Stadia, one year on: Better but still incomplete

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The pitch is the same

The basic advantages and disadvantages of game streaming haven’t changed. The service is entirely digital, so there aren’t any physical discs or cartridges to worry about. That’s great if you don’t have much space in your home or want to adopt a more minimalist vibe. The downside, of course, is that you never actually own anything. If Stadia closes tomorrow, it’s possible that your game purchases will disappear with it. There’s a similar risk for anyone that owns a digital-only system, including the Xbox Series S and PS5 Digital Edition. At any moment, a game could be delisted or have its multiplayer servers shuttered. Generally, though, a digital title is always playable provided you have it stored on a hard drive somewhere.

Streaming has some key benefits over those two consoles, though. There’s nothing to download or update, for instance, beyond the Stadia app that lives on your smartphone or tablet. You don’t need to worry about whether your PC is powerful enough to run Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, or stay on top of driver updates. In theory, Stadia is always ready to go.

‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ running on Stadia.

Engadget

Storage isn’t a problem, either. The PS5 and Xbox Series X have wonderfully fast SSDs that, if you own a large number of games, fill up quickly. That means you have to figure out some kind of file management strategy. Delete games as you finish them? Buy a second SSD that’s been approved by Microsoft or Sony? Or use an external drive as ‘cold storage’ and shuffle games to the internal SSD as you need them? If you’re a Stadia user, none of these issues apply.

The PS5 and Xbox Series X are large, too. You can opt for a smaller console, of course, like the Nintendo Switch or Xbox Series S. But the best next-gen consoles require a ton of space. By comparison, Stadia is discrete. Playing on a TV only requires a Chromecast Ultra. IIf you’re on a phone, many games can be played with touch controls. The web portal, meanwhile, merely demands a controller.

Streaming isn’t a perfect solution, though. You always need an internet connection to play, for instance. Stuck on a train with no WiFi or cellular service? Or want to spend a weekend in a truly-remote cabin? Then you’ll want a piece of gaming hardware that works offline. Similarly, the Stadia experience deteriorates if your home broadband is slow or unstable. On its website, Google recommends at least 10 Mbps. If you want to play in 4K resolution, that suggestion rises to “35 Mbps or greater.” Google estimates that a 4K stream consumes 20GB every hour, so if you want to beat a JRPG like Final Fantasy XV, you better have a large or unlimited data cap.

And then there’s latency. Google launched Stadia with an original controller that connects over Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth. That means your button inputs don’t have to be routed through another piece of hardware — your phone, PC or Chromecast — before being sent to Google’s servers. Still, the delay will be greater than if you played the same title on a traditional console.. And your experience will be even worse if you play Stadia with another controller, such as Sony’s DualShock 4, because it has to communicate through the device that’s playing the video stream.

The hardware

At GDC 2019, Google revealed that Stadia would be running on a custom x86 processor, a GPU with 10.7 teraflops of power, and 16GB of RAM. These specs were excellent at the time. Google was quick to emphasize that 10.7 teraflops is higher than the processing power of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X combined. 

Sony and Microsoft have just released new consoles, however, with more powerful components. Stadia still has a theoretical edge on the PlayStation 5, which has a 10.3-teraflop GPU, but not the Xbox Series X, which promises 12 teraflops of processing.

Stadia
A Stadia data center.

Google

The vast majority of people, of course, don’t have a next-gen console just yet, or any kind of PC hardware that can match Stadia’s server blades. But the gap is clearly closing. Stadia’s big advantage, of course, is that you don’t have to buy expensive hardware. But if Google doesn’t change its server blades, it will slowly become cheaper to buy a console or PC with equivalent performance. Google could counterpunch at any moment by upgrading the hardware that powers its service. But we have no idea if, when or how this is going to happen.

For now, the hardware is fine. Stadia is able to run a bunch of ’triple-A’ blockbusters including Marvel’s Avengers and Watch Dogs: Legion. But without some kind of roadmap, it’s impossible to know how Stadia’s performance will compare with other platforms in six, 12 or 18 months.

At least the controller situation isn’t so murky. The official Stadia gamepad isn’t my favorite — that title goes to 8Bitdo’s SN30 Pro+ — but it’s a shockingly good first attempt. The D-pad is clicky and the thumbsticks have a textured rim that makes them easier to grip, just like the Xbox One and Xbox Series controllers. It charges over USB-C, too, and has five well-placed buttons in the middle for system-level tasks, such as capturing screenshots and waking the Google Assistant.

The pad is marginally more useful than it was at launch, too. It now works wirelessly with the Chrome browser and Android phones. The aforementioned Assistant works just like it would on your phone or speaker. Google once promised that the Assistant would be able to help you out in-game, but that hasn’t happened yet. The controller does, at least, support UBC-headphones now. The pad already has a 3.5mm jack, but it’s nice to know that you can also use accessories like the OnePlus Type-C Bullet, or Razer’s Hammerhead USB-C ANC headphones.

I wish the compatibility stretched even farther.

