Google announced their new cloud gaming platform Stadia early last year to much fanfare. Unparalleled performance (more power than Xbox One X & PS4 Pro COMBINED) was promised along with groundbreaking features that were only possible thanks to the power of the cloud.
As soon as Google announced a price for their Founders Edition and opened up preorders, I placed my order and eagerly awaited the package of cloud gaming goodness to land on my doorstep.
The Founders Edition is the Stadia version of a typical console, comprising a Chromecast Ulta, Stadia Controller and 3 months of Stadia Pro. The Chromecast Ultra and Stadia Controller are fairly self explanatory but Stadia Pro is the optional subscription service that provides access to the 4K Ultra HD stream and 5.1 surround sound (Stadia is limited to 1080p with Stereo sound without the subscription) along with the promise of a free game or two each month ala PS+ & Xbox Games with Gold. After the initial 3 months comes to an end, Google are asking £8.99 per month for this.
You see, when Stadia was first presented to the world on stage a big deal was made about how you could be watching a trailer for a newly launched game on YouTube, hit the ‘Play Now on Stadia’ button and you’d instantly be launched in to the game and playing it yourself in seconds. This lead many to believe that Stadia was going for the Netflix approach to streaming where you’d have access to all games available on the platform for a monthly fee. It’s important to note that the Stadia Pro subscription isn’t a Netflix or Game Pass all you can eat model but in fact much more limited to essentially unlocking the 4K stream, surround sound, a few discounted titles and a couple of free games.
I fully understand the Pro subscription but I understand how many associate the word ‘streaming’ with a one off payment that grants full access to the content available on the service like streaming music on Spotify, streaming movies and tv shows on Netflix. Though Google never mentioned Stadia would be the ‘Netflix of gaming’ it’s easy to see how those assumptions were made after the initial reveal…. how could you instantly jump in to a game from a YouTube video if you’d be hit by a £59.99 paywall?
Fast forward to my Founders Edition arriving, me eagerly creating my account and claiming the free games (Destiny 2: The Collection & Samurai Showdown). Chromecast Ultra was set up, Stadia Controller connected and it’s time to jump in to some cloud gaming!
I booted up Destiny 2 and first impressions are good, the streaming works, controls feel responsive, but the graphics look….. poor. How is this possible? Destiny 2 while great looking, isn’t exactly the most technically demanding game! I delve in to the Stadia quality settings (accessed via the app) and double check that I’ve got things set to ‘Best Visual Quality’ …. I have. So I have a look online and find that The Verge has a quote from Bungie (Destiny developers) that confirmed the Stadia version is only rendering at 1080p with the equivalent of medium settings.
This was a huge disappointment, how can Stadia be more powerful than the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro combined but the game looks worse than either of the console versions? What is the point in having so much theoretical power if it only results in worse visuals?! The silver lining in all this was a silky smooth 60FPS rather than the 30FPS that’s available on consoles and extremely fast loading thanks to the SSD storage.
I played a little longer and noticed that something just didn’t feel right. I was hard to put my finger on at first. Controls felt smooth and responsive after all. What else could it be? Then I realised it was the audio! There was a significant audio delay from the animation happening on screen and the sound effect being played. This can be seen in the video below.
Despite a lot of troubleshooting, I always thought this was a server side issue. Everything else cast to the Chromecast Ultra like YouTube and Netflix was in sync so any compensation I added locally to fix Stadia would break everything else. This was fixed thankfully after a few weeks thankfully and now the audio is perfectly synced with the on screen action.
So the streaming works and it not only works, it’s extremely impressive. The image quality and input latency feels like a local gaming experience and Google should be given so much praise for this! But Stadia is a gaming platform, so how about the games? Does Fortnite perform well, how about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? Neither title is available on Stadia and this may be it’s greatest downfall.
Besides, a gaming platform is only ever going to be a as good as the games available. It’s a classic chicken and egg problem, the devs won’t invest in Stadia if the players aren’t there and the players won’t come if the games aren’t available. Stadia, to its credit, is investing heavily and creating brand new game studios but this feels like something that should have happened years ago to get triple A exclusives ready for the platform launch, not after it has been released to the public! In fact in a strange turn of events, one of the studios that Stadia has acquired recently launched their game Journey to the Savage planet on Xbox and it’s currently available as part of the Xbox Game Pass subscription while being totally absent from Stadia! This should give some indication of the last minute post launch panic that resulted in studio acquisitions.
The library of games available is small at the moment but it is growing slowly. Currently the prices of the games that are available are high and this is the biggest sticking point for me. So far I’ve only bought three titles on Stadia (Borderlands 3, Grid & Trials: Rising). All three were on sale and prices that I felt fair (£33, £25 and £10 respectively), life was good. Now that I had my expectations in check from my Destiny experience, the games worked as advertised, streamed flawlessly in 4K and the load times were much quicker than the consoles thanks to the blazing fast SSD storage at the core of Stadia.
Then Grid was announced as the main free Pro game for the following month and things started to fall apart.
The Pro subscription felt like a waste of money as I already owned the only title that I was interested in that month so I cancelled. All the Pro games that I’d claimed previously disappeared from my library and I was left with only the games that I own: Borderlands 3, Grid and Trials. Only now, instead of being 4K Ultra HD with immersive 5.1 surround sound, they’d been degraded to 1080p and stereo sound. In an era of digitally owned content often being upgraded for free (iTunes 4K and Xbox’s X Enhanced etc) having the content you own be downgraded feels like a slap in the face and something that goes against the norms that have been established elsewhere.
