Google Stadia’s vice president of engineering Madj Bakar reportedly told Edge that the company’s upcoming cloud streaming game console will have “negative latency,” predicting player button presses to reduce lag.
“Ultimately, we think in a year or two we’ll have games that are running faster and feel more responsive in the cloud than they do locally regardless of how powerful the local machine is,” Bakar said.
At about this time next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next generation of video games will look like. New consoles will likely be shown off, bold new streaming initiatives will begin to launch, and we’ll see all the wonderful kinds of games they will bring us. All these new things will come, and we’ll close the book on a generation that saw the industry that makes games come under greater scrutiny than ever before, as studios shuttered, developers burned out, and toxic work culture fostered environments hostile to marginalized people.
These are not problems that have been resolved, but the wheels of the games industry keep turning, in spite of the strain. So how much bigger can video games get? Video games are only getting more costly, in more ways than one. And it doesn’t seem like they’re sustainable.
That’s only the start of it. When you adjust for inflation, the retail cost of video games has never been cheaper, and it’s been this way for some time. The $60 price point for a standard big-budget release has held steady for nearly 15 years, unadjusted for inflation even as the cost to make big-budget video games has risen astronomically with player expectations. (Here’s some math that gives you an idea of just how absurdly expensive games are to make.)
Since changing the price point seems to be anathema, we’ve seen the industry attempt to compensate with all manner of alternatives: higher-priced collector’s editions, live service games that offer annual passes or regular expansions a la Destiny, microtransactions, and free-to-play games. Then you have loot boxes, which in many cases boil down to slot machine-style gambling inserted into retail and free-to-play games alike—something that is coming under increased legal scrutiny that might potentially cut off what has quickly become a major source of revenue in the industry.
These aren’t all necessarily responses to thinning profit margins in the face of rising inflation. Game publishers are often publicly-held companies, with investors that need to be shown endlessly increasing profits that are then used to justify ridiculously large executive paychecks. Perhaps that’s a problem that needs solving, too.
Because of all this, $60 is often just the minimum buy-in, the ante in the pot, for some of the biggest releases. If you want every character in a game’s roster, or every map in its playlists, you’ll have to pay more, and increasingly, you have to. Big-budget single-player games that deliver a single-serving experience with minimal strings attached have largely disappeared from the lineups of major third-party publishers.
Let’s run down the Big Three. We’re more than halfway through 2019, and Electronic Arts has only published one single-player game, the indie Sea of Solitude. Last year was much the same, with two indies as its only single-player releases: Fe and Unraveled 2. Activision’s portfolio of single-player games looks even thinner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the only exclusively single-player, non-remake game that the publisher has released since 2015’s Transformers: Devastation—which itself is no longer available, thanks to an expired licensing agreement.
Ubisoft is an exception, regularly releasing entries in single-player game franchises like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. But it buttresses them aggressive microtransactions and extensive season pass plans. (And the occasional diversion like Trials Rising and South Park: The Fractured But Whole.) The big-budget single-player experience is now almost entirely the domain of first-party studios making marquee games for console manufacturers, which bankroll games like Spider-Man and God of War. The economics of first-party exclusives are totally different—they’re less about making money by themselves and more about drawing players into the console’s ecosystem.
This is worth considering, because as big publishers prioritize live, service-oriented games, the number of games on their schedules has dropped. If you look at the Wikipedia listings for EA, Ubisoft, and Activision games released by year, you’ll get a stark—if unscientific—picture of how each big publisher’s release slate has thinned out in the last five years, relying on recurring cash cows like sports games and annualized franchises and little else. In 2008, those three publishers released 98 games; in 2018 they released just 28, not including expansions.
In short, the single-player game was not sustainable. So why should we think the current model is?
The smaller release slates make for a precipitous state of affairs where too much is riding on too little, a shaky foundation for big-budget game development to rest on. Granted, there are other publishers, like those in Japan, that are still very interested in single-player games. Independent games have also filled the single-player void and achieved greater visibility than ever before. But each of these alternatives face their own challenges in a volatile market, one where just five years ago conventional wisdom held the Japanese games industry was dead. Independent developers, meanwhile, continue to fight for the smallest slice of an impossibly crowded market. No matter where you sit on the games industry ladder, stability remains elusive.
That’s the present of video games. Let’s talk about the future. The intersecting trends of games-as-a-service and the increased emphasis on streaming mean an increased reliance on off-site computing with data centers and server farms distributed across the globe.
Microsoft’s Project xCloud wants to use the company’s data centers to provide high-end console and PC gaming to anyone with a good enough internet connection. Google Stadia is a service that pitches something similar if not even more wide-reaching, angling for the big-budget video game experience in a web browser. And Sony already offers a streaming service, PlayStation Now, which is likely to expand in the next generation.
A 2016 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives us an idea of the sort of things to consider in this arena. The outlook gives reasons to both be alarmed and also be hopeful.
The foremost takeaway is that while data centers are growing in number, their energy consumption is starting to plateau out of necessity, as the dramatic increase in cloud computing has actually forced tech companies to become more efficient. The biggest companies, according to the Berkeley Lab report, are actually remarkably efficient.
Data center efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is found by measuring a facility’s total power delivered divided by the power used by its IT equipment. Under this rating, the platonic ideal is a PUE of 1.0: power input and output perfectly balanced. Google, then, is in pretty good shape as far as this standard goes, with the average PUE of all its data centers currently at 1.11.
