It may be hard for some to believe, but there was a time that Google was the definitive technology leader. Back when Apple was selling portable harddrives that could play music at a ridiculous markup, Google released Gmail, demonstrating their commitment to a strategy that the browser was all you really need. That would be followed up with Google Maps, Google Chat, Wave, Buzz, Plus and a whole host of other things starting with Google. Unsatisfied with the current offerings of web browsers, Google Chrome was released in 2008 when the iPhone was barely a year old. It was a wonderful time of innovative and free web applications. Fast forward to now and the universe of Google applications has expanded as well as shrunk. Google has more of a reputation for killing off product after product, often without warning. Yet with all of this innovation over the years, Google has never really done much on the gaming front (unless you count the dinosaur Chrome extension). That all changed last year when Google announced Google Stadia, Google's online game streaming service. Much like with Gmail, a browser is technically all you need. Unlike Gmail, it's not free. Now that they've had a year to work out the bugs, is it any good?
Before we get into the gritty details, I do have a fiber connection. Not Gigabit Fiber, but a symmetrical 75Mb connection. So while it isn't the fastest connection on the planet and it certainly isn't Google Fiber, Google's on speed checker assures me that they expect I should have a high performance gaming experience on Stadia. I didn't bother to stop streaming music or tell my kids to stop watching Dude Perfect videos while the test was running. I have to assume that the network engineers at Google has some idea of what they're talking about and so with that assurance I started my free trial of Google Stadia Pro and test out a game I'm somewhat familiar with, Destiny 2.
Who's it For?
The first question we really have to ask is who is Stadia really for? It's certainly not for the hardcore PC gamers. You know, the ones who don't really play the game so much as stare at the Frames-per-Second counter while the game is running and who spends way too much on a gaming rig that will be "obsolete" faster than your smartphone. By "obsolete" I mean the FPS drops to only six or seven times beyond what the human eye is capable of detecting. If you know someone like that or if you are someone like that, Stadia is not for you. Is it for mobile gamers then? Sort of, there are a few Android devices that are Stadia enabled, Google requires you spend $99 and purchase the Stadia Premier edition so you can use Stadia on a TV using Google Chrome Ultra, not your mobile device screen. Stadia on iOS can only be experienced via Stadia Premier. Not exactly a mobile experience. So then who is Stadia for? What about current generation console owners? Again, sort of. Stadia does have some advantages over consoles but those advantages don't outweigh the disadvantages. In other words, if you already have a console with your game library, Stadia doesn't offer anything more than what you already have except for the oppotunity to spend $10 a month. As best as I can tell, Stadia is mostly aimed a Chromebook owners, or those looking to replace aging consoles but don't want to or can't handle the upfront upgrade costs. I would describe Stadia as a console-as-a-service and stuff-as-a-service is what Chromebooks are all about. For this review, my seven year old MacBook Pro is still faster than the latest Chromebooks so it should make a fitting substitute. Let's see how Stadia plays out.
Does It Have Games?
Stadia has an okay selection of games. It's not great and it's not horrible either. You can find some of the AAA titles from the past year from Ubisoft, 2K, Gearbox, Bethesda, and Square Enix along with a host of indie games. Bungie, Konami have chipped in just a single game (not that Bungie had any more to offer). As of this writing, there are no games from Activision, Blizzard, EA, or Epic, although Google reported that it made an agreement with EA back in April. In fact, the list of popular titles that you can't play on Stadia is long. On the indie side, Stadia's library offers the recently released Spiritfarer, which Caden swears on the grave of his father Inigo Montoya was made specifically for him (you should play it anyway). Even Ubisoft's upcoming Greek mythology themed game Immortals Fenyx Rising that they pinky swear is totally not a Zelda clone is available for preorder on Stadia. Stadia reportedly will be adding even more titles around the holiday season, including Jedi: Fallen Order. Who knows, maybe EA is altering the deal and that was all Google could pry out of them.
For Stadia Pro subscribers can choose to claim and play about twenty five free games, including Destiny 2, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and others. You can claim all twentry five if you want. There are a couple Stadia exclusives. One that stood out in particular is called Crayta which is essentially a video game creation game. The best way I can describe is to imagine a game that would be what happened if Mario Maker 2 and Fortnite had a baby.
All other games are essentially the same price as you would find anywhere else with the occasional sale thrown in here or there to entice you to lighten your wallet. On the whole, it still feels like an initial offering even though Stadia has been out for almost a year now. Google is probably going to have be more aggressive in getting more publishers on board in order to increase the player base.
Does It Got Game?
Now that we know that Stadia does have some games, we can get to the real question of can you actually play them. It doesn't matter at all how many games a platform has if they either don't work or don't work well.
