In a world where the coronavirus has kept most people locked inside, willingly or out of fear, you’d think it’d be a great time for a gaming streaming service. But ever since launching last year, Google Stadia has continually failed to win customers over — and as their latest Connect shows, it’s looking more and more likely that the project will be shut down.
Despite Google being one of the few companies in the world with the infrastructure and technical know-how to make a cloud gaming service work, scepticism around Google Stadia has been rife from the start. Not long after the service launched, Stadia’s value proposition remained unclear. Even for users in the best-case scenario — gigabit fibre, easy access to Google servers and the kind of environment where streaming works well — Google couldn’t answer the one question that mattered.
Why should users pay twice to access the games they want to play, just so they can stream them? Who exactly does Google think is out there waiting to play video games until they launch on Stadia, instead of just buying them and playing them a million other ways? Hell, the launch line-up was so threadbare, that Google nearly doubled the Stadia library 48 hours before the service went live.
And, just as importantly, who would sign up for Stadia’s subscription service with so few games? The Pro subscription to date features a total of 20 games, the most prominent of which were Destiny 2, GRID, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, SUPERHOT, and PUBG. It’s vastly behind the hundreds of games available on a service like Xbox Game Pass. Worse, users still have to pay full price for anything outside of the free Stadia Pro games — the $US10 Stadia Pro subscription doesn’t even provide a discount, the way Xbox and PlayStation’s subscriptions do. (The service still isn’t available in Australia, so I’ll be referring to US pricing.)
Having access to content is the one thing that sells not only consoles, but an ecosystem. That’s especially true in the climate of a global pandemic and the worst recession since the Great Depression. An environment that, normally, would benefit a service like Stadia. Stadia’s entire value argument is removing the expensive barrier of entry that buying console or PC hardware offers.
But it means absolutely bugger all if there’s no content when you get there. So on Wednesday morning Australian time, Google finally unveiled the next tranche of titles coming to Stadia, as well as the release of long-overdue features like Crowd Play.
Crowd Play was one of Stadia’s key features. The ability to immediately join a streamer’s game is something that appeals to a lot of communities. It makes sense for how video games function in 2020. But, remarkably, Google opted to showcase this feature — originally announced before Stadia’s launch last year — with Super Bomberman R Online.
Even with a 64-battle royale option — which sounds like an absolute goddamn nightmare given how games of 8-player Bomberman are like — nobody would ever accuse Bomberman R Online of being a killer app, a game you’d sign up to Stadia to play.
And it’s not like the Stadia Connect was filled with huge surprises elsewhere. Fans and subscribers have already had to deal with: Dead silence from Stadia months after its release, a lack of a public roadmap, paying for games that disappeared literally weeks later, games that required two phones to properly play, no proper voice functionality or chat for multiplayer games, no sense of community, and bizarre ads straight from the MySpace-era of internet humour.
For those users, the announcement of Orcs Must Die! 3, A One Hand Clapping, Outcasters, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice simply wasn’t going to cut it.
A popular thread on the official Stadia sub-reddit sums the reaction nicely.
“What we wanted was a vision into the future, new features, new countries, news about what is coming, extended support of current device (like how mobile today is seriously behind),” the thread says.
“We got none of that. We got games we already knew were coming. We got one or 2 older surprise game. Lots of small indy stuff. I knew we wouldn’t have much, but this is next to nothing.”
Even the pricing is astonishingly tone-deaf. Charging $US59.99 for Sekiro on Stadia, when it launches later this year — well after its release on every other platform — is bizarre when the game is already being discounted under $60 digitally on PC. And once the big spring/holiday sales arrive, that price will drop even further.
lol the stadia connect was
– the three Ubisoft games shown yesterday
– an indie game
— donny (@mrdomino_) July 14, 2020
Almost criminally, the reaction of some users highlighted one of Stadia’s biggest problems — Google hasn’t been vocal enough about Stadia, even when they have something to reveal.
There was a Stadia Connect today?
