I wish Google showed more faith in Stadia

Yesterday, Stadia Vice President and General Manager Phil Harrison announced that the studios Google built to make games for the cloud gaming service would close. Jade Raymond, the star producer that Google wooed to lead the effort, would depart the company at the same time. In a blog post, Harrison said that Google remained committed to its cloud gaming platform but would focus on working with “industry partners.” Essentially, rather than selling a mix of homegrown and third-party titles, Stadia would become a storefront for whatever cross-platform games are made available. But if Google’s executives aren’t comfortable growing this platform by investing their time and money into it, then why should I?

When Google originally announced Stadia, it seemed like it could offer a real alternative to the console arms race. Rather than buying a $500 console every few years, you could leverage the power of Google’s servers and your own fast broadband connection. A casual gamer like me could keep up without spending thousands on a new PC, or hundreds on a new console, every few years. And with Stadia Pro, there was the promise of a Netflix-for-gaming library of titles I could dip in and out of, plus the retail store for anything I was desperate to play at launch.

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For me, that would have been a compelling alternative to just buying a PlayStation 5, whenever that happened. The perks Stadia offered, too, with cross-device play and the ability to jump into an existing game with State Share, were wonderfully tempting. Why bother with a walkthrough when you can let a pro-YouTuber do the bit you find tricky, and pick up straight afterward? Hell, if that existed a generation ago, I might have been able to finish Far Cry 3.

Unfortunately, there is always uncertainty when investing money on a new service built by Google. It’s a notoriously impatient company with a knack of killing products long before they have a chance to take off, and even some after they have. Maybe that’s great for the bottom line, but it robs you of any faith that the service you’ve bought in to will still be in operation two or three years after it was launched.

Sony and Microsoft, meanwhile, have made more effort to ensure that their hardware is backward compatible with older titles. The PS5 can play more than 4,000 titles originally released for the PS4, while the Xbox Series X can play every Xbox One (and Xbox 360) title that doesn’t need the Kinect sensor. Steam, which has been running for nearly twenty years, essentially leaves you full access to every title you’ve bought — compatibility issues aside. When gamers can expect to get a decade’s worth of play from each title, the short-term risk of Stadia seems even greater.

And I’m still not sure that Google knows who Stadia is meant to be aimed at. Is it hardcore gamers who can expect blistering high-end performance and a vast library of AAA-titles? Is it casuals, like me, who see little value in investing in console hardware and just want to pick up and play without having to think too much about it? Is it somewhere in between those two poles? My colleague, Nick Summers, did a deep dive into Stadia a year after launch back in November 2020, saying that the service still felt “half-baked”. He concluded that there were “better ways to spend $10 per month”.

It’s worth asking, too, why Google felt the need to close its first-party division so soon after forming it. As a rule of thumb, most big games take between three and five years to develop, so what exactly was Google expecting Raymond to turn around in her short tenure?

While Stadia struggles, I notice how much effort that Microsoft is putting into its own cloud gaming service. The creators of the Xbox spent a decade, and a fortune, to turn the Xbox from a joke into a gaming behemoth, and is now the owner of some of the biggest studios in gaming. And it has its xCloud and Xbox All Access, where for $25 a month, you get a substantial library of big-budget titles, cloud gaming and a console thrown in, essentially, for free.

Obviously, Microsoft’s end goal is to reel in as many customers as it can, but it’s also a show of faith that’s sorely lacking from Stadia.

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