With Stadia, you have to think that you’re only ever buying the 1080p version of a game with stereo sound and in 2020, where the world is filled with 4K HDR streams via Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ etc this feels like a hard sell. Especially when you consider the prices for the older games in the Stadia library are often significantly more expensive than elsewhere even though the other, cheaper versions have higher resolution and better sound.
When you consider that Borderlands 2 is my most played game ever, it’s not too far fetched to say I could be playing its sequel on and off for at least a year.
If I want to be playing for a year in 4K on Stadia that would cost me £141 for Borderlands 3 alone! Now consider Cyberpunk 2077 comes out later in 2020 and I’d also like to play that in 4K on Stadia – assuming a £50 launch price along with 12 months pro subscription the total cost for that game become £158!! Now I’ve spent £299 to play 2 games on Stadia for a year each in 4K with surround sound. The equivalent price on console would be around £80, that’s a £220 saving over just two games and that price discrepancy will only increase over the years as more games are purchased.
This is tricky problem for Stadia to overcome without devaluing the Pro Subscription. One scenario could see any titles that you own outright always being playable at the highest stream quality available but this would lead to the free games and discounts as being the only benefits of the paid Pro subscription. Perhaps a better solution could be a fixed percentage discount across the entire store for Pro subscribers?
If you look at it as paying a monthly subscription to access a console in the cloud with games graphically on par with multi platform PS4 Pro titles, it’s not a bad deal. But when you consider the lack of games available and the upcoming Ray Tracing & SSD equipped next gen machines, it’s hard to see why current gen console gamers will come to Stadia and that’s a shame. I truly believe that streaming is the future and Stadia is the best game streaming service that I’ve ever tried in terms of latency and overall feel. It’s just a shame that when all the amazing engineers were beavering away at this tech for years, no one thought about games until it was too late!
Imagine the original Xbox had launched without Halo, N64 without Mario 64 or the Wii without Wii Sports – each new console launched with a flagship title that showcased the new platform to the world. Stadia didn’t so we’re left with Destiny 2: The Collection in 1080p with medium settings when we were promised a cloud gaming platform with unrivalled power and that’s a huge shame.
As it stands today, Stadia is a hard sell for most people and it’s hard to recommend. Sure, there’s no downloads but you need a fast, reliable internet connection. Sure it’s technically more powerful than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined but if all that power doesn’t result in the best looking version of games available, what’s the point?
If Stadia truly launched as an early next gen platform complete with Ray Tracing and incredible visuals, then the game prices and subscription would be an absolute no brainer. As it stands today, unfortunately we’re being asked to pay high prices for old games that are often worse looking than what’s available on the Xbox One X.
Looking on the bright side, Stadia isn’t restricted to a physical box sat in your home so all this could change in 6-12 months time if Google decide to upgrade the hardware that’s sitting in the cloud to compete with the next gen consoles. There’s also the wait for the true triple A, big budget exclusive title built from the ground up for Stadia that takes advantage of everything that’s only possible thanks to the cloud platform. This could be anywhere from 12 to 36 months away though…
In summary, have I enjoyed my experience with Stadia as a founder? Yes, I’ve certainly had fun and enjoyed being part of a new gaming platform from day one. I also really like the controller, it feels solid and has excellent rumble. I don’t usually like the PS4 style analogue stick layout but the Stadia controller somehow manages to feel more like the Xbox pad which is baffling but very welcome! I will say though, Stadia as a whole has definitely not lived up to my expectations, YouTube integration should have been a no brainer but it’s still not arrived, there’s no way to message players within the Stadia app to arrange multiplayer sessions etc. Google loves creating new messaging apps, so this is a real strange omission. The current generation consoles have got everyone used to suspending games so that the can quickly be resumed the next time you play, exactly how you left them. Again, Stadia is missing this. These kind of features feel like table stakes when entering the gaming market in 2020!
Perhaps most disappointing of all though is how underwhelming the graphics are after being promised access to an unprecedentedly powerful cloud gaming platform. I would also like Google to do more to stimulate the Stadia store, everyone I’ve shown it to has agreed the tech works and come away impressed, only to then question the price of games. There’s no second hand market so the price on the digital store is your only option. A one time offer of any game for £10 for example would surely bring more players on board. Who could resist Red Dead Redemption 2 or Doom Eternal for only £10?!
Finally, do I recommend that you sign up for Stadia and take advantage of the current limited time 2 months free Stadia Pro offer? Absolutely! Just keep in mind that you’ll be able to claim 9 free games today, along side the next two months Pro games too. That’s giving you access to 10+ games to play for the next two months absolutely free! You won’t be able to play on your TV unless you invest in a Chromecast Ultra and Stadia Controller but you can use the Xbox or PS4 to play in the Chrome browser on your desktop or laptop (PC or Mac). Stadia is also playable on a small selection of Android handsets like Google’s own, excellent Pixel range and select OnePlus & Samsung devices. Stadia is due to be playable on iPhone and iPad devices at some point in the future.
Stadia provides a glimpse in to the future of cloud gaming. Not having to worry about large downloads, updates or storage space feels amazing, being able to play on laptops and phones that wouldn’t be able to play games like Red Dead Redemption 2 natively feels magical. If Google can work quickly to iron out the kinks, add the missing features and stimulate the store then who knows how big Stadia could be, the sky is the limit…. I’ll keep playing and I’ll be sure to revisit Stadia in 12 months time to see what’s changed and let you know my updated opinion in 2021.