I'm sitting in Panda Express with nary an order of teriyaki chicken in front of me. Instead, I have a phone tethered to what looks to be an off-brand DualShock 4, trying to play a game. After eyeing me for a few minutes, an older gentleman asks me what I'm doing.
I explain Google Stadia as best as I can to him, and while he doesn't seem to grasp the underlying technology, I'm able to catch a gleam in his eye when I tell him I'm playing "Red Dead Redemption 2 on a phone." I'm even able to determine that Stadia should eventually run on his older iPhone 6S. He walks away after our brief conversation impressed by the ongoing march of technology. Maybe I've made a new Stadia customer.
My encounter was part of a round of tests in which I tried out Stadia in public places like Safeway. On the official Google Stadia web page it says, "Play when you want, where you want." You're supposed to be able to take your games anywhere on your laptop, tablet, and phone as long as you have Wi-Fi. If Google says I can play anywhere with Wi-Fi, then it behooves me to test with someone else's Wi-Fi service on the line, right?
And so I set out with my Google Stadia controller and my Google Pixel 3a XL; a plastic bracket, and a USB-C cable to connect it all. Here's what I found.
From my Apartment Lobby to McDonalds
During the review period itself, I tried Shadow of the Tomb Raider on a few different situations. First, there was the Wi-Fi in my apartment complex lobby. This was probably the best situation, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider running swimmingly. There were few stutters during normal play and on the whole, it represented Stadia at its best: I'm playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 1080p resolution and 60FPS while out and about.
Tests away from my building were a bit spottier, of course. McDonald's Wi-Fi was mostly good, but the stutters during play were more frequent. Still as a proof-of-concept, I was generally satisfied with it.
I did have a few issues moving from setting to setting though. As I noted in my review, Stadia does not directly have save states, so you don't jump back to the exact point you left if you shut down the app or lose connection. Instead, games seem to auto-save in certain spots and reloading the app just puts you back at the beginning of the save. Moving from retail store to retail store meant I was actually repeating the same section of game multiple times until I got far enough to a new auto-save location.
I also found an issue with Wi-Fi reconnection. When you leave the current Wi-Fi service area with Stadia still running, you get an error message that notes that the Stadia isn't connecting and you have five minutes to reconnect. The problem is moving back in Wi-Fi range didn't actually reconnect the game. The error message never went away and the only available button was Exit Game. Odd.
Dunkin Donuts and Safeway
Dunkin Donuts Wi-Fi was a complete non-starter. I could connect the Pixel to Wi-Fi and bring up web pages, but the Stadia app hung on "Checking the connection" when I tried to bring up any game. Shutting the app down and restarting it didn't fix the issue. Iced coffee is a win, but it looks like I won't be doing any Stadia play at my local Dunkin.
This was also the case at my local Safeway. Unlike Dunkin Donuts, Shadow of the Tomb Raider actually did boot up at Safeway. Unfortunately, even changing data usage from "Best visual quality" all the way down to "Limited"—720p resolution—didn't result in a playable stream. Instead, I could move within the game, but the frames would skip wildly and the resolution would tank hard. Better than Dunkin, but not a good experience.
Finishing Up The Test
The final test was at Panda Express. Well, technically it was Starbucks' Wi-Fi, but there were no seats in my local Starbucks, so I moved to the Panda Express next door. Unlike its coffee competitor, Google Stadia actually ran on Starbucks Wi-Fi. I went back to "Best visual quality" and Shadow of the Tomb Raider ran great again. I also switched to Red Dead Redemption 2 because that review code came late in the process and I wanted to see exactly how Rockstar's game would come across. Both titles ran fantastically at Starbucks, probably the best experience I had at a retail location.
It's also interesting taking Google Stadia around town. You might not realize it, but everyone is used to playing games on mobile devices or the Nintendo Switch. I frequently play my Switch when I'm out and no one bats an eye. The Google Stadia mobile setup, with the plastic bracket and Stadia controller, turned heads though. I constantly caught people wondering what the hell I was doing. The phone tethered to the controller feels a bit "extra" compared to something like the Switch.
Google Stadia's bizarre adventure around town wasn't fully a failure or success, but I can say that gaming anywhere isn't quite in the cards. In real world tests, it's hard to gauge how Stadia will perform in any given situation. In some cases it performed great, while others saw the service struggling to survive. That's not Stadia specific, but is does put another asterisk on the bright future of streaming games. And at the end of the day, game streaming does feel more like a tech dream, rather than anything that's attached to our objective reality.
Want to know more? Check out my full review of Stadia here.