As Google’s Stadia celebrates one year in the wild today, it’s still going through some significant growing pains.
The service that many believed would usher in the era of cloud-based gaming stumbled out of the gate and has yet to fully recover. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, though.
To date, Stadia has a catalog of more than 80 games, and says it’s heading toward 135 or more by the end of 2020. Stadia Pro members currently have 30 free games at their fingertips (and have had access to over 50 total). Neither of those are figures that compare to the major consoles – they don’t come close – but they’re not insignificant.
Google issued a press release Thursday with all sorts of numbers to celebrate the anniversary. But it refused to give the most relevant one: Monthly average users. Also not included was the number of active (or paying) Stadia Pro members. Without those figures, it’s impossible to get any firm sense of how Stadia is faring among consumers – and whether Google’s long-term commitment to the platform is potentially at risk.
What’s certain is, regardless of how Google has handled cloud gaming, it’s about to face some very stiff competition. Amazon’s Luna is in early access testing. And Microsoft’s ongoing xCloud trial has been bundled with its popular Game Pass Ultimate service, which could give it the most momentum of any cloud service. (Sony, while it offers a cloud service of its own, is ultimately a bit player in the field, as it lacks a strong internal cloud server farm.)
Stadia’s not out of the fight, but it has ground to make up. It finally integrated the service with YouTube, one of the most-teased and most-delayed features, in July. It will get a nice push with the release of Cyberpunk 2077 in December, by making anyone who buys the game before December 18 eligible to receive a free Stadia Premiere Edition (while supplies last). And starting today, Destiny 2 is free to all players, not just Pro members.
The irony about Stadia’s current status is it actually holds some advantages over current and next-gen consoles. Anyone who has purchased a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X in the past week has experienced the eagerness to get started as soon as they plug the system in, only to be forced to wait for an hour or more as they download and install system updates and whatever game they want to play.
With Stadia, it’s truly instant. Navigate to the service in a browser, select a game – new or old – and you’re playing in seconds.
Also, the ability to play anywhere – on virtually any platform (public testing on iOS will being in the coming weeks, Google says) – and pick up right where you left off cannot be understated. It’s more next generation than anything Sony or Microsoft have showcased yet.
Unfortunately, not everything has gone quite so smoothly. In addition to the numerous feature delays, Stadia hasn’t offered a lot of financial incentives to get people on board. Sales on games are few and far between – and never strongly promoted to the general public.
And the slow rollout of 5G has cooled enthusiasm for the Play Anywhere feature. While Stadia does fine (usually) on a high-speed wireless connection, it struggles on a cellular network. And even the slightest bit of lag impacts the experience negatively — one bad gaming event on Stadia is enough to send many people packing, often in a loud fashion, on social media. That’s not good for Google, especially since gamers have a panoply of other options as we go into the holiday season.
Stadia’s launch year won’t go in the record books as something to emulate. The company had a chance to claim first mover status and take the lead in the most promising new form of game distribution in a decade, but it overpromised and underdelivered. Despite a Stadia leadership team that is well-seasoned in the video game industry, the company as a whole seemingly didn’t realize just how complicated gaming is.
The thing to watch in the year to come is the team behind Stadia. If high-profile names begin to drift elsewhere, it will be a discouraging sign and could indicate diminished interest by Google in the category. But if the key people stay committed to Stadia and Google manages to loop in more external game developers and high-profile titles, there’s still a chance the fight for cloud gaming (which is still very much looming, despite the slow start) could be a three-way battle.