Stadia and Google and Video Games, I Suppose

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The Stadia logo, which may or may not be that one from the gas station soda cups.

Once every half a decade, maybe six or seven years into the life cycle of our Playstations and Xboxes, there is a sudden rush of news about the next generation. This hit overdrive in 2013 when the Playstation 4 and Xbox One launched in the same November and with Nintendo struggling with their Wii U system, this essentially turned console video gaming into a two-horse race. Sony thrived in this sort of environment, playing off fears that the public will never be able to use used games on the Xbox One. The price helped, too, PS4 being a whole hundred dollars cheaper than the Xbox One and its required Kinect unit that didn’t go over so well in its second iteration and eventually stopped being bundled with the system a couple of years later to save costs and face.

So that is usually how the cycle goes, albeit Nintendo has always been a fly in the ointment. Nintendo’s Wii launched in the same generation as the Xbox 360 and PS3 and while the 360 was the predominant platform, at least in the West, the Wii still rocketed Nintendo to heights it hadn’t seen since the NES days. This seems like it’s happened again with Nintendo’s Switch, which while not the phenomenon of the Wii, it most assuredly has been a gigantic success for the Big N. Still, this is usually the way it goes. One of the three, Sony with the PS3, Microsoft with the Xbox One, makes a grave mistake and is forced to play catchup and eventually stabilizes things while prepping for the next run. The other dominates, as Sony has easily done with the PS4, while still leaving room for cracks, namely Sony’s inability to find a solution like the Xbox’s amazing backwards compatibility program, which most definitely would hurt if a new Sony system went by and didn’t have that. And Nintendo’s the yo-yo, bouncing up and down.

I guess we should’ve seen that the dice would eventually shake up a little bit.

Today, March 19th, 2019, Google officially threw their hat into the video game field. This isn’t a full-on surprise, as keen folks noticed tests for streaming 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inside a Google Chrome browser just as the year ended and assumed that if Google were to exercise its untold billions of web infrastructure into a gaming service, it would probably be in the same vein as Chromecast and Google Home and be a uniquely always online affair.

Admittedly, this isn’t a new thought, even compared to the big three. After launching its Xbox Game Pass service on the premise of downloading games and not needing to stream them, Microsoft’s Xbox head Phil Spencer quietly confirmed that they were planning a streaming platform, codenamed Project Xcloud, Sony’s had Playstation Now for a few years, a service that allows a bunch of PS2, PS3, and PS4 titles to either be streamed or downloaded, in the case of the available PS2/PS4 titles on the service. And Nintendo hasn’t done anything in the department but has gotten more in bed with Microsoft in terms of potentially pushing Xbox Live and Game Pass to the Switch, which could have a streaming component attached.

Still, this is the case of three companies with set top boxes that are still in uncertain territory. And judging by Google’s presentation, gaming could get pretty bizarre in the next couple of years. Google’s platform is called Stadia, one that they sell no box for and one that is claimed to work on nearly every device that Google has their claws into. Turns out that’s a lot: Android phones, tablets, laptop and desktops, Chromecast, basically anything that can run Chrome is said to be covered by a streaming solution. Also it may be as simple as going on to YouTube and watching someone play, let’s say, Doom Eternal (the sequel to 2016’s reboot of Doom announced to be coming to Stadia at the conference). Say that they’re about four levels in and hey, you actually bought the game already through Google’s store and whatnot. Well, in theory, there could be a button that will transport you to this person’s save and start playing. Which, I admit, sounds pretty awesome.

At best case scenario, Stadia would also be able to achieve high frame rates or high resolution targets in ways that even the PS4 Pro/Xbox One X generation of hardware couldn’t match while not incurring the cost of a big ole PC to do it. Of course, best case scenarios are tough to really gauge out for streaming services. I do use PSNow regularly and so far, the only significant issues are really only ones that would occur on native hardware (a lot of PS3 games actually ran like shit on the hardware) or the type of troubles to be expected with the internet. Steam’s PC in-home streaming isn’t too bad, albeit I really only use it for games of Football Manager that are far better suited to passive input.

And again, stable broadband internet is not a guaranteed thing for a lot of people. My home has occasional outages that can only be responded to with a passive shrug. This is on a higher tier for our neighborhood as well, mere miles away from a public university. It’s probably far dicier when you drive a few miles more in any direction. Streaming is a massive catch-22. Again in theory, it nullifies the need to pay hundreds for a console. But there’s no guarantee the experience will be remotely identical. And this obviously doesn’t bring up the physical game aspect.

Always online games have somewhat created a portent for a world where, sure, you bought a game but you don’t own that game, silly. If they need to not sell it or just don’t care to sell it or it costs too much to keep up, then you’re out of online options. If this is an Uncharted or some single player thing, this doesn’t seem to matter because you can usually boot up the game on your system, put in a disc or just press a button. But if Destiny’s servers shut down, you’re never playing Destiny again, no matter if you own the suddenly valueless coaster containing the data or not.

With an all streaming service, it’s extremely difficult to parse the already murky digital waters. For the most part, gamers can still download a game no longer for sale on their platform of choice if they still own it but what if there’s nothing to download? What if Google simply doesn’t have the game anymore and that’s it? It’s a worrisome thought especially since video games are already an awful trainwreck in terms of genuine preservation. And if everything goes in the direction of Stadia, where users never even see the files on their end, who’s to say we ever can really preserve anything?

Of course, this is all reactionary. No one has snatched our little physical toys and Xboxes and Switches away and said you have to put it in the cloud. Response has been a mix of excitement and tepid “but also you’re Google” type sentiments. The thing doesn’t even have a release date, just a vague 2019 release guarantee. Even the announcement that Jade Raymond, producer responsible for the birth of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, is helming the platform’s first party studio is an “of course you do that” thought.

Google has had its fair share of marketing pushes go south. While I love YouTube Red (or YouTube Plus or whatever it is called), I’m under no delusions that “well, it’s just no ad YouTube and offline video playback on phones” isn’t really a great deal in the world of megaliths like Netflix and Hulu. No one needs a Chromecast for literally everything when TVs just come out of the box with streaming capabilities. And Chromebooks are fine but extremely limited. Moreover, none of these things have fully revolutionized their main hope of dominance in media distribution and purpose. They’re just nifty things. And Google wants more than that. Still, today’s announcement does add flavor and clarity into just what the hell the new console cycle is. Are we going to be playing Mario and Halo and Doom on *David Lynch voice* our fucking phone? I guess we’ll see.

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