Earlier this August, I did what no one else in my friend group had done before: I signed myself up for a Google Stadia account as well as a Stadia Pro trial. Granted, this was mainly due to the fact that I wanted to review the platform’s titles on Gaming Trend. I was fully expecting to have a glitchy, hilariously bad experience like the ones I and a lot of other people had joked about. But you know what?
I actually had fun.
It was an amazing feeling to play a game that shouldn’t run on my laptop… on my laptop, and the prospect that I didn’t have to free up or download hundreds of gigabytes to play something like Borderlands 3 or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was an enticing one indeed. From some terribly misaimed marketing to Google giving away Premiere Editions for the low price of (technically) free, it seems like Google Stadia was dead on arrival. However, while it’s not a perfect way to play AAA titles, there’s enough here that will win over casual gamers and those looking for a cost-effective solution to the next generation of gaming. Here’s a few observations I’ve had to commemorate the past year of Google’s cloud-based gaming service, which will turn one this Thursday.
A Rocky Launch, or Why First Impressions Matter
Look, we’ve all watched at least one video about the disastrous launch of the Google Stadia. It’s basically a gamer rite of passage at this point. And to be honest, it was probably one of the more disappointing launches I’ve experienced in my 27-year lifetime; so-called Founders not getting their units in, the weird registration setup when you actually got your unit, and connection latency issues. Sure, there were some bursts of brilliance when you got to play the “console”, but it was marred by the user-unfriendliness and lack of games available (with only one game, Gylt, being an exclusive at launch).
If that wasn’t enough, it seems Google was ready to dig its gaming grave deeper with its pre-release ads, which had an edgy cool look with the “it’s gonna kill consoles!” vibe. Sure, the marketing highlighted the benefits of cloud gaming (no waiting for updates!), but it had such a condescending tone I was surprised nobody slapped it in the face and sent it to the gaming graveyard then and there.
Yeah, the rest of 2019 would batter Stadia’s already terrible reputation, and I’m surprised Google didn’t pack it up that year. But thanks to a dedicated (if admittedly miniscule) fanbase that was willing to overlook the initial faults, and the fact that Google has enough money to pump in the platform, Stadia’s been chugging along, and now’s perhaps the best time to jump on the train.
Well, if you’re a specific type of gamer at least.
Who’s Stadia for, Anyways?
Back when Ron checked out Stadia in his Wave 2 update, he admitted that he wasn’t Stadia’s target audience. And that’s fair, especially since he has all current and next gen consoles at this point; what tech do you get the man that has literally everything?
Me? I’m another case entirely. While I do own a PS4 and Switch (as well as a low-end laptop that I use for writing), I haven’t been able to access my PS4 since the beginning of the year and I didn’t want to purchase a current gen console just before the PS5 and Xbox Series X were on the cusp of release. My internet download speed is around 118 mbps, which well exceeds the minimum 10 mbps Stadia requires (for 1080p, anyways). I normally use Stadia on my laptop browser which means 1080p is the setting I play on usually. You know what that means? Stadia is already on par with the base PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles, and free to start playing. Sure, to the early tech adopter, this is inconsequential, but for a budget-strained consumer that can only buy a game every few months? That means a whole lot. This also appeals to the person that doesn’t want to clear out 100+ GB for one game they’ll play for a few hours and put away afterwards.
Another target market that’s perfect for the Stadia: The casual gamer that looks at an Assassin’s Creed ad on primetime television and goes, “Huh, that’s neat. I don’t have a console, but it would be nice to try out.” As much as I love independent and niche titles, I know it’s the AAA that makes the gaming world go round, so to speak. Some people just want to buy a copy of Borderlands 3 without shelling out $300-$500 on a new console or upgrading their PC. There are a ton of people with a decent internet connection that could feasibly afford a $20 gamepad and a $40-60 game compared to someone that needs to spend $300 for an Xbox Series S.
Even if you don’t want to buy any games, you could always try out Stadia Pro.
Stadia Pro: Mixed Messaging
The inclusion of Stadia Pro was probably the biggest issue with Stadia’s launch, in that Google differentiated it and a free Stadia account poorly. I’m going to punctuate it in case you haven’t heard:
YOU. DO. NOT. NEED. STADIA. PRO. TO. PLAY. STADIA.
Sure, you’ll need it to play in 4K (and it does give you more cloud storage space for screenshots and videos) but considering the target audience might not have the best internet speeds, 1080p is just fine for most casual gamers. At this graphical level, games move quickly and with few latency issues (though they’re present, regardless of your internet speed). Can’t wait to see how the Stadia version of Cyberpunk 2077 performs (whenever it comes out)!
My humble opinion? The Stadia Pro one-month trial is fine, but try to emphasize that it’s completely optional to experience Stadia. How could one do this? Simple; make the Stadia Pro trial opt-in rather than automatic, and offer a freebie regardless of membership status. You don’t have to offer a full game, but a permanent demo would be nice, unlike Immortals Fenyx Rising or Pac-Man: Mega Tunnel Battle, which were offered for a limited time. Fixing the Stadia messaging to be a free cloud platform should be top priority.
With all that said, the main benefit with Stadia Pro isn’t the quality of life features, it’s the (technically) free games.