Efficiency, however, can remain good as power consumption increases, and consumption is going to remain a problem.
Data center energy consumption has been a concern for some time now, particularly in the United States, where data center energy consumption dwarfs that of the rest of the world at 1.8 percent of all energy used in the countrySmaller data centers, which estimates say make up 60 percent of data center energy-use, are inefficient compared to the biggest players, and with no legal standard or universal benchmark, there’s no way to ensure that efficiency gap is closed.
Making this problem even more dire is our current political climate, where developing sources of clean, renewable energy is an idea met with hostility by countries like the United States throwing their weight behind fossil fuels, even outside of its own borders. That doesn’t even account for the ways games contribute to the world’s electronic waste problem. E-waste is toxic, and only 40 percent of it is properly recycled.
And all that is before you even start to think about climate change, and the urgent action needed to avert a major crisis in our lifetime.
Video games cannot do this forever. If any of these things were to collapse—the people who make them, the economy they’re sold in, the ecosystem we’re all a part of—it would be catastrophic. All of them at once? That’s a disaster we need to talk about, openly. Because there are solutions to these problems.
Some of them are small, like making sure you know how to properly dispose of e-waste, should you need to throw out a busted console or peripheral, and doing what you can to live sustainably, even though climate change certainly requires the sort of large-scale action that only governments can enact To that end, you can take more involved action, like calling your local congressperson or government representative and asking if climate change and environmental concerns are on their agenda, and keeping apprised of any legislation up for voting in local elections.
Other solutions are harder to parse. How do we account for the data center sprawl of tech companies and their energy consumption? Is it ethically sound to use a service like Project xCloud or Google Stadia or Playstation Now, knowing all this? Should we push for a global green tech agreement of some kind, so companies that contribute to server sprawl and energy consumption do so in a sustainable way? A carbon tax seems like a good start, but this is a problem in need of many answers, not one.
Some solutions are thankfully, underway. Labor practices have come under scrutiny and developers are beginning to discuss organizing in earnest. Unionization is not going to solve every problem, but it can lead to meaningful progress in a lot of ways that trickle outward into other arenas. More equitable practices can mean the relentless pace of development is slowed down, which could make for fewer, better games and a course correction in supply and demand. Or it might only make things marginally better.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have stated sustainability initiatives and reports, but these programs are all buried in corporate sites and paperwork—a better approach would be to make sustainability as big a talking point as load times or ray-tracing. Something we could look at and compare to the previous year, and make note of how better off we are.
These are big, insurmountable seeming problems, but like all incredibly big projects—like, say, game development—they’re things that can be done, slowly, a little bit at a time. We just have to start.
It’s unlikely that video games will ever truly go extinct. We’ll probably always have something called “video games,” but what those games will look like is still very much in flux. There’s no guarantee that the way games are currently made will remain viable for another 10 years—games aren’t even made today the same way they were 10 years ago. They will look different. They will change because they can, and because they must. Hopefully, all the ways games change will be on our terms—otherwise disaster will change them for us.
If Google Stadia games work as advertised, it’ll become all too easy for students everywhere to play video games on their school-issue laptops instead of listening to their teachers’ lectures. On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, we answer questions from listeners, including one from a high school teacher about how much of a pain Stadia will be, on top of all the other typical distractions that students already battle in the classroom.
First up, we talk about the games we’re playing; I’ve finally got the hang of flying in Outer Wilds, Jason is playing Dragon Quest Builders 2 for a future review, and Kirk has fallen in love with fixed beat mode in Cadence of Hyrule. After that, we open up the mailbag (22:32) for discussion of Stadia in schools, our personal processes for reviewing games, and how bizarre the release schedule for Final Fantasy VII Remake will be. Lastly, we get into off-topic talk (1:20:18) about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Veep, and more before Kirk’s funky music pick of the week.
I’m a high school teacher with a question about Stadia and corporate responsibility. As a person who loves video games, the idea of being able to take games wherever I go (with an internet connection) sounds wonderful. However, as a teacher, I am terrified. It is already challenging enough to get students to read an article, write a paragraph, or complete any kind of academic task when their rapid dopamine-producing technology is always right there at their fingertips, whether through their personal phones or on iPads or Chromebooks (in an ironic twist) provided by schools—and that’s just from basic mobile gaming, watching Twitch, and social media apps.
But now, they’ll be able to instantly play actual good games, like Apex: Legends or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on their phones? I mean, I’d actually empathize with my students at that point: even as an adult who understands responsibility, there are times I’d far rather be playing video games than working (but thank god that I can’t even make that bad choice because my PS4 with Bloodborne is safely at home). Now, for my students, that all changes.
As teachers, yes, it’s our classroom. Yes, we can try to moderate what students are doing with their time. Yes, we can attempt to ban counterproductive technology. But this is so much easier said than done: teens inevitably find ways around the barriers that teachers and school technicians put in place. What I’m asking is this: does Google have a responsibility to—at the very least—develop tools that empower educators to make sure students don’t make the bad choice of playing games when they shouldn’t be? Surely Google, one of the most powerful companies in the world, can, if it devotes the resources, do something positive and helpful here. Otherwise, I fear that many teens, who can’t see in the long-term, will choose the escapism of video games and suffer destructive personal consequences, than engage in the difficult work of being a student.
