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OPINION: Google Stadia Is A Joke

Poorna Shankar Posted:
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In case you missed it, our review for Google Stadia went live earlier which you can read here. Our Hardware Editor, Chris Coke, liked the controller, easy setup, and affordability while calling out the input lag via Chromecast and compression artifacts. Me personally? I think Google Stadia is a complete joke.

“You can play any game instantly, you can play the highest performing games. And best of all, they are current release titles…So the way we do this is we have games running in the cloud that have very very high performance computers in it. Then using special technology, we stream the video from those game servers to your home and make them appear on your TV screen or your computer screen so fast that from the point from when you hit a button on your controller to when you see the screen update is perceptually instantaneous.”

“This is an opportunity to really revolutionize the way we think about games, the way that publishers develop games, and the way that consumers use games. And we think it’s really going to change things hugely eventually, and even in the short term very very significantly.”

This pair of quotes sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It makes it seem as if cloud technology really is the future, and it’s here now. It makes one misty eyed about instantaneous gaming on whatever device you own and the thrill of gaming on the go.

But these quotes are not from Google. They’re not even from this year. They’re taken from a GameSpot interview and GDC press conference from 2009 from a guy named Steve Perlman. Who is Steve Perlman? He’s the former CEO and founder of OnLive. And what is OnLive? Well, OnLive was supposed to be the next big thing to disrupt the industry by making cloud gaming mainstream.

Do these words and sentiment and hype sound familiar? Well they should because this is almost the exact language Google used for the last year to market and build hype behind Google Stadia. None of this hype is new. None of the language being used here is new.

When Google got on stage in March earlier this year (during GDC just like OnLive, oddly enough) and made the same broad sweeping claims about minimal latency, playing your games on the go, etcetera, I simply rolled my eyes. After all, we have heard this spiel time and time again for nigh on a decade.

Google Stadia launched. I tried it. And I’m here to explain to you why I believe Stadia and Google’s hubris are a complete joke.

Let’s begin by talking about what I consider to be misleading the consumer. First came the tweet from Phil Harrison citing, in no uncertain terms, that, “Stadia always streams at 4K/60.”

In my opinion, the information gleaned from this tweet implies that all games will play in 4K and 60fps, given the right TV and bandwidth on hand. However, as is evident by my own experience and the objective analysis of others, this is clearly not the case.

This brings up the question: are the games themselves 4K 30/60fps based on Harrison’s tweet, or is the stream of the game 4K 30/60fps? Through careful analysis, Digital Foundry has concluded that Red Dead Redemption 2 runs locally at 1440p and 30fps. Other games, like Destiny 2, target (but can’t maintain) 60fps. And in Destiny 2’s case, it does so at 1080p locally, not 4K. Bungie were able to provide an explanation to The Verge,

“When streaming at 4K, we render at a native 1080p and then upsample and apply a variety of techniques to increase the overall quality of effect”

Given these disparities and disconnect, we wanted some clarification from Google. They provided us the following statement,

“Stadia streams at 4K and 60 FPS - and that includes all aspects of our graphics pipeline from game to screen: GPU, encoder and Chromecast Ultra all outputting at 4k to 4k TVs, with the appropriate internet connection. Developers making Stadia games work hard to deliver the best streaming experience for every game. Like you see on all platforms, this includes a variety of techniques to achieve the best overall quality. We give developers the freedom of how to achieve the best image quality and frame rate on Stadia and we are impressed with what they have been able to achieve for day one.

We expect that many developers can, and in most cases will, continue to improve their games on Stadia. And because Stadia lives in our data centers, developers are able to innovate quickly while delivering even better experiences directly to you without the need for game patches or downloads.”

This statement is utterly ridiculous and simply does not address the concerns on hand. What exactly does, “all aspects of our graphics pipeline,” mean? The statement makes mention of the encoder and Chromecast Ultra outputting at 4K to 4K TVs, sure. But this is not what was implied by Phil Harrison’s original tweet.

Again, are the games locally meant to play at 4K 30/60fps, or is the stream of the game meant to be at 4K 30/60fps? This disparity and Google’s ambiguity is needlessly creating confusion.

I look at Phil Harrison’s tweet and come away understanding that Stadia games will run at 4K and 60fps. Google’s statement, on the other hand says something different, but answers nothing. I simply find their statements and marketing regarding game resolution and framerates to be completely misleading.

This is brought to the fore in my own experience with Red Dead Redemption 2 in my local desktop browser as I explain below. The game was clearly not 4K, nor was it 60fps. My own experience coupled with the objective measurements of others like Digital Foundry combine to create what I perceive to be misleading from Google.

Next, we get to the actual launch of Stadia. Keep in mind, Stadia launched without major features it touted on stage. These missing features include,

  • Desktop Chrome won’t support 4K, HDR, or 5.1
  • Stream Connect (viewing another Stadia player’s POV) not available
  • State Share (sharing save files) not available
  • Crowd Play (allowing users to quickly hop into MP games) not available
  • No Family Sharing
  • No Achievements
  • No Buddy Pass

Other limitations included,

  • Google Assistant can only turn on the TV and launch a game with none of the cool game assistance shown off on stage
  • Only the Chromecast Ultras included with the Stadia were compatible. A future OTA update will enable other Chromecast Ultras
  • You absolutely must have a phone to activate. You cannot activate on a browser like, I don’t know, Google Chrome. This is absurd.
  • Only Pixel phones and ChromeOS tablets are supported for now, because everyone in the world owns a Pixel or a ChromeOS tablet
  • Stadia’s controller’s wireless functions only work with Chromecast Ultras – well, the Chromecast Ultras that are bundled with Stadia because other Chromecast Ultras aren’t supported. Again, a future OTA update will open this to all other Chromecast Ultras.

