Google Stadia is dead, what went wrong?

First to market, with impressive tech, Stadia never reached its potential

This Week In Games is a weekly column that tackles gaming’s biggest stories. This week, Jake Tucker dissects Google Stadia‘s death by a thousand cuts. 

Google Stadia, the cloud gaming service helmed by Phil Harrison of Sony and Microsoft fame, is officially shutting up shop on January 18, 2023. Technology and team members from Stadia will apparently be incorporated into the rest of Google’s business endeavors. But what the hell happened?

Stadia couldn’t have launched into a better environment. Stadia launched on November 19, 2019 – there was a global graphics card and chip shortage, and the world went into quarantine during the pandemic and was looking for new indoor entertainment on a scale never seen before. It was a perfect storm of conditions for Stadia to make it big, especially as its free tier launched a month after the UK went into lockdown.

I wonder how much of this was my fault – I used to get an email after many game reviews asking us to note that Stadia was a platform you could play the game on and add it to the review. I don’t think Phil Harrison blames me – sorry, Phil! – but it does speak a lot to Google Stadia’s biggest problem: Stadia really failed to make enough of an impact to be in the conversation, even while people extolled the virtues of similar streaming services from Sony and Xbox.

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Google Stadia
Google Stadia. Credit: Google

A lack of relevance is killer in today’s attention-based economy, and that’s probably a large part of why Stadia shut down. Some blame can also be turned towards Google’s economic model: subscribers to Stadia Pro would be given a handful of games each month that they could access for as long as they had a subscription – similar to PlayStation Plus – but the majority of games required a separate purchase.

Compared to Xbox and Sony’s streaming services which both have pretty substantial libraries, it was hard to see why you would choose Stadia for game streaming. Stadia became an even harder sell when Google’s killer idea – YouTube integration with revenue share; that could see you watching a YouTuber play a game, then click a link and be playing the game inside your browser – just never materialised.

It was also surrounded by high-profile wince-inducing moments. Terraria for Stadia was cancelled after it locked the developer out of their Google account and wouldn’t help him regain access. Then there’s the fact that it hired Jade Raymond – a top-tier exec known for projects like Metal Gear Solid 4, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 4 and more – to head up internal development studios that it then shuttered suddenly in 2021. This led to Raymond parting ways with the company and then hoovering up a lot of senior Stadia figures for her new venture, Haven.

assassins creed valhalla denuvo
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Credit: Ubisoft

Couple this with Google’s prior form in killing off every product as soon as it’s no longer hitting whatever metrics it’s set for it, and we’re probably seeing Stadia bundled in the trash a year or so before most companies would have pulled the plug.

I’m not trying to dunk on Stadia, either. Being able to play games in your web browser is incredible, and while people constantly said they weren’t interested because of input lag, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. For me, Stadia was a no-go because I have a PS5, Xbox Series X and top-of-the-range PC to play my games on. But, I have a pal who earnestly told me over a pint that Stadia meant that he could play AAA games again because his flat had space for his forthcoming baby and his gaming PC, but not both. There is an audience for what Google was selling, and it had some success.

Better yet, there are stories emerging now that big companies were using it as part of their development process. Bungie, the Destiny 2 developer recently acquired by Sony, was using it during the pandemic to help push out content to employees to test the game while everyone worked from home.

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Destiny 2. Credit: Bungie.
Destiny 2. Credit: Bungie.

I’m reasonably confident we’ll see something from the Stadia tech in the future. It doesn’t seem too outlandish to imagine it will be offered it as a paid service to developers or even white label it for those who have the cash.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Google. Or it would be, if its method of letting employees know hadn’t been a last-minute meeting request – a 7am PT email from Phil Harrison saying there would be a meeting at 8:30am. If you lived in the PT timezone, that meeting probably put a real dampener on your breakfast.

Meanwhile, developers that were working to bring their games to the platform found out via news reports. Mike Rose, founder of publishing outfit No More Robots, revealed hours after the announcement that no one from Google had yet reached out to them, which made things complicated for the game they were launching on the platform in November.

There’s no doubt it’s had an impact. Read between the lines in this chat with Phil Spencer, Xbox’s head honcho, and it’s clear to see that his statements about Amazon and Google being their main competitors was clearly part of what pushed Microsoft to take Xbox into the streaming biz in the first place. Stadia wasn’t the first streaming service, nor was it the first to fail, but it felt like the first actual competitor in the space.

All in all, I’ll miss the future Stadia promised. The engineers at Google built a quality product that let people play games without shelling out for expensive hardware, and then got to watch as their product failed to find success while execs carved away core parts of the experience. It’s heartbreaking when this happens to a game, but tougher to see when it happens to an entire games service. It’s also rough for developers that have spent months at this stage porting games to Stadia, which is now going to be a limited-time deal, providing they are lucky enough to launch before January 18.

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