Kirk: …So, I was on faculty at a high school. I taught many classroom sessions, I subbed for classes, I ran classrooms. I’m at least familiar enough with this and was in all the faculty meetings where this was constantly talked about.
The school that I taught at, the Urban School of San Francisco, is this super ahead-of-the-curve amazing school in San Francisco. This was in the 2000s. They were one of the first schools to have a one-to-one laptop program. At the time, all the kids had Macbooks, and they could get online. There was basically no restriction…
So, yeah, I do think that it’s Google’s responsibility, and it’s all these companies’ responsibilities to give teachers and give parents tools. But at the same time, I’m sure a lot of parents will also tell you that while it’s nice to have parental restriction on content, it’s also really hard; if a kid really wants to see something or do something, they can probably find a way to do it.
One thing they would do at Urban that was really funny was, Howard — his name was Howard, he was a really brilliant guy who was in charge of technology. He was the czar of all the computers. He had the ability to get and look at anyone’s screen on the network—of the students, not the faculty. He never did this. He was a really busy guy; he was doing all kinds of stuff. But he had the ability to, and as a result, the kids were always scared that they would be playing a game or something during class when they weren’t supposed to be — because this was a thing back then, even. Kids wold play Halo on their Macbooks; they would download freeware copies of games, and then they’d all be playing against one another. And they would be like, “Oh god! Howard’s gonna know!” Which I thought was really clever psychological warfare. Because of course Howard 99.99% of the time was not looking at your screen. But it only took him doing it once to one kid, and like walking into class out of nowhere and just busting them for whatever they were doing.
Maddy: That becomes the urban legend that all the other kids tell each other. “Oh, Howard can find you at any time! He’s always watching!”
Kirk: Also, coincidentally, Urban Legend? The name of the school paper at the Urban School of San Francisco.
Maddy: Great name!
Kirk: So that was one thing that kinda worked… [but] I don’t think that Stadia’s actually going to be — like, Maddy you mentioned social media. Social media is just as much of a distraction.
Maddy: And addictive!
Kirk: There are so many things that can potentially distract a student who is supposed to be paying attention in class. And you go back to when we were students, and it was even stupider. More basic things, like calculator games, or tic-tac-toe on a notebook.
Maddy: Or passing notes, which was our equivalent to social media back then. But still distracting.
Jason: I’m sure kids today are still passing notes, too, by the way.
Maddy: Oh, sure, because they aren’t allowed to take out their phones in class, usually, from what I hear.
Jason: Or they get them taken away.
Kirk: That’s definitely one good restriction: you have to be on your computer, your computer’s on the network. I think there are even more advanced ways now, to block access to certain sites. People’s work does this too. Like, you can’t get on YouTube at work, so you just can’t do it.
Maddy: There’s also the old school thing my math teacher did, which was physically walking around the classroom every time she did a lecture — up and down every row — to make sure nobody was playing games on their calculators. Just literally looking at everyone’s screen over everyone’s shoulder. All 40 students, or however many. I went to a big a public school.
Jason: That’s actually smart. That’s a good way of teaching, also, to not stand in one place. Kirk, I’m curious to hear — do you think that Google has any responsibility? Or do you think it’s a school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher, parent-by-parent responsibility here? And the onus is on them to make sure that their classrooms are behaving?
Kirk: To zoom it out from Google, just because Stadia doesn’t even exist yet. That’s, I think, a concern but all of these companies can be lumped under one umbrella. Just ethically, I do think that they do. I think it would be nice if they did that. But, at the same time, if they’re not creating software for the Department of Education to use, or something like that, then in the end, it’s just not really their responsibility in the same way that it would be if they were actually making teaching tools. This is just software that they’re making. There are a million things that can be misused by students in the classroom, and it is hard to draw a line and say, “Well, you all have a responsibility, in addition to treating your end-user, to make it so that students can’t abuse this in a classroom.” There’s just a practical fact that it’s going to come down to the teachers and the students. That’s where the buck is going to stop.
For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at [email protected] with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.
E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
Somehow, the makers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are deep in development on a game that looks like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild crossed with Greek myth. It’s a big surprise, especially because the makers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey just shipped a 100+ hour game last October and now they’ve got a gorgeous new one slated for February of next year.
“It’s the Odyssey team,” said Jonathan Dumont, the creative director of the surprise new Ubisoft game Gods & Monsters, as he answered my question about who was making it.
Gods & Monsters is an action-adventure game set on the Island of the Blessed. Players customize a character who can run around a vast world, jumping, swinging a sword, shooting a bow and arrow, floating from high perches using a special bird power, can use some sort of telekinetic ability to toss trees at enemies and has their movement limited by an exhaustible stamina meter.
If that sounds familiar, Dumont would say he’s flattered, as he did to me when I asked about the seeming similarities to Nintendo’s great 2017 Zelda game.
“It’s flattering that we can be compared to that, but from a storytelling point of view it’s going to be a very unique adventure,” Dumont said. “The abilities will change, as well as the scope of how it blows up. It is influenced a lot more by Odyssey in that sense mechanically. The fact that we can choose and create our own character and customize it as well, there’s quite a bit that will make it its own.”
When I saw the game, I was incredulous that the folks at Ubisoft Quebec could have another game slated for release so soon.
“We have been working very hard over the last 10 years to perfect our tools,” producer Marc-Alexis Côté said. “That’s one of the things we’re really good at in Quebec City: working on our dev processes, working on the toolset to make sure we can build games like this and make them amazing.”
