Imagine a world in which you don’t need expensive gaming equipment to play the next big release title. A world in which all you ever have to do to start gaming is open up your browser, select a game and start playing – no lengthy download required. This could soon become a reality if Google’s cloud gaming service, Stadia, delivers on its promises – you’ll be able to go from opening a Chrome tab to playing a 4K, 60fps game, in five seconds, no installation required.
The service, which was announced at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, got a proper unveiling ahead of E3 2019. In a 15-minute presentation starring Google Stadia boss Phil Harrison, we learned just how much the service will set us back – $9.99 / £8.99 (about AU$14) per month for unlimited games – and just how good a connection we’ll need (35Mbps for full 4K HDR/60fps).
At launch, Google has promised that Stadia will support desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones – but just the Pixel series to start – without the need for a hardware box, with games instead powered by Google’s own data centers.
So far, Google has promised that Google Stadia’s cloud computing power is the equivalent of a console running at 10.7 GPU terraflops, which is more than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined. This could be a total game-changer.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? Google’s big move into gaming – a ‘Netflix for gaming’ streaming service that’s a true console competitor, one to rival (and potentially lead) the next generation of gameplay.
- When is it launching? At some point in November 2019, with launch territories including the USA, Canada and UK.
- How much will it cost? $9.99 / £8.99 (about AU$14) per month for full 4K HDR streaming via Stadia Pro, or you can purchase games a la carte with Stadia Base.
How Google Stadia works
The best bit about Stadia is that as long as you’ve got a stable and fast internet connection, and you’re using a recent version of the Google Chrome browser, you’ve got everything you need to get up and running.
Playing a game on Stadia is as simple as opening a new tab in Chrome and going to the service’s Stadia.com homepage, or even jumping from a YouTube video link about the game.
To get started, Google will prompt you to run a connection test that checks your internet bandwidth, the latency between your computer and the servers, and any data loss. Google requires a streaming rate of 15Mbps, latency below 40ms, and data loss below 5%. With these requirements met, you’ll be ready to dive in.
The beta of Project Stream offered Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which is nothing short of a demanding title. When you launched the game in your Chrome tab, it would go fullscreen, and run exactly as if it had been launched on a dedicated gaming computer (except without a deep graphics settings menu). You can play with a keyboard and mouse or a supported game controller, and Google’s Stadia controller.
- Hands on: Google Stadia Controller review
All of your inputs on the computer are sent over to Google’s servers, processed in the game, and everything happening gets streamed right back to you. This is why that latency is so important, because you can’t have a good game experience if everything you do in the game shows up a second later.
The limits of Stadia are still being detailed, but Google has stated that Stadia will eventually be able to scale up to 8K / 120fps-plus frame rates, with 4K/ 60fps play as the norm. That’s way above the standard bar for quality PC gaming.
What you’re effectively doing here is opening a new tab that pipes all your inputs to a high-end gaming PC that streams back the visuals and audio to your computer screen. This system is simpler than some others, which set you up with a virtual desktop that then remotely runs Steam, Origin, Battle.net, or what have you.
In the case of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on Stadia, you’re still required to log into a Ubisoft account to play, but beta testers aren’t required to own the game.
Stadia will also work well with Google Chromecast, which means you’ll be able to stream its games straight to any TV using Google’s streaming dongle, not to mention phones and computers.
You’ll be able to use keyboard and mouse or a gamepad to play Stadia, and Google’s Stadia gamepad, a brand new piece of hardware, seems particularly smart. First off, the issue of latency – the gamepad itself connects directly to Google’s cloud, which take a few of the steps out the data transfer chain, reducing the lag between your inputs being registered by the game. It also has a dedicated Google Assistant button, which Google claims will be loaded up with information on the title you’re playing, offering tips when needed, or allowing you to access special in-game features from developers.
In addition, it’ll support cross-platform multiplayer – so long as the other major game players want to take part, of course.
It’s unclear at this point whether Google will require players to buy games and pay for the streaming service in separate transactions, or whether access to select games will be bundled into the service.
What games will be available on Stadia?
The final number hasn’t been released just yet, but so far, the numbers look promising. During Google’s pre-E3 event, we got our first look at Baldur’s Gate 3 from Larian Studios, plus heard from Bungie that Destiny 2 would be available at launch on Google Stadia. Add to that Ghost Recon Breakpoint from Ubisoft and a number of new Bethesda titles, and Stadia could have one of the best launch libraries of any platform in recent memory.
