Games Opinion

Stadia the Technology? Awesome. Stadia the Service? Not So Much

Streaming games is here and very real, but Google's Stadia is launching without much to play and without much beyond "Hey, isn't this neat?

by Patrick Klepek
19 November 2019, 5:44am

Photo courtesy of Google

This article originally appeared on VICE US

My family owns a little place just over the border in Wisconsin. That’s where my parents met and fell in love, and when my dad’s company got bought some years back, they used the surprise windfall to buy a small place to call their own. It’s not big, but it is homey. It’s within walking distance to a nearby lake, but specifically without a view of the lake, because, as my dad often said, “Why would I pay extra zeros for a house with a lake view when I can just walk around the damn corner?”

I spend a lot of weekends up there, but it’s a house without many frills, especially when it comes to electronics. There’s internet, but no video games. If I want to play a video game, I need to lug a console—or, as was the case when I was deep into XCOM 2, a PC with a monitor—with me. It’s ridiculous, so I don’t usually do it. But on quiet nights in the winter, when everyone else is sound asleep, I’ll find myself wishing I’d taken the extra time to toss a PlayStation 4 in the car. I almost never do, but often wish there was some other option. Something easy.

Stadia is supposed to be the answer to my problem. Google’s game streaming service, which launches today in an extremely limited and frankly disconcerting form, has an easy pitch: What if you could play your games wherever and whenever? What if you never had to worry about carrying around hardware, and could just open your phone? Turn on your TV? Everyone has a billion devices connected to the Internet laying around, and each of those could become a portal to the game you would otherwise be playing. That sounds awesome.

On that very specific question, Stadia mostly delivers. It feels goddamn magical when you’re playing a gorgeous version of Mortal Kombat 11 at the local Starbucks on your phone, and can immediately pick up where you left off in the story a few minutes later at home, as if nothing happened. The whole reason I want everything ported to Switch is for this kind of radical convenience, and while it’s cool games like The Witcher 3 have found some deeply compromised ways to show up Switch, I’d much rather play those games at real frame rates.

But there is a reason it’s felt like Google has deliberately avoided a splashy launch for a service that otherwise seems positioned as a huge part of the company’s future: this is an early access debut for Stadia. For most people, the answer as to whether you should buy this is a resounding no. The technology is there, but the service is not even close.

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The data centers powering Stadia have a certain holiday look to them. Photo courtesy of Google

Stadia is launching in, essentially, shambles. A lot of the games promised for launch aren’t there. Three of the 12 games you can buy and play today are Tomb Raider re-releases of varying quality. Doom Eternal, once the star of Stadia’s lineup, was delayed into next year. Many important features, like the ability to stream games onto a phone, aren’t there yet. At least, that was the case until I received an email late on Sunday night, when Google announced the lineup was nearly doubling, adding games like Final Fantasy XV, Metro Exodus, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and others to the launch lineup.

Adding a game as big as Final Fantasy XV at the final hour is emblematic of Stadia’s larger problems—a service clearly being rushed to market, hoping to figure it all out later, only underscoring the notion that the vast majority of people should be staying far, far away.

Right now, for example, it’s only possible to stream to Google’s Pixel phone. You can’t buy games through the TV interface. There’s no family sharing, so if your kid wants their own Stadia account, they can’t play your copy of Just Dance 2020—have fun spending twice the money. There is only one exclusive game, a spooky adventure game called Gylt. (It’s only okay.) There’s an achievements system, but you can’t see it yet. The Stadia controller is technically wireless, but outside of a TV with a Chromecast Ultra, it has to be plugged in, which becomes an unwieldy experience on a phone, unless you have a really long cable.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

When Google sent me a review kit for Stadia, it came with some recommendations on how to set everything up, including connecting an ethernet cable to the included Chromecast Ultra, to ensure the fastest possible speeds. I don’t know about you, but my router isn’t anywhere near my TV. It’d be possible, I guess, to snake a 100 ft. ethernet cable around the house, but that seemed silly, and likely to get me in trouble when my wife inevitably tripped over it. Going into this, my goal wasn’t to put Stadia into the most ideal conditions possible, but to treat Stadia how I wanted to use it and go from there. If Stadia was going to be successful in providing true convenience, you shouldn’t have to bend over backwards for it.

The TV I was most interested in using Stadia on was in our family room; it’s where me, my wife, and my daughter spend the most time. If I could play games in that room? Rad. But it also meant heading upstairs, a floor away from the router, and playing Stadia over wireless, which definitely went against the recommendations Google made for how I should use it.