A Greek myth take on the model of Zelda, one of the greatest games of all time, isn’t such a bad thing. Distinctive elements include the idea that the game is presented as a tale told by the poet Homer to his grandchildren. Dumont and Côté said that the game trades heavily on the research the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey team did about Greek mythology while making that game. Gods & Monsters is a more all-ages game than Odyssey and is illustrated with a bright, more painterly style. The player is the most courageous hero of all time, a character called Phoenix who can be equipped with special ability-enhancing gear and who will venture into the underworld to fight monsters of myth.
Dumont said the game has allowed the Odyssey team to play with character movement, to present challenges and puzzles that require the kind of clever traversal that Odyssey seldom asked of players.
The lead developers say the game has been in the works since late last year, and, despite it being slated for a February release, say it will be a full-sized action role-playing game.
Ubisoft always showcases some games to press behind closed doors in the first days of E3 week, and they often have a game that is shown even more exclusively to a small number of press. One year, that game was the returning Beyond Good & Evil 2, and all that Ubisoft was ready to show were walls of concept art and a tech demo. Gods & Monsters was presented on Sunday in similarly limited fashion, to small groups of attendees and largely with slides and screenshots. Dumont did briefly take a controller attached to a phone and, using Google’s Stadia service, played a development version of the game (and it ran pretty well despite the venue’s spotty WiFi).
The game looked fun. It is simply shocking that it’s this far along and this close to release. The demo proved that it’s coming to Stadia. It’ll be out for Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC as well. With no Breath of the Wild sequel on the horizon and Greek mythology still being pretty fresh material despite Odyssey’s existence, it’s a confusing if welcome E3 surprise.
We finally have the major details on Stadia, Google’s big push into gaming and at a glance it looks great: Crossplay with Xbox and Windows 10, a wide variety of recent and upcoming games, and the ability to play those games on any device with a solid internet connection. I’m writing this on an 200 Mbps internet connection so Stadia’s requirement for just 35 Mbps for the highest quality stream seems wonderful.
But it might be a rough start for Stadia.
Just to be clear I haven’t tested Stadia out apart from a very controlled demo at GDC back in March, so there is the possibility Stadia could and will be everything Google has promised. A truly new era in gaming that finally untethers us from consoles and powerful PCs.
But the internet requirements for Stadia are a major red flag. Back at GDC Google Stadia chief Phil Harrison told our sister site Kotaku that you’d need just 25 Mbps download speeds be able to play games in the highest available quality (4K, 60fps, HDR, and 5.1 surround sound). This week Andrey Doronichev, Director of Product Management on Stadia, told me that the requirement for the highest quality had increased.
“We have an updated guidance here,” he said. “You actually need 10 Mbps to stream at least 720p, but actually, it could be higher depending on specific details of the kind of network situation or your game. And then to comfortably stream 4K—the best experience—we recommend 35Mbps.”
That means you need 10 Mbps more than originally anticipated for that top tier experience. That’s not good! Google didn’t improve performance since the announcement. It just got more realistic about what delivering high quality would require.
That, at least, is the experience I’ve had with the streaming services already available from Nvidia and French company Shadow. In ideal settings, they’re pretty good. But when I try to play when my roommate is home and watching Netflix, the experience rapidly deteriorates, and so far the only thing we’ve heard from Google on how it’s different is that it has a big infrastructure in place and algorithims that will make its game streaming platform better than competitors.
Maybe there’s something to those claims. Google having datacenters all over the U.S. will absolutely make the experience better, and as we’ve seen from Google Search (and sometimes YouTube) the company can perform wizardry with a well-designed algorithim. It could, theoretically, pull this off.
But I just don’t think it can completely get around the bandwidth requirements. There are a lot of Americans who just don’t have good internet access. Particularly those in rural areas where ISPs may only provide crummy 3 Mbps DSL for the majority of residents, or they may offer faster speeds, but the connection is much more inconsistent. So you might get 25Mbps down at 1 p.m. when everyone in a 5-mile radius is at work or school, but things slow to a crawl from 6 p.m. to midnight when all those folks saunter home and hit the Netflix button on their Rokus.
When I asked Doronichev how Stadia was supposed to work for that wide group of Americans who just don’t have the good stuff his response was wonderfully optimiostic, but also struck me as deeply naive.
The good news is that ISP have a long history of adjusting to the growing demands from users. And you know this has been happening over the history of the internet. As we move from text to web from web to video and now we’re moving to real-time gameplay we’re relying on incredible technical infrastructure by Google that’s been delivering billions of search queries and videos on YouTubeand have been evolving over many years. So you know I’m pretty sure we’re going to get there.
The upcoming streaming platform Google Stadia won’t just follow the Netflix model, as many fans had hoped. It will instead have both a subscription and games for sale individually, as Kotaku previously reported. Here’s everything we learned today during Google’s “Stadia Connect” stream.
Stadia, which was announced in March, is a streaming platform designed to let you play games without a high-end console or computer. If it works as promised, it’ll let you plug a Chromecast into your television and access games through the cloud, no hardware required. The base subscription price is $10/month, with a free version planned for next year, and a Founder’s Edition bundle available for $130 this November when Stadia launches.
In an official stream today, Google detailed the pricing, game lineup, and other specifics. First of all, here’s how your connection will correlate with your Stadia resolution:
Some other announcements:
Google announced Baldur’s Gate 3 and Ghost Recon: Breakout for Stadia, the latter with a new trailer. (Don’t worry—the former is also coming to PC.)
