Google: Stadia Isn’t ‘Netflix for Games’

(Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google held an AMA yesterday on its upcoming cloud gaming service, Stadia. Stadia is a unique project in gaming — there’s no other service quite like it available — but that particular facet is going to cut both ways. Users have had a lot of questions, and the Stadia team has now provided some answers to how various facets of the service will work.

One thing they made clear upfront: Stadia isn’t “Netflix for games.” Stadia director of product, Andrey Doronichev, writes:

Stadia Pro is not “Netflix for Games” like some people have mentioned, a closer comparison would be like Xbox Live Gold or Playstation Plus. The Pro subscribers get 4K/HDR streaming, 5.1 sound, exclusive discounts and access to some free games. Roughly one free game per month give or take. Starting with Destiny 2 (yay!).

This comparison isn’t very good either. Whether you like the idea of Stadia or not, what it offers — games that exist only in the cloud that you purchase at full price — is not the model that Microsoft, Sony, or any other company uses. The major companies that offer cloud streaming services also offer physical downloads for local play or they offer a Netflix-style streaming service with a large back catalog of titles.

Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus are thematically similar to Stadia Pro in that yes, all three of these services are “value adds” on top of the base platform experience. Stadia, however, is a very different service than what Sony and Microsoft offer. This changes the value proposition of Stadia Pro relative to Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus.

When Will Google Kill It?

Another question gamers raised is whether Google is invested in the product in the way it needs to be to encourage players to invest in it. This is not an unfair question. Every large company launches and retires products. But few, if any, do so at the rate Google has.

As this article discusses, from just January to April 2019, Google retired the Chromecast Audio, removed YouTube annotations, abandoned Louisville KY’s fiber installation, dropped IoT support from Android Things, gutted its laptop and tablet division, shut down Google Allo, closed its Spotlight Stories VR studio, stopped accepting new users for the Goo.gl URL shortener, shut down IFTT support, and ended both Google+ and Google Inbox.

The Google Cemetery lists 155 projects that Google has killed, as well as some statistics on its long-term behavior:

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2019 is shaping up to be a very good year for shutdowns, though 2011 is the easy leader.

When asked whether there were any EoL guarantees associated with Stadia, Doronichev implied that gaming moving to the cloud is no different than the way music, movies, photos, and documents have already done. He emphasized Google’s investment to date in Stadia before declaring:

[W]e’re committed to making Stadia a success. The games you buy on Stadia are yours to play. From day one we’ll support Takeout, so that you can download your game metadata, including saves if you want to.

Of course, it’s ok to doubt my words. Theres nothing I can say now to make you believe if you don’t. But what we can do is to launch the service and continue investing in it for years to come. Exactly how we’ve been doing with gMail, Docs, Music, Movies and Photos. That’s exactly what we’re committed to.

The actual question, however, was: “If the Stadia service is discontinued, do we know what (if anything) will happen with game purchases? Alternately, are they any minimum EoL guarantees, etc.”

Donichev never actually answers the question, leaving the de facto answer: “No.” He begins by drawing parallels to how movies, documents, and photos have moved to the cloud, but he ignores that this content has either generally been made available on streaming sites with Netflix-style content systems or that the cloud services in question are used for storing one’s own personal data. Stadia isn’t the same as these services. The fact that Google continues to try and elide that difference is troubling.

You can quit subscribing to Stadia Pro and still access the games

SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce
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you’ve purchased (though not the titles you got for free for being a subscriber). If Google shuts Stadia down, however, you’ll lose access to the titles you bought. This point is being confused in some spaces, with reports that you can “quit” the service and still keep the titles you previously got for being a subscriber. This does not appear to be the case. You regain these titles if you resubscribe, but that’s not the same as having a version of a game you can download and keep if the company decides to shut its servers down.

No company ramping up for a major launch is going to declare that they only intend to operate a service for the short term or imply no one at Google is committed to making the launch a success. The fact that Google didn’t have anything to share about an EOL guarantee could mean that the company simply hasn’t finalized that aspect of its service, but given the company’s history, Google is one of the last companies I would bet on when it comes to the long-term question of whether it will keep a product in-market.

Google Docs is a major component of Google’s efforts to take on Microsoft Office as a business productivity suite. Some of Google’s other cloud services are directly tied to Android. Google Stadia, in contrast, is an attempt to take on Microsoft and Sony in an entirely new market with an unproven business model. If Stadia takes off, Google will keep it. If it doesn’t — and keep in mind, we have no idea what metrics the company has set internally for what “takes off” means — then Google is one of the companies least likely to commit to iterative improvement or a marketing pivot. Google may rehabilitate some of its products, but its long-term tendency has always been to throw them away and launch something new. (This is how the company ended up with seven messaging platforms simultaneously at one point).

If you’re the type of person to buy a game, beat it, and never play it again, this risk may not matter to you. But evaluated in terms of its commitment to offering users long-term platform support, no Silicon Valley company I can think of has done a worse job than Google. Some companies dig in and make products better; some companies throw them out and start over. Google has always tended far more towards the latter than the former.

Other Points

Other tidbits from the AMA include:

Stadia game prices will be competitive with other platforms. Playing on a TV will require a Stadia Controller ($ 69) and Chromecast Ultra ($ 69), though there’s also Founders Edition for preorder that includes these components, three months of Stadia Pro, and a coupon to give Stadia Pro to someone else for the same time period for $ 130.

If you unsubscribe from Stadia and resubscribe later, you will regain access to games that you claimed while you were a Pro subscriber. You will not receive games that were given away while you were unsubscribed.

Bluetooth audio support will not be present at launch but may be added at a later date. Support for audio through the Stadia Controller is via headphone jack only.

Google is committed to adding support for cross-play. The company is starting with adding support to Chromecast Ultra but might enable the service on other devices. Andrey wants to add support for iOS and Android as well.

Achievement support will be added post-launch but not available on day one.

The free game per month offer is for Pro users only. The game is yours to keep for as long as you remain a subscriber. Stadia Base does not include a game, only the option to buy games.

Google thinks ISPs will raise data caps to allow services like Stadia to function without eating all your bandwidth. There will be some unspecified tools and services for bandwidth management. Doronichev writes, “There’s a lot of great ISPs offering plans with 100s of mbps or even gigabits and no caps,” which is really cute, considering roughly 40 percent of the country, including myself, has access to exactly one ISP.

Family sharing is coming “early next year.”

On the whole, it’s a solid AMA, but I’d wait a year or three before investing any money into the platform. Google has been far too willing in the past to kill products that were passionately loved by its user base for me to put any faith in the company not to kill Stadia at the drop of a hat. It has never cared about the fact that users depended on products like Hangouts or Reader when it made the decision to kill them, and it doesn’t deserve to be trusted to have started now — unless, of course, the company is willing to explicitly guarantee it in writing. Thus far, Google has not done so.

I will not be recommending that anyone buy products on Stadia unless Google is willing to provide a written guarantee that it will provide the service for a minimum length of time. “Trust us,” is a flatly unacceptable answer at this point.

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