Before we set our sights on alternative cloud gaming services, it’s important that we take the time to fully appreciate what it is that Google Stadia offered and what made it truly unique.
Searching for Stadia is a short series intended to shine a spotlight on what made Google Stadia special in the wake of its upcoming shutdown and compare those traits against the ever-widening market of cloud gaming subscriptions.
These past few weeks have been a period of reflection for me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent very little time in 2022 playing games on Stadia. Instead, my time gaming has taken place between the Meta Quest 2 and the PlayStation 5, simply because the games I wanted to play weren’t on Stadia.
It wasn’t always this way.
Between late 2019 and early 2021, Stadia crafted a surgically precise collection of games that appealed to my interests. I spent hundreds of hours in games like Destiny 2 and Borderlands 3, interspersed with whatever indie titles Stadia Pro offered on any given month — Murder by Numbers is a personal highlight.
At the beginning of the month, I started up a fresh save of Cyberpunk 2077 and played Stadia in earnest for the first time in nearly a year. Comically, the game that could very well have spelled massive success for the potential of the cloud instead may have contributed to Stadia’s demise, but that’s speculation for another day. Today, just like at its launch, Cyberpunk 2077 is a smooth and refined experience on Stadia.
This Stadia-powered playthrough brought with it a certain sense of mourning and remembrance. As I stared down the cityscape of a dark future that never should exist, I was doing so through the eyes of a future that no longer can exist.
Somber ruminations aside, spending these penultimate moments with the service brought to mind every little aspect that made Google Stadia a future worth believing in.
Best-in-class latency and quality
It is no exaggeration to say that Stadia had the outright best streaming quality of any of the services available at its launch and for years afterward. Between minimal streaming artifacts, surprisingly low latency — especially when using the official Stadia Controller — and unrivaled features like 4K, HDR, and surround sound, Google Stadia was a wunderkind in game streaming.
Of course, that all comes with the usual cloud gaming caveat of “under good network conditions.” In less ideal conditions — like say public Wi-Fi at a cafe — the service still crossed the threshold of playable. Any worse than that — a congested and protected corporate network, for example — and Stadia was predictably, laughably bad, like every other service would be.
High-speed, reliable home internet service is steadily becoming more available in recent years, though, so let’s stick to the assumption that you’ve got a cloud-ready connection.
There really was (and for now, still is) a certain “magic” to playing games on Stadia. With little more than a Chromecast and a Stadia Controller, sold together for $99, you could turn any TV into a full-on gaming station. I was consistently able to play Destiny 2 at (an upscaled) 4K resolution, 60 frames per second, with HDR colors and 5.1 surround sound.
Better yet, all of this was possible without a bulky machine in the living room. Upgrading, at the time, from a PlayStation 4 that often sounded like a jet engine, couldn’t handle 4K gaming, and cost significantly more, Stadia was unreal, like a dream come true.
It wasn’t just about the graphics and sound, though. When playing with the Google Stadia Controller, there were many times I was able to completely forget about the fact that I was using a cloud service at all. For me at least, there was no noticeable input lag, feeling no less responsive than using a Bluetooth controller with a modern console. That feeling of snappiness with Stadia remains nearly unmatched to this day.
Over the last three years, other cloud gaming services have caught up to some of what Google Stadia managed to do from day 1, but none of them have matched the full experience.
During its 2019 reveal, Google made it clear that Stadia was never meant to just be a way to stream the same video games you can play on consoles/PC. Being powered by Google’s cloud infrastructure, it would be possible to do things not currently possible on traditional platforms.
The Google Assistant was once supposed to play a key role in Stadia, offering to help gamers and connect them with helpful content from YouTube. Google’s machine learning was supposed to enable AI-powered “believable” characters and rapid iteration on art styles.
Admittedly, very few of the innumerable possibilities ever saw the light of day. Most of those dreams were flushed the day Phil Harrison shut down Google’s game development wing, Stadia Games & Entertainment. However, a handful of key ideas still filtered through.
