Yesterday, Stadia vice president and general manager Phil Harrison announced the closure of studios built by Google to create games for the cloud gaming service. Jade Raymond, the star producer that Google wooed to lead the effort, is reportedly leaving the company at the same time. In a blog post, Harrison said Google remains committed to its cloud gaming platform but will focus on collaborating with “industry partners”. Essentially, rather than selling a mix of local and third-party titles, Stadia would become a showcase for all the cross-platform games available. But if Google executives are not comfortable developing this platform by investing their time and money in it, why should I?
When Google initially announced Stadia, it looked like it could offer a real alternative to the console arms race. Rather than buying a console for $ 500 every few years, you can take advantage of the power of Google’s servers and your own fast broadband connection. A casual gamer like me could keep up without spending thousands on a new PC, or hundreds on a new console, every few years. And with Stadia Pro, there was the promise of a library of Netflix titles for games that I could tap into and get out of, as well as a retail store for whatever I desperately wanted to play at launch.
For me, that would have been a compelling alternative to buying a PlayStation 5, whenever it happened. The perks that Stadia provided, with multi-device play and the ability to jump into an existing game with State Share, were wonderfully tempting. Why bother with a walkthrough when you can let a pro-YouTuber do what you find awkward and get back to it right after? Hell if it existed a generation ago I could have ended Far Cry 3.
Unfortunately, there is always uncertainty when investing money in a new service created by Google. It’s a notoriously impatient company that has a knack for killing products long before they have a chance to take off, and even some after. This might be great for the end result, but it robs you of the belief that the service you signed up for will still be up and running two or three years after launch.
Sony and Microsoft, meanwhile, have gone to more of an effort to make sure their hardware is backward compatible with older titles. The PS5 can play over 4,000 titles originally released for the PS4, while the Xbox Series X can play all Xbox One (and Xbox 360) titles that don’t need the Kinect sensor. Steam, which has been running for almost twenty years, essentially gives you full access to all the titles you’ve purchased – compatibility issues aside. When players can expect to get a decade of play for each title, Stadia’s short-term risk seems even greater.
And I’m still not sure Google knows who Stadia is for. Is it the hardcore gamers who can expect jaw-dropping high-end performance and a huge library of AAA titles? Are these casuals like me who see little value in investing in console hardware and just want to play and play without having to think too much about it? Is it somewhere between these two poles? My colleague Nick Summers took a deep dive into Stadia a year after it launched in November 2020, saying the service still seemed “half-baked.” He concluded that there were “better ways to spend $ 10 a month”.
It’s also worth asking why Google felt the need to shut down its first party division so soon after its inception. Typically, most great games take three to five years to develop, so what exactly did Google expect from Raymond to pick up in his short tenure?
As Stadia struggles, I notice Microsoft’s efforts in its own cloud gaming service. The makers of Xbox spent a decade, and a fortune, turning the Xbox from a joke into a gaming monster, and now own some of the biggest game studios. And he has his xCloud and Xbox All Access, where for $ 25 a month you get a substantial library of big budget titles, cloud games, and a console, essentially free.
Obviously, Microsoft’s end goal is to attract as many customers as possible, but it’s also a show of faith that Stadia sorely lacks.