What happened, Google Stadia?

As Google closes its first-party Stadia studios, we take a look at what went wrong

What happened, Google Stadia? It all started out so promisingly, didn’t it? Lots of soft-focus shots of stylish loft apartments and people with impossibly white teeth grinning at each other, holding a controller in a way that no gamer ever in the history of the world has held one. Beautifully manicured fingers caressing crumb-free thumbsticks, poised just-so in front of flawless flatscreens and muted, but tasteful, living door decor.

And then there was that launch trailer.

Well, I call it a trailer, but really, it was kind of an attack, wasn’t it? A visual, aural assault to the senses. A metaphorical kick to the crotch stuffed with so many offensive stereotypes about what gamers are – what gamers are thought to behave like – it’s difficult to know which bit is most offensive. Is it the stoner-dude language? The “funny” visual jokes? It’s to Google’s credit that in the year of our lord 2019, it even found an ad agency so hilariously out of touch and willing to write such a vacuous, cynical attempt to appeal to ‘The Gamerz’; you know, the unwashed masses with body odour and energy drink addictions.

And then there’s that infamous tagline: “It’s only the newest, most logic-defying, mind-bending, absurd gaming platform on earth! Forget boxes. Forget consoles. Just your games – your screens – and electric air. And this electric air is… STADIA!”

Google Stadia Controller
Google Stadia Controller. Credit: Google

Somewhat critically, it turns out Stadia is none of those things, really. It’s not logic-defying. It’s not mind-bending. I mean, admittedly it’s kinda absurd, sure – any company, even megacorp Google, is teetering on absurdity to think any country in the world has the internet infrastructure to support such an idea – and the less said about “electric air”, the better.

And the funniest bit of all? I bought it.

Now before you OD on schadenfreude – yes, yes, isn’t it amusing, Vik bought into the “electric air” hype – I still think the idea of Stadia is pretty fucking cool. Beyond the logistical issues, the hilariously inflated Stadia Games store prices, and the fact the moment Google pulls the plug you’ll have nowt left in your premium-priced Stadia library other than your rubberbanding memories, the idea of having instant access to games – games that don’t require updates or patches or installation time – is still fantastic.

That said, I had no illusions of what I was buying into. I didn’t think I’d be sat in my lounge and streaming pixel-perfect games in 4K without complaint. And if I’m honest, it performs significantly better than my (admittedly low) expectations, particularly as my fiber connection is wobbly at best.

And while Stadia has gently revised its roadmaps in the two years since its (disastrous) launch and now offers a small, if perfunctory, selection of classic and new releases, asking players to pay seventy quid for a game they never even get to download and save onto a hard drive somewhere, let alone own physically… Well, it’s a hard sell.

Little Nightmares 2
Little Nightmares 2. Credit: Tarsier Studios

Join Stadia Pro now for £9 a month, and you’ll have your pick of 29 “free” games. While that includes new releases like the deliciously grim Little Nightmares II, compare that with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Though more expensive – the Ultimate pass currently costs £11 – it includes the £7 Xbox Live Gold charge, plus EA Play (RRP £5), and your pick of 512 games. And that also includes free, day-one access to Microsoft first-party games, too.

I suspect that if Google had done what we’d all hoped and offered a generous library of games in a single subscription – like Netflix, but for video games – then we might have been more forgiving of the “electric air” thing. Trouble is, with the company now shuttering all its first-party development studios less than two years after the service was launched, then you have to wonder how long Google will stand by Stadia before it too is yanked offline.

You see, Stadia isn’t a novel concept. A service called OnLive tried to launch the same thing back in 2009. Setting a template that seems eerily prescient to Stadia’s, it limped along until 2012 before unceremoniously laying off all its staff. It briefly came back to life in 2014 before shuttering in 2015 for good, shuffling off most of its assets to Sony Computer Entertainment.

At the time pundits thought the vision was great, but the infrastructure around it – so out of the hands of the company itself, of course – let it down. Fast-forward 10 years, though, and Google seems to have found itself in the very same place with Stadia, right down to the employee layoffs a couple of years after launch.

So: is it over for Stadia? Not yet, no, but I suspect the people in charge of the money are getting jittery and someone, somewhere, is getting yelled at in a cool boardroom made of glass and empty promises. But the tech powering the service is still in its infancy, there are plenty of lessons still to be learned, and we can but hope that internet connections will continue to get faster and more stable, making the dream of live streaming video games ever more sustainable.

But factor in Google’s propensity for killing off its own innovations, and it’s little wonder Stadia fans – and yes, there are some – are nervous. If all the promises turn out to be nothing more than hot air, it doesn’t matter if it’s “electric” or not, does it?

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