As Stadia instances were running in the Google Cloud infrastructure, it was possible to connect them together for unique experiences. Tactical games, like Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, were able to use Stream Connect to show your teammates’ live game feed as a picture-in-picture on your own screen if they’d opted to share it.
Click-to-play links made it possible for creators and developers alike to easily send a link to a particular Stadia game or demo. This was best used by Crayta — a Roblox-like platform for both playing indie games and making ones of your own — with Stadia’s State Share to craft a direct link to a particular game and/or server. Creators could use those same links to promote their games on social media and streamers could use this to let fans join their in-game lobbies.
Speaking of streaming, since Stadia was already streaming your gameplay over the internet, Google enabled a way to also send a stream to YouTube. This made it possible for a new generation of streamers to get their start with no need for special hardware/software or even fast upload speeds.
Some companies, like Microsoft, are now beginning to explore creating experiences only made possible through cloud gaming, but there’s quite a bit of catching up to be done. While we may never see what the minds at Stadia Games and Entertainment were planning, it’s clear Google initially planned on cloud-first thinking.
It’s perhaps ironic to speak of “ownership” as a defining trait of Stadia in the wake of its shutdown. But in its own way, Google proved that very point in the process of shutting it down.
Gamers put their hard-earned money toward games on Stadia so that they could own those titles. Rather than take the money and run, Google is returning every dollar spent on Stadia games and expansions.
During its most ideal period, ownership was actually a core tenet of what made Stadia stand apart from competitors like Xbox Game Pass and Amazon Luna. Those other services sought to fulfill the wish for a “Netflix for games,” offering a collection of titles for a set subscription price. The problem, of course, is that games will periodically rotate in and out of those collections, sometimes faster than players could actually complete them.
Case in point, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an absolutely massive game between its lengthy campaign, thoroughly dense open world, and its beloved (if underappreciated by Rockstar) online mode. That game had a tragically short initial run on Xbox Game Pass, only affording subscribers five months to enjoy their time in the spurred boots of Arthur Morgan.
By comparison, for as long as Stadia stuck around, every game you ever claimed with Stadia Pro or bought outright remained yours to play at your leisure. That sense of ownership is quite rare in cloud gaming today.
Of course, one can’t speak of Stadia’s accomplishments without mentioning the incredible community that gathered around Google’s cloud service.
Where most cloud gaming services leverage an existing community — Steam/Epic for GeForce NOW players and of course Xbox Live for Game Pass — Stadia was its own platform complete with its own social features. You could build up a friends list, use parties for voice chat, send messages, and more.
Even outside of Stadia itself, Google carefully built up ways to keep Stadia’s fans connected and engaged. Stadia’s Discord, where fans can get together in real time to chat about the service or find more players for a game, pulled in over 22,000 members. The r/Stadia subreddit filled a similar role but boasts a fan base of over 110,000 subscribers.
Dedicated fans saw an opportunity to become part of the first generation of Stadia-focused content creators, building entire channels and blogs devoted to the service. Developers, in their spare time no less, built apps and Chrome extensions to enhance the Stadia experience on different platforms.
I’ve no doubt that Stadia was the initial common ground that kick-started what will become lifelong friendships for some, and I’m personally very thankful for the friends I’ve made through Stadia.
By comparison to Stadia, it’s shocking to me how little most other cloud services appear to be investing in forming communities. It should go without saying that a community of fans can quickly turn into a loyal fan base and word-of-mouth advertising.
All said and done, Google Stadia’s demise marks the end of an era. Thousands of cloud gaming fans are now weighing the options of where to take their business next, their wallets soon to be boosted by Stadia’s refunds. Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring the cloud gaming alternatives that wish to take the crown now that Google has bowed out.
Reflecting upon what Stadia managed to do and what Stadia was to its fans, though, it’s clear that services like GeForce NOW and Xbox Game Pass have massive shoes to fill.
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