Other games announced include Gylt, an adventure game from developer Tequila Works, and a multiplayer Overcooked-style game called Get Packed from Moonshine Studios.
The Division 2 will be there, too. Ubisoft overload!
Stadia Pro is the official service, at $10/month, which will give you access to the service’s games at 4K resolution/60 frames-per-second. This won’t include all the games, though—newer ones will be purchasable separately.
The controller is $70 standalone.
The Stadia Founder’s Edition will launch later this year for $130. It comes with a Chromecast Ultra, a Stadia controller, a copy of Destiny 2 (along with the new Shadowkeep expansion), and a three-month subscription along with a three-month buddy pass.
Other Stadia games include Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Doom, Doom Eternal, the new Tomb Raider trilogy, Final Fantasy XV, Darksiders Genesis, Metro Exodus, and many others.
Google says it’ll be one user per Stadia account, tied to your Google ID—you can have a guest account for splitscreen, but other than that, no sharing. (Update (2:43pm): A Google spokesperson reached out to say that family sharing is coming in the future.)
“At launch, if you’re a Stadia user, you can play Stadia exclusively on Pixel 3 and 3a devices. However, you’ll be able to create your account and make subscription and game purchases from any Android M+ or iOS 11+ device that has access to the Stadia app.”
Note: This post has been updated with official Google Stadia news following a leak this morning.
While people are still grappling with the technical ramifications of Google’s Stadia platform, gamers have begun asking deeper, more troubling questions. What do mods look like in a world of game streaming? What happens to game preservation? What happens if Google dwarfs gaming the same way it has with search, browsers and advertising? And most worryingly of all, what happens if Google decides to walk away from the industry later on?
In the immediate aftermath of the Google Stadia announcement, the public discourse largely centered on the technicalities. That was the part Google had provided the most detail on, so it was natural for people to focus on broadband connections, latency, and what is possible now versus a few years from now.
There was a little bit of excitement mixed in with all of that. What’s the gaming experience like when your connection is in the same room as the dedicated servers that you’re playing on? What’s the potential level of fidelity like when games aren’t limited to the hardware in a single console, or a single PC? What experiences can you have when it’s possible to develop a game that takes players across multiple screen formats?
That’s exciting to think about. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially with a company that wants to carve up a sizeable chunk of the gaming pie for itself.
The biggest complains or concerns against Stadia can be categorized into three broad aspects. The first is a backlash against Google itself. Not Google the search engine, or the presence of a company the size of Google (or its parent company Alphabet), but rather concern over how Google specifically operates as a business.
Google has a history of launching and then abandoning products, even ones that users really love. There’s Google+, the company’s alternative to a Facebook-style social offering that never really took off. There’s offerings like Google Reader, which fans of RSS readers still miss today. Google Health, a service to broaden access to health and wellness information, was shut down in 2012 after “not having the broad impact that we hoped it would”. Google’s Orkut social networking service found some popularity overseas, but it didn’t gain traction in the United States, so that was killed off in 2014. Google’s Allo messaging app was shut down this month.
It’s not just virtual products that Google has a history of walking away from. The most damming indictment of the company’s attitude brought up in the past week was the rollout of Google Fiber in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville became the 12th city added to the fiber project back in 2017, and the internet conglomerate quickly set about rearranging the city’s infrastructure to offer gigabit speeds to residents.
But Google vastly underestimated the technical scope of the project. The plan was to roll out fiber using a series of shallow trenches, where fiber was laid two inches beneath the sides of roads and later covered up with asphalt. The process caused massive disruption to the city’s roads, since they had to be torn up. Worse still, the pits and asphalt were too thin, resulting in the rubber patching and, in some cases, exposing the cables and wiring.
Google had to recover affected areas with hot asphalt a second time, but that wasn’t the only problem they faced. AT&T and Spectrum sued the conglomerate to block a city ordinance granting Google access to electricity poles in the city. AT&T owns most of the poles in the area, but the lawsuit was really just an attempt to stall Google’s rollout, as evidenced by the company’s refusal to challenge the judge’s ruling.
But the technical challenges proved too much, and after all the disruption Google announced it was shutting down the Louisville project entirely, less than two years after signups began. The experiment hasn’t been a total failure – Google’s presence forced AT&T to roll out gigabit services faster than they would have ordinarily. But for residents who watched their city pass all the laws Google wanted, and then watched as Google tore up their streets and laid hot asphalt over everything to fix it, only to abandon the project and shut down services altogether, it’s a galling lack of respect.
Rightly so, people have questioned what would happen if Google took the same approach with games. Which feeds into the second major concern.
Part of the reason why emulators are so revered is because it’s the only way some older titles can be played at all. Video games are built on a long and great history of quirks and differences – different games for different regions, titles being censored or banned outright in some nations, as well as what happens to a game during the localization process.
In the modern era, that preservation problem has been less about functioning hardware and more about compatibility. There’s plenty of modders and gamers who have found ways to get titles that used to run on Windows 95 or Windows 98 playing just nicely in 2019. GOG and Night Dive Studios are great examples of making a living doing precisely this.
But have you ever tried to get a game that only ran on Windows 3.11 going? And that’s just the compatibility problems. Archivists also have to deal with the degradation of physical media: cartridges that no longer work after 15 or 20 years, magnetic media that becomes disoriented over time, essential data stored on EPROMs that eventually becomes unreadable.
