Google’s Stadia looks like an early beta of the future of gaming

“The future of gaming is not a box,” according to Google. “It’s a place.” Just like how humans have built stadiums for sports over hundreds of years, Google believes it’s building a virtual stadium, aptly dubbed Stadia, for the future of games to be played anywhere. You won’t need an expensive gaming PC or a dedicated game console. Instead, you’ll just need access to Google’s Chrome browser to instantly play games on a phone, tablet, PC, or TV. It’s a bold vision for where gaming is heading, and Google hopes its Stadia cloud streaming service will make it a reality.

Google may have just unveiled the future of gaming at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), but it’s a future the company has left us knowing very little about.

Google’s Stadia controller.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Google’s big YouTube and Chrome push

At the heart of Google’s Stadia cloud streaming service are YouTube and Chrome. Google is leveraging YouTube to lean heavily on the popularity of gaming clips and creators who regularly stream games to millions of people on services like Twitch. These communities and games like Fortnite have turned into virtual places where kids hang out to chat, play, and watch streamers. It’s a big business, too. Fortnite made around $2.4 billion alone last year, and one of the most popular streamers makes more than $500,000 a month.

The Stadia premise is that you’ll be able to watch a clip of a game and then instantly play it or even launch to the very same point in the game of the clip you were watching. Streamers will be able to create lobbies for fans to join and play with them on YouTube, and Stadia will support instant clipping to the video service. This is a game console running in the cloud and built for the YouTube generation, and it’s Google’s big push here.

Chrome also plays a big role as Google’s dominant web browser. Stadia will only be available through Chrome, Chromecast, and on Android devices initially. Google has promised more browsers in the future, but it’s not clear when this will arrive. Google only demonstrated the service on its own devices, and there was no mention of iOS support through a dedicated app or Apple’s Safari mobile browser.

Google’s Project Stream test.

Games, Linux, and pricing

Google has some significant hurdles to overcome if it wants to dominate gaming for the next generation, though. The biggest among them is getting games on its platform. Google showed a single new title, Doom Eternal, running on Stadia, and it promised that more than 100 game studios already have dev kits. Google even unveiled its own Stadia Games and Entertainment studio to create Stadia-exclusive titles, but it didn’t mention any details on what games it will be building.

Google is using Linux as the operating system powering its hardware on the server side. That means game developers will need to port their games to Stadia, and you won’t be able to bring games you already own like some other cloud gaming services (Nvidia’s GeForce Now or Shadow). Google is partnering with Unreal and Unity and even middleware companies like Havok, but there’s going to be some lifting involved for developers to get games onto Stadia. Google needs to convince big publishers to sign up, but it failed to detail how much it costs to develop, publish, and run games on Stadia.

We don’t even know how much the service will cost for consumers or when it’s launching — only that it will arrive in some form in 2019. Will it be subscription-based? Can you own your games in the cloud? These are important questions that Google needs to answer, and it skipped past them yesterday to promise more details in the summer. It feels like Google has rushed to beat some self-imposed GDC deadline to court developer interest here, and it’s likely why the company was only able to show a handful of games yesterday.

Inside a Google data center.

Internet connectivity

Economics aside, Google also stealthily avoided the big questions around existing game streaming services: internet connectivity. Google is using its own compression technology to stream games in 1080p or 4K to devices, and some of the typical latency will be reduced by having the game client and server on the same machine. Still, you’ll need a reliable and active internet connection to access Stadia, and Google is recommending a connection of “approximately 25 Mbps” for 1080p resolution at 60 fps.

In an interview with Kotaku, Google Stadia boss Phil Harrison says, “[W]e will be able to get to 4K but only raise that bandwidth to about 30 Mbps.” That means the average fixed broadband connection in the US, currently around 96 Mbps by some estimates, will be sufficient, but if you’re living in a state without broadband coverage or relying on rural internet speeds then you’ll be stuck waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to raise the minimum rural broadband speed standard to 25 Mbps. You’ll also need a connection without broadband caps because if you’re going to be playing games a lot, then it will soon eat into data limits. We don’t know the exact bitrates of Stadia just yet, but watching a regular HD Netflix stream uses around 3GB per hour, and this more than doubles for 4K streams.

Speeds won’t cover the latency aspect, though. This is key to any game streaming service. While services like Netflix can download and buffer the fixed content you’re streaming, a game service relies on picking up your controller movements and relaying them in real time back and forth between you and the server you’re playing on. This means the closer to the server you’re playing on, the better, and the fewer hops through internet traffic, the better.

Google has a solid advantage here due to its cloud infrastructure, but if you’re not near a big city where Google’s data centers are located, then you won’t get the most ideal experience. Google is addressing part of this by connecting its Stadia controller directly to the server you’re playing on over Wi-Fi, but it has no control over the thousands of ISPs and how they route traffic to its data centers.