Here are all the games Google has confirmed so far:
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Borderlands 3
- Baldur’s Gate 3
- The Crew 2
- Darksiders Genesis
- Destiny 2
- Doom Eternal
- Dragon Ball Xenoverse
- The Elder Scrolls Online
- Farming Simulator 19
- Final Fantasy 15
- Football Manager
- Get Packed
- Just Dance
- Metro Exodus
- Mortal Kombat 11
- NBA 2K
- Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid
- Rage 2
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Samurai Showdown
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint
- Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
- Tomb Raider Definitive Edition
- Trials Rising
- Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Stadia will offer games as part of its service as well as offering users the option to straight-up buy the biggest titles. However, in response to a question from Eurogamer, querying if Stadia’s paid-for games would be any cheaper due to users already having to shell out for a high-speed internet connection and Stadia subscription, Stadia chief Phil Harrison replied: “I don’t know why it would be cheaper.”
For Harrison, it seems, the benefit of paying full price for a version of a game on Stadia, as opposed to on any other platform, is the accessibility it offers.
“The value you get from the game on Stadia means you can play it on any screen in your life – TV, PC, laptop, tablet, phone,” he said. “I think that is going to be valuable to players.
“In theory, the Stadia version of a game is going to be at the highest-possible quality of innovation and sophistication on the game engine side.”
Will my PC or laptop be able to handle it?
Because everything runs on the cloud, it seems like nearly any internet-connected laptop or PC with Chrome should be able to play Stadia. That said, Google did release a set of required specs when it tested the service last year:
- OS: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 (64-bit versions only)
- Processor: AMD FX-8350 @ 4.0 GHz, Ryzen 5 – 1400, Intel Core i7-3770 @ 3.5 GHz
- Video: AMD Radeon R9 290 or NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 (4GB VRAM or more with Shader Model 5.0) or better
- Memory: 8GB RAM
- Video Preset: High
- Storage: 46GB available hard drive space
- DirectX: DirectX June 2010 Redistributable
- Sound: DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card with latest drivers
For 4K at 30fps and high settings, the recommended specs bump up to include 16GB of RAM, a more powerful AMD Ryzen 1700X or Intel Core i7 7700 processor, and a beefier AMD Vega 64 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card. With Stadia streaming in video, this limitation could be eradicated, bringing AAA gaming to even entry-level laptops.
In addition, id Software confirmed that Doom Eternal is coming to the Stadia – with the team only taking a few weeks to transfer the title onto Google’s cloud streaming service. id Software’s Marty Stratton revealed Doom Eternal is capable of running at 4K 60fps at native HDR on Stadia.
If the service can handle Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 1080p 60fps and Doom Eternal at 4K/60fps, Stadia is going to be capable of playing a whole lot of games at these settings. Other major titles could easily see support on the service.
Games with a major online focus may have dicier prospects on Stadia. Since competitive online games are often fast-paced and require split-second reaction times, the extra latency introduced by streaming will likely be an issue for serious competitors. But Stadia looks better placed to beat this issue than other similar services, with infrastructure that no-one else has in terms of fiber optic cabling, and a Wi-Fi controller that connects directly to Google’s cloud. That could mean online multiplayer titles such as Fortnite supporting thousands of players rather than just hundreds.
Google also announced the launch of Stadia Games and Entertainment. This will be a new arm at Google, with the sole aim of designing games exclusively for Google’s game streaming platform.
As well as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft has indicated a few upcoming games will also make it on to Stadia when it’s released, including multiplayer motor-cross game Trials Rising, naval warfare game Skull and Bones, as well as strategy game Anno 1800.
Google Stadia will also allow for developers to implement split-stream local couch co-op easier, through Stream Connect. This should allow players to not only view but interact in each other’s worlds.
But, perhaps the biggest development for content creators and their viewers, is Crowd Play which will allow viewers to play games with their favorite streamers by simply clicking a button.
The big focus here is on designing a system that’s both easy to play and easy to show off to your friends. To that end, Stadia will send both a 4K signal to both your device and to YouTube simultaneously, allowing you to record what you’re doing.
The last feature Google showed off was called State Share – i.e. the ability for you to share any spot in your adventure with anyone via a Google link. One use case would be that State Share would allow you to record your spot in a tough boss fight and challenge your friends to beat it.
If you’re stuck, either in your game or your friend’s, Google Assistant integration will allow you to access guides and walkthroughs on-demand.
What was Project Stream like to use?
At its best, Project Stream was good. At its worst, well, Google won’t let you play below a certain threshold of quality, and you wouldn’t want to anyway.
We tested Project Stream on varying setups. We played on an unstable 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connection, a fast and nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi connection, and on an ethernet connection held steady and offered high bandwidth. Keep in mind this was without the dedicated hardware Google has now introduced.
