Stadia is about the future of YouTube, not gaming

Yesterday, Google announced plans for a new game-streaming service called Stadia. Besides the logo, the controller, and a single game — Doom Eternal — the announcement left us with more questions than answers. Primary in my mind has been the query of why Google needs to be in the gaming business at all. Isn’t it enough to dominate web search, ads, and browsers, smartphone operating systems, and maps? What part of our lives does Google not want to know about? And then it dawned on me that we might be looking at it from the wrong perspective: what if Stadia isn’t a case of Google aggressively entering a new business sphere, but rather a defensive one to protect its existing kingdom?

YouTube has a practical monopoly on user-generated video online. It’s the birthplace of creative communities, the workplace for many, and the landing spot for a huge array of gaming-related videos. Lest we forget, YouTube’s most popular personality, PewDiePie, got his start by filming himself playing games. Everything from replays of competitive e-sport matches to complete play-throughs of narrative-driven games, game reviews, and curated anthologies of funny moments in games make their way onto YouTube. That’s the status quo, Google is the king. Amazon’s Twitch rules the live-streaming arena, but YouTube is ultimately the place where the vast majority of gaming-related video ends up.

My thinking is that Google’s Stadia project is motivated, to a greater or lesser degree, by the desire to maintain its predominance as the home of gaming video. As of right now, Google gets more than 200 million logged-in daily active users watching gaming content. That’s 200 million pairs of eyes to present ads to every day. In 2018, YouTube accumulated more than 50 billion watched hours of gaming content. “Gaming has always been the backbone of YouTube since the platform was first founded,” notes YouTube’s gaming director Ryan Wyatt.

From a gamer’s perspective, YouTube is the lever that Google will lean on to stir interest in its nascent game-streaming platform, but from Google’s point of view, the new game-streaming platform (hugely ambitious as it may be) is a necessary measure to keep YouTube where it is today.

Taking a long-term view on things, a significant proportion of gaming will head to the cloud, whether through Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, Nvidia, or Valve’s efforts. And when that transition happens, it’s logical to expect some disruption to the way people share their in-game clips and the sorts of clips they choose to share. Google’s competitors are well positioned to capitalize on this, as Microsoft and Sony have built sharing features into their consoles and it’s easy to imagine they’ll cut YouTube out of the equation when they each have a full cloud gaming platform. At the very least, the popular and currently lucrative YouTube sub-genre of no-commentary game play-throughs is likely to be transformed when just about anyone with a few spare hours of time is able to do it.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

It’s telling that when Google wanted to show someone excited for Stadia it brought out a YouTuber, MatPat. His time on stage was spent talking about how Stadia builds a greater connection and interaction between YouTube creators and their audience, with games as the backdrop, which is exactly how I think Google views the entire project. Gaming is a conduit or a vehicle, drawing you to YouTube as the important destination. Now, I’m not dismissing the obvious motivation of wanting to be in early on an exciting new development in tech and gaming, but my impression is that YouTube is the overriding priority for Google.

Yes, it’s cute that Google printed the Konami code on the underside of its Stadia controller, but look at the unique buttons the company has put on the top: one is for Google Assistant and the other is for screen capture. Those are your Google priorities printed in crisp white iconography atop a smooth black surface. The capture button is there to make sharing to YouTube as effortless and frictionless as possible, while the Assistant’s inclusion is there to help gamers stuck on a level find guides or tips on YouTube without having to leave their gaming session.

Many of the answers to “why is Google doing this?” boil down to a version of “because Google is one of the few companies that can.” Google already has the cloud infrastructure that few — maybe none outside of Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure — can match. CEO Sundar Pichai summarized it neatly during the Stadia announcement: “Our custom server hardware and data centers can bring more computing to more people on planet Earth than anyone else.” Data centers, server farms, and high-bandwidth fiber optic connections plugging them into the internet are what Google’s entire empire is built upon. And then Google has the experience of running multiple billion-user cloud services reliably, plus the ability to spam them all with news of its planned gaming revolution.

