It’s been just over a year since Google Stadia launched and I sense the common perception is it’s been a failure. Nobody uses it, there’s no decent games for it, it’s blighted by lag.
Most of those perceptions are wrong. I’ve spent the past year as a Google Stadia Pro subscriber and I’ve no plans to stop subscribing, despite the arrival of an Xbox Series X.
Here, then, is what works with Stadia, what doesn’t, and what Stadia needs to become the mainstream gaming service Google clearly hopes it will be.
By far the best thing about Stadia is you can click on a game and be playing in seconds. There are no 25-minute waits to download 70GB patches, no delay when you buy a game. Everything is updated/pre-installed and ready to go when you are. The only caveat here is that game updates sometimes take a little longer to arrive on Stadia than they do on other platforms. One Football Manager 2020 update was about a fortnight behind the PC version, for example.
I really like the fact you can play Stadia on the living room TV (via a Chromecast Ultra), on a PC or laptop (via the Chrome browser), on a Chromebook or on an Android mobile device. Smartphone play is definitely the weak link here as most of the game are designed for big screens and don’t translate well to mobile, but Stadia is definitely versatile. If you’ve got a strong network connection (I’ll come back to that later), you can play almost anywhere, on almost any mainstream computing device.
‘Free’ games for Pro subscribers
Of course, nothing is ‘free’ if you’re paying £8.99/$9.99 per month, but the number, quality and variety of bundled games with the Pro subscription has been impressive. In fact, I’ve barely touched many of the bundled games, because I simply haven’t found time to play them all.
Among the highlights so far:
Sniper Elite 4
Super Bomberman Online
West of Loathing
There have been lots of other big-name giveaway too, such as Destiny 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Metro Exodus, which just do nothing for me personally, but are crowd pleasers.
And while games are expensive, there are often deals for Pro subscribers that mean I picked up NBA 2K for a couple of quid and Far Cry 5 for £1.59, thanks to a sale and a £10-off-a-purchase offer. That lot is more than enough to keep me occupied.
The controller experience
The controller has improved massively over the year. At first you needed to plug the controller in via USB if you were using it with anything but the Chromecast, which was a pain. Now, you can use your Stadia controller wirelessly with any compatible device on the network. And it just works, with no lag discernable to this fortysomething. It’s also very cool that you can connect, say, an Xbox controller to your PC and that just works with Stadia too.
What doesn’t work
Playing on Wi-Fi
Even using the less crowded 5GHz band, even on an 80Mbits/sec connection that far exceeds Stadia’s minimum requirement, I struggle with fast action games when playing via Wi-Fi. Pixellation, lag and even outright dropouts occur when playing wirelessly. It’s acceptable on certain games, such as Football Manager, where a blurry few seconds isn’t critical, but if you’re in the middle of a multiplayer online game and you freeze, it’s normally controller-out-of-the-window time. Playing via Ethernet connection is smooth 99% of the time.
It’s getting better, as Stadia continues to grow, but online multiplayer lobbies can be lonely places. Red Dead Redemption Online was actually a ghost town for most of the year. GRID multiplayer often leaves you dawdling round an empty practice track waiting for someone, anyone to turn up. Even Destiny 2’s lobbies can be sparse at certain times of day, before the US wakes up, although recently making the game free-for-all should help massively here. The other problem is that Stadia is a walled garden, unable to mix with online players on other platforms. This is one area Stadia desperately needs to improve and it’s chicken and egg, as without more players, those games will never get the critical mass required to make Stadia more compelling.
Now make it even better
Stadia isn’t a failure in my eyes. It’s had a solid first year, but not a spectacular one, and it didn’t stop me buying a next-gen console (although my job as a tech writer had some influence on that decision).
Will it become a ‘third way’ after Xbox and PlayStation? It’s hard to say at this point. Google has something of a reputation for throwing the towel in when products don’t reach a critical mass quickly, but I don’t get the sense Google is giving up on Stadia — quite the opposite.
The forthcoming browser-based support on iPhone/iPad could give Stadia another shot in the arm, although Wi-Fi jitters remain a concern. But what Stadia really needs is a game that takes full advantage of its online nature, allows mass collaboration and that much trailed, but barely delivered chance to jump into games you see being streamed on YouTube.
Imagine something like an enormous Fortnite Battle Royale tournament that starts with 10,000 players and works its way down to one, moving players between maps as the numbers shrink. Or a rally game, where you can have driver and co-driver, each with a different view, competing against hundreds of other pairs in real time — with the ability to watch any pair of drivers on YouTube. Stadia has unique advantages that it’s not exploiting.
So far, Stadia has let us play familiar games in the same ways. It needs something different to stand out.