(We recently upgraded to a mesh network, Orbi’s RBK50. We had a random TP-Link router that worked okay, but was never consistent in our bedroom and cheap network extenders didn’t help. We have a house with whatever material makes wireless signals die beyond a few feet, but the mesh network has helped tremendously.)

It’s hard to say much about setting up Stadia because my experience was unique; I had to jump through reviewer hoops. But if you squint make some assumptions, it’s simple. Set up a Stadia account through the official app, plug the Chromecast Ultra into an HDMI port, and use the app to sync Stadia’s controller. (In the future, Xbox and PlayStation controllers will work with Stadia on TV, but at launch, that’s only possible on a phone or computer. Bad!) The TV will spit out a sequence to tap into the controller, finalizing the syncing process. If you have a newer TV—sadly, I do not—turning on the controller will also turn on you TV.

(Google’s handmade peripheral is fine. The d-pad doesn’t feel good, and the triggers are weird. It’s not replacing my personal fav, the Xbox One Elite, anytime soon, but it’s functional. The main draw of Google’s controller is the AI service Google Assistant being available at any time, but like so many other things, it’s not there at launch.)

Here’s what speedtest.net told me about my Internet upstairs, using a laptop that was situated only a few feet away from where the Chromecast Ultra was eventually plugged into:

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Comcast’s data caps suck ass, but for $80 per month, they provide me with decent Internet, and for my 1080p TV set, it’s more than enough for what Google says is required: 20mbps.

The moment of truth came when I tapped the controller alive, scrolled over to the set of games Google made available to press at launch— Just Dance 2020, Mortal Kombat 11, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Gylt, Kine, Destiny 2—and considered what to launch. I started with Destiny 2, a game I’d recently played on my own high-end PC, and crossed my fingers.

After briefly logging on and connecting my Stadia account to my Bungie account, my two characters appeared on the splash screen, with all my information linked up. I loaded my new hunter, and picked up where I left off, replaying The Red War campaign from Destiny 2.

“That’s, uh, definitely Destiny 2,” I muttered to myself. It looked good, it felt good, and within minutes, I was playing through a level like it was no big deal. If there was input lag, I didn’t notice it. There was some occasional stuttering that came and went, but here was Stadia delivering on its pitch: tap a button and start playing Destiny 2 without any bullshit. It was definitely possible to tell, at moments, it was a stream and not something coming off a local machine, but it passed the initial eye test, and quickly convinced me most people will probably not be able to tell the difference, unless they were shown the game side-by-side.

(The Stadia version of Destiny 2 does not share a playerbase with the any other version, severely limiting the amount of people around for raiding and other multiplayer modes. Bungie’s said it’s looking into adding cross play sometime in the future.)

I grabbed the Pixel phone Google had sent along, loaded up the Stadia app, and opened Destiny 2. It worked—again. I flipped open my laptop, navigated to the Stadia website, and opened Destiny 2. It worked—again. Destiny 2 was running, largely without compromise, on three different devices in my home. It was the moment when this high-concept pitch, an idea that’s been floating around games for several years now, became real in a tangible way.

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A handful of times, Stadia reported my connection wasn’t strong enough to stream, but all it took was asking the service to check again, and things would boot up normally.

The big question for a lot of people, and one I don’t feel fully confident answering, is how Stadia handles input lag. Like I said, Destiny 2 felt fine. I could run, shoot, and jump without issue. But I’m not a technical expert, and I’m not a Destiny 2 expert. What could feel fine to me might feel extremely off to others. There are no platformers at Stadia’s launch, so the one genre where I could confidently speak to isn’t present. I wish a game like Super Meat Boy was available, so I could really test out my fingers. But what was true about Destiny 2 was also true of every other game I played, including the twitchy Mortal Kombat 11. I was able to pull off special moves in Mortal Kombat 11’s story mode without a problem, and at no point felt like the reason I wasn’t able to execute a move had anything to do with streaming.

So, Stadia at home: check. It’s a service with a crappy UI and without games, but it works!

My next thought was a bigger stress test, so I considered where a traditional game would draw my interest: Starbucks. One, I actually spend time there, especially in the winter, because I need to get out of the house. Two, Starbucks wi-fi is surprisingly decent, but it’s dirty internet being shared by dozens of people with who knows how many devices connected at once. Here’s what speedtest.net showed me when I sat down at Starbucks:

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For public internet, that ain’t bad, and once again falls within the 20mbps Google says is required to make 1080p streaming work on Stadia. But that’s before you try streaming a game while the rest of the Starbucks could be watching episodes of The Office on Netflix.