The big selling point of Stadia is that loading times are a thing of the past. No need to have the fastest Storage, CPU's and maxed of RAM when Google will do all of the hard work and stream the results right to your screen. In my testing, this is absolutely true. For example, with my PS4 Pro it takes about 5 minutes to open Destiny 2 and go from all of the opening loading screens to get to where you actually get do something. Stadia mostly delivers on this. Destiny 2's' opening load time takes just under a minute from start screen to play time. Also, all of the loading screens are significantly shorter and fast travel in Destiny 2 is actually fast. Over time, gamers could easily trade all that time lost looking a load screens into actual game time. For gamers with jobs and responsibilities who generally don't have a lot of time to spare, that's a compelling feature. One that usually costs some serious money for a decent gaming PC or at the very least a faster solid state drive for your gaming rig/console. With Stadia, it's ten bucks a month and the fast load times are included.
But in reality, who cares about fast load times if the experience is no good. My first experience actually playing a game on Stadia was well, very no good. The frame rate was so low that it was more like playing a game made in PowerPoint slides rather than a AAA title. I spent some time complaining to my friends that I didn't know how I was going to write a review because the review would have to be slightly longer than "it stinks". In fact, as far as they know, they still think this is going to be a "one star - would not recommend" review and had things not changed, it absolutely would be. In doing a little peeking under the curtain and I found the data centers my browser was using to be about 900 miles away. Again, Google's own speed test for Stadia reported that my connection was good and I could even stream in 4K if I upgraded to Stadia Premier. Things weren't adding up. The problem turned out to be my laptop. My early 2013 MacBook Pro has a known problem with the GPU. A few years ago Apple was willing to repair it for free, provided it was sent to Apple for at least a week or more. Unfortunately, I was fresh out of extra MacBook Pro's and because I needed the machine for work (and because I have a compulsive food buying habit) I never sent it in. You really don't need a lot of graphical power when spending most of your time looking at text editors and other code related tools. Unfortunately, this meant that my MacBook did not have the ability to power Stadia and sling frames to my 4K monitor at a usuable rate. Once I unplugged the 4k monitor and used the retina display, it was as if the full power of Stadia was suddenly unleashed.
I hope I can adequately express to you how jaw-droppingly different my second experience was. It actually works as advertised at least 99% of the time, like amazingly so. Now I was playing Destiny 2 at 60 frames per second when a day earlier it would take as much as a second before my input even registered on the screen. In both PVE and PVP play, the experience was the same. I've spent the last couple weeks have a blast just playing the game, completing quests, Nightfall missions, and Crucible play. I have to admit that I have been away from Destiny 2 for a while as I focused on No Man's Sky and Spiderman. So I had a lot of catching up to do and with Stadia working as intended, it was pretty easy to get caught up. I also tried my hand at PUBG since it was also free. But I found the speed of the game was too slow for my liking. That isn't Stadia's fault, but a difference in game style. Still, PUBG worked just as well as Destiny 2. To give you an idea of what the game is like, I shot a video with my iPhone while I played some Iron Banner Control in Crucible. I had my Astro's on so there's no game sound and you can see the my laptop display frame and keyboard. You might be able to see some dust on the screen (yes, I play dirty). I still was about 50 light level below most players so I not playing aggressively. Luckily, this isn't a review of how well I was playing - cause I wasn't.
You'll want to make sure you're watching on a display that can handle 60fps and that YouTube's player settings is also set to a resolution that also outputs at 60fps. When you do, take a look at how the game played on my screen. It's smooth and the frame rate is faster than current gen consoles. The was no discernable lag between my inputs and what happened on the screen. It's only a minute or so long, but that minute was representative of my experience as a whole, once I sorted out my MacBook. I don't know what kind of black magic sorcery math they're using to make Stadia possible, but they managed it and it's incredible.
That doesn't mean the experience was perfect. Every now and then, a minor frame drop for a second would happen. Not often and sometimes it was in a menu so it was no big deal, but other times it could cost you a kill in Crucible or a death in PVE play. It was rare enough that when the frames started dropping you would really take notice. The real problem here is whose fault is it? Is it Stadia's remote servers melting down, or my local ISP switching equipment, or somewhere in between? Maybe it's because I have four teenagers in the house armed with smartphones and other devices hungry for bandwidth. Whatever the reason, when you're essentially gaming on a system with 900 mile long cables there's bound to be interruptions outside of your control.
Speaking of things outside your control. Stadia's user naming convention takes a little getting used to. Basically you can choose whatever username you want so long as it is within their terms of service and Google will then append a hashtag and four numbers onto the end of it, for uniqueness sake, unless you got in on the founder's edition and then there's no hashtag. Got it? This can lead to some surprises. For instance, after our team got steamrolled during a Control match, I happened to notice that one of the player's names was Bluwestlo. Wait a minute I thought, is that The Bluwestlo from Mr. Fruit's dream team videos? Nope. Destiny's companion app showed the person was a crossplay ps4 player taking advantage of Stadia's naming scheme. Assuming the player base grows, there may be times when an entire team of Datto's takes on another team of True Vanguard's.