If you want to be especially circumspect about Google’s motivations, you can also envision a world where a majority of gaming video suggestions on YouTube start to point to Stadia, in a mutually reinforcing cycle of sending users back and forth between Google services.

I have yet to hear Google offer any argument that convinces me it cares about gaming, per se. Stadia could be about podcasting, cookery shows, Bob Ross-style oil painting classes — whatever — and its presentation would have gone more or less the same way. Again, Google announced one game for its big gaming service announcement. One game and a few dozen ways in which Stadia ties in to YouTube, Chrome (which will be the only supported browser, at least to begin with), Chromecasts, Chromebooks, Android devices, and the rest of Google’s ecosystem. This event, scant on details and specifics though it may have been, was Google flexing its muscle as a leader in cloud technology and connectivity.

The reason I see Stadia as a defensive move for YouTube has to do with the companies that Google is going up against. Amazon and Microsoft are undoubtedly looking at the same incomprehensible viewing stats as Google is — Twitch came close to a billion hours watched in January 2019 alone. And they will consider their future cloud gaming platforms in both definitions of “game streaming”: how the game is delivered to the user being one, but also how the user can broadcast their game out to the rest of the world. There can never be another YouTube, but that doesn’t mean that developments in one of YouTube’s key sources of content can’t take away from its business and popularity. One analogy that keeps surfacing to my mind is that of Facebook and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, neither of which threatened Facebook’s basic business model, but both of which took users outside of Facebook’s realm.

Google has shown itself willing to use YouTube as a cudgel against its competitors. Firstly, with Microsoft, Google actively blocked the development of a YouTube app on Windows Phone, helping to sink that platform in an effort to protect its own Android OS from competition. Then, in a dispute with Amazon, Google yanked YouTube access from the Echo Show before allowing it again a short while later. Putting two acts of hostility and two ambitious and well-resourced rivals together equals, to my mind, likely competition for YouTube with whatever cloud gaming offerings Amazon and Microsoft produce.

When Google was merely a search company, it built the Chrome web browser so as to escape Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Then Google went on to create Android and Chrome OS so as to not be limited by operating systems under other companies’ control. The same thing is happening with YouTube and Stadia. The future of cloud gaming is approaching, and instead of trying to play nice with its leaders, Google is choosing to become a leader itself. Because the YouTube moneymaking beast must be fed.

Comments

This is my take on the whole thing. Stadia is a backdoor to make YouTube more prominent than Twitch in gaming, and not the other way around, which would be Google leveraging YouTube in order to propel Stadia to household namedom. I don’t know if they’re burying the lede on this or what, but even Microsoft has been open about using Xbox to push Windows and Microsoft services, and I see much of that strategy in what Google is now trying to do.

I don’t deny that Google is doing this largely because it helps a huge part of their ecosystem; but as you stated, that what everyone does.

I have yet to hear Google offer any argument that convinces me it cares about gaming, per se.

This quote in particular just doesn’t sit right with me. The YouTube features that are being promised are huge benefits to a lot of gamers. Social gaming and connected gaming have been promises for generations and this is a huge step towards making those things more than just voice chat or simple co-op. This obviously is a huge boon for YouTube and video game content creators, but that also means it’s huge for video game players.

I just feel it’s kind of cynical.

Social, connected gaming is a nice thing to want, though given the emphasis placed on YouTube as a platform gives me plenty of pause. So during the presser, someone used the example of a 1,000-player Battle Royale game and a streamer could invite viewers to click a button to join. This sounds great, in theory, but that’s just officially-sanctioned stream sniping, which precious few content creators would actually want, especially because you know the moment you invite 999 viewers to join you in a game, 900 of them are going to form a human swastika in the center of the map or a very large penis, and 30 of those players are going to upload a video to their YouTube channels with a troll face and impact font on the video thumbnail screaming STREAMERS TROLLED – BATTLE ROYALE LULZ.

