Google Summons the Power of YouTube and the Cloud in Bid to Shake up Gaming

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Google introduced its game-streaming service called Stadia touted as an industry wake-up call and taking aim at not only incumbents Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, but going after Amazon and its subsidiary Twitch. Perplexing name-aside, Stadia’s appeal may be its lack of hardware — Google is drawing from not only its massive Cloud service to facilitate gameplay across devices, from phones to tablets, computers, and televisions; but also leveraging the 800-pound gorilla it has called YouTube.

Google’s Stadia is a shot across the bow at incumbents, but it’s unlikely that it’ll drastically change how we play games, especially since game-streaming has been around for years — while Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have long embraced streaming, there have been other services that tried touting this, including now-shuttered OnLive, Stream, and others.

But throughout the idealistic hour-long presentation that Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and Vice President Phil Harrison gave, there were instances where it seemed the company compiled some of the best features from across the industry and produced something that hopefully will deliver amazing graphics, compelling gameplay, low latency, entertainment, the reach, a track record of monetizing apps and driving usage, and something that could be used no matter where you are.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai on stage at the company’s Stadia game-streaming service announcement on March 19, 2019. (Photo credit: Livestream)

Reinvention is the name of the game

For Alphabet-owned Google, Stadia is about consolidation and evolution of the company’s efforts to find a plan that works. YouTube is one of the dominant platforms on the internet for all things video, including gaming. At one point, YouTube launched a standalone gaming app in 2015 but that shuttered four years later.

In 2018, its Global Head of Gaming Ryan Wyatt tweeted that more than 50 billion hours of gaming content was watched on YouTube in the past 12 months with more than 200 million people logging in daily to consume it. The video-based social network went to great lengths to capitalize on this audience, creating a great rival to Twitch.

YouTube Gaming proved to Google that there’s a hungry audience and as is such Silicon Valley experiments, the app was terminated and the features and content migrated over to the core platform. Another shift soon happened though, when the company decided to power-up its gaming offering and bring to bear all its capabilities to transform how we consume entertainment and gameplay.

According to Google, “the future of gaming is not a box. It’s a place.” It seems that the company envisions gaming as some ethereal plane of existence that’s not beholden to a $200 to $400 piece of hardware that may not be efficiently portable.

Google is betting that the infrastructure it has created over the years, becoming an essential backbone of the internet and our way of life — enough so that it has caused regulators to question whether there are antitrust issues — can change the way we game. Whether it’s reducing latency, handling massive gameplay at scale, or having a massive reach around the world with an established set of devices that have become mainstream.

It’s about the billions

Take a look at these numbers and percentages which gives you an idea about why Google thinks game developers will take it seriously. Besides its infrastructure, the company is leveraging its massive cross-platform audience to strike quickly out of the gate, producing what it might hope to be a “shock and awe” approach that’ll leave competitors stunned.

Google’s video introducing us to Stadia features similar marketing elements that the company uses for its Pixel smartphones, Chromebooks, and other software launches — painting a picture where we are all connected and discovering new things. The message that Google may want to get across is that if it can do amazing things with photos, videos, productivity tools, and other programs, why can’t it tackle gaming on a scale most companies can only dream about?

Its proposition is enticing: enjoy some of your favorite titles such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or DOOM Eternal no matter where you are and without being encumbered by a physical console that you’ll need to upgrade every two to four years — you just need a connected device and your Google account. For developers, their limitations could be based solely on what Google does not provide, similar to Amazon Web Services, not requiring players to shell out financially to continue their gameplay.

The modern game and Google’s advantage

With Stadia, Google is catering to the modern game player, one that prefers instant downloads compared to going to a Best Buy, Costco, Game Stop, or even Amazon to purchase a physical copy of a game. If that was it, then Google would have a bit more of a leg up on competitors thanks to its infrastructure capabilities, but there are some other things at play here (no pun intended):

On-call Assistant
Google says that it’s incorporating Google Assistant into gameplay and will be accessible through its dedicated controller. Instead of having to pause the game and go online to look for an FAQ section in order to beat a level, players can tap the Google Assistant button and receive a tutorial.

