Gaming is to follow music and movies as the next entertainment medium to embrace streaming - and market newcomer Google is looking to challenge Playstation and XBox with their new platform Stadia, which launches tomorrow. Joe Leogue got a hands-on preview of the new contender to see what to expect.
The day will come when the gaming console will go the way of CD and DVD players - a rare relic of past times due to the advances of streaming content.
Broadband speeds have reached a point where gamers can now log on, connect to a data centre somewhere in the world, and play their games while the content is processed through the cloud instead of in a box in their living room.
Two giants of home console gaming - Microsoft and Sony - have already shown their hand as to how they will develop their streaming offerings.
The XBox’s xCloud streaming service is currently being trialed, and ‘PlayStation Now’ already allows gamers stream titles online through their console instead of buying a disc or downloading a title.
Stadia, which is the internet giant’s first foray into gaming, launches tomorrow and - on paper at least - could be a game-changer.
The premise of the platform sees players connect to Stadia online either through a Chromecast plugged into their TV, or via Google’s Chrome browser for those playing on their PC. Gamers can also play on newer models of Google’s Pixel phones, though the company says this ability will extend to other phones across brands over time.
Stadia’s dedicated controller connects to the service via WiFi. There is no console, no discs, and no download or significant loading times - players just turn on their chosen medium, connect to the service, and play. Games are bought online at what Google says will be market rates comparable to other platforms.
All the work in processing the gaming takes place at Google’s various data centres - the Irish cloud is based at Dublin’s Grange Castle Business Park.
The multi-platform nature of Stadia mean players can pause their game on one medium and resume on another. A gamer kicked out of the living room, for example, can pick up where they left off at the TV by switching to their phone or laptop elsewhere.
All this, of course, requires an internet connection. Google recommends those playing Stadia have a minimum connection speed of 10 megabits per second (Mbps).
At that speed, the company says gamers can play in stereo with 720p resolution. Its top offering - 4K resolution with HDR support and 5.1 Surround Sound - requires a speed of 35Mbps. This already rules out rural parts of Ireland where the lack of decent broadband for business, let alone pleasure, remains a hot topic.
Google is currently selling Stadia Premiere Edition bundle packages through its online store for €129. For this, customers get a Stadia controller (which retails separately for €69), a Chromecast Ultra worth €79, and three months subscription to Stadia Pro.
Stadia Pro, which costs €9.99 a month, is a subscription service which allows gamers play at the highest resolution, while offering selected free games and discounts on other titles.
A Pro subscription is required to play Stadia at launch.
However Google says that the free Stadia Base model will launch next year. This model will see screen resolutions capped at 1080p and sound output limited to stereo instead of 5.1 surround sound. No free games will be available through Base and any one who downgrades their Pro subscription to Base will lose access to the free games they received through the paid service.
Base’s launch next year could prove to be the most accessible form of gaming in terms of price. A keyboard and mouse, and some existing controllers outside of Google’s offering will also work with Stadia when played through a PC. This means a gamer on the Base model at a minimum need only pay for the game they want to play without the cost of additional hardware. Players who want to play a game they bought on TV will need just the Stadia controller and a chromecast.
As the only requirement is a screen and an internet connection, gaming streaming could see an end to the need to upgrade consoles and computers to keep up with the demands of state-of-the-art games - all the heavy lifting and processing is handled at the remote data centre.
A total of 22 games will be available for Stadia on launch - including familiar titles such as western epic Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Football Manager 2020, Final Fantasy XV, and Mortal Kombat 11.
Google says the list of games available on the platform will hit 40 by the end of the month. However, despite announcing EA as a publisher on the platform, no games from its stable have been announced yet - including the hugely popular FIFA, year-on-year one of the biggest selling titles in Ireland.
Sci-fi first-person shooter Destiny 2 and fighter Samurai Shodown, are bundled free at launch to Stadia Pro members.
Gylt, a stealth adventure, is exclusive to the platform and Google says it has established its own in-house game development division to create titles that will be Stadia only.
So how does it play?
We got a preview at Google’s Dublin HQ on Monday, and the results were impressive. Games load in quick time, and in the space of 45 minutes we easily swapped between Mortal Kombat, Red Dead Redemption 2, Tomb Raider, Gylt, and music puzzle game Kine.