One of two things will happen: Either Google will ban those users from the service, or they’ll be delighted because 30 people posted content on YouTube about it, probably garnering a million hits all around. Which action they take when that moment arrives will tell help us ascertain whether gaming is the focus rather than extending YouTube’s reach. The capacity for trolling seems like the kind of thing that Google isn’t prepared to moderate, if the moderation tools on YouTube are any indication.

They also said the people hosting the stream will have control, so I assume they would be able to kick or ban any bad actors. There will always be a potential for abuse, this is the internet after all.

When you look at the state of Twitch/YouTube chats during a livestream, it is so toxic it just gives me cancer.
95% of the content posted on the chat is flood/troll.

So I agree with you. I don’t see such a thing happening even if in theory it sounds great as you said.

I think YouTube is a terrible social media platform. It’s great to watch videos, but not so great for the social part.
The comment section on YouTube is so toxic too. I don’t have many hopes for this.

The 1000 player battle royale example they threw out really, really does sound awful given more than two seconds of thought. If I give Google the benefit of the doubt, I think that example is more about portraying the idea of "our platform allows you to create games not possible under existing video game infrastructure" using a currently relevant gaming trope as a useful metaphor.

That said, one of the other examples they brought up was much more interesting in that Nintendo-esque "uh yeah I guess that could be cool?" sort of way – the ability to include other players’ streams as ‘screens’ included directly into your own gameplay. It’s the kind of thing that could be really nifty for creating new kinds of games, especially ones that involve asymmetric play. For example, a squad shooter where one player is ‘the guy in the chair’ and helps direct things with direct access to their teammates’ helmet cameras. Or maybe a futuristic cyberpunk game, where you can hack into other players’ views and view it as a hovering AR screen.

I don’t disagree with the thesis that Stadia is fundamentally for buttressing YouTube and Google’s other services as a whole. But I do think the underlying architecture for cloud gaming as a whole could actually be more interesting than just a better OnLive.

Love the thoughtfulness of this comment, and I can’t disagree with any of it.

Yes to all of this.

So, I see what you’re saying.

Counter point: Does Google care more about the gamer or the streamer?

It depends on what you mean by "care". Ultimately, Google wants eyes to shove ads into. In that sense, they ‘care’ about gamers more. More gamers, more eyes, more money. However, they are providing huge amounts of tools to streamers, who are the people who draw in gamers. So they ‘care’ for their streamers, who in turn bring in gamers, more eyes, and more money.

Well, follow the money, that generally works.
Ads (=money) are shown to stream viewers. Thus, they are the primary focus. The secondary tool are streamers. They offer content to viewers. Finally, gamers come last and are more akin to free players in p2w mobile games.

Maybe it’s just me, but if they were really interested in gaming, they would have had some actual games lined up before announcing. A 2019 release, supposedly, and Jayde only left EA a few months ago. Their own in-house studio is likely nowhere near close to shipping any games. It just seems very poorly planned and managed in terms of getting their ducks in order.

Google doesn’t care about:

  • Gaming
  • Mobile devices
  • Productivity apps
  • Email
  • Hangouts
  • Or any other applications.

Google cares only about two things:

  • Gathering and retaining as much detailed data about as many people as it can, and;
  • Selling advertising based on that data.

Once you understand this fact everything Google does makes sense.

Vlad, you asked:

"What part of our lives does Google not want to know about?"

The answer is: no part.

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

As someone who has a great deal of personal experience with Google on a personal and professional level. I agree…

Google doesn’t care:
- Gaming, the video showed above only seemed to care about streaming onto YouTube. One of the great features I love about the Xbox and PS, is after I’m done gaming, I can watch Netflix, BBC, Sky ect ect. It’s more home entertainment unit for many types of media. Stadia, I doubt will do much more than provide Google services and Netflix

Mobile Devices – I own a Pixel 3 XL, I miss my iOS and my S7 (that camera on the P3 coor)

Productivity – I have customers who moved over to Gsuite, a few months later returned back to Windows and Office.