Google’s Stadia service is also entirely cloud-based, which means no offline play. While you might typically sync a few Netflix shows to your phone or tablet because you know your LTE connectivity sucks, you’ll need a constant connection to Stadia to play games on the go. 5G will certainly help here, but only partially and not anytime soon.

Google’s servers are more powerful than an Xbox One X.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Gaming power and image quality

Google also revealed that its servers will be powered by a custom AMD GPU that will deliver 10.7 teraflops of power, which is more than the 4.2 teraflops of the PS4 Pro and the 6 teraflops of power on the Xbox One X. This graphical power is impressive but largely irrelevant. The end result of actual gameplay will rely entirely on your internet connection to Stadia.

Google will compress the image from its servers to your client, resulting in a loss of image quality. We don’t know the exact bitrates that Google will use for Stadia, but if you’ve ever watched a 4K version of a Netflix show, you’ll know the image quality isn’t as good as a Blu-ray copy. The same will apply for Stadia, and how you notice it will depend on your internet connection and the device you’re using to access Stadia. Smaller screens will make the drop in image quality less noticeable, and more internet bandwidth will give you a higher bitrate and thus a higher-quality image.

This will all vary from game title to title, and Google hasn’t shown enough variation of games to really give an understanding of how well Stadia will perform. Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry was able to test Stadia, but the testing was limited to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey instead of a demanding title like a first-person shooter that requires quick player response time or fast-moving action games where artifacts are much more obvious.

All of this makes Stadia look like an early beta for what will be part of the future of gaming. Google has hired a lot of industry talent for this ambitious project. Phil Harrison, a former Sony and Microsoft executive, is leading the Stadia charge, and Jade Raymond, who has previously worked at Sony, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft, is heading up the company’s first-party games. Xbox Live Arcade creator Greg Canessa is also working on Stadia, alongside former Xbox gaming partnerships lead Nate Ahearn. All of this experience should help Google in its cloud gaming fight.

Sony already runs PlayStation Now.
Image: Sony

The competition

Sony already streams PlayStation games to its consoles and PCs via its PlayStation Now service. Sony acquired game streaming service Gaikai to turn it into PlayStation Now, and it even acquired rival OnLive only to shut it down. Microsoft is also planning its own xCloud game streaming service, which it demonstrated recently, with public trials set to start later this year.

Sony and Microsoft’s approaches aren’t cloud-native like Google’s, and they don’t require developers to port their games or rebuild them for their cloud streaming service. Both companies are using console hardware in server blades. That’s a benefit for now as both Sony and Microsoft can offer big game libraries without needing developers to change anything. Google’s ambitious effort will require more heavy lifting from developers, but Google has the longer-term advantage of being able to switch out its hardware with ease in the future and implement changes that don’t affect legacy console hardware.

Amazon also looks like it will be a big cloud gaming competitor to Google, and Nvidia also streams games. Even Valve is expanding its Steam Link game-streaming feature to allow you to stream your Steam games from a PC to anywhere through the Steam Link hardware or the Steam Link app.

Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google will be the key players in any cloud gaming war. Sony has the games and PlayStation Now, Microsoft can leverage its Azure data centers and Xbox Game Pass for xCloud, and Amazon can lean on its cloud dominance, Prime, and its massively popular Twitch service to entice gamers. Google has some fierce competition, but it looks like this cloud gaming war is just getting started.

Update March 21, 2019 10:00AM ET: This article was originally published on March 20, 2019 and has been updated to include video.

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Comments

if you’ve ever watched a 4K version of a Netflix show, you’ll know the image quality isn’t as good as a Blu-ray copy

While technically true, I dare you sit on your couch and tell the difference between the two.

Gladly. I always notice the bitrates of "4K" streams.

As someone without a 4K tv or a Blu-Ray player – How long do you think that deficit will remain a problem? Two years? three?

depends how much pixelated gradient in dark areas I can tolerate after dropping big bucks on a 4K HDR OLED TV, and how many others are in similar situation… or how much my ISP is throttling Netflix and keeping prioritization as ransom…

The difference in audio is even more noticeable, if you have a system set up to take advantage of it.

Your average Joe will not notice a difference. That wording was not geared toward audiophiles or videophiles. Hell after watching the VUDU stream of Spiderman into the spider verse, I feel as though I could live with streaming if it was that good of quality.

I agree. My kids will not care about the tiny technical differences/stats. As long as it is as good, or better than, the current console they have, they’ll be happy. With it leveraging Youtube…they’ll be glued to the screens. If I don’t step.

It’s very noticeable during dark scenes. You see the banding effect, where the gradient between dark and light look disproportionate. For me, I’m often wondering if I’m seeing something in the dark that’s suppose to be there, or if it’s the compressed content effect. These same scenes on a DVD at 480p look so much better, because the video of the DVD is not compressed.

