Stadia AMA and the Future

Recently, Google Stadia had an Ask Me Anything hosted on Reddit that has answered several questions we’ve had since Google announced their new video game streaming service back in March at GDC 2019. With the reveal that 1080p60 gaming would be free with Stadia Base, it certainly piqued interest in the platform. Let’s review the highlights from the AMA.

Question/Answer topics from the AMA have been highlighted in bold.

Games and Content

One of the main takeaways is that Stadia Pro is “not Netflix for Games.” There will be a series of titles that are given away to Pro subscribers, similar to how the Epic game store has a schedule of games they give away for free. However, these titles can only be earned if you have an active subscription at the time of their availability (most likely a window of opportunity like Epic uses). According to Andrey, the representative answering the AMA, Stadia plans on releasing “roughly one free game every month, give or take.” To me, this sounds like a 6-week schedule. Now, the downside? If you cancel your Pro subscription, you lose access to these free games that you’ve received until you renew your Pro subscription. You also do not retroactively receive games that were given out for free during periods you were not subscribed to Pro. This obviously can be a sore spot for people thinking they’d pre-order Stadia for the free Destiny 2 game and then just drop their subscription thereafter and play for free on the basic service (as Destiny 2 is the first free game offered to Pro subscribers). However, if you simply purchase a standard game, whether in Pro or Base, you’ll still be able to play it with the free Base service if you choose to not be subscribed to Pro.

The Pro ($9.99/mo subscription) gives you 4K/HDR, 5.1 Audio, and access to exclusive Pro game discounts. With the addition of occasional games that you get to keep, in addition to blocking access to those same free games unless you’re a Pro subscriber, it seems like Google is trying to retain subscriptions, rather than have people subscribe for games they want, but then drop the subscription and play indefinitely at the free Base tier. It makes smart business sense, but can leave the more frugal among us dissatisfied.

Family Sharing is also on the roadmap for “early next year,” meaning within months of the November launch. Being able to share games with other members of your household is certainly a benefit, as you wouldn’t need to provide access to your Stadia account to share titles, and more importantly, leaving your critical saved games vulnerable to the whims of your family members.

Free-to-Play games are potentially in the future as well. Whether these are locked behind the Pro subscription or not is yet to be seen. If a small cut of micro-transactions is shared with Stadia, I would imagine they’d want them accessible on their widest-available userbase: Stadia Base. We were told there are “no free games on Stadia Base,” so it could just be a pipe-dream. We may only have to wait a few months to see for sure, as they’re “not ready to share any [game announcements] now, though.”

There was a question regarding whether they’re planning a Steam partnership (after all, they did partner with Ubisoft for Uplay+ support). The answer was rather revealing, but dodging as well, stating cryptically: “Great question! My PR guy will kill me…we’re always evaluating our options to make Stadia a better place for the gamers :)” This reads to me that they will have some support for Steam in the future. We don’t have specifics on the platform these games will run in, but I’m assuming is a Linux operating system flavor, perhaps inside of containers of some sort, simply due to licensing costs and scalability (not to mention low-level access to the core operating system to enable the UI things they’ll need to do). This theory would suggest only games that would be available on Steam for Linux would come to Stadia. Eventually.

Stadia will, of couse, support Indie developers. Anyone who wants to develop on the Stadia platform can register for a developer account. I have a feeling that some of these Indie games will end up being in the “free game” Pro giveaways. This would be a huge boon to an Indie developer to gain exposure, but it would likely come at a huge earnings-per-license drop. But with the sheer volume of licenses handed out to all Pro subscribers, it might be a net gain for the developer. We can already see this playing out in the Epic store.

We’re told that game prices are expected to be competitive with other platforms. Whether this is the Base cost, on Pro discount, or only competitive with other game streaming services is yet to be determined, however. We’ll certainly know in November, but I’d expect the MSRP of the game with likely little change for Base, and something akin to ~10-20% occasional sales for Pro subscribers for select (aging) titles. But that’s just me being pessimistic until we see otherwise.