Preserving these games is only possible because gamers have access to the original files, either through physical means or by way of being able to download them locally in the first place.
Cloud gaming does away with that process entirely. It’s part of why cloud gaming has any appeal at all – by not having to download and install tens of gigs worth of assets, you’re cutting out all kinds of loading and downtime that gets in the way of actually playing a video game.
But it also means you’re entirely reliant on servers for that game, or the platform holders that offer them, being online forever. And that’s never, ever the case. Even when communities have tried to keep older games online, they can run afoul of license holders and copyright issues. But at least fans can try to keep a game alive.
With cloud gaming, that’s not possible.
Now that might not matter a great deal for games that are being offered via traditional, local storage mediums. In the interim, things like the next Assassin’s Creed, the next Fallout, Battlefield 6 or whatever the next AAA game is will be available like that. You’ll be able to buy them digitally or on a disc, like always.
But what happens when games are designed solely around the idea of a cloud service, like the platform exclusives Google is funding?
And what happens to the future of mods? Some of the greatest games today exist exclusively as a result of mods: Team Fortress 2, which went on to inspire Overwatch; Counter-Strike, which the foundations of esports in the West were built on, was borne out of a Half-Life mod; and even the ways games have been improved or overhauled through the tireless work of fans, as seen in the Fallout and Skyrim communities.
Do developers have to build new systems and models to make existing mods playable in a cloud gaming context? Do new editors have to be made for people to access the files? Or does that functionality just disappear altogether?
Part of Google’s Stadia pitch wasn’t just to eliminate frustrations for gamers, but also the technical limitations of existing hardware that frustrates developers.
Take the idea of elastic compute. Instead of relying on the power of a single console, developers building for Stadia could design around combining multiple data centers PCs, allowing games to be run at even higher resolutions, with even more fidelity, able to populate in-game worlds with more people, more things to do, and just more stuff.
That’s enticing because existing hardware will only take you so far before you run into a litany of performance problems. It might be the lower-powered CPUs in consoles that make it difficult to calculate the movement of too many NPCs at any given stage. Or memory limitations that affect how much data a client can buffer and stream at any given moment.
But how do you keep a game alive that was never designed to exist outside of a data center in the first place?
Nobody can answer that. And to be precise, it’s not a new problem. It’s a question people have asked repeatedly with the rise of digital platforms like Steam, and the online-only nature of gaming services in 2019 more generally. Even without cloud gaming, the push towards subscription-based services means there will be a segment of gamers who – in all likelihood – spend hundreds of dollars a year on a hobby without actually having anything tangible to show for it.
You’re paying for access, not a product. Should that company decides your money is no longer worthwhile, there’s bugger all you can do about it. And the same applies for pricing and access more generally. Australians might have access to a wealth of gaming platforms, and there’s competition on the horizon for cloud gaming too.
But in emerging countries and continents, where modern gaming has failed to penetrate due to a myriad of issues (socioeconomic conditions, internet infrastructure, shipping and supplier problems in getting hardware into some countries), that choice might not be available.
What happens in those places when there’s nobody to stop Google from upping prices?
The third and most instant backlash to Stadia was the technical possibility, as in whether Stadia would function at all. A lot of that conversation was dominated by the here and now. Some Australians have rightly pointed out that the spotty, broken rollout of the NBN means a service like Stadia is vastly less enticing than it should be. But the majority of criticism actually came from Americans. Google might have all the data centers, cloud platforms and internal infrastructure it needs throughout the US continent, but the quality of internet service from state to state is shockingly unreliable, so much so that it’s not unreasonable to argue that Australia has better internet – on the whole – than the continental US.
Google Stadia’s chief Phil Harrison told Kotaku that only 30mbps is required for streaming 4K content, with the 1080p/60fps stream for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey needing 15mbps (although 25mbps was recommended). If you consider that most Australians tend to stream content at 720p or on smaller devices, where the trade-off of lower resolutions is more acceptable, it’s not unreasonable to think that, as of today, a solid chunk of the Australian diaspora would be capable of enjoying a smooth Google Stadia stream right now.
There’s the rollout of the 5G network to consider as well, the advancement of the NBN, and what happens with future compression technologies and next-generation video encoders like H.265/HEVC/AV1. Newer encoders offer better quality at lower bitrates, meaning users don’t have to stream as much data to get the same quality picture.
But even if we make some concessions for the practical bandwidth requirements, there’s still the latency problem.
John Carmack’s quip this week about gamers playing with unoptimized TVs is interesting as a reminder. Gaming is the world’s largest entertainment medium, and while there is a huge subsection that cares extraordinarily deeply about the smoothness and technical precision of some games, there are plenty of people out there who really, truly don’t give a shit.
There is a point where “some lag” becomes “unplayable”, and what that window looks like varies enormously for different games. Narrative adventures or episodic titles like Life is Strange should have no qualms running on any service. As long as the video quality is sufficient and the delay isn’t tectonic, most people will be happy.
But the whole Stadia project isn’t designed just to bring singleplayer games to the world. It’s an extension of the largest source of content creation on YouTube – gaming – and the community that exists within that. So the real test of whether Stadia works depends on how much Google can minimize the latency in multiplayer games. And some of those games have very, very small margins for error.
