I really like the idea of Stadia. Google’s cloud gaming service was unveiled just a year ago with the promise that the future of gaming isn’t a box under your TV but a place instead. Stadiums have hosted sports for centuries, and Google sold Stadia as a new venue to build a virtual stadium for the future of games that stream to any device you own. It’s supposed to be full of people discovering games from YouTube links or playing along with creators and streamers. Instead, it feels like Google is still in the process of building its stadium, and it’s empty.
Even when you’re playing massively popular online games, Stadia is a lonely place.
I’ve been playing on Stadia since its November launch, after Google fumbled many of the features it had originally promised. Free buddy passes weren’t available for the first couple of weeks to invite friends to play, Google Assistant was mostly useless, there was no 4K streaming in the browser, and you couldn’t even connect the controller wirelessly to use Stadia on a PC or phone. Some of these early launch issues have now been resolved, but it certainly felt like Google rushed to meet its launch date all while the world was waiting for Stadia to flop.
During the past six months, I’ve primarily used Stadia as a way to play Destiny 2 when I’m not on my main gaming PC. Bungie’s online-only multiplayer shooter is bundled free with Stadia Pro, and it was one of the bigger launch titles for Google. Destiny 2 has around 1 million daily players across PC, Xbox, and PS4, but only around 10,000 are playing on Google’s streaming service.
This has led to some obvious problems. A big part of Destiny 2 is the mix of player-versus-environment (PvE) and player-versus-player (PvP), with modes like Gambit that blend the two together, or the planets you visit in the game where other players roam freely next to you eliminating the same enemies. A lot of the game involves shared activities and missions, where you can form a premade fireteam or be automatically matched with random players.
Bungie hasn’t implemented cross-play in Destiny 2 yet, which has left the Stadia version feeling empty a lot of the time. Basic things like visiting planets and participating in public events can feel lonely, and you often load into strikes with nobody by your side. I’ve regularly spent 10 minutes queuing for Destiny’s player-vs-player mode, crucible, only for it to error out because there aren’t enough players. It’s a frustrating experience for a veteran Destiny 2 player, so I can only imagine what it’s like if you’re new to the game and you picked Stadia as your platform of choice.
Destiny 2 isn’t the only game experiencing this problem. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) arrived on Stadia two weeks ago, and I was excited to try it out. That excitement soon turned to confusion as I was only a handful of people who dropped from the plane and parachuted into the map. As I was looting for guns and armor, a player that hadn’t even dropped near me suddenly appeared, shooting frantically in weird bursts and walking erratically. It was a bot.
After I’d killed the first bot, I soon realized that the entire 90-plus lobby was full of computers, not humans playing PUBG. It was suddenly a weird PvE version of PUBG. I finished the game first, winning the prized chicken dinner after I stood in the final circle letting bots try to kill me while I kept applying bandages. The final bot simply ran straight toward me without even firing a shot.
I tried a few more games of PUBG, and they were all the same. The problem, once again, stems from a lack of Stadia players and cross-play issues. PUBG matches Stadia controller players against PS4 or Xbox One players. But if you use a mouse and keyboard through the Chrome browser, then you’ll only get matched against fellow Stadia players and the bots that were recently introduced into PUBG.
There are no warnings about the matchmaking if you’re using a mouse and keyboard, and you simply get thrown into a match and can only identify bots because they have underscores in their names. Even basic things like being able to rebind key mappings on PUBG on Stadia aren’t supported, and it really feels like a rushed attempt to get an existing game onto the service.
PUBG and Destiny 2 are good examples of the problematic multiplayer aspects of Stadia, but even single-player games like Thumper don’t appear to have attracted many players. Ars Technica reported back in January that only 5,515 people had registered a score on the leaderboards for the first stage of the Stadia version of the game.
There are signs that some developers are taking their Stadia versions seriously, though. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 includes cross-play support, allowing Stadia players to match up against PC players. It’s even enabled by default so you don’t experience the matchmaking issues that we’ve seen in PUBG and Destiny 2.
Cross-play and cross-save are hugely important for Stadia’s future, especially when you look at some of the most popular games that are mostly online-only and multiplayer. I’ve been a big supporter of cross-play for years, and with Sony lowering its hostile and stupid blocks for Fortnite, Rocket League, and Minecraft, we’re only going to see more cross-play in the future. Google needs to encourage the developers on its platform to adopt it in the right way.
Division 2 demonstrates the importance of cross-play for Stadia, but it also feels like a solid demonstration of the potential for Stadia in general. Input lag is a problem in both PUBG and Destiny 2 when using a mouse and keyboard with Stadia, but it feels more bearable in Division 2.
How you perceive input lag with Stadia will rely heavily on your experience with gaming. If you’re used to playing at 144fps on a silky-smooth 144Hz monitor with a mouse and keyboard wired up to your powerful gaming PC, then Stadia will take some time to adjust to. If you’re used to playing at 30fps on consoles with a controller, then you might not even notice Stadia input lag as much and immediately appreciate the benefits of faster load times and faster frame rates.
Stadia’s benefits are obvious, and the service has huge potential. Being able to click and instantly play your favorite game without worrying about graphics drivers, Windows updates, clunky console interfaces, or huge downloads is a genuine transformation for gaming.
Google has built this solid foundation for its stadium of the future, but it has a long way to go to convince people that they should show up and spend time and money on it. I paid the $129 entry fee for Stadia six months ago, and I’ve maintained the $10-a-month subscription fee so far in hopes that the game selection, features, and number of people using the service will improve.
It has gradually been getting better in some areas, but it took months for Google to deliver 4K streaming on the web, and I’ve only just been able to start using a controller wirelessly with Stadia last week. You still can’t use a controller wirelessly with an Android phone yet, and there’s no support to play on iOS devices yet.
I feel like I’m paying to be a beta tester for Google’s service. Stadia looked like a beta for the future of gaming before it even launched last year, and it’s lacking most of the promised social features that would really demonstrate the potential of cloud gaming and get more people using the service. Until Google delivers, I’ll mostly be enjoying Stadia alone.