The initial reviews of Google Stadia are out as of yesterday, and the consensus seems to be that it works pretty well, actually. But that technical accomplishment is overshadowed by the fact that many of the service’s notable feature promises are half-baked, and others just aren’t here yet. This functional Google Stadia beta is only raising concerns about the platform at a time when it already has little room for messaging error.

First, the technological achievement is clear. Most reviews say that the experience of actually playing Stadia is a magical one — nearly indistinguishable from playing on a console in most cases. As someone who tried out Stadia demos on a few different occasions since its announcement in March, I was not all that surprised to hear that it works.

Here’s Android Police:

In my time with the platform, streaming performance has been wildly impressive — but lackluster day-one game selection and plenty of half-baked features make for a rocky start for the fledgling gaming platform.

And The Verge:

If you’re expecting it to look or work as well as a high-end gaming PC or even a high-end game console, or if you’re hoping for a killer app, you may come away disappointed. But the overarching reaction I had while playing Stadia was the same I have with half-decent headphones: I’d happily keep playing if I wasn’t already spoiled.

And Business Insider:

The vast majority of my experience with Stadia — especially at home, on stable wireless that only I’m using — has been seamless and positive. Games run as if they were running locally, and it’s quite impressive.

So, great, the Big Question is answered. If you want to buy Stadia — the controller, the subscription, the digital games that are only yours so long as Google keeps the lights on — you absolutely can do so with a sane mind. It’s just that you’re going to have to wait a while to get many of the coolest parts of the experience Google promised earlier.

This outcome was predictable; Google generally has a knack for shipping minimum viable products of new or improved technologies that its scale lends many a favor to — think Google Duplex — while dropping the ball on making those technologies wholly worthwhile to actually buy or use. I can equally praise Google for a technological achievement while recommending that you maybe don’t pay hundreds of dollar to be a beta tester.

The way I see it, one of the biggest hurdles Stadia is facing is a marketing and messaging one — mostly around value and confidence. Google needs to convince people that like to play games that they should do so on Stadia, and to do that they need to convince tech and gaming influencers and reviewers, and most importantly consumers, that Stadia offers a top-to-bottom service that:

  • works (check?)
  • has tangible benefits over far less data-hungry and more affordable existing alternatives
  • actually offers what it says on the tin
  • and won’t be shuttered before proving its worth

I think today they’ve proven the technology behind Stadia works, and if there are improvements to come from here, that’s at least a good sign given the few critics who found performance lackluster. Some of the benefits of the service over traditional gaming platforms (like being able to play a triple-A title game anywhere, for example) are proving themselves out in turn. But Google still needs to prove that many other aspects of Stadia will actually pan out, and they need to do more to convince people that the Google-kills-all meme isn’t anything to be worried about.

Google Stadia Tech

Ironically enough, whether or not Stadia is on Reader-watch, as our Seth calls it, probably has a lot to do with how things play out over the next 12-24 months. Google is trying to be less flakey around their first-party hardware efforts than their countless A/B tested software projects, and they’re opening multiple of their own game studios, so Stadia seems to have more staying power by default. But Google also tends to be realistic when things just aren’t going to work out.

For their part, Google has said on the record that Stadia is a “10 year or more project”, which, sure, but there is often a difference between the commitment to things Google says it has and the commitment it actually has.

From a technology perspective, we already have a — at least — five year road map on the technology. When we look at Stadia, this is a long-term investment for us, it’s not something that we are looking at the next two to three years. This is a 10 year or more project and we’re definitely looking forward for the long term.

If Google Stadia doesn’t even show signs of being able to disrupt the status quo of the gaming market over the next couple years (not to mention beat out competitors that are popping up from established players in this space that actually have a reputation with the highly-reputation-and-loyalty-based decisions that gamers make), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the most pessimistic of outcomes play out here.

All that seems like a cynical take, and yes, it is. But at the same time (and this is my main point), the way Google handled the messaging around today’s launch does nothing to inspire confidence. As has been exhaustively pointed out, basically none of the best features Google touted for Stadia earlier this year are here for launch day.

Here’s a partial list of things that Google previously showed off, alluded to, or announced that aren’t here for launch:

  • Ability to use wireless headphones with the Stadia controller
  • Fully wireless gameplay with the Stadia controller on PC and phone
  • Games that take full advantage of the massive cloud infrastructure
  • Any games outside the 12 (later upped to 22… at the last second)
  • Any original first-party games from Google’s own studios
  • Buddy Pass is not happening for the first two weeks
  • No 4K or HDR streams to Chrome PCs
  • Stream Connect, State Share, and Crowd Play
  • Pretty much all Google Assistant functionality

Google launching Stadia this way is concerning at a time when Google needs to allaying concerns, not causing more. Google Stadia already faces the uphill battle of convincing trenched-in gamers not to ignore it, not to mention the overarching concerns that come with just about any Google launch, and by not explicitly labeling the launch a beta, Google is sending the message to early adopters that this is what they should expect Stadia to be.

Today, this minimum viable product is what Stadia is. But it’s not even close to what Google announced earlier this year, and knowing Google, it’s not the product that they’ll inch their way toward over the next couple years — one that might actually be something to recommend.

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