Google launched Stadia just over a year ago to a distinct lack of cheers, and for good reason. There weren’t many games, the controller bundle was expensive, and the service was unreliable. Stadia has not been completely rehabilitated in the past year and change, but circumstances have given Google a boost. With more people than ever looking for a way to pass the time thanks to quarantine, Stadia has emerged as a surprisingly reliable and economical way to play the latest games. Maybe this cloud gaming thing isn’t so crazy after all. In fact, 2021 might be a huge year for Stadia, if Google can overcome its tendency to lose focus.
Signs of Improvement
Stadia began life as a premium-only service, but Google opened it up to everyone as the pandemic lockdowns bloomed across the world. Reliability improved markedly over the course of the year — I’d say I have no issues about 90 percent of the time. That other 10 percent is usually thanks to the app on my phone needing a restart or (rarely) a problem with my network requiring a router reboot. Regardless, the latency and sharpness are both within spitting distance of game consoles.
At several points, Stadia’s performance seemed to tank for days at a time. I can’t rule out something with my network, but the timing was suspiciously similar to Google’s Stadia bundle giveaways in late 2020. Google was throwing controllers at anyone who had subscriptions to services like YouTube Premium and YouTube TV. The spike in new users may well have contributed to my issues, but I still think this shows Stadia is working. A large user base is necessary for Stadia’s survival, and people are using those free controllers based on what I’ve seen around the web.
Speaking of the controller, it’s even better than it was at launch. Initially, it only worked wirelessly with the Chromecast. Now, you can connect it to the Stadia cloud via Wi-Fi for smartphone gaming. The process is sometimes a little clunky in the app, but you get improved latency compared with a Bluetooth connection, which is how you play with other services like GeForce Now.
The convenience of Stadia is starting to show as this never-ending year drags on. I can pick up the Stadia controller and be playing AAA games on my phone or TV in a minute. There’s no installation, no worrying about drivers, no hunting for sold-out game consoles or GPUs, and Stadia’s game catalog is getting competitive.
Google launched Stdia with a few Pro freebies, but that program has expanded dramatically. Now, there are five or six free games every month, and there are some real gems in there. Google has also been running Steam-style holiday sales with prices on new-ish titles slashed by as much as 80 percent. You can even buy Cyberpunk 2077 on Stadia, and it runs flawlessly. That’s more than you can say for the current-gen Xbox and PlayStation. On the PC, it takes a $1,000 GPU to get the game even close to playable.
Getting It Together
Stadia might be in a better place than I expected it to be, but there’s still a long way to go. Some of the remaining issues are all Google’s fault, but some are beyond even its control.
There’s no way around the bandwidth requirements — even if your internet connection is far above the 10Mbps requirement, you might find your game pixelates or stops working as local network conditions impact your available bandwidth. Unlike regular streaming video, there’s nothing to buffer in a game that’s being rendered live. Google can’t just wave its magic wand and fix the sorry state of internet connectivity in the US.
Stadia’s game catalog is an issue, too. Yes, it’s getting better with games like Cyberpunk 2077 launching alongside other platforms. However, the back catalog is very weak. Awesome games from just a few years ago like The Witcher 3, GTA V, and Fallout 4 don’t exist on Stadia, and developers can’t just flip a switch to add games as they can with GeForce Now (which is essentially a virtual desktop). It takes time to optimize for Stadia’s custom platform, and that might mean some of these last-gen games fall by the wayside.
One thing Google can (and should) address is the Stadia app. Both the web app and the Android client are annoyingly barebones. Google, which is a search company, still doesn’t have a search function in the Stadia store. You can look at various categories or just see a full alphabetical list of games, which is not very helpful as the number of games has expanded to over 100. Some basic features, like pairing a controller, are also needlessly clunky. And heaven help you if you want to manage your screen captures. You can’t even zoom on screenshots.
Google is not alone in trying to make cloud gaming workable; Microsoft, Nvidia, and Amazon are also in the mix. Google has a bit of a headstart, but now is not the time to rest on its laurels. Amazon’s upcoming Luna service could be particularly vexing for Google. Amazon has its AWS backbone that will no doubt help with Luna performance, and the service will be fully integrated with Twitch. Meanwhile, Google has barely talked about the supposedly revolutionary features of Stadia like Stream Connect.
Possibly the smartest thing Google could do is to keep giving away those controllers in 2021. Unfortunately, it keeps ending the giveaways too soon. The recent Cyberpunk pre-order deal ended ahead of schedule after just a few days, but it should be doing the opposite. It should look for excuses to give long-time customers Stadia bundles rather than ending the deal when some arbitrary number of units are claimed. Google One? Free Stadia bundle. Bought a Pixel? Free Stadia bundle. Play Pass subscriber? Yes, free Stadia bundle. That’s a lot cheaper than handing out free Xboxes.
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