A world of YouTube portals where gamers can dive into games like doorways into parallel universes. Thousands of players in Battle Royales at once. An instant-streaming playground for all sorts of games. This is what Google Stadia promised earlier this year at a big, flashy GDC event in March that I sat through, hearing gaming veteran Phil Harrison promise wild ideas. And none of that is here now.
Stadia's launch day is Tuesday... sort of. Really, consider this the start of Stadia's early-access beta period. Because Google's big promises haven't arrived, and at the price of the Stadia's Founder's Edition, I can't recommend anyone jump onboard at the moment. Google's experimental game streaming service, Stadia, launches without many of its promised features, and just a handful of games. It works, but there's not much incentive to buy in.
We've heard about the promises of streaming games over the internet for a decade.
Stadia really does work as a way to stream games. I've only played a couple of the 12 games Google promised by Tuesday's launch, though. That short list pales compared to what Microsoft already has on tap for its in-beta game-streaming service, xCloud. It's no match for what Nvidia's game streaming GeForce Now already has or what PlayStation Now offers.
Game streaming, by playing games over the internet without need for a download, has been around for years, dating back to the ill-fated OnLive startup in 2010. It's always been an idea just tantalizingly out of reach, thanks to bandwidth and latency concerns.
What Google's been talking about is a new idea beyond the competition: It promises a more powerful set of servers that can push multiplayer games of the future, and streamable YouTube experiences that blend broadcast and esports. I regret to say that I can't determine the reality of any of that right now, because Stadia as it currently exists is just a way to stream a handful of slightly older games. The future possibilities are wild. But the present capabilities are functional but familiar.
Here's what I've learned.
It costs $120 to get the early edition Founder's pack, which includes a Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, a short USB-C-to-C cable, a Destiny 2 game download, and three months of a $10-per-month Stadia Pro subscription service needed to take advantage of all of Stadia's online features. Also, you need to buy the actual games at their regular prices... even though you can't download them. A more affordable Stadia play service is launching in 2020, though details are unclear. It all seems like a lot to pay for a "consoleless console." In the UK, you can get the Premiere Edition with the same features. Stadia doesn't yet appear to be available in Australia but the price converts to about AU$130.
Prices of Stadia games at launch in the US are below. They're basically full retail game prices. This could get crazy expensive fast.
Stadia is meant to work on 5GHz Wi-Fi connections 10Mbps and up, scaling from 720p to 4K HDR at 60fps with 5.1 surround, over the Chromecast Ultra. Mileage may vary on laptops using Chrome, Chromebooks and Pixel phones, but Google's only enabling that silky 4K on TVs for now.
I played over my home Fios connection with 100Mbps Wi-Fi. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Destiny 2 and GYLT looked great. To me, they seemed good enough to seem like they were playing on a console. On a Pixelbook Go and Pixel 4, they were playable but had lower framerate and video quality.
The Chromecast Ultra setup is easy, provided you have a Google Home app ready to set it up. I then use the Stadia app to log in, pair the controller and buy games. Once I've done that, pressing the Stadia controller's power button logs me in, Stadia pops up and I can launch games and play from where I left off. It feels like launching a console.
My first time playing quit out after a few minutes, which was concerning. But other sessions were fine, and everything was so smooth that I melted into the games and forgot they were streaming at all.
TV is the only way to play wirelessly right now: Google requires a USB cable tether to phones (only Pixel phones right now) and laptops (running Chrome, or using a Chromebook), which is annoying. Between that and the TV's better picture quality through Chromecast Ultra, I'd rather play on a big screen.
Google's 22-game launch lineup has Red Dead Redemption 2 as its biggest heavy hitter, which looks really good when played through Stadia depending on your home Wi-Fi connection. The handful of games I played were: Read Dead Redemption 2, Kine (a puzzle game that feels like an Apple Arcade download), Just Dance 2020, Destiny 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, Mortal Kombat 11 Premium Edition, and Gylt (an emotional game about bullying from Tequila Works).
Unless you're dying to play Destiny, Tomb Raider, Grid, NBA 2K20, Wolfenstein: Youngblood or RDR2 on Google hardware, I can't see why you'd be interested yet.
I pressed the Stadia controller's dedicated Assistant button, and nothing happened. Support for Assistant is still to come, so it's a dead button right now. It should work in a limited capacity from here on in, with features added over time.
I tapped the capture button to get screenshots and video, and it was a snap. Pressing once took a screen-grab, and pressing and holding back-recorded the last 30 seconds of footage. I launched the Stadia app on my phone, and there were the clips and pics.
But I can't share them yet, or download them, because that's not been enabled yet. So... yay?
Google's gone way over the top comparing the controller to a chef's knife, but it's an excellent controller, seriously. It feels something like a blend of the XBox One controller and Nintendo Switch pro controller, with smooth analog triggers, solid rumble haptics, crisp analog sticks and d-pad. Playing with it feels effortless. I like how the Stadia button turns the platform on, and a solid rumble-throb kicks in to let you know the service has connected.
You could use other controllers (like the Xbox One controller, or even the Nintendo Switch Pro controller) via USB-C on a laptop/chromebook/Pixel phone playing Stadia, but only the Google Stadia controller works with TVs and Chromecast right now.
When I moved from my living room to an upstairs office TV, all I had to do was take my controller and the Chromecast Ultra (and the charger). Moving to a Chromebook or a phone does mean hard-wiring the controller via USB-C, but it's fast enough otherwise. Resuming a game feels natural, and I was able to pick up where I left off in Tomb Raider, Destiny 2 or Gylt.
It's weird that the Stadia interface -- clean and clear-cut like the gaming equivalent of a Netflix or Apple TV -- shows titles you already own, but you have to go to the Stadia phone app to buy more. I'd prefer to browse games anywhere. But once I've set up the controller and bought the games, I don't need to use my phone again after that.
Stadia has so few games right now, and I'm trying them with no one else online. It isn't clear how things will work now that the service is going live, and what other features will kick in before year's end. I'm curious, but I might lose interest. Others might, too. I have plenty of other great games to play right now: on Apple Arcade, VR and consoles such as the Switch. Stadia isn't delivering new games yet, it's just trying to deliver a new way to play through streaming. One that you can already get from other providers. Until Google finds a way to loop in YouTube and develop truly unique competitive large-scale games, Stadia isn't worth your time yet. Yes, the future is possibly wild, and you can see hints of the streaming-only cloud-based playground Stadia wants to become. But we'll see what it shapes into over the next handful of months and check back in.