Integrations with YouTube and social networks
Solo gameplay isn’t as fun as playing with your friends, so Stadia does integrate with YouTube. Google claims that you’ll be able to share clips of your game and even have Twitch-esque features like a waiting room. This calls to mind similar features that not only the Amazon subsidiary has, but also Samsung — the latter has this capability in its Galaxy S7 phones, but unlike Samsung, Google extends the functionality isn’t limited to just phones and tablets.

Google is positioning Stadia as being an “open” foundation, meaning that it’ll play well no matter what platform you’re on, including through social media. On stage, Harrison boasted that players won’t have to wait for games to install or update, similar to Google’s Instant Apps feature that was introduced several years ago. He said that the system will reduce the friction between anticipating gameplay to actually playing the game: “With Stadia, the waiting game will be a thing of the past.”

Taking on Amazon Web Services
Google is electing to open up a new theater in its war for the cloud with Stadia. Google Cloud has underperformed in expectations and recently lost its CEO Diane Greene. Her replacement, former Oracle executive Thomas Kurian said that the cloud unit would “compete more aggressively” to take on current market leaders Amazon and Microsoft.

A game streaming service would not only fire a shot across the bow of Amazon, but encroach further on Twitch. The advantage that Google might have over AWS and Microsoft Azure is, once again, its reach. Google has its hands across numerous devices and in more touch points versus Amazon and Twitch. But ultimately it might come down to cloud capabilities and Google hopes it wins out.

Former Ubisoft and Electronics Art executive Jade Raymond named chief of Google’s Stadia game studio.

Monetization
An incentive for developers might be Google’s ability to monetize apps, programs, and games. With the growth of the Google Play store, this demonstrates to game makers that Google could handle the scale needed to make any title internationally available.

And with the launch of the Stadia studio which will develop first-party games, run by former Ubisoft and Electronics Art executive Jade Raymond, this could bring both little and big-name studios to pay attention and develop exclusives which could improve the stature of Stadia.

Change doesn’t happen overnight

Google Stadia isn’t without its critics. Some question how it performs when there are latency issues. Harrison believes this won’t be a problem, telling Eurogamer in an interview:

There are some investments in the datacentre that will create a much higher experience for more people, and there are some fundamental advances in compression algorithms. Google is a participant and forerunner in a lot of open standards in compression algorithms that will power the future of streaming.

Sadly, one thing that Google doesn’t control is the speed of light, so that will always be a factor, but one important thing to keep in mind is that we are building our infrastructure at the edge. It’s not just in our central, massive datacentres. We’re building infrastructure as close to the end user, the gamer, as possible – so that helps mitigate some of the historical challenges, and using a much more straightforward and less sophisticated version of our streamer on Project Stream landed an incredible result.

That being said, while we might be interested in checking out Google Stadia, we’ll have to wait until at least this summer, when Google will release more details, likely around E3 or Google I/O. The actual launch of the game streaming service won’t happen until later this year.

And what about when it comes to ads? Developers may find it helpful to have an established ad platform to monetize their games, but will people be concerned about how their privacy is being used against them? How will children be targeted by these ads and for violent games that we play, will we be served ads around guns, nudity, or worse? Google hasn’t addressed any of this yet so it’s all speculation, but it will be something worth looking into when Stadia actually launches.

Google doesn’t expect to see a fundamental shift in how games are played or that everyone will come around to understand its Utopian vision of an open game streaming platform. In fact, Harrison sought to temper expectations, telling Eurogamer:

We see this as the direction of travel for the future of games. For sure. It won’t happen overnight. It’s not going to be a switch that gets flipped and everyone moves from device-centric to networks in one second.

But when you see the opportunity creatively, distribution-wise, technically, game design-wise, you know that this is going to be a very dramatic shift in the way that games are made and played.

Regardless of what happens, Google Stadia has caught the attention of game makers and industry incumbents, with Microsoft reportedly already planning an announcement at E3. And it caught the attention of investors as shares in Sony and Nintendo went down right after Google’s presentation.

We’ll have to wait until the tail end of 2019 to see what Google actually releases but it will need to come out with a big catalog of titles if it wants to ween away players from established platforms. And right now we’ve only heard of three titles that’ll support it. Yes, those three are fairly popular, but Google needs more.