Fighting games are a great example. A lot of these games have extremely tiny response windows. Take the simple parry technique, a motion introduced in Street Fighter 3 that required pinpoint timing. It’s not just a neat feature, but a measure of skill that also happens to be central to one of the greatest and most iconic moments in gaming’s history:
Parrying a super like Daigo did requires 15 correct taps up or down on the stick. The window for just one successful parry is only between six and ten frames, which amounts to about one-tenth of a second at best to respond, or 100 milliseconds.
The average reaction time of most humans is between 210 milliseconds to 250 milliseconds for a visual prompt, around 170 milliseconds for an audio cue, and a little less than that for physical stimuli (being touched, for example).
When you factor in the time someone has to respond against the lag between a button press and that action being recorded, along with display lag and any other associated delay from the connection itself, it’s a bloody small window.
Initial tests from Eurogamer found that Google Stadia had around 166 milliseconds of lag, with display and Wi-Fi connection delay included. That’s more than double what you’d get from a PC game playing at 60 frames per second. It’s also far, far too much than what players would consider acceptable for a lot of esports titles – Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Rainbow Six: Siege and so on – and certainly enough that it would interfere with the experience of twitch-based shooters, like Apex Legends, Fortnite or Battlefield.
Of course, if anyone can make it work it’s Google (or Microsoft). The biggest downfall for cloud gaming services in the past has always been infrastructure, which is the biggest component in making a service like this work. The streaming element is a problem that’s already been solved. Some gamers are saying the input lag is the biggest problem facing Stadia, and while it’s certainly a huge challenge, it’s worth remembering that reducing lag was a problem that developers and game programmers were finding ways to solve in the ‘80s and ‘90s as well.
As more devs shift their focus or start investigating the cloud gaming experience for themselves – which a company the size of Google generally encourages – more solutions will be found to reduce response times and input lag across multiple devices. The Stadia controller connecting directly to data centers, rather than a Chromecast or another device, is one way of tackling this.
It’s also worth remembering that Stadia doesn’t have to solve all these problems. Companies are excited for cloud gaming precisely for its potential to expand the current gaming market – not necessarily its potential to subsume the existing audience. There are plenty of emerging markets that can’t enjoy gaming today due to the cost of consoles, TVs, gaming PCs and associated peripherals, and for those markets the ability to stream something through a low or mid-range phone, relying exclusively on their mobile connection, opens up a whole new world. There are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in situations like those, and a lot of the discussion around Stadia has left them out of the loop entirely.
But that doesn’t mean Stadia is a service that should be welcomed with open arms. Google doesn’t just need to convince people that Stadia can work – it needs to convince gamers that it will stick around for the long-haul. Google’s handling of the shifting trends on YouTube certainly hasn’t engendered a lot of faith, and it’s natural for people to be concerned about what the gaming market looks like after a conglomerate the size of Google starts throwing its weight around. Google hasn’t allayed those fears just yet, and until they do, expect the backlash to continue.
Google’s upcoming video game-streaming service Stadia aims to eliminate the middleman by letting you play games in 4K and 60 frames-per-second on almost any device as long as you have a decent internet connection. While this sounds pretty incredible on paper, it leaves us with a ton of questions.
I sat down with Kotaku’s Ethan Gach to talk about the things we find promising about this new service and the things that concern us about the future of streaming.
Watch the video to hear our thoughts, or read a short excerpt here:
Paul: Google is claiming that you can play games at 4K at 60 frames-per-second using a 30 Mbps connection, which I guess might be standard for some people but not taking into account people who have data caps or throttled internet connections. If The Great British Baking Show cuts off and starts buffering, I start to get frustrated, and it’s nobody’s fault but my ISP’s. So I’m curious how their claims will hold up when it comes out.
Ethan: I’m someone who uses their Vita for remote play on the PS4 a lot, especially in a game like Destiny or Anthem where I’m just grinding out an activity that doesn’t require that much thought or precision while I’m watching TV with my partner. I think one of the things that was disingenuous about the presentation was when they had all of these devices lined up, and the idea was “Look, you can go seamlessly between all of these devices, maintaining your point in the game that you’re playing.”
This doesn’t feel like some transformative way to play all of your games so much as another tool or option for how to enjoy them in the same way that remote play, cross-buy, and cloud saves make the experience more seamless. This feels like another avenue to do these things but not the holy grail of doing all of it.
Paul: Maybe this is enticing for people out there who have not upgraded to a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X or who don’t have a gaming PC. They’re like “Oh yeah, maybe I’ll get back into gaming by opening up a new Google Chrome Tab and jumping into Doom Eternal.”
Ethan: That’s why I think the price is so important, and they haven’t talked about it yet. There was a point in the presentation where they showed, on the screen behind Phill Harrison, a mock-up of a Stadia app on the Google Play store, which makes it seem like there’s going to be a marketplace within this app where you would, theoretically, buy Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for $60. They haven’t talked about whether the service, like YouTube, will be free.
Google shared a lot of information about it’s new video game streaming platform at yesterday’s GDC presentation, and we’ve learned even more about the technology through interviews, like the one Kotaku had with Stadia boss Phil Harrison on Splitscreen. But there’s still a lot we don’t know.
Google has not said exactly when it comes, how the service will be priced and what games will be available on it. The company has said it plans to reveal those types of details sometime in the summer.
