When Google released its long-awaited Stadia gaming platform in the final quarter of last year, it would be fair to say that they didn’t imagine it would go the way it’s gone. Largely ignored by gamers, bereft of games, and beyond the reach of many potential users because of the internet connection speeds that it demands, it may already be dead as a format before it even turns six months old. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be.
When the gaming world first heard of Google Stadia – which feels like a long time ago now – what we were led to imagine was a sort of Netflix of gaming, or an orthodox gaming equivalent of an online slots website like Rose Slots. In the same way that the better online slots websites gather hundreds of games together in one place and allow users to interact with them through nothing more demanding than an internet connection, using a computer, a tablet, or a phone, Stadia was supposed to provide the same experience for video games. What we got was a pale imitation of that. Google Stadia launched with only 22 games. If an online slots website contained only 22 slots, it wouldn’t have customers – Google shouldn’t be surprised that they’re struggling to attract players for the same reason.
If things weren’t bad enough for Stadia already, the fatal blow to its chances of recovering and capturing a workable portion of the market share may have been ended by a rival service that nobody saw coming. It’s Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud-based gaming service, and according to some industry commentators, it’s already a better product than Stadia.
Unveiled within the last week, GeForce Now works according to basically the same principle to Stadia – it allows users to play video games through any compatible device without needing powerful hardware to run the games on. Instead, the games are run on GeForce’s machinery – the company is, after all, known for their high-end components and parts – and the experience is streamed back to the user to whatever screen they’re playing on, via the cloud. It’s still subject to some of the same limitations as Stadia – by which we mean connection speed is key, and you better hope and pray you have a good deal on bandwidth and data from your ISP – but the range of games knocks Stadia out of the park.
One of the key things that GeForce’s service offers but Google’s doesn’t is the chance to try the service for free. On their ‘standard’ tier, GeForce allows anyone to sign up and play for free so long as they can cope with an access speed cap and a maximum gaming time of one hour. Obviously, for long-form games, being limited to a single hour’s gaming time is far from ideal, but the whole idea is to reel you in and make you pay for the subscription tier. Even then, though, the charge is a mere five dollars a month, subject to a twelve-month contract. That’s half the price Google is currently charging for access to Stadia – and that’s not even taking into account the fact that there’s a $130 cost for Stadia’s controller before you can get up and running on that service.
The five-dollar charge will not, of course, guarantee you access to all of the games on the service. They have to be bought through Steam or a similar service, but you get the added bonus of retaining ownership of them once they’ve been bought even if you later go on to cancel your GeForce subscription. GeForce also appears to have more developers on board, and more games available from the point of launch. At present, Google is referring any queries about their lack of games and developers to the developers themselves. It may be that the developers don’t need to make a public statement on the matter at all – they’ve already made it clear that they’ve decided to back another horse.
The big question now is what, if anything, Google has up its sleeve as a response to the new threat posed by GeForce. There is clearly a market for streaming games, even if it’s a smaller one than Google expected there to be when they launched Stadia. As it stands, the small user base they have is becoming increasingly vocal about the lack of games on offer, and the lack of solid information from Google in relation to when more games might appear. If they don’t come up with something soon, they may find that a significant proportion of their user base deserts them for GeForce Now. Should that happen, it’s hard to see a way back for Stadia, no matter what they attempted. If they lose the few players they already have, the game is as good as over. As far as we see it, they have two options in front of them.
The first option – and the obvious one to take if they want to keep the service alive – is to introduce a free tier immediately. A free package offering players the ability to play games at a lower resolution was promised prior to the launch of Stadia, but it’s never been mentioned again since. They need to revisit it. When one of your competitors starts offering the same service as you are free of charge, you have to find a way to match that offer or go out of business. If Google still sees Stadia as a going concern (and it’s bizarre that we can’t be sure of that after less than six months of the product’s availability), they need a free tier and a solid update about new games in the very near future.
The other option available to Google would be just to step away and accept defeat. They’ve experimented with the streaming format, it hasn’t worked out for them, and so they could decide to abandon it in the same way they abandoned Google Glass. Perhaps they could refund some of the players who have invested in hardware a part of the process. It would probably cost less than continuing to invest in a product which, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be likely to work out.
We’re not confident enough – yet – to say that Google Stadia will be dead by the end of 2020 – but we would advise against buying anyone a Stadia controller as a birthday gift in the meantime.