What is Google’s Stadia and is it the end of the console as we know it?

20 Mar 2019

The Stadia controller. Image: Google

Stadia represents the streamed future of gaming from the cloud. But will Google’s Netflix for video games mark the beginning of the end of traditional consoles and PC gaming?

Google last night (19 March) revealed Stadia, a new game streaming service for Chrome, Android and TVs that lets users instantaneously play high-definition video games.

“Stadia is a new video game platform, delivering instant access to your favourite games on any type of screen – whether it’s a TV, laptop, desktop, tablet or mobile phone,” explained Phil Harrison, vice-president and general manager at Google.

“Our goal is to make those games available in resolutions up to 4K and 60 frames per second with HDR and surround sound. We’ll be launching later this year in select countries including the US, Canada, UK and much of Europe.”

Harrison said that when players use Stadia, they will be able to access their games at all times “and on virtually any screen”. He added: “And developers will have access to nearly unlimited resources to create the games they’ve always dreamed of.”

So, what is Stadia?

The best way to think of it is a kind of Netflix for video games, with the games accessible via the cloud. The heart of the Stadia engine will sit inside Google’s various data centres, very likely including its data centres in Dublin. The idea is that players will be able to play games currently only accessible on high-end consoles such as those of the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 (PS4) at the touch of a button on any device.

The idea is not exactly new and industry giants from Microsoft to Steam have been pushing the video game genre into the cloud for years. But the notion of high-end, 4K streamed games at 60 frames per second will require serious firepower at Google’s end for a world where broadband and mobile connections are far from consistent.

What kind of firepower, exactly, will Stadia have?

Well, the engine room will be the data centres around the world. Google has partnered with AMD to build a custom graphics processing unit (GPU) for its data centres. The chip will deliver 10.7 teraflops of compute power, which compares with 4.2 teraflops on the PS4 Pro and six teraflops on the Xbox One X. Each Stadia experience will be powered by a custom 2.7GHz x86 processor with 16GB of RAM.

The idea is that gameplay on any device will be instantaneous. At the Games Developer Conference, Google demonstrated how a web user could be watching a game clip on YouTube and once they hit on the ‘play now’ button in the video they can instantly start playing.

In fact, the key to the future of Stadia will be YouTube, with more than 50bn hours of gaming content watched on the video platform in 2018.

How many games are we talking about?

No one knows for sure but at launch it will need some really big names on side.

Google sent dev kits to more than 100 different games studios to prepare the platform. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was the first game to be tested publicly for the new service and one of the first games to launch on the Stadia service will be Doom Eternal, which supports 4K and 60 frames-per-second gameplay. The new Doom will also launch on the PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PS4.

Attracting developers is a major focus of the Stadia project and yesterday Google launched Stadia Partners, a programme built to help games developers of any size to bring their in-development game to market in partnership with Google.

Google is also creating its own game studio for Stadia titles called Stadia Games and Entertainment, which will be headed by games industry veteran Jade Raymond, who has worked at Sony, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.

As well as shipping dev kits to the studios, more than 1,000 creatives and engineers are understood to be working on titles for the new gaming platform.

Will Google be revealing any hardware for gamers?

The company last night revealed one piece of hardware, the Stadia controller, which looks very much like a bog-standard Xbox controller but with a built-in Assistant button that allows you to call on services such as a walkthrough using your voice through an in-built microphone.

However, the real beauty of Stadia is that gamers can use any controller on any compatible system they want, even if they use an Xbox, Nintendo or PS4 controller.

What will this mean for the future of gaming?

It is a compelling vision and it looks like Google is really throwing down the gauntlet at established console giants such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, as well as cloud platforms such as Steam.

Stadia is understood to be optimised for gamers whose broadband is at least 25Mbps, and clearly it will aim to monetise the service through subscriptions – so, stable connectivity will be essential.

In Google’s favour is the vision of any game anywhere and the sheer strength and reach of YouTube, the second biggest search engine on planet Earth.

The key will be how Google manages the quality of the games’ performance and if it can reduce lag and latency, two issues that real gamers have no time for.

The other key will be getting publishers on side and ensuring that there are enough compelling titles to entice gamers to use the platform. With 100 studios and 1,000 creatives already working on titles, Google has done its preparation.

If the Stadia platform is as powerful as Google says it will be, and if the game titles are there and the experience holds up, then yes, platforms from the PC to the Xbox and PlayStation could have a real battle on their hands.

The days of slow updates, loading discs and hardware fails like the red light of death could indeed be a thing of the past.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years