It was asked if there would be mod support in Stadia. It is something they’d like to do, but it is something they have to work out with developers to find the best way to do it. With how Stadia fundamentally works, this may only be possible if mods are “installed” or “enabled” in-game through a game menu, rather than our usual current method of dropping downloads into a mod folder or using a 3rd-party management app like the Twitch App. Either way, you won’t be seeing this in November.

Hardware and Functionality

Something I didn’t notice before, but was asked, is that the controller itself comes with audio support. There’s a standard headset jack that you can plug in to rather than having to blast out your household while dropping bodies in Borderlands 3. Whether there’s separate audio channels for each controller if you’re doing co-op local play is uncertain. Another telling thing is they the controller “won’t have Bluetooth audio at launch in November” suggesting it may be on the roadmap in a more-premium controller later on. Since they’re already piping your audio channel to the controller for the audio jack, a Bluetooth to the controller makes sense, as opposed to dealing with a UI to manage audio channels from the streaming device itself, not to mention potential multiple Bluetooth connections. The Stadia controller will also need to be on the same WiFi as the streaming device. Since the Stadia controller also supports a direct USB connection, you could always just connect it to the streaming device if you don’t want to play wirelessly.

Stadia itself basically supports HID controllers, which would include DualShock4, XBox, Nintendo Switch Pro controller, etc. However, if you want to play on a TV, you’ll need the Chromecast Ultra and the Stadia controller.

The end goal is to get Stadia on all Android and iOS devices, but there’s some tough technical challenges to fight as well. I’m assuming they’re referring to VP9 and AV1 hardware decoding support and Bluetooth version support. Since Google makes the Pixel, they can test against it specifically (and it might help boost their sales too, right Google?). But they’re still aiming for more mobile devices to be supported next year. This will also potentially include additional Chromecast devices as well. When asked about Nvidia Shield, they said: “Once we harden the tech and it’s ready to scale we’ll expand to more devices starting with the most popular ones.” This suggests they’re not ready to be overwhelmed with a large number of Day1 players, as there will obviously be teething issues as was seen in the Project Stream beta testing. But we can rest assured as the service matures they’ll support more devices to give us access.

Both cross-play and cross-progression are big priorities.” It’s obviously up to each developer, but it seems Google is trying their best to encourage developers to allow it in their games.

Regarding an official Stadia chat platform, you’ll be able to manage a friends list, create parties, and use a platform-level voice chat. So, fortunately, you won’t have to bring in a second device like a phone to voice chat with your friends. Since the chat is platform-level, it suggests you will remain in chat with your party, even when switching games.

Non-standard resolutions will eventually get supported. However, they’re obviously targeting the usual 16:9 1080p and 4K options at launch. “You can expect more options [to be] added” later.

Doom and Gloom

Naturally, there’s a few concerns revolving around Stadia being a cloud service, most notably “What happens if Stadia is discontinued?” Google is not unfamiliar with dead or discontinued projects. If you’re investing in what’s likely to be full AAA-cost games, knowing you won’t have a “hard copy” that you can run forever on your computer (you still have your copy of Quake2, right?), you’ll want some assurances that you can at least play your game for the next few years at least. Obviously the response was “we’re committed to making Stadia a success.” They’ll also have a feature called “Takeout” which allows you to export your game metadata, which includes achievements (yes, there’s achievements, likely similar to Steam’s achievements system) and game saves.

As a bit of a retro-gamer, having a potential end-of-life on your favorite titles from yester-year doesn’t really sit well with me. However, outside of my handful of core favorites, it’s been several years since I last fired up Quake2 to play a few rounds on a LAN and just as long since I played Diablo 2. Fortunately, these games have been so eclipsed by modern hardware that they’re practically sold for heavy discounts or even given away for free and take a fraction of the space of modern games. Give me a five-year guarantee Google and I think that would be reasonable. We currently don’t share a similar concern regarding games that are locked to services like Steam. Remember when GameSpy died and some games no longer launched? If Stadia takes a similar fate, it will likely be a dead platform by then anyway, just like Google+ was when it was shut down.