Another annoyance is when using a PS4 controller the R1 and L1 triggers wouldn't register at first. The triggers are analog, meaning they are pressure sensitive, something very much appreciated with driving games such as The Crew 2. Either way, it seems once a controller is linked you would have to press the triggers all the way down and release before Stadia would recognize the input and respond. Having also used Sony's remote play on this same MacBook Pro and controller, I never had that issue before. I'm going to assume that it is a Stadia thing until I can prove otherwise.
Both of those are minor annoyances to Stadia's most glaring issue. You remember how I shot the video while playing Iron Banner? Destiny 2 players may have wondered why I choose to play Iron Banner when light level matters and I was at a disadvantage. Well, the reason was no one else was playing any of the other Crucible game modes. I tried regular Crucible control and waited until the game gave up waiting and responded with one of Bungie's classic object or animal errors. Tried Rumble next - same thing. Every other PVP game mode did not have a large enough base to create a match, except Iron Banner. The favorite PVP game seems to change from week to week depending on the activity. My first week with Stadia Bungie offered Momentum Control, which I think is super fun. No one on Stadia was playing it. Contrast that with the PS4 and I could play Momentum Control all day long. Stadia's weakest selling point is a lack of players. There's no easy solution when PVP lobbies become ghost towns unless all you play are single player games. But when so many games are either competitive or collaborative, it becomes a big issue and in Stadia's case it is by far it's biggest issue. Perhaps the numbers will grow over time but there's no guarantee that will happen.
If you have an Internet connection with data caps, Stadia has the capability of burning through bandwidth at tremendous rates. Depending on the quality of the stream, you can use anywhere from 4.5GB of data per hour on the low 720p resolution settings to 15.75GB per hour if you go all in for the 4K Stadia Premier experience. If you spent around 90 minutes of 4K gaming a day, that would mean you would be pushing almost three quarters of a terabyte of data per month. If your ISP charges you for going over your caps then Stadia could easily suprise you with a very large bill at the end of the month, especially if you share Stadia with your family and friends.
Another potential issue is there is currently no built-in streaming feature. This would have seemed like a natural tie in to YouTube's live steaming service and an easy way to build up a community and player base. It has been rumored to be in beta testing as of July but so far nothing has been released, except for a coming soon button.
So while you can stream games through external equipment and such, by the time you've purchased all of the equipment to do that reliably you'll probably find that you've also bought a gaming PC at the same time. While the live streaming feature sounds promising, Google has yet to deliver.
There is one last potential item in the bad category and that has been Google's seemingly random and sometimes arbitrary decisions to drop or abandon products and services. Websites have been setup with the sole purpose of cataloguing the ever increasing additions to the Google Graveyard. There were seventeen products and services sent to the graveyard last year and four are scheduled to ride off into the sunset by the end of 2020. As I've seen, Stadia is quite good, but I can't help wondering if a small player base and now competing offerings from Amazon, nVidia, Microsoft and Sony won't cause Google to pull the plug without warning or notice. How willing are you to buy a game from Stadia if the service might be shut down? Google's FAQ assures us that if you purchase a game, you can play it even if you are no longer a Stadia subscriber. But there's absolutely no assurances you'll have access to anything if Stadia gets the axe or if a game publisher will allow you to transfer your purchase to another platform. Without any kind of assurance that Google is committed to the long term success of Stadia makes it a hard sell even at a relatively inexpensive price point.
As my free trial of Stadia Pro enters its final week I realized that I've played alot of Destiny 2, way more than I normally would. I'm still shocked at how well Stadia worked. It's easy to say that it exceeded my expectations. Again, through the whole experience I kept wondering who is this product for. I can't really see PC gamers making the switch and it's an equally hard sell for console owners who have built up a game library and social circles with either Microsoft, Nintendo, or Sony. Again, I can't help thinking that Stadia was targeted for Chromebook owners and I'm really not sure how big that market is. The requirement to buy Stadia Premier and then stream the game to your TV is a huge letdown for mobile and tablet users. Would I have purchased Stadia Premier for $99 USD just to try it out? Nope. Apple's developer agreement for streaming games is equally nonsensical and presents yet another barrier to adoption. With the next generation of consoles being released it could be easy to count Stadia out. But maybe not. For the price of a PS5 or standalone X Box Series X at $499, you could game on Stadia for over four years or just over three with Stadia Premier. Still that makes at least two really big assumptions. First, that Stadia will be around for the next three or four years and second you'll have people online to play with. If you do have a good connection, no data caps, somewhat shy online, and you're not too picky about the selection of games then Stadia might be for you for however long as Google decides to keep the lights on.
- It works, it really works
- Free games
- Small player base
- Uses lots of bandwidth
- Will Google keep it?