Now. However, for all of the things that Google said during the presentation a few weeks ago, there is some ambiguity lurking beneath the surface that threatens to make the service far less viable.
Let’s dig in!
Google Has A “Proud” Tradition of Abandoning Live Products
Remember Google Wave? How about Google Plus? Google Video (not YouTube, but in a time before?) Google loves to build new things almost as much as it loves decommissioning those new things. Sure, of the examples I’ve just provided, you can see two that were likely marketshare or business-results related (Google Plus never gained any meaningful traction, and Google Video was a victim of the acquisition of YouTube, which gave Google the name brand streaming site), but in many cases, Google tends to undercut viable businesses that it seemingly loses passion in. Google used to own Sketchup, which is one of the premier tools for architects, and under them it also was a hugely valuable freeware tool that people like myself used (and still use) to get into 3D modeling. Google seemed to be doing well with it, and one could argue the value of having an in-house 3D modeling tool and what kind of benefits that might have, but yet, they sold it to Trimble, who operates it to this day. It still is a well-received piece of software, but I would argue Google’s management of the project was a little bit better. Google Wave is a similar story – it had an interesting model that was fairly usable and was catching on, but it was smothered fairly quickly.
Even more baffling was the end of Google Reader, easily the premier RSS service right until its untimely demise!
While I find the idea of Google buying millions (or billions, even) of dollars of new custom Stadia servers to rollout into their data centers is likely insurance against a rapid decommissioning of the Stadia product, it is hard to not feel slightly like that possibility exists. As a YouTube, Android, and Gmail user for over a decade on each, I can’t help but constantly fear the possibility that Google will lose appetite and pull my favorite offerings of their’s behind the shed for their last breath. To be fair, the 3 products I just named are the most iconic of Google, besides the search engine that started it all, and so while my fear there is ill-founded, my fear that Stadia can disappear is far more realistic.
Streaming Services Means You Own Nothing, and Likely Have No Recourse if the Whole Thing Goes Poof
Related to point 1, a streaming service really emphasizes the bullshit of a software license. In theory, if you pay full price for a game on Stadia and the service goes belly-up, you will get nothing back. They may issue refunds of purchases, but you’ll never be able to play that game again. Sure, for the bog-standard AAA titles that will likely end up on the platform, that isn’t a huge deal – you can probably grab the title on Steam or a games console of your choice. However, the very things I mentioned in that last post that make Stadia full of potential – what will happen to those titles? Likely, they’re just going to be dead. In the MMO space, we already have the reality of what a dead game looks like, but at least with local software clients, private servers can be rigged to run at least well enough to offer a rough approximation of the game we lost. With Stadia, you likely won’t even be able to do that – no local code execution means you won’t be able to just breakout the game installer and try and reverse-engineer the server-side code, and so the games exclusive to it are simply dead, should Google manage to Google it up.
Speaking of ownership, however…
Monetization Conversation was Non-Existant, and That Should Scare You
Most streaming services make a fairly straightforward, if awful, value proposition. Playstation Now wants a $20 monthly rate, on top of which you must also pay for PlayStation Plus if you want to play online multiplayer modes. It offers a library of games that rotates, and while it offers PS4 games now, they are on a delay, an attempt to encourage you to purchase them for a PS4 instead. GeForce Now is $7.99 a month, but outside of a select few free games, requires you purchase games for use on the service!
However, Google was entirely silent on monetization during the Stadia presentation event. One might think that they would just follow the same model, but I suspect they will not. In fact, I would suspect that they will follow a model that is both better and worse. Google is, in addition to one of the premier search engines, an advertising powerhouse, with their AdSense model being the primary revenue engine on which full businesses run. If you like a YouTuber who doesn’t have a Patreon, Drip, or other funding model, AdSense likely pays to keep them running (the amount of views one would need for this is astronomical, of course, but still!). Many profitable blogs, websites, and Google projects are funded on the back of this ad revenue. It works for Google because the treasure-trove of personal data they have about anyone that has so much as looked at a Google site means they can target ads to you with a higher degree of precision – while YouTube demonstrates that their algorithm isn’t anywhere near perfect, on the ad side, it is a fair bit more competent.
The thing with this is that it is not altogether inconceivable that Stadia would be Free (asterisk). You might not ever provide a credit card to Google for anything, but they will be paid in some way. This thought illuminates why they want Stadia to be a “platform” of its own, rather than just gaming in the cloud. Games built for Stadia can integrate advertising easily, I would imagine, and so by proposing to build for the Stadia platform, the implied portion is to enable monetization to occur in the standard Google fashion. Imagine an advertising video playing during a loading screen, or a flight path or other AFK-able travel in an MMO popping an ad up. The ad would be served to the cloud machine, not to your browser directly, meaning you can’t just ad-block it either – you will be stuck with the ad. Google could force ad viewing after certain portions of play, use traditional web ads glued onto in-game assets, or use technologies like a machine-learning texture and art style tool for developers they demoed at the Stadia presentation in order to feed an ad into a game in real-time. Imagine a team shooter sponsored by Coca-Cola, feeding different Coke product color-palettes into the ML technology and making each team a different Coke product. Will the Sprites beat the Fantas? Find out!
Further, this would then enable an out for a “premium” product – pay for a subscription and you can opt out of some ads, but some events might lock them in anyways, like the team shooter example above, or a sports game – the ads in the arena would be “realistic” after all, so who cares if they are real? A trip to Yelp on your Android phone during a gameplay session could result in that data feeding to new ads for local restaurants or chains popping up. Imagine being able to pull the old school /pizza, but in any game, and ordering food for delivery without leaving the game. Google will take a commission on that service, and by using a cloud platform, any way you could have blocked or reduced the flow of ads will not work.
Further still, your gameplay data, your chat logs, possibly even voice chat – all of these will be newly available data components for Google to add to your file and sell to the highest bidder. You may never pay a cent for Stadia – but Google will absolutely get paid for your use of the service, and their partners will too.
System Upgrades – A Premium Feature?
One thing shown in the ream of Stadia demos was a comparison of single-GPU performance versus multi-GPU performance. While this alone isn’t new technology – what was new is that it was an exclusive demo showing multi-GPU offering a substantial graphical upgrade, one that isn’t simply the result of multi-GPU alone but was rather a detail level setting. This was concerning to me, as the implication of such a demo was to showcase that graphical fidelity adjustments would be possible just like on a desktop – but they will mean you’ll have more physical hardware allocated to your instance of Stadia, and this likely means you are going to be paying for that upgrade. Imagine being able to buy a game for less, maybe a AAA title for $40, but then having to pay $20 for high graphical settings, or an extra $10 for high-resolution textures on top of that, or $5 for 4k resolution. One thing Google can absolutely do is offer a base game for free and then begin to pile on the bonuses at cost. Do I think they would necessarily do this? No. But it is absolutely possible and the demo they showcased seemed to me to put forward that possibility fairly strongly.
Overall, I am still quite curious to see how Google Stadia rolls out and to see what exclusives for the platform will look like. However, I retain some skepticism – streaming gaming services are a swamp full of dead hopes and broken dreams, and Google is uniquely positioned to make such a service workable, cheap and accessible, but the means they are most likely to take to do this are concerning!