Google Stadia: The Horrifying Evolution of Games as a Service

Google Stadia was announced at GDC 2019, promising game streaming is ready for prime time. Where have I heard that before? Oh right, OnLive, Gaikai, PlayStation Now, and Steam Link, among others.

Stadia faces the same widespread adoption problems that all the other entrants into this field have never been able to overcome. Biggest among them is the United States’ very poor broadband availability. In 2015 the FCC changed the official definition of broadband to a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. If you have less than that, your ISP may call it “high-speed,” but it isn’t “broadband.”

Where do you live?

The people in games media who are the biggest cheerleaders for Stadia undoubtedly live where most full-time professional games media people live, the San Francisco Bay area, high tech capital of the US. Or to put it more simply, “somewhere that has easy access to very high-speed internet.”

I live an hour outside of Chicago, and here’s what $70 per month gets me from Comcast:

You can see from this image that my speed is slower than 56% of the US who has used this tool. This leads me to believe that most likely less than half of the US, according to speedtest.net results, has a real-world connection speed of 25 Mbps. And I took this speed test in the middle of the day, away from peak hours.

A common solution from people in major cities is “move” or “change providers.” If only it were that easy. To pack up your life and move just for faster internet is not something most people are going to do, and similarly changing providers is rarely an option.

”Most of the country will not have access to run Google Stadia in a way that honestly compares to a home console

American ISPs are allowed to have regional monopolies, there is rarely ever any competition. My only other option would be to go to AT&T, which would drop my speed into the single digits.

I’m just one person but my experience is not uncommon. The United States ranks just 24 in the world for broadband subscriptions per 100 individuals. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, available for your reading at broadband.gov, lists its number one goal as having “at least 100 million US homes with affordable access to actual download speeds of 100 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps by 2020.” That’s next year! I get 3 Mbps upload and it’s not what I’d call affordable.

Google Stadia recommends a 25 Mbps connection for 1080p 60fps gameplay. If you’re familiar with recommended specs, you know you probably want to give yourself a safe buffer higher than the minimum recommendations. Google also teased 4K, and hilariously, 8K capabilities, both will certainly require even more speed. On average internet speeds increase year to year, but rollouts outside of major metropolitan areas work at a glacial pace. The ROI simply isn’t there for the companies, so they aren’t inclined to run new lines to a city like mine, with less than 10,000 population, unless an overseeing body requires it. Quite simply, most of the country will not have access to run Google Stadia in a way that honestly compares to a home console when Stadia launches later this year.

Compounding the problem is usage caps. Comcast, for example, imposes a 1TB per month cap before you are hit with overage fees. That will go well with the future of streaming 8K games, won’t it?

What about input lag?

Aside from strictly download speed, latency and input lag are killers for games. There’s a reason why Stadia’s first widespread test, one that I presume Google didn’t perform in rural Missouri, was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It’s a single player game that doesn’t exactly call for twitch reflexes. Google teased the possibility of “thousand player battle royales” with Stadia, but how is something like that going to work in practice. We saw no real demo of anything multiplayer. Input lag can be an issue with games that are installed locally, and streaming games is only going to make it worse.

This entire project reeks of people living in a bubble, giving no thought to how it will work even 50 miles outside of a big city.

What’s it going to cost?

A well-known side-effect of a lack of competition is that the ISPs can raise prices consistently without fear of losing customers. If Comcast comes to me tomorrow and says my $70 bill is now going to be $80, what am I going to do, go to AT&T?

”Google is taking it one step further with hardware as a service

We don’t even know how much Stadia will cost at this point. My guess would be at least $19.99 a month. Add that on top of an internet bill that, for me, would have to be north of $100 a month to have even a prayer of this thing working, and I’m probably at $125 minimum after regulatory fees and taxes for the privilege of using Stadia. Is that better than just buying my own hardware when it’s time for an upgrade? Games as a service is a hard enough pill to swallow, now I’m seeing people celebrating Google taking it one step further with hardware as a service.

Who is this for?

So, who is Google Stadia for? I can tell you who it probably won’t work for. If you don’t live close enough to a Google data center. If you don’t have access to affordable high-speed internet. If you notice the improved audio and visual fidelity of a UHD Blu-Ray over a 4K video stream. If you’ve ever wanted to play a game when your home internet was down. If you want to be able to own copies of the games you pay for. If any of those apply to you, I don’t see Stadia as something that is a net benefit.

All that said, later this year Google Stadia will go live. But how long before it joins the ranks of Allo, Google+, Picasa, Latitude, iGoogle, Wave, Buzz, or any number of products Google didn’t support longterm? Stadia is a product that will only be useful to a small subset of the people who want to play games. It’s starting in a hole and I don’t see it digging it’s way out.