We also played on a 5-year-old Chromebook, a 2-year-old Razer Blade, and a modern desktop gaming rig that would be happy to run Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 1080p/60FPS on its own hardware. We even started one computer up while another was running the stream, and Google simply transferred control over to the second computer, with no stop in the stream.
Across the board, we’d describe the experience as at least playable. The highly dated Chromebook hardware didn’t hold it back from playing. The biggest issues come from a bad connection: if the connection speed drops, so does the game quality, with lower resolutions, latency, and far more noticeable compression.
That said, in our experience, the visual degradation came before the latency, so we were able to continue battling enemies smoothly even if they started to look like ghostly swarms of pixels.
Overall, the graphics were fairly good throughout, especially when playing on a high-bandwidth connection using ethernet cables. Colors, shadows, and anti-aliasing look fine, and the frame-rate seems to vary between 30 and 60fps.
The low frame-rate was one of the two issues we noticed. The other was compression. Most of the time, it’s not super jarring, but when there’s a lot of detail in a scene and a lot of movement, the compression turns it all into a bit of slop. Character faces become a blur and hard edges (noticeably the character’s hair) go soft. Will Stadia have fixed these issues by launch?
It would seem to be a sign of the lower bitrate enabling this type of streaming, but the truth is that most of the time it’s unnoticeable, and would be even harder to spot if you weren’t looking for it (we were looking for it). Panning the camera and running through dense wooded areas in the game (and combining the two) were the only times we were turned off by the dips in visual quality.
The experience isn’t mind-blowing, at least until you remember that it’s using so little of your computers processing power that you’ve literally got a full-system virus scan going in the background and nothing changed. The visuals are comparable to what you’d get on a console, except with compression artifacts here and there. And, with a stable connection, it compares rather favorably to in-home streaming on a Steam Link.
While the price and service model Google adopts will go a long way in determining whether Stadia is worthwhile, we can say right now that its prototype works, and it looks good doing it. But, will Microsoft’s xCloud do it better?
Will you be able to play Google Stadia on your phone?
Yes! Well, yes… as long as you’re a Google Pixel owner. For whatever strange reason, Google is limiting Stadia to Google Pixel phones to start.
That’s not so bad considering there are so many other ways to access the service (see: desktop, laptop, tablet and TV through Chromecast Ultra), but the fact that all Android phones won’t get Stadia at the same time does feel a bit strange.
Why would Google strand its biggest user base? It all comes down to quality. Because the hardware can range so widely when talking about Android devices, Google probably wants to make the best splash possible by only releasing Stadia on hardware it knows can handle it – i.e. its flagship Pixel phones.
That doesn’t mean that iOS and Android users won’t eventually see the service – they will at some point, we’re sure – but not on launch day.
What happens if my connection drops out?
According to a Stadia spokesperson, the game instance will remain active for a few minutes. If your connection suddenly comes back, just restart the game you were playing and you should pop right back to where you were.
…but you have to act fast.
If you wait more than a few minutes Google will close the instance of the game you were running and you’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint the next time you play.
According to the spokesperson, Stadia will do everything in its power to prevent a game from crashing – and will even drastically lower the graphics settings to keep you connected – but it can’t entirely prevent a dropped connection.
What remains to be seen is how frequent these drops are, something we’ll know a bit more about when we try the service in our own homes later this year.
According to a recently accepted United States Patent and Trademark Office patent (spotted Digital Trends) filed by Sony back in 2014, the company is working on a “system for combining recorded application state with application streaming interactive video output”.
In other words, a cloud gaming service which could rival the Google Stadia (or a cloud streaming new Xbox) and could potentially launch with the PS5.
Players would be able to stream a game through a hosting server. So if you have a device that connects to the internet, be that a mobile device, console, or PC, you can connect to that server and the game you’re wanting to play will be streamed to your monitor or screen, allowing can play using your preferred input device. Imagine Netflix for gaming.
Rather than downloading a game, it is instead streamed directly to your device and you would play real-time, cutting the need to delete games to make storage room on your device and reducing the hardware requirements – although you wouldn’t technically own the title.
Sony also points out that this cloud gaming service would benefit game developers as the service would prevent piracy (as the games exist only on the server) and developers would be able to design games to specifically utilize the service’s capabilities.
But how would player’s pay for this service? Sony details two particular models in its patent. The first would see Sony itself collecting a subscription fee from users, then paying royalties to the developers. The second sees the developers themselves collecting a subscription fee from players, then paying Sony a fee for using the hosting service. However, neither model specified a price range.
We expect Sony would implement this cloud gaming service alongside the PlayStation 5, although the company hasn’t specified if this is the case.