That is absolutely absurd. The hubris of Google to get on that stage and make all these grandiose claims of cloud gaming as if we’ve never heard them before is astounding. And to launch without so many features and functionality despite discussing these on stage merely adds to the perspective that the Stadia launch is utterly half-baked. Like I said at the top, I simply rolled my eyes.

Sticking with the launch of Stadia, mere hours before the thing was set to launch, Google’s Phil Harrison (oh Phil) tweeted that they now have “TWENTY TWO” games launching for Stadia. So last minute was this announcement that we had completed our review of the thing and had to amend our review at the eleventh hour. And for me personally, it was yet more evidence of how completely half-baked this entire Stadia launch was shaping up to be.

On top of this, one of the promises of pre-ordering Stadia was that you were guaranteed to reserve your gamertag and would receive an activation code the moment your order shipped. However, the reality was far from this scenario.

Many users reported that despite pre-ordering the Stadia, they still had not received activation codes.

However, this simply wasn’t what was pitched. Here’s what Google said during an AMA before launch,

“BUT here's the good part. Stadia IS NOT A BOX! You don't need our hardware to start playing, remember? Right after we ship your order (but not earlier than 9AM PST 11/19), we'll send you an email with the invite code. You can use it immediately to create your account and reserve your Stadia name in the Stadia app on Android or iOS. Just for clarity: the first day is a little special, if we ship your order on 11/18, you’ll receive the code on 11/19.”

Once again, we see a disparity in Google’s language. The AMA clearly implies that the Founders will receive code and be ready by Day One on November 19. However, Google’s tweet says, in no uncertain terms, that code would be rolling out through November 20th – the day after launch. The lack of consistency once again gives me cause to believe Google’s language is misleading.

With all this context at hand, of course, I wanted to try my hand at Stadia. How could I provide any opinion on the actual experience itself without having tried it for myself? And so, using the reviewer’s account provided for us, I fired it up.

Now before I get into the details, I want to state up front that I have incredibly fast internet. In fact, I have gigabit. I’m also a PC gamer and as such, have chosen my peripherals such as monitor, keyboard, and mouse to minimize latency as much as possible. I can tell the differences in resolution, latency, and framerates, so this would be a real test for me. And given my internet connection, I daresay I am Google’s ideal candidate.

Good lord. Mere seconds into launching Red Dead Redemption 2, the game crashed and brought me back to Chrome. No big deal, I thought. I’ll just launch this again. I finally got into the game and was immediately struck by how blurry, grainy, and lag-ridden the entire experience was.

I knew that the image wouldn’t be greater than 1080p since this was a known limitation. But I was struck by how awful the image looked. The upscale from 1080p onto my 3440x1440p monitor coupled with the macroblocking brought on by the compression made for an extremely blurry experience. While some may say that the Founder’s Edition is meant to play via Chromecast, the facts are that Stadia can be experienced on PC. And that aspect of the experience must be discussed and bears equal merit and discussion.

On top of this, the latency was incredibly noticeable for me. In fact, despite using a keyboard and mouse, I had no confidence in lining up my shots on enemies because by the time I had aimed, the enemies had moved due to the latency. This blurry visual experience coupled with latency carried on when I tried Destiny 2.

But ultimately, while I remain entirely cynical, I am not at all surprised by any of this. The hype-fueled campaign, the grandiose stage claims, the resulting missing features and limitations, the founders without their promised activation codes, all culminating in my own experience with the platform has left me shaking my head.

Here’s the bottom line. Cloud gaming isn’t ready. It wasn’t ready in 2009 with Steve Perlman showed off OnLive, and it isn’t ready in 2019 when Google and Phil Harrison are making those exact same claims. Cloud gaming won’t be ready until the experience matches or exceeds my experience on a PC.

I fully realize that some folks have had more positive experiences with Stadia. Great. But to only focus on that “fun” while ignoring the grossly misleading marketing, the objectively missing features, the manner with which Google has handled their founder pre-orders, and Google’s overall track record of shutting down products which they deem to not meet expectations are all massive red flags which should not be downplayed.

Because of this storied history, what happens when (not if) Google decides to shut down Stadia? Keep in mind, you have to buy the games on Stadia in order to access them. You do not own them. So after spending $130 on Stadia’s Premiere Edition, plus $10 a month for a subscription, plus $20-60 per game, what’s going to happen when Google decides to shutter Stadia? All of those games – all of your money – is gone. Technically, this loss of software and investment could happen to any platform. But those other platforms aren’t Google. They don’t have the same history of shutting down products.

Oh and remember OnLive from the beginning of this article? OnLive no longer exists. Sony bought the patents in 2015 and the service is discontinued. Services like these are extremely volatile, despite the lofty claims made by their leaders.

And such claims made like the ones Google has pushed aren’t new. Google completely botched the launch of Stadia. I simply cannot take Google nor their product seriously when they themselves don’t take their product nor their consumers seriously. They deserve no reciprocation of respect. The Stadia is a joke, and I will be legitimately shocked if it survives another 12 months.


Poorna Shankar