Stadia Pro: A PlayStation Plus Spiritual Successor
Hey, remember PlayStation Plus back when PS4 was released? From 2014 to early 2019, you could get a treasure trove of games from PS4, PS3, and PS Vita. What you got was a mishmash of different experiences, from smaller fare like Hatoful Boyfriend and The Jackbox Party Pack 2 to big first-party games like inFamous: Second Son or Heavy Rain. (Of course, one of the greatest PS4 exclusives of all time, Knack, was offered once too, baybee!) Unfortunately those days are long gone, with only the remnants of a former shell remaining; two PS4 games a month, with the PS5 getting a collection of PS4 games to play currently.
So why am I extolling the past virtues of PlayStation Plus (and ostensibly Xbox Games with Gold) in a Stadia column? Because that’s basically what Stadia’s doing (and what it needs to continue to do to succeed). The thing that sets PlayStation Plus apart from, say, Xbox Game Pass (arguably a better value), is that the games are with you for the length of your subscription, even if you cancel and subscribe later. Game Pass rotates games on a monthly basis, which means if you’re like me and have a nasty backlog, the game you want to play on Game Pass might not even be there when you get back to it. Once I subscribe to PlayStation Plus again this month for the PS5 collection, I can play my PS+ copy of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax on my PS3 again, which I claimed back in 2016.
Stadia Pro is a spiritual successor to the PlayStation Plus and Xbox Games With Gold model, which is amazing! For $10 a month, you get a handful of titles that, once you claim, can keep playing for as long as your Pro subscription lasts. Other than review copies in my library, I currently have 40 games available to play, and I’ve only had the Pro subscription for 3 months now. For this reason, I also prefer this model over GeForce Now, mainly because I don’t have to live in fear if a game I own will no longer be supported on the cloud service. I actually did opt for Founders status with my GeForce Now account, but after buying and playing Tekken 7 and SoulCalibur VI for months only for both titles to simultaneously be removed suddenly due to a publisher decision (alongside a few Sega titles which I had bought in order to play on the service), I decided enough was enough.
Like PS+, the titles also vary, and I can play games like Hello Neighbor: Hide & Seek and Stadia exclusive Gunsport alongside Superhot: Mind Control Delete, Marvel’s Avengers, and Dead by Daylight. In November alone, six games have been newly available to claim for Stadia Pro subscribers (alongside the older offerings which may be rotated out in the future), so if you think about it, less than $2 per game is a great proposition indeed. As long as Google can keep a steady handful of classic older greats (some Stadia ports end up as Pro titles initially, which I appreciate) and smaller experimental games, you can get a great ecosystem rolling.
Speaking of which, independent games have the most to gain on Stadia.
An Indie Wonderland…
While it wasn’t my cup of tea in terms of gameplay, I was impressed by Wave Break’s skate-boating system, which was inspired by Tony Hawk Pro Skater. While the game will head to PC soon, the fact that it was first on Stadia was a nice little treat. I’ve also been playing a bit of Gunsport, which is reminiscent of Lethal League Blaze (a fun little sportsball-esque game that has quite a small competitive scene).
Sure, I could have played these titles anywhere else, but considering the Stadia store has fewer than 150 titles offered right now, it feels like these independent games have more meaning. The Switch had this phase back in 2017, but unfortunately feels clogged with shovelware popping up in droves; for every “Golf Story”, there are two “Vroom in the Night Sky”s, after all.
While we’re on the topic of the Stadia store, I think this is something that needs to be overhauled in the near future. Sure, it’s optimized for those that want to jump into their current libraries, but the PC storefront doesn’t even have a search bar right now. Not a problem for a game selection that’s barely above triple digits, but I’d better see an improved UI and a way to keep track of game prices next year.
I think independent developers should strike whilst the iron is hot. They don’t have to be exclusive games, but even having a Stadia version at launch (like the cute game PHOGS! next month) is a great way to find a new audience to find a game. Heck, even some insanely crazy concepts like Super Bomberman R Online and Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle work excellently on Stadia, since it stands out among the rest of the current slate of games.
I just wish more of my friends had a Stadia account.
…A Friendly Wasteland
And here’s the main problem I have with Stadia right now, perhaps the reason I wanted to write this. You know all those indie and battle royale games I mentioned above? They all have a multiplayer component. Starting a match with 64 players on Super Bomberman R Online months after its launch would be a piece of cake on another platform, but on Stadia? It’s an uphill battle. Let’s not even talk about the aforementioned indie games, of which I couldn’t get matchmaking to work for those, and I waited upwards of 20 minutes in some cases.
And it’s a shame too, considering the online components work at least functionally well for these games. (I mean, technically every Stadia game is an online game.) Google is also trying to implement streaming features with Stadia, which is an excellent complement to the always online nature of the cloud gaming platform; Crowd Play allows Youtubers to play with those watching their streams, which is something I want to go mainstream should this take off. I mean, think about it: You could get mercilessly killed in a Super Bomberman R Online match by none other than Gawr Gura! Wouldn’t that be something?
This is where I think Google needs to try and entice more users in order to succeed: make a free option that has some pack-in titles (and emphasize that you don’t have to pay to use the service), make the storefront easier to navigate, and cater to the casual gamer that might not have the time or money to upgrade to the next generation of consoles just yet. You do that, and Stadia can live quietly alongside this technologically advanced generation of consoles.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get back to dominating Super Bomberman R Online with Pyramid Head and trying out Risk of Rain 2.