By Daniel Waterman
There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about gaming following in the footsteps of video and music and game streaming services will be the future. Microsoft has recently announced that their streaming service, Project XCloud, will be coming to their Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription service. With this announcement, I believe it is important to look back at the predecessor to this service, Google Stadia, and see whether it looks like Microsoft can avoid the same mistakes.
Stadia was announced back in March 2019 at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. At the conference, Google outlined their vision for what google stadia would look like, with grand promises of streaming high-quality games at 4K in 60 fps on phones, laptops and other devices that would normally not be capable of this, but the big selling point, was its accessibility. Google CEO, Sundar Pichai (2019), promised “A game platform for everyone”, and that Google Stadia will “eliminate that barrier to entry, [and] make it simple and easy for people who want to try stadia for the first time”.
Google is trying to capture the market of people who want to get into gaming but are intimidated by the expensive price point for consoles and PCs. The only audience that would seem to fit this group would be kids whose parents either can’t afford or simply won’t spend $400-$500 AUD on a console. However, their focus on the graphical capabilities and the fact that they announced ID Software’s Doom: Eternal would be coming to the service, a game rated R18+ for “High impact violence, blood and gore” (Australian Classifications Board, 2020), presents the ideal audience for them as the more mainstream gaming audience, who likely already own a gaming console or PC. Right from the get-go, Google has targeted the audience who will judge their product the harshest and will be underwhelmed at its performance.
Following the announcement, there was understandably a lot of scepticism around how well the service would actually function. When I play games, I use a wired mouse to avoid the extremely slim chance that there might be less than a milliseconds of latency when using a wireless one, so I can’t even imagine what the latency would be like to stream a game from the other side of the world, especially with Australia’s notorious internet speeds. There’s also another issue which comes with Google’s reputation for failing products. The website “killedbygoogle.com” by Cody Ogden is a very long list of projects that Google has axed over the years after they performed under their expectations. The fear people have with stadia is that if they invest in the service and it underperforms, Google will axe the project fairly quickly.
For these reasons it was even more important that reviews of the service are favourable. Fortunately, reviews presented that the service was functionally sound. In TechRadar’s review of stadia, they tested the service on a smartphone with a 15 mbps wi-fi connection and stated that “most of the time we saw no noticeable issues” (Pino, N 2020) and that the slowdown they did face “wasn’t so awful that it made us want to outright quit” (Pino, N 2020). Considering the average internet speed in Australia is 25 mbps, it reasonable to assume that the service would function to an acceptable quality. All seems to be going well for a successful launch for Google’s new gaming service, right?
Unfortunately, Google seemed to completely botch the launch. On November 19th 2019, Google stadia officially launched in 14 countries (which does not include Australia), but only to those who had purchased the $130 USD Stadia Premier or Founders editions which included a controller, Chromecast and 3 months of Stadia Pro. While it’s definitely a lot cheaper than a console, this price point really didn’t help to target their cheaper market and ensured the only ones who would buy the service at launch would be the early adopters who were curious about the tech.
A few weeks later, Stadia was available to the public, but only if you had a subscription to Stadia Pro, which allows players to play games at 4k for a monthly fee of $10 USD. However, as most people found out, most games on stadia do not run at 4k and are simply upscaled, and on top of the fee you have to buy every game except Destiny 2, which is available for free on all other platforms. Essentially, you got to pay $10 a month to play a graphically inferior version of Destiny. The Verge summed it up best in their review, summing up the entire service as “still just a beta” (Hollister, S 2019), effectively emphasising how Google simply felt like they had to release the service as soon as possible to get ahead of their competitors.
Now a rough launch isn’t the end of the world, and services like stadia have bounced back to become extremely successful. The initial beta testing for Steam saw the client and website both crash, and when Valve announced that Half-Life 2 would only be available on Steam, there was outrage. Virtual Reality (VR) was going to be the future of gaming a few years ago, VR was where every franchise was looking, but the barrier to entry for a system was much greater than any other platform as it required a pretty good PC on top of the $600 AUD headset just to be able to run. These services could have failed but were both saved by the same thing, Half-Life. While they weren’t thrilled about it, thousands of people downloaded Steam to be able to play Half-Life 2, which helped to make Steam the essential service it is today, and when Half-Life Alyx released for VR platforms, Valve, Oculus and HTC sold out of all their stock of VR headsets for the next few months.
Google has clearly made some mistakes when it comes to their Stadia service. But now the question is whether or not Microsoft will make learn from them or follow in their footsteps. Project XCloud launched on September 15th 2020 in 22 countries as a part of their Xbox Game Pass subscription service and has received similar reviews to Stadia. Tech Radar’s review of XCloud was virtually the same as their review of Stadia, stating similar issues with the service that need to be ironed out. The big technical difference with Stadia is that while Stadia felt like it was still a beta, XCloud actually is a beta. Microsoft are not selling you a fully realised service because it isn’t one and they are letting you know that up front rather than releasing it and marketing it as a perfect service with no bugs.
While XCloud might be still in beta and not quite ready for its official release, it doesn’t matter because it is only one feature of Microsoft’s Game Pass service. Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service which give you access to a number of games for a monthly fee of $10 AUD. The service has a rotating library which contains over 200 games and includes AAA games like Dishonored, Final Fantasy and Hitman, as well as popular indie titles like Hollow Knight, Minit and Human Fall Flat, and new games from Xbox Games Studios like Halo, Gears of War and Ori are available the day of release on the service. Essentially, Game Pass is the Netflix of games that everyone was hoping Stadia would be, even though it hasn’t had streaming capabilities until now. Unlike Google, Microsoft is treating game streaming as a feature not the main selling point, you buy Game Pass for the games. This also means that regions that don’t have a great internet connection still have a good reason to get Game Pass, so while XCloud might not be available in Australia, there is still great value in Game Pass that it is easily worth the price.
Microsoft have been in this industry a lot longer than Google and know what the audience is looking for when they buy into a service. Features and cool tech are important, but a good library, a reasonable price and the ability to download games as well as stream them is what is going to sell your service to this market.
Australian Classifications Board 2020, Latest Classification Decisions, viewed 10 Sept 2020, <https://www.classification.gov.au/classification-ratings/latest-classification-decisions?f%5B0%5D=latest-decision-category%3AC>
Hollister, S 2019, Google Stadia Review: The Best of Cloud Gaming is Still Just a Beta, 18th Nov 2019, viewed 16 Sept 2020, <https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/18/20970297/google-stadia-review-gaming-streaming-cloud-price-specs-features-chrome-pixel>
Hood, V 2020, Hands on: Project xCloud review, 5th May 2020, viewed 17th Sept 2020. <https://www.techradar.com/au/reviews/project-xcloud>
Google 2019, Stadia GDC 2019 Gaming Announcement, 19 Mar 2019, viewed 10 Sept 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUih5C5rOrA>
Ogden, C 2020, Killed By Google, viewed 24/9/2020, <https://killedbygoogle.com/>
Pino, N 2020, Google Stadia review, 30 May 2020, viewed 14 Sept 2020, <https://www.techradar.com/au/reviews/google-stadia>