The Future is Buffering

After spending the better part of 2019 bad mouthing Stadia, Google’s foray into the world of cloud gaming, I’ve ended up experimenting with it on and off throughout this year. When states started implementing lockdown orders to fight the spread of COVID-19, Google took it upon themselves to open up Stadia for folks who hadn’t bought one of their Stadia Chromecast bundles, along with a free trial to their “Pro” subscription that lasted several months. 

My initial hands-on time with the platform wasn’t exactly positive: yes, it worked in a way that OnLive never managed to achieve (I was an early adapter for that failed streaming service back in college), and the latency was barely noticeable, but the image compression from its streamed games made me feel like I was controlling a YouTube video. Stadia’s version of Panzer Dragoon Remake was technically nicer-looking than the Switch, the only other platform it was on at the time, but what was the point of a nicer coat of polish if the stream quality made the vast deserts blotchy and pixelated?

My Stadia Pro membership ended after my free trial expired, and I all but forgot it existed until earlier this month, when they finally released an exclusive that I was eager to get my hands on: Super Bomberman R Online, which takes the fun, frantic 4-player matches that Bomberman perfected, and crams in 60 more players in a chaotic Battle Royale approach. While I threw down the $10 fee for Pro without hesitation, part of me was worried that there would be no one around to play it. 

After all, how many times have you heard Stadia mentioned months after its launch, aside from the occasional exclusive announcement? The same gaming circles that saw the new service as a curiosity, a contrivance, or an active threat to game ownership all but forgot that it even existed. I braced myself for the possibility that I would be walking into a ghost town.

Luckily for me, it turns out that Stadia does have something of an audience: playing on a Wednesday afternoon, I was able to play a number of Bomberman matches, with a full roster of 64 filling up within a minute or two. I sang some of its praises on Twitter earlier (minute-long Bomberman rounds, gradually cramming too many players in cramped arenas, make things delightfully wild), and if I hadn’t ended my thread with “It’s only on Stadia right now,” I feel like I would’ve sold several of my friends on the concept! But when I tried some of the older multiplayer games in the Pro roster, things were dicier. 

Destiny 2 had the typical number of players running around the overworld, taking part in public events, but I never could join a Strike without getting placed in a run that was already halfway through. Though Gunsport appears to have a community, I never managed to find a match on my own, sitting on the matchmaking screen for upwards of ten minutes before calling it quits and playing against the AI in Arcade. And judging from chatter on the official Stadia subreddit (I wasn’t willing to spend $60 to test this particular game first-hand), it’s been a challenge for Avengers players to assemble a full roster in co-operative missions.

During the week of September 20th, I watched as that subreddit flared up in frustration. It was a whirlwind chain of events: on Monday, Microsoft announced that they were in the process of acquiring Bethesda. One of Stadia’s largest publishing partners would soon be under the wing of a company with their own, competitive streaming platform, XCloud. 

The mood continued to sour days later as Amazon unveiled Luna, their own cloud gaming setup, complete with a dedicated channel for Ubisoft titles. Between Stadia’s rocky launch in November 2019 and now, competitors like GeForce Now, XCloud and PlayStation Now have been making massive strides. For players spending most of their time on Stadia, there’s this growing frustration that Google isn’t doing enough to keep up.

Having spent the better part of September jumping between games on Stadia Pro, I understand the community’s frustration. The technology has come a long way since my trial in April: games like Metro: Last Night and Hitman no longer felt like I was playing someone else’s pre-recorded video, and there were moments where I forgot that I was even playing in a browser. But it’s difficult to look at the lineup of available titles and not feel underwhelmed. On the same week that Microsoft and Amazon were thumping their cloud gaming chests, Google’s lineup of new releases consisted of one brand-new game (Serious Sam 4) and the Hotline Miami series, which premiered on other platforms five years ago. 

The bigger-deal games they’ve acquired, like The Avengers, will always have a smaller group of players to match with online, unless they implement some form of cross-play. And while the games themselves load faster than what I’ve seen on any other platform, other cloud features that Google touted before launch, like joining someone’s game via YouTube or voting on what happens in someone’s stream, are missing in action from most of the games that I’ve sampled.

Even if Stadia were perfect, it’s also worth remembering just how much you’re giving up when you buy games on a cloud streaming service. If Gunsport were on, say, Steam, and it still had a player base that only showed up at certain times, I could easily use Parsec or another platform to invite Six to play with me online using my copy. With Stadia, I’m entirely reliant on Six to have ver own Stadia account and copy of the game, which is a lot to ask from someone who hasn’t even tried it before.

Lack of control is what defines these cloud services. You rely on their servers to be up and operational for even single-player games, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access them in the future. Now, I’ve spent enough time with Stadia that I don’t think it’ll up and vanish any time soon, but my small OnLive library from college went up in smoke as soon as they went out of business. There’s always the possibility that the same will happen to Stadia. And that’s not even getting into how many publishers would love nothing more than to destroy game ownership and modification entirely, replacing it with perpetual licenses. Think Adobe Creative Cloud, or as Amazon Luna implies with their “channel” subscriptions, cable itself.

Thankfully, it seems highly unlikely that cloud platforms will be replacing anything soon. Console and PC games are going nowhere for the foreseeable future, and with the way things are shaking out, much like VR, cloud platforms have settled for a niche alternative. Despite my doom and gloom earlier, there’s something special about loading Destiny 2 on a laptop that’d struggle with it otherwise! But if Stadia wants to capitalize on that magic, they need to make some moves before their audience loses their patience entirely.