Unpacking Google Stadia's Disastrous Launch

The company overpromised, but ultimately didn't deliver.

Back at GDC of this year, Google touted Stadia as the platform to forever change the face of gaming. Turns out, the only thing it was able to shake is the perception that cloud gaming will ever be an achievable prospect in the near future–in Google’s carefully-controlled beta testing area where Digital Foundry got an early look at the tech, they concluded it would run on par with the Xbox One X in terms of latency, which is the golden standard for console gaming at this current stage. Lo and behold, the promise of a smooth experience carried out through an internet connection was only achieved on the paltriest of terms–even when equipped with a sturdy fiber affair north of Google’s recommended spec, Stadia still delivered something that feels lightyears behind even what current console technology has, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The man Google tasked with bringing Stadia to light was Phil Harrison–otherwise known as the guy who hugely overpromised on the PlayStation 3’s technical feats, as well as the much-loathed, since-abandoned Xbox One DRM measure that Sony was able to coast on and make their rival product a much more appealing proposition. Needless to say hopes were hung high on Harrison to redeem himself off a legacy where his presence was a distinct disadvantage to both Sony and Microsoft in the past–alas, his time at Google hasn’t proven fruitful either.

To start, the fundamental issue with Stadia is that it doesn’t provide all the features that Google had promised would be available at or very close to launch. For now, the feature-set is as barebones as it could be–the Chromecast Ultra serves as the closest analogue to a console experience with an HDMI port that plugs directly into your TV, and the rest of the experience is managed from a mobile app that you can only currently have on the Google Pixel. It’s not entirely clear why that choice was made — my guess is that it would probably have to do with shoddy VP9 compatibility on other Android handsets — but that already leaves a great majority with no choice but to deeply entrench themselves into the Google ecosystem, lest they want their Pixel phones to become glorified TV remotes. Furthermore, the experience of Stadia itself on the Chromecast Ultra is an even simpler one than 7th gen consoles at launch–which really speaks volumes as to how poorly thought-out Stadia’s initial rollout is.

Then comes the hardware story, which based on Google’s cloud capabilities, is the weirdest one yet–Google promised each cloud instance to be equipped with a top-of-the-line Intel processor (likely an 8-core hyperthreaded one) and an AMD GPU whose power is equivalent to a Vega 56 of the outgoing Navi architecture. It’s understandable that Google had to make due with erstwhile respectable AMD hardware, but the most puzzling piece of it is how that performance doesn’t seem to scale to achieve the image quality that they promised. Since the company’s cloud-infrastructure doesn’t run Windows, developers have had to adapt their existing catalog to DirectX’s open-source equivalent, which is Vulkan. In that transition, Google would’ve presumably had more leverage to run a select few games on more than one instance to maximize graphical throughput, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for now–Digital Foundry’s pixel-peeping test didn’t yield a native resolution on Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2, with Shadow of Tomb Raider having the strongest showing of all, even though replay value for it and other similarly-linear single-player games would rarely justify the upfront investment. If anything, the results resembled closest to that of the PS4 Pro, just without the added framerate on lower-resolution settings whose Stadia’s CPU prowess is to owe for.

To add further salt to the wound, the latency on a 60 FPS title on Stadia is higher than that of a comparable showing on rival consoles with half the framerate–this is a massive blow to a platform that tried to position itself as the alternative to high-end gaming without the added hassle of spending money on a powerful piece of equipment. But even that logic doesn’t pan out entirely–as cliche as it might sound, there’s a way to get a much better experience than Stadia, and still have access to the entire back-catalog of gaming’s history, which Stadia is very much threatening the erosion of as a myriad of industry types and journalists have expressed concern over preservation in light of Google owning pretty much everything from the delivery pipeline right down to the hardware tasked with accessing the service.

Even if all the issues above were ironed out, it’s still very hard to see who Google is selling this product to. The company promised a free-tier by next year, but for now, you need a subscription that doesn’t get you much in the way of content like UPLAY+, EA and Origin Access, or what Xbox Game Pass has between PC and consoles. For the service to be mildly successful, there has to be significant value added above the base offering, and to be perfectly honest, none of it is present, or will ever likely materialize given the ailing state of internet infrastructure across the globe — and especially in America — combined with the lack of any forethought about what players actually wanted. If it’s indeed the cheapest way you could play the newest games, the present guardrails — from the need of blazing-fast internet connection to the natural economic advantage that usually tends to come with — already guarantees Stadia’s target base is not one whose financial burden is too much to bear not to get a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One and enjoy something that is completely independent of high-bandwidth internet connectivity, and much more reliable.

As the shadow of next-gen consoles looms on the horizon, it’s further hard to see why would anyone consider Stadia a sound investment at this point and time–not just players, but also developers who have to commit to the work and effort it takes to get their titles running on Google’s specialized hardware and software configuration. There may be this hypothetical future where cellular data is of uttermost abundance and throttling is no longer an issue on standard broadband, but for now, that future is far from nigh, and it’s one that’ll see Stadia join Google’s vast graveyard of promising projects that all eventually met their ultimate fate.