Email – Scans your email for keywords and provides ads for you

Hangouts – If Google was interested in messaging they would of had a real iMessenger competitor by now

The other week I watched a charity program which had Little Mix in, I then had Little Mix adverts and news on my Pixel. Never searched for Little Mix in my life, my iPhone and S7 never did this.

Plus, it’s another way to make money, stay top of mind as a services provider, lock more people into your ecosystem, get on more devices and in more homes, push Assistant, add features and excitement for Chrome and Chromecast, etc. The gaming business has been pretty much the same for a decade or two. It seems like things are moving to cloud, Google is a king in the clouds… "Might as well."

Google is also really looking to get a foot in the door of our homes and get into our living rooms. This is another way to help achieve that.

They don’t need game streaming to beat Twitch.

They just need what is missing from Youtube gaming: live hosting another channel, raiding another channel, team broadcast, custom channel emotes with sub levels, tips/donation/something like ‘twitch prime’ (may be people subscribed to Youtube Music/Youtube Premium could ‘donate’ a free sub each month to a YT channel → that would draw a lot of streamers). all of that = social and monetization stuff.

Also on YT, the distinction between live & vod is blurry, it’s hard to find a live portal now that "YT gaming" is going away. People on Twitch come mainly for live streaming. They see who they follow and who is live right away. That’s hard to see on YT.

So even if Stadia is a successful gaming platform, streamers will keep streaming Stadia games to Twitch…unless YT change to be more appealing to streamers.

Youtube just doesnt understand why people use Twitch. Whenever they try to steal a Twitch feature they end up spinning it into something awful like Super Chat. Everything from the ground up is missing the point of what makes Twitch work.

Stadia is not going to fix anything about Youtube’s horrible live streaming. It fundamentally ruins the streaming experience and if they were to go so far as to get exclusive streaming rights to games then people would rather not watch streams than use Youtube.

Very much agree with the first part of your comment, but I want to know more about the latter. How does YouTube ruin live streams? If the answer’s YouTube chat, that doesn’t need elaboration. But, for my purposes, I find YouTube a reliable live stream host, I enjoy the ability to pause and rewind stuff I’ve missed. It’s not the shared experience that Twitch is, but it’s also not as ruinous as, say, Facebook’s efforts at streaming.

True. I didn’t see the reveal stuff, but could anyone tell me if there’s a "one-button to youtube stream" option on this thing? I’d see that as a major selling point for them.

It still comes down to Developers. Will they do the work of Porting the games to the new Platform? Or go with Microsoft and do very little work and have it up and running on Xbox Live’s existing users base of paying customers?

Or both, as it tends to be these days.

I think in a way this is good for developers because Microsoft, Amazon and Google all have to compete for their services. It will come down a lot to who can run the better business and who has the better platform, which is the ideal way to see things develop.

The three you mentioned above also have their own livestreaming sites. Amazon (Twitch), Google (YTGaming), and Microsoft (Mixer). These three are poised to dominate the game streaming/consuming markets with the latter having the leg up. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

I also foresee a major Microsoft and Nintendo partnership in the near future; with Microsoft leveraging the Switch’s form factor while at the same time expanding xCloud to more devices (Apple TV/iPod).

On that topic, I also wonder how many of the big multiplayer franchises Google will be able to attract — not merely because of development cost, but also because the owners of those franchises are likely competitors to Stadia. I’m thinking of Fortnite (Epic), Dota (Valve), Overwatch (Blizzard), Apex Legends (EA) and their ilk: they provide a ton of content to YouTube at the moment, but none of their proprietors are likely to want to help build and promote a Google-owned cloud gaming platform.

I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Why would they not want to publish their games on Stadia (assuming Stadia actually works in practice)?

I’m thinking of Blizzard and EA in particular here. These two frequently put their games on Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo gaming systems. Stadia is, broadly speaking, just another ‘system’ to play games on. They’re not really direct competitors in that sense, as far as I understand it.

Epic and Valve are another story, since they’re more storefronts than developers at this point. That’s definitely a business conflict.

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