The biggest issue I see is combating data caps. It’s become very much the norm in the United States to impose data caps, particularly on cellular services. There’s a few “unlimited” phone plans available, but the fine print usually reads of heavy throttling after 50GB or so of data (or even less). At 1080p streaming, Google estimates about 20Mbps of data use. This means that after playing on Stadia for merely 5.5hrs, you could be relegated to barely 3G speeds. It’s not much better in the world of home internet services from the likes of Time-Warner, Comcast, and Cox. Their data caps are usually 1TB/mo and have steep penalties for overages ($10 per 50GB usually) or charge an additional $50/mo to remove your data cap. This means you’re limited to 111 hours a month of Stadia, and that’s assuming you use the internet for nothing else. Not many people will play 4hrs a day, every day, for the whole month individually, but I can easily imagine a whole household that will hit that within a couple of weeks. With 4K streaming being nearly double the bandwidth requirement, things look dire indeed.

Google’s response to this data cap problem is this: “I can’t predict the future, but I’ve seen that ISPs adapted in the past – I saw it when I was at YouTube – and we’d expect that to continue. For players concerned about data usage we’ll definitely have some tools in the Stadia app to manage your data usage to adapt to your unique data situation, but I’m not sure if that will be on day one or a bit later.”

You’ll have to artificially handicap your performance (use their tools to “manage your data usage”) if you’re on a data cap-hobbled internet service. You could always attempt to find an alternative service provider, which is nearly a laughable option in many cities in the United States. Outside the United States, especially countries with denser populations which make better networks more cost-effective, all of this isn’t as big of a concern. However, Stadia is going to be limited to the USA, Canada, 12 European countries at launch, and ISPs that currently have data caps won’t be very willing to “adapt” quickly. Honestly, the best adaptation I’ve seen from ISPs in the States has been when Google themselves plowed into a market and deployed metro fiber services. With the incumbent ISPs putting up a lot of resistance to such moves, it has actually demonstrated their unwillingness to change, contrary to Google’s assurances. This will certainly be an interesting spectacle to see, as home users that are used to console or computer gaming suddenly start bursting data caps across the Stadia launch regions. Will ISPs adapt fast enough under pressure of public outcry?

Final Thoughts

Stadia is certainly a technological marvel, giving 4K gaming at 60fps, which has traditionally required a top-end computer to be able to achieve. What could have been a $1500 high-end build or even more, not to mention 250W+ to drive the system, has been replaced with a $9.99/mo subscription. It would take 12.5yrs of subscribing to equal the cost of that one PC purchase, but you get the benefit of continually-refreshed hardware, always giving you that promised 4K@60fps even when the games become more complex like when Crysis showed us just how underpowered many systems were. At 1080p, where you can run Stadia Base for free, it’s even more compelling. The real trouble begins when you throw consoles into the mix. The Stadia controller plus a Chromecast Ultra is already a third of a console cost, sometimes even one-half if you’re comparing against the cheaper consoles. But consoles have monthly subscriptions for access to XBox Live or PSN already, but those do come with some game options as well. There’s also other subscription streaming services such as xCloud and PSNow looking to compete on content or price. There’s obviously a potential market for a cloud gamer, as several corporations are seeking to fill this growing demographic. However, it’s certainly not full of mobile gamers looking to stream while on mobile data, as we saw before. If you’re the type that only has a Steam or Uplay icon on your computer desktop, or perhaps only has a handful of console games that you play, that you might just belong to that market, and Stadia might just be for you. The rest of us? We’ll likely just wait and see.

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Enterprise Hardware Editor