The other piece of the hardware puzzle is device support. At launch, Stadia only worked on the Chromecast Ultra, the Chrome browser and Pixel phones. And if you were playing on the latter two, your experience was capped at 1080p resolution, regardless of whether you were paying for Stadia Pro. Google has since brought 4K streaming to the web and rolled out a 1440p option for people with monitors that sit between 1080p and UHD. Android is still capped at 1080p, which sucks if you own Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S7 or anything else with a pixel-dense display.

Watch Dogs: Legion on Stadia
‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ running on Stadia.

Engadget

At the time of writing, Stadia works on roughly 50 phones made by established manufacturers such as Samsung, OnePlus, Razer and LG. You can use other Android devices, but the support is classified as an “experiment” right now in the app. Google has a Stadia application for iPhones and iPads, but it doesn’t let you play any games. (Apple’s rules don’t allow game streaming apps unless every title is listed individually in the App Store.) The company is working on a progressive web app, though, that should solve the issue.

It’s a good start for Stadia, though I wish the compatibility stretched even farther. There’s no official support for Android TV boxes, for instance. Google’s new Chromecast — the one that ships with the Google TV interface — won’t support Stadia until next year, either. Ideally, the service would also work on TVs that have Google’s Cast functionality built right in. 

The interface

The basic Stadia interface hasn’t changed in the last 12 months. And when I say basic, I mean basic. The homepage uses a simple grid to show all of the games that you currently own. And that’s about it. On the web, there’s a navigation bar that links to the store, your friends list, information about the controller and your personal Stadia settings. On mobile, the Store is located from a tab at the bottom of the screen instead. Barren or refreshingly simple? Unfortunately, it feels more like the former than the latter to me.

The store doesn’t have a search bar, for instance. That’s utterly unacceptable, especially for a company that built its entire business on search. There are some helpful categories, such as ‘new releases’ and ‘trending,’ but they rarely have what I’m looking for. If I select ‘all games’ instead, I have to scroll past multiple versions of the same title (at the time of writing, Destiny 2 has eight) to find what I really want. You also can’t buy any games through a Chromecast Ultra. There’s merely a card at the end of the library grid that advises you to “browse and buy games with the Stadia mobile app.” That’s not a great experience if you’re sitting in the room with a friend or loved one, deliberating on what to purchase next.

Google Stadia

Engadget

Achievements aren’t much better. On a TV, for instance, you can only review achievements or the game that you currently have open. At the bottom, Google explains that you can “see all your achievements at Stadia.com.” The company has been working on profile pages, which offer a better look at what your friends have bought and accomplished. But they still feel half-baked and woefully inadequate compared to Microsoft and Sony’s offerings.

It’s maddening that you can’t organize or filter your game library, either. Thank goodness for the Stadia community, which has stepped in with extensions such as Stadia+ and Stadia Enhanced. These add many fan-requested features on Chrome, including a search bar and adjustable grid size on the homepage.

Performance

These add-ons also let you monitor Stadia’s performance. With a few quick clicks, you can play any game with an overlay that shows the stream resolution, framerate and latency, as well as the video codec being used. Some will let you force a particular resolution and framerate, too. 

These options are wonderful because otherwise you have little idea how Stadia is performing on your current Wi-Fi, 4G or 5G connection. Some people can look at a game and instantly identify the resolution and framerate. (If you’re one of those people, I salute you.) You can set the maximum resolution in the menus, and, if you have Stadia Pro, toggle HDR and 5.1 Surround Sound. But there’s no way for the average user to know, mid-game and at a glance, whether they’re getting a true 4K and 60 FPS stream. You simply have a color-coded symbol that conveys the strength of your interconnection.

The fan extensions are wonderful, but you can’t use them on your smartphone or Chromecast Ultra. I would love some kind of ‘quick check’ option, or a post-stream report card that explains how your connection and experience changed over time.

Not all games run the same.

Even with Stadia Enhanced enabled, you don’t get the full story. That’s because not all games run the same. Phil Harrison, Vice President and GM for Stadia, tweeted in October 2019 that “all games at launch support 4K.” That wasn’t entirely true, though. Doom Eternal, for instance, runs natively at 1800p and is then upscaled for 4K displays. Analysis by Digital Foundry revealed that Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually running at 1440p. The service was designed “to enable” 4K resolution and 60 frames per second (fps) gameplay, according to Harrison. If a game runs at 30 fps, though, Stadia will make it 60fps “via 2 encode,” he explained. Stadia Enhanced might say the stream is 60fps, but that’s not necessarily how the game is running on Google’s server.

I wouldn’t call myself a pixel peeper, but I can’t help but wonder: what kind of performance am I really getting here? Some games feel great. I was impressed with FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and the indie darling Celeste, both of which require quick reflexes. Others weren’t so enjoyable. Watch Dogs: Legion, for instance, didn’t feel quite as smooth. It was perfectly playable — I wasn’t driving into walls or missing headshots — but something looked and felt off. I’m not the only one who has a problem with the game. Many people have criticized Ubisoft’s Stadia ports because they run natively at 30fps, rather than 60fps.