While buying 4K blurays might be cost restrictive for some, watching regular 1080p content from Bluray is visually superior, IMHO, than 4K or 1080p streaming.

I’d argue that there are other variables to consider that go beyond streaming versus physical media like the manufacturer and model TV you own that could have software rendering protocols to compensate for any artifacts as well as the device you’re using to view your content through similar to how a Samsung renders a photo versus an iPhone versus a Pixel.

A Roku on a Sony might handle artifacts differently than a Roku connected to a Samsung or an LG and there’s also the settings on your set. Similarly an Apple TV, Chromecast, or Fire Stick/Cube will render images and video differently based on a number of factors. There’s also thing like stock settings on your TV versus digging in and making nuanced changes like enabling/disabling smoothing, setting the picture to Vivid or Sports or Cinema will have different effects on video and/or images.

I’ve compared Blu-rays to an iTunes movie streamed from my Apple TV and the differences are small and largely insignificant.

Anyone who has done your experiment would be able to tell within about 10 seconds. There’s a huge quality difference between 4K streaming and 4K bluray.

I honestly don’t think the average layman can tell the difference between 2k and 4k, let alone this.

It’s not the resolution, its the bitrate that’s the issue.

Of course they can tell the difference. The real question is, do they care? Does one look better? Sure, side by side, the 4k blu-ray one looks better. Does it matter? Does the streaming one look "good enough"? Also, do you prefer the convenience and ease of use of Netflix or dealing with changing discs, storing physical media in your living room, etc. It comes down to each viewers preferences, of course. I tend to prioritize streaming. I’m all digital on my PS4 and have been this entire generation. The games cost more than I would pay going physical, but the convenience is worth it in my case. I think there is a market for Stadia, and a big market at that. But those thinking they are going to get a pristine 4k HDR stream at 60fps on an average internet connection are delusional.

I would rather have 1080p at higher bitrate than 4k stream. I pretty sure it would give a better image quality with less compression artifacts for most people. 4k is overkill for most people unless you are sitting very close to a HUGE screen.

People with eyes can typically tell the difference. Next you’re going to tell us no one can hear the difference between the uncompressed sound from Blu-ray compared to a Netflix stream.

The banding, graininess and macro-blocking is readily apparent on 4K Netflix, and that’s from 9ft away on a 1 Gbit connection. Even a half-hearted look will reveal this.

Exactly. My point is…..I don’t think most people really care. I mean, I love great image quality like most viewers. But it doesn’t outweigh the convenience of Netflix over having to deal with physical media, etc. But to each their own. I’m glad there are choices for everyone on either side of the argument.

I’ll be honest, imo, it’s far easier to tell the difference between a Netflix 4k stream and a 4k blu-ray (or 1080 to 1080 for that matter), then it is to tell the difference between a Netflix 1080 stream to a Netflix 4k stream, imo.

You can tell the difference. People don’t care though because it is good enough. A small set of people do care but they are too small to impact the business that much. Same will likely be true here. The PC master race may not like it but most typical folks probably won’t care.

The only part you are wrong about is the "too small to impact the business that much". Stadia in no way will replace console or pc gaming. The input lag alone will make that a deal breaker for a LOT of gamers. For the more casual gaming crowd that just want to play an Assassins Creed Odyssey type game? It’s absolutely a viable service, but those rushing to "this is the future of gaming and it will replace home consoles" are way out over their skis on this one. Maybe we will get there one day, but that is not any time soon. Not this generation or next-gen, which covers at least another 8-10 years.

Yeah you might be right. I’m just conscious of similar arguments when Netflix first came out which turned out to be dead wrong.

I put an f1-micro instance in the gcp datacenter closest to me and I get a 10-15ms ping time consistently. This is with no optimization at all. For most games this is significantly smaller than the input latency on local hardware. In fact, it is less time than it takes to render a frame at 60fps.

Meanwhile, you can spin up a k/v worker on cloudflares edge nodes and get even better performance. Sub 10ms, sometimes sub 5ms.

This looks like a tractable problem.

I think there are a lot of people who have decided this can’t work but haven’t actually looked at the engineering problems.

Oh, boy. It’s pretty obvious. I might even take a 1080p bluray rip over 4k stream.

What bitrate is your connection allowing you when streaming 4K on Netflix?

It’s better that you can’t tell the difference, it’ll save you money haha!
But unfortunately people like me can definitely tell and it’s extremely irritating.
I just wish Netflix or other streaming services would allow users to download the full quality file of what they want to watch. Oh well…

It will be interesting to see how well this performs with first person shooters or fast paced games like rocket league. I use the remote play for PS4 and can happily play 3rd person games, but first person games especially have a noticeable lag which makes it a poor experience.

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