The controller is comfortable to hold, and rather than radically re-invent the wheel, Google has designed something that has a familiar feel and layout to anyone who has played a console. There was no noticeable latency, even in the fast and furious Mortal Kombat.
See how easy it is to play Stadia on your TV with Chromecast Ultra with a simple click of a button using the Stadia App 👀 pic.twitter.com/LB1qSWOUb4— Stadia (@GoogleStadia) November 15, 2019
“So now might be a good time to tell you about our parental control features?” Google’s person in the room said as my opponent conjured an ice axe out of thin air and buried it in my chest.
Kids will have limited access to age-restricted games, and parents can adjust the settings so that they receive an instant phone notification should anyone try to play anything with mature content.
Escaping from monsters in Gylt, we paused the game on the TV, plugged the controller into a Pixel phone, and picked up right where we left off, before doing it again to swap to a laptop. All this was done in seconds. A clip called ‘The Claw’ - sold separately - mounts phones to the controller and is adjustable to fit most models.
On a 4K TV the games look stunning. Red Dead Redemption 2 opens with a horseback ride up the breathtaking scenery of a snowy mountain. The perilous climb Lara Croft endures in Tomb Raider before escaping a collapsing cave is beautifully rendered.
With the exception of Mortal Kombat, the games we played are ones that reward invested time, rather than casual pick-up-and-play titles, but that said the brief sample of each was fun and held up against console comparisons.
While the gameplay, graphics, and the smooth-running interface and accessibility are all defitine pluses for Stadia, there are caveats.
It should go without saying, but the necessity for an internet connection obviously means there’s no playing offline during a broadband outage. Meanwhile, Google estimates that an hour of 4K gaming might use up to 20GB of data per hour - even those who select to limit their resolution can expect to use 4.5GB an hour. Those whose broadband providers impose data caps may want to check their limits.
Google has a connection speed test - projectstream.google.com/speedtest - that it urges gamers to avail of before committing to the platform so they can see if their home speeds are up to running Stadia.
"Every player will have a different gaming use case and of course different Internet Service Providers,” a Google spokesperson said.
“We will be providing a tool with Stadia for gamers to monitor and manage their bandwidth and data usage. We also have seen that ISPS have a long history of adapting to different consumer behaviors and services."
Last month the Irish Examiner contacted a number of providers to ask if gamers may hit a cap running Stadia on their platform.
An eir spokesperson said “we don't have any knowledge of or affiliation with the Google Stadia platform so can't comment”.
Sky told us “There is no limit on our broadband. No cap on usage for customers,” while Virgin, when asked if customers could hit a cap playing Stadia, said ‘no’. An email to Vodafone did not receive a reply.
There is also the question of Stadia’s longevity. The website killedbygoogle.com is a virtual graveyard of products launched and killed by Google, and reminder that for every successful Google Home, there’s a Google Glass that went by the wayside.
If Stadia doesn’t meet Google’s expectations, what’s to say the company won’t bail on the idea? Early adopters who invested in games would be left high-and-dry as they would have no access to the virtual products they bought.
To counter this concern, the company will undoubtedly point to the level of investment in the platform - including its own games division that has yet to release a title - as evidence that it is in this for the long haul.
Elsewhere, some Stadia selling points, such as the “Crowd Play” feature that allows gamers to jump into ongoing games they are watching live on YouTube, will not be available from launch.
While the controller has buttons for YouTube and Google Assistant integration, these features are not yet available, but the company insists that these are in development and will roll out in time.
A button for capturing content currently takes a screengrab picture and sends it to the player's phone - in time this will extend to recording video footage.
There have been concerns too that Google’s first-come first-served shipping policy means early adopters who pre-ordered their controllers and chromecasts wont receive their package in time for tomorrow’s launch - they should be able to play on PC until they arrive.
Google says those who signed up for the sold-out ‘Founders Edition’ upon launch last June should get their packages this week.
Overall the impression given at Google HQ is that Stadia, as released this week, is a starting point and not the end product. Ultimately the nature of the platform means that adjustments to its features can and will be made over time in the cloud.
Streaming is undoubtedly the future of gaming, and with Stadia, Google has staked a credible claim to be a major player in the multi-billion euro market.
Based on what we saw on Monday, the foundations are in place for the newcomer to challenge Sony and Microsoft. Google’s ability to roll out its features, attract the biggest titles to its platforms, and host a data-intensive gaming platform will decide if that potential is realised.