The games

Stadia’s game selection is slowly getting better, at least. The store now offers more than 100 titles which include NBA 2K21, Doom Eternal and Borderlands 3. It also contains a bunch of critically-acclaimed Indies such as Hotline Miami and Thumper. According to a Stadia spokesperson, the platform should top more than 135 games by the end of the year. At some point, Ubisoft’s own subscription service, Ubisoft+, will be available via Stadia too.

For a streaming service, that’s pretty good. xCloud, which comes bundled with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, formally launched last September with more than 150 games. Amazon is currently testing Luna with 50 games. Facebook Gaming, meanwhile, only has a handful of free-to-play titles. The anomaly is NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, which supports roughly 750 games. But unlike Stadia, it doesn’t have a store or library of its own. Instead, users leverage GeForce Now to access the games they’ve already bought on platforms such as Steam.

Stadia’s store is laughable, though, in comparison to Steam and the console marketplaces run by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Google has done its best to secure the biggest and most important titles, such as Cyberpunk 2077. But it doesn’t have the breadth or volume offered by rivals at the moment. Google has tried to make up for this with a number of timed and outright exclusives, branded First On and Only On respectively. Some of these are decent — I enjoyed playing Super Bomberman R Online for a few days — but none of them have the same pull as Animal Crossing: New Horizons or Ghost of Tsushima.

Stadia

Engadget

Stadia’s vision goes beyond traditional games, though. Crayta launched with a beta version of State Share, a feature that lets you save and share a playable moment — a specific place in a level, or a moment with a campaign — as a simple weblink. Dead by Daylight and Baldur’s Gate 3 support Crowd Choice, a streamer-centric tool that allows YouTube viewers to vote on what happens next. While intriguing, they’re little more than technical novelties at the moment.

Google has two first-party studios based in Montreal and Los Angeles. The company has also bought the developer behind Journey to the Savage Planet, a surprisingly funny space adventure. None of Google’s teams have delivered a game yet, though. It’s simply too early. Google will need to be patient and grow Stadia’s install base with third-party releases instead.

The value

At first, Stadia can seem like a steal. You don’t have to buy a console or PC, which means that you instantly have more money to spend on games.  But the reality is a little more complicated than that. If you just want to play on your phone or through Google’s Chrome browser, you can get started with a DualShock 4 or Xbox One-generation pad. If you want to play on your TV, though, you’ll need the official Stadia controller — which costs $69 — and a Chromecast Ultra dongle. People that own neither can get a Stadia Premiere Edition bundle for $99.99.

That’s cheaper than every modern console, including the Switch Lite. But it’s hardly an impulse purchase, either. Then there’s the price of games, which rarely feel competitive with Steam or the Epic. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened stadia.google.com, scrolled for a bit and thought ‘nope, nothing here for me.’ Google hosts sales from time to time, but the deals are never appealing. The discounts are too small, or I’ve already bought the games elsewhere. In the UK, for example, Stadia Pro subscribers can buy Farming Simulator 19 for £20.99, rather than £29.99. The same version can be picked up on Steam for £17.99, however.

The other option is Stadia Pro. For $10 per month, users get access to 4K resolution, HDR and 5.1 surround sound, as well as exclusive discounts in the store and a selection of free games every month. Some of these titles are pretty good — Celeste, Dead by Daylight and Superhot Mind Control Delete were added last month — but most are usually a bit old. If you’ve never owned a console before, this shouldn’t matter. But if you regularly play games, there’s a good chance you’ve played them or snapped them up in another sale hosted by a rival store operator.

And you have to wonder: how else could I be spending $10 every month?

Celeste on Stadia
‘Celeste’ running on Stadia.

Engadget

xCloud, for comparison, currently requires Xbox Games Pass Ultimate, a $14.99 per month subscription. And, if you want to play games on your TV, you need some kind of Xbox console.  It’s more expensive than Stadia, but the library of ‘free’ games is larger. PlayStation Now, which can be accessed on a PS4, PS5 or PC, also costs $9.99 per month, and includes some streamable games. The ’founders’ version of GeForce Now, which doesn’t include any games, but offers ray-tracing graphics and no session restrictions, costs $4.99 per month at the moment. Apple Arcade, which works on iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple TV, will only set you back $4.99 per month. Then there’s PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live Gold and Switch Online, all of which offer some free games provided you have the appropriate hardware. The list goes on and on.

Wrap-up

Stadia has clearly improved over the last 12 months. The store has been expanded and Stadia Pro comes with a better bundle of ’free’ games. The streaming experience has improved, too, with 4K resolution on the web and support for cellular connectivity. The official controller has also been upgraded with basic Google Assistant functionality and support for USB-C headphones. The platform is moving in the right direction too, with visible achievements and profile pages

These features should have been available on day one, though. And in myriad ways, Stadia still feels half-baked. (Again, why can’t I search for games in the Stadia store?)

If you’re starting from absolute zero, with no gaming hardware or library, then Stadia is a tempting entry point. And if you own any kind of 4K display, you’ll want to consider Stadia Pro. The monthly subscription gives you the best possible performance and a selection of games that, if you haven’t played them before, will keep you entertained for a long time. But if you have anything else — a current-gen console, a semi-decent gaming PC, or even a streaming box like an Apple TV or NVIDIA Shield — there might be better ways to spend $10 per month.

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