When I talk about Google Stadia, it's sometimes tough to focus on potential rather than problems. Even if the underlying technology works flawlessly—and that's a big "if"—so much of it just doesn't make sense to me.
In an industry where subscription services are increasingly popular, Stadia offers all of the drawbacks of the model (charging people a $10 monthly fee) but none of the advantages. At launch, you still need to pay $130 for a Stadia controller bundle and then buy games individually on top of that. Add in the fact that only a handful of titles are on the Stadia service to begin with, and that the exclusive AAA titles from Google's new first-party development studios are still years away, and the whole thing feels like it's simultaneously coming in very hot and also a little half-baked (depending on your temperature preference).
This "minimum viable product" approach is a very Google way to launch something, offering bare bones functionality and updating it over time until it realizes its potential. But as well as that might work with apps or online services, it's difficult to ask customers to show the necessary patience for an approach like that when you're charging them so much up front.
At some point in the coming year, some of these problems will go away. Google will soon allow Stadia Pro subscriptions without needing to buy the controller bundle first, and then it will launch Stadia Basic as a non-subscription alternative for anyone willing to buy a Stadia streaming version of a game. And some of those other problems could go away if Google re-thinks the business model, much like Sony converted PlayStation Now from a way to rent games individually to an all-you-can-play subscription model. That said, first impressions do matter, and every misstep with Google Stadia's launch is costing the company good will from consumers who might justifiably wonder just how committed the company is to this whole project, and what might happen to any games they purchased if Google decides at some point to dig a hole for Stadia in the Google graveyard next to Daydream VR and Google+.
But while Google is figuring out how to make Stadia click, Microsoft seems to be putting together a competing service with a vastly more compelling value proposition for consumers. While Stadia is launching first, Project xCloud is in testing now with a far larger library of games, and Microsoft's announcements this week that it will work with games players already own and be incorporated into the Game Pass subscription service.
There's no telling if Microsoft's Game Pass push is a financially viable strategy in the long run, or if it's just the sort of loss-leading attempt to build a too-big-to-fail userbase that we see throughout tech these days. But either way, if the technology works as advertised—again, a big "if"—there doesn't seem to be much to recommend Stadia over xCloud for the foreseeable future.
QUOTE | "The biggest complaint most developers have with Stadia is the fear is Google is just going to cancel it. Nobody ever says, 'Oh, it's not going to work.' or 'Streaming isn't the future.' Everyone accepts that streaming is pretty much inevitable. The biggest concern with Stadia is that it might not exist." - Gwen Frey of Stadia launch title Kine talks about the challenges facing Google's gaming service. (She called that concern "silly," noting that Google has produced plenty of lasting successful products, and, "This is tech. The default state is failure.")
QUOTE | "Family Sharing is not supported on day 1, so you'll have to buy games for your child's account. But it's a high priority feature, we're planning to launch early next year." - In a Reddit AMA, Stadia director of product Andrey Doronichev talks about just one of a number of announced features that won't be ready for the streaming service's launch next week.
STAT | 12 - The number of Stadia launch titles, each of which must be purchased as a stand-alone title.
STAT | 50 - The number of new games Microsoft added to its Project xCloud streaming service test this week. Also, it announced the streaming service will eventually work with games customers already own, and be integrated with Xbox Game Pass.
QUOTE | "Game Pass itself takes care of being the service and the platform so when we go to design a game, we don't need to be thinking about what our plan is to sustain this for three or four years. We don't need to think about how we come up with a set of content updates so that this thing can run as a service, or whether we're going to be doing Fortnite-style updates every three weeks. It frees us from having to think about that." - Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty explains how the division's role in driving Microsoft's subscription service relieves it of some common development pressures in the industry.
QUOTE | "It's a new kind of support—new to me as an old man—a new way of customers supporting titles almost blindly, just because they believe in independent gaming so deeply." - Special Reserve Games CEO Jeff Smith talks about the recurring customer base for his company's physical versions of Devolver-published PS4 and Switch games.
QUOTE | "When people come up to me saying 'I have a wife and kid, but I just quit my job at EA after seeing the movie and I'm working on my first indie game!' I always feel like I need to scream, 'No, stop!' at them." - Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac developer Edmund McMillen talks about the impact of Indie Game: The Movie (and his new game The Legend of Bum-Bo).
QUOTE | "Tyler is a fully-realised, endearing character, whose story is not reduced to simplistic trans tropes. Creating a playable lead trans character—and taking such care to get it right -- raises the bar for future LGBTQ inclusion in gaming." - GLAAD director of transgender representation Nick Adams talks about Dontnod's Tell Me Why, announced by Microsoft this week as "the first playable video game hero from a major studio and publisher who is also transgender." Adams has been consulting on the game.
QUOTE | "We are excited our team will remain together, pursuing the work we love, as part of a company we already know and admire." - Human Head creative director Chris Rhinehart announces the studio's closure the day after it released its final title, Rune II, on the Epic Games Store. However, the team has re-formed as the Bethesda-owned Roundhouse Studios, with every employee at Human Head being offered a position at Roundhouse.
QUOTE | "This is shocking news to us, as there are several entities working on RUNE II – we found out about this news when you did." - Rune II publisher Ragnarok Game responds to the news that its development partner had shut down.
QUOTE | "That's something I've always admired about Amy Hennig's work. She never underestimates the power of the player's imagination. If you can inspire the player to situate themselves in a world, that gives you more to draw on than any kind of gameplay mechanic you can throw at it." - The Chinese Room creative director and Dear Esther narrative designer Dan Pinchbeck pays tribute to the PSone game Soul Reaver, which Hennig directed.