— Shinobi602 (@shinobi602) July 14, 2020
There was a google stadia connect even today? https://t.co/Kr03xaz57N
— JGSF (@JGSF64) July 15, 2020
my father ???? stadia
failing to connect
— sean ???? @ #1 plegian dorothea fan (@Stairfax) July 14, 2020
The big games that people might want — like Cyberpunk 2077 or the reworked Mafia — still don’t have a release date. Cyberpunk 2077 was mentioned directly in the Connect, but all that was said was “you can play Cyberpunk the second it launches on Stadia.”
No word about the things gamers actually want to know, like when Cyberpunk 2077 is actually launching on the Google platform, and what features it might have to make Cyberpunk worth playing over Google versus other services.
And it’s no surprise that Stadia’s library is so threadbare. Developers complained about Stadia earlier this year to Business Insider, accusing Google of being too stingy when negotiating exclusives and content deals. Apart from the bigger user base on existing platforms and consoles, there just wasn’t enough of a compelling reason for developers to take the Google gamble.
“If you could see yourself getting into a long term relationship with Google? … with Google’s history, I don’t even know if they’re working on Stadia in a year. That wouldn’t be something crazy that Google does. It’s within their track record,” the anonymous developer told Business Insider.
Stadia’s taken hits from big names in the industry as well. Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, “felt good” about Stadia’s launch last year and said Google had been “exceedingly helpful”. “We feel very good about the opportunity. It remains to be seen how the platform works. They’re awfully talented and they are very, very committed,” Zelnick told investors on a conference call last year.
Fast forward almost a year, and Zelnick’s tone has changed markedly. “I think there was some overpromising on what the technology could deliver,” he said, according to Gamespot.
“The belief that streaming was going to be transformative was based on a view that there were loads of people who really had an interest in interactive entertainment, really wanted to pay for it, but just didn’t want to have a console,” Zelnick said. “I’m not sure that turned out to be the case.”
Even a scenario that should favour Google Stadia has completely left them in the cold. More publishers have turned to streaming services to hold their preview events after the coronavirus made in-person events largely impossible. It hasn’t been a universal thing — Australians were given access to local Cyberpunk 2077 code, while those previewing the game internationally played through GeForce Now.
And even in an area where Google Stadia is working with big exclusives, even those titles weren’t used as a showcase for Stadia. The most recent was Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion, with Valhalla being one of the few AAA titles launching simultaneously on Google’s platform. But instead of showcasing the Stadia tech as a way of safely previewing the game, Ubisoft teamed up with Parsec, a desktop capturing app. Ubisoft’s been using Parsec for Teams for their remote development, and they opted to use that for live gameplay, even though Ubisoft were trialling their own game streaming platform last year.
Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot was one of the most vocal supporters of cloud gaming. And previews are all about making the best possible impression, as those drive pre-orders and also have a short-term effect on investors. So it’s not exactly the best look that Ubisoft didn’t have enough faith in Stadia to use Google’s service, let alone their own livestreaming tech.
On top of that, there’s still no word on when Stadia will come to more countries. There’s no word on when more games will get Stream Connect, a feature Stadia added to Ghost Recon: Breakpoint — one of the worst releases of last year, a game that flopped so badly Ubisoft’s CEO publicly apologised. We still don’t know more about the potential integrations with YouTube streaming, something you think would have been Stadia’s biggest selling point given how much gaming content dominates YouTube.
It all feeds into Stadia’s biggest issue. Google has a service supposedly ideal for not only a sub-segment of gamers, but one that can grow the gaming pie well beyond that. But Google has never actually demonstrated that they understand what gamers, current, lapsed or yet to experience the medium, actually want. Google might be eyeing off the potential market with gaming, but if they need Stadia to work, they have to convince current gamers that Stadia is worth it.
And that’s the worst part: Google hasn’t established a value argument that would convince users why a Stadia subscription would be worth it. Stadia’s biggest strength right now is the Google name — not Stadia’s potential, or any innovation the service provides, but the fact that everyone knows Google has more money than most countries on the planet, and theoretically should be able to fund the acquisition and investment needed to make Stadia work. It’s a useful attribute when announcing a service, but it’s a shocking look for Google almost a year after Stadia has been operating.
“There’s only so many times you can say ‘we’re just getting started’ and not have much to show for it,” one user complained.
If Stadia can’t get it right amidst a combination of global circumstances that favour not only gaming, but streaming services and services that have a low cost to access, when will they?