Until then, here’s a breakdown of what we’ve learned from yesterday’s event, Harrison’s interview and an analysis of the service’s performance by Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry, followed by a list of what we’re still waiting to find out:
What Google has said:
At launch, Google says the service will be able to run games at up to 4k at 60 fps with a 30 Mbps connection, with presumably a slower speed allowing for 1080p.
The platform will scale down the framerate and graphics for internet connections below 30 Mbps. “If you have less bandwidth we’ll give you a lower resolution,” Harrison told Kotaku.
All Stadia games will require a constant internet connection. If your internet goes down, you can’t play them.
Stadia can run on any device that has Google Chrome, including phones, tablets, PCs, and TVs.
The Stadia data center PCs where games will actually be running will use Linux.
Data center PC specs: GPU: 10.7 teraflops, 56 compute units, HbM2 Memory. CPU: Custom x86 Processors, 2.7 GHz, Hyperthreaded, AVX 2. Memory: 16GB of RAM, up to 484GB/s transfer speed, L2+L3 Cache of 9.5MB
Early on, releases from the newly-formed first-party studio Stadia Games & Entertainment will be smaller and aimed at highlighting the platforms unique capabilities.
First-party games will be Stadia exclusives.
Most second-party games will be exclusives and the ones that aren’t will have Stadia exclusive features.
Doom Eternal has been confirmed for Stadia.
The Stadia controller is required to play games on a TV with a Chromecast.
Google has sent Stadia dev kits to over 100 development partners. Harrison told us that the games available on Stadia at launch and shortly after will be revealed in the summer.
According to Harrison, the video game-inspired icons shown during the lead-up to the GDC presentation are not indicative of the types of games coming to Stadia and were just for fun.
What we still need to find out:
It’s unclear what the minimum internet connection is to use Stadia. Can it run games at 480p at 30 fps with a 10 Mbps connection?
What amount of latency is Google targeting for Stadia and what will the minimum threshold be for people to be able to play games on the platform?
We don’t know how Stadia will be priced or packaged. Will the service itself cost money in addition to individual games? Will there by subscription programs like Xbox’s Game Pass that give people access to a bunch of games instead of having to buy each one individually?
What happens when Google decides to shut down certain Stadia servers or re-allocate the data centers in the future? Google is known for starting projects and then eventually abandoning them. Harrison told us that even when some Stadia games stop getting played as much the back ups will still exist, but declined to comment on what would happen if the servers they were stored on were shutdown.
Is there any minimum technical requirement for the phone, tablet, laptop, or PC being used? Will Stadia downscale to compensate for low-end phones or Chromebooks?
We know the Stadia controller requires its own WiFi connection. Is that requirement included in, or in addition to, the 25 Mbps needed to stream games at 1080p and 60 fps.
Google said it’s committed to cross-play with Stadia, but did not specify whether it meant cross-play just between devices that can run Stadia or with other platforms like PS4, Switch, or Xbox One.
Are features hyped in the presentation like State Share and Crowd Play optional for developers, or will all Stadia games be required to have them?
How will Google moderate the platform? In his Splitscreen interview, Harrison said the focus would be on “marginalizing toxicity” rather than necessarily getting rid of it altogether, and added that game developers publishers will be able to choose the influencers they work with and how, but didn’t specify what tools they would have to try and prevent the abuse in, say, a standard YouTube video comments section, from spilling over into the very YouTube-connected Stadia experience.
This afternoon at GDC 2019, Google Stadia boss Phil Harrison announced the tech company’s plans to launch a game streaming service that will stream high-end games in a Chrome browser. But how good, exactly, does your internet have to be in order for Stadia to work? And do you need one of Google’s new Stadia controllers? Jason and I sat down with Phil for an interview on Kotaku Splitscreen where he answered some of our questions and dodged a few others.
Get the MP3 here, or read about some of the highlights below:
What internet speed do you need to run Stadia? “We were able to test a lot of this with our Project Stream test late last year, starting back in October. To get 1080p, 60 frames per second, required approximately 25 megabits per second. In fact, we use less than that, but that’s where we put our recommended limit at. But with innovations that we’ve made on the streamer side and on the compression side since then, when we launch, we will be able to get to 4K but only raise that bandwidth to about 30 megabits per second. So if you have less bandwidth, we’ll give you a lower resolution… We do a lot of that for you in the background, and we will only offer up the appropriate bandwidth for the infrastructure that you have.”
What hardware do you need to get Stadia on your TV? “Chromecast is the way that you reach TV at launch.” And, by the way, an Xbox controller won’t do the trick: “In order to reach our Chromecast, you need the Stadia controller.” You can use whatever USB controller you want on PC, though.
Is this just another ambitious Google project that will disappear in a few years, like Google Plus? “I understand the concern. But I think that all you have to do is look at the level of investment that we have made and continue to make in Stadia. This is not a trivial project by any means. This is a very, very significant cross-company effort that isn’t just my team, but it’s also across YouTube, it’s across our technical infrastructure and networking team. It represents thousands of people who are working on this business.”
What will it cost? “I’m not going to talk about it today… We will talk in great detail about that in the summer.”
Is that summer announcement going to be at E3? “In the summer.” Well, okay then!
We also asked Phil Harrison about the hands-off attitude that Google has taken with YouTube moderation and whether Stadia will be different (it will, supposedly), and also, what the name “Stadia” even means. In the second half of this week’s podcast, we interview Sarah Elmaleh, the voice actor behind the female protagonist of BioWare’s Anthem.