Once again, Stadia worked as advertised, this time on my Macbook Air. I played a few rounds of Mortal Kombat 11 without a problem, and I made it through another Destiny 2 campaign mission. In both instances, there were brief moments where compression leaked through, breaking the illusion, but when Stadia encounters a hiccup, it doesn’t immediately kick you off. The games—and Stadia—worked itself out and I went right back to playing.

The big test I had for Stadia was whether I could disconnect from wireless entirely and use it. What would happen if I used a mobile network like LTE? The Pixel phone Google provided didn’t come with a SIM card, so I was forced to tether using my iPhone X. Here’s what speedtest.net gave me, with an iPhone signaling one bar of LTE. (Yes, I could have moved to an area with a better connection, but my goal was to try Stadia in real-world conditions.)

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Not great. That’s below the 20mbps recommendation, but technically, more than what Google considers the minimum for using Stadia, 10mbps. That my phone was reporting a single bar of LTE connection, though, suggested my connection itself was going to be shaky.

It was, predictably, a disaster. Both Mortal Kombat 11 and Destiny 2 loaded, suggesting Stadia considered the connection to be fast enough, but neither was playable. There were compression artifacts everywhere, and the controller frequently stopped responding. For whatever reason, Destiny 2 fared better than Mortal Kombat 11. I was able to navigate towards an objective marker and fire off a few shots before I gave up, whereas in Mortal Kombat 11, a few seconds into a fight the game just stopped responding to input entirely.

I don’t put this on Stadia, really—I expected it to fail. But it did provide a sense of what one can realistically expect from the idea “Oh, I can play video games anywhere!” No, you can’t.

One last note: Just before this weekend started, Google allowed me to start playing Red Dead Redemption 2 via Stadia. I played a bit of the opening, set in a dark blizzard, and it wasn't a particularly great showcase for Stadia, a technology that frequently buckled when games were set at night. It's not unplayable, but you get all sorts of compression that very much reminds you the game is streaming. It gave me a lot of pause about how horror games will ultimately perform. That said, it was extremely cool to be playing a high-end version of Red Dead Redemption 2, a game whose PC version has some performance issues, without having to wonder whether my PC would buckle under the pressure.

There are legitimate, existentially frightening questions about our seemingly inevitable streaming future. Most people, myself included, have frustrating data caps, and services like Stadia, which Google says can eat up as much as 20GB per hour at 4K resolutions, aim to slurp up every last bit of it. When a game exists in the cloud, you don’t own it. You can’t download the files and archive them on a hard drive. Google has an abysmal track record when it comes to maintaining new services, and if Stadia disappears, your games do, too. (Bring back Google Reader, cowards.) From a historical perspective, if Stadia shuts down, will all those games simply...disappear? We’re increasingly handing over control to big corporations in exchange for convenience, without any sign that our government has any interest in drawing up new rights. Yet, everything suggests convenience eventually wins out.

And chances are, it’d win out with me. I fully recognize the problems with that, but when I think about who services like this are pitched to, it’s people (like me) who are tired, impatient, and just want to spend the hour or two they have with a video game without worrying about everything that can often come with it. I don’t know if Stadia is the answer—it might be Xbox bundling streaming with Game Pass, Steam opening up their own service, something else—but I’m now convinced streaming games, data caps or not, are a big part of the future. It's not hard to imagine a game like Cyberpunk 2077 coming along next year, and lots of reasonable people saying to themselves "I'd like to play this on a high-end PC and don't want to buy one. Maybe I can, in essence, rent one instead."

I’ve spent the last week trying to judge Stadia without worrying so much about what it doesn’t have. Achievements? iOS support? Family sharing? Hell, more games? Those are all eminently solvable problems. Those will, in all likelihood, get fixed soon. But it doesn’t go to the heart of what Stadia is trying to accomplish, and what’s increasingly becoming a race between a number of different companies betting the farm on being able to stream games.

Again, Stadia’s pitch is simple: touch a button and start playing games on just about any device in your house. Judged on that, Stadia is a success. It’s not perfect, but as a parent who values efficiency and convenience in a way I didn’t used to, it was convincing enough.

You should not sign up for Stadia today. But does it work? It does. It works.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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