With Google Stadia, Gaming Dreams Head For the Cloud


Last October, Google gave away one of the biggest videogames of the year, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. You didn’t have to specify which game console you wanted to play it on, or even whether you preferred PC to console. Format didn’t matter at all, because the game you were playing was stored on Google’s massive cloud-server infrastructure. The limited time offer was a wide scale beta test for something called Project Stream—Google’s bet that the next generation of gaming would leave consoles behind and bring people games wherever they were, thanks to the power of the cloud.

The bet seems to have paid off. This morning at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Google announced that Project Stream had evolved into something even more ambitious.

Stadia, as the company calls it, is the official name of a long-rumored service with the code name Project Yeti. It’s both a cloud-gaming platform and a new piece of hardware: a Wi-Fi-enabled controller that connects to said platform. And since Google owns YouTube—where more than 50 billion hours’ worth of game content was watched in 2018—Stadia is so tightly integrated with the streaming company as to seem nearly inextricable.

“We’ve got this incredible world of players and this incredible universe of creators and viewers of game content,” Google head of cloud gaming Phil Harrison said last week, describing the new service. “And because Google has some unique capabilities in this area, we thought it would be amazing to merge those two worlds together.”

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Like Project Stream, Stadia offloads all gameplay to Google’s cloud servers. But where that early test delivered up to 1080p graphics at up to 60 frames per second, Stadia will launch supporting 4K resolution at 60 fps—with support for HDR and Surround Sound standards as well. Also unlike Project Stream, the Stadia controller manages the game data, rather than the local device. The controller also has an assistant button so players can get in-game help from Google Assistant, and a capture button to save or share stream gameplay directly to YouTube—either privately to the user’s own channel, to select friends, or to the platform at large.

(During a pre-briefing, Harrison confirmed that the controller uses a 3.5mm headphone jack for audio and has a USB-C port to connect to local screen devices, but does not support Bluetooth for audio. You can also use any USB-connected controller to play Stadia games, though you’d then relying on the local device’s Wi-Fi connection rather than the controller’s.)

At the event, Google showed a video of how that’s likely to work. After a game trailer plays on YouTube, its endscreen includes both a playlist of supplemental videos and the option to Play on Stadia. Selecting the latter launches the game directly from inside the YouTube video; the window expands to fullscreen. “No download, no patch, no install, no custom hardware,” Harrison says. “Within five seconds, you can be playing the game.”

Stadia doesn’t simply present a challenge to traditional consoles and computers, but to distribution platforms themselves.

That launchability won’t be confined to YouTube itself; Harrison mentions Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Discord chats, text messages, and even search results as starting points. “A game is not restricted to an individual store,” he says. A technology called State Share will allow players to create a link from any given moment of a game, and players will be able to launch into a livestreamer’s game using Stadia’s Crowd Play functionality. Additionally, Stadia will enable cross-platform multiplayer, so players on the platform can play alongside console and PC owners.

As such, Stadia doesn’t simply present a challenge to traditional consoles and computers, but to distribution platforms themselves. Epic’s recently launched game store was the first to pose a threat to Steam’s dominance as the leading PC game sale and discovery service, but that kind of turf war becomes immaterial when games are no longer locked to a single device.

Cloud gaming’s theoretical benefits are many: distributed physics and complex simulations that might otherwise slow down a PC or console become much more attainable; multiplayer sessions are no longer gated by the slowest possible client-server connection.

“There are obviously practical limitations but most of them are game design limitations rather than technical ones,” Harrison told WIRED. “We expect battle royale games could easily scale from a hundred players to millions—whether that’s fun or not is a challenge for the game developer, but the platform itself will definitely support that.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai onstage at Google’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, May 19, 2019.

Peter Rubin

Google is by no means the only company staking out cloud gaming, though after a number of failed attempts over the past few years the battlefield currently seems confined to companies with a gargantuan server infrastructure already established. Microsoft showed off its Project xCloud last year, claiming that the Azure-powered service would launch in 2019; Amazon, which owns Twitch, is believed to be planning something similar with a service that leverages Amazon Web Services.

As for the chief bugaboo of cloud gaming—latency, the delay between an input and seeing its result—Majd Bakar, VP of Project Stream, claims that Stadia’s is utterly imperceptible, thanks in large part to compression codecs and open standards that allow data to be moved at high speeds. “Based on numerous studies of human physiology,” Bakar says, “it takes less time to send data than it takes a synapse firing in your finger to get to your brain.”

Producers from id Software and Ubisoft, along with TequilaWorks founder Luz Sancho, appeared onstage at the Google event—id’s Marty Stratton announced that Doom: Eternal will be playable on Stadia at 4K and 60 frames per second—but the company will be developing first-party titles as well. Jade Raymond, who joined Google last year from Ubisoft, appeared as the newly announced head of Stadia Games and Entertainment, even teasing the platform’s promise for fully immersive VR/AR games.

Even the first steps of that journey are still months away. Stadia will be launching in time for the 2019 holiday season, Harrison says—at least in the US, Canada, the UK, and much of Europe. This summer, Google will reveal pricing and other details; for now, the company wanted to present the service to the developer community.

But while “any device, anywhere” makes for a promising tagline, the reality is somewhat different. When it launches later in 2019, Stadia will be playable on Chromecast devices, PCs and laptops via Chrome browsers or ChromeOS, and using the Stadia app on a Pixel phone. Yes, that means not on iOS—not even using the Chrome browser on an iPhone or iPad. The platform wars persist, even in the cloud.

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