At this year's Global Developer Conference, Google have finally thrown their hat into the gaming ring. They announced Stadia, a console-free gaming platform intended to deliver top quality gaming to any device, with no installation required. Focused on gamers, amplified by YouTube creators, Google's key aim seems to be to more effectively integrate the game playing and the stream watching communities into one society, simultaneously playing and sharing together.
Here's how playing a game should work, an example given on stage: You see an official trailer for a new game on YouTube, you click Play Now... and you're playing the game within five seconds. No download, no day one patch, no install — just instant access. Stadia will be available instantly on any screen — desktops, laptops, TV, tables and phones. At the conference, Assassin's Creed Odyssey gameplay was moved seamlessly between a Chromebook laptop, a Pixel phone and what was described as the lowest spec desktop that Google could find, to prove that the game can run at the same quality without any kind of standard hardware acceleration. The game was then moved to a TV using a small Chromecast adapter — there's no console involved, not even a set-top box.
Existing accessories — USB controllers or mouse and keyboard — will work with Stadia, but the Stadia controller is also being rolled out. The advantage is that it will detect and connect directly via Wi-Fi to whatever game you are playing on whatever screen. A Capture button can immediately put the player's footage on YouTube, and the Google Assistant button can be used to get help from the Assistant, or potentially be used by developers to access other features or mechanics in their games. The Assistant can recognise where you are in a game, and if you ask for help, its AI can track down a YouTube video showing the same part of the game and give you a clip of the moment another gamer experienced that moment. It will show it to you right on top of your current play instance, and then you can go back to playing instantly. Potentially, that means no more fumbling with a second device and scrolling through an hour-long video to find the solution to one puzzle.
Stadia is built on the same global data network that runs Google — which should result in better performance than Google's competitors, seeing as Google's network nodes are so prolific all across the world already. At Stadia's launch, games will run at 4K and 60 frames per second, with HDR and surround sound support. For the future, Stadia is already preparing to upgrade those stats to 8K and 120+ fps. Use of the data center should mean that any multiplayer experience will be seamless regardless of local connection — the experience can be scaled directly to the individual on the network. By the same token, developers will no longer have to worry about down-scaling their work to suit various devices or console builds. The computational power of Stadia is allegedly equivalent to 10.7 teraflops — more than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined, though frankly the keynote didn't do a great job of explaining how that would work in practice.
A feature called Stream Connect will make local couch co-op a more enticing option for developers in the future — not only can several players jump in with whatever controller they wish, but apparently split-screen will no longer degrade the experience — because Stadia will run two separate instances of the game on the screen at the same quality. Another life-saver for studios may be found in the Style Transfer Machine Learning tool, which can take a series of illustrations, textures or artworks and apply them intelligently as an art style across a game with no palette — potentially saving tons of time in curating an art style across all of the game's environments and characters.
In case you didn't notice how much of a threat this is intended to pose to both PlayStation and Microsoft, a couple of subtle jabs appeared for both companies. First there was an assurance that the platform will allow cross-play and cross progression. Later in the keynote, a demo was shown which included cloud-based multiplayer action in a metropolis — one with full destructible environments. Sound familiar?
But Google aren't just gunning for Microsoft and PlayStation — they are going after Twitch and Mixer too, thanks to the growing popularity of YouTube for gaming and streaming. A button on Google's Stadia controller — which was not given a price during the keynote — will allow players to instantly stream and record to YouTube at 4K and 60 fps. A feature called State Share will allow developers and perhaps players to share an exact game state — including player position, the state of the world and items carried — in a single encoded hyperlink. You could potentially send a great gaming moment to your friends or thousands of followers on social media as easily as writing a tweet, and they can experience that exact same moment for themselves — or find a new experience and send it straight back to you.
YouTube streamers will be interested in the Crowd Play feature. Not only will streamers be able to invite members of their audience to instantly drop into the game being played, but the streamer can then choose to instantly feature that player's instance on their channel. There's a huge potential for offering this as a reward to loyal followers or decent players — or those with the deepest pockets...
But what about games? How will Google suddenly establish themselves in a crowded environment? They have some key players already on side. Ubisoft are clearly happy to be involved, with Assassin's Creed Odyssey being used as a test case at the end of last year and CEO Yves Guillemot taking a front seat at the GDC keynote. id also came on stage to reveal that DOOM Eternal is already running at 4K and 60 fps through Stadia, and is even available for people to try out at GDC this week. While Bethesda weren't named in the keynote, the fact that a huge title in their publishing line-up is being used to promote Stadia is significant.
Finally, Google announced the creation of Stadia Games and Entertainment — their own first party games studio headed up by Jade Raymond, a key producer the creation of the Assassin's Creed franchise and the former head of Ubisoft Toronto. On stage, Raymond talked about not only creating exclusive titles for Stadia but also using the studio to help bring "partners" big and small onto the platform. Presumably, this means acting as a consulting studio for the likes of Ubisoft and Bethesda, and also smaller companies without the tools to make bigger experiences — such as RiME's Tequila Works, who also appeared to show their support for this new technology.
Obviously there are a lot of questions — pricing and the exact mechanics of game releases have yet to be revealed — but it's a huge play by Google in theory, and one that puts the other major players on the back foot — particularly Microsoft, who have been trying to build hype for their own device-agnostic plans for months. The ball is certainly in Phil Spencer's court now, as Stadia is not some distant prospect — at the end of the keynote we learned that Stadia will be released to the public in 2019.
Naturally, Digital Foundry are already on the case with an exclusive hands on and early impressions, which you can see here.
What do you make of these announcements? Can you see any way for such a system to implement its own achievement structure to rival Xbox's? Could Google really pull off all of these impressive sounding ambitions? Let us know in the comments!
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