More than half a year since the initial launch of Google’s Stadia, and the system has moved out of its initial unofficial beta testing, and into mass public availability. Rather than an inescapable subscription fee, users can now access the base level of Stadia, offering up to 1080p at 60fps, for free. This runs parallel to the paid pro tier, with 4K resolution availability maintaining a $10 a month cost.
Testing by major tech experts has revealed that while the new age of Stadia has brought in some positive changes, it’s not all smooth sailing. So, other than the pricing model, what has changed, and why is it that many industry speculators believe Stadia might be facing a sometimes-unwinnable battle?
The release of Google’s Stadia on November 19 of 2019 was a development the gaming industry watched closely. Even for players not able or willing to invest in the game-streaming service, everyone wanted to see what Stadia could do, and whether or not it would live up to the hype. While the concept of game streaming at that time was not new, with services like the ill-fated OnLive having arrived nearly a decade before, it had undoubted potential.
What made Stadia promising was that it was developed by Google, one of the most successful tech-companies the world has ever known. Google had the funding, and it had the infrastructure, so it would stand to reason that they could achieve what nobody yet had. In reality, Google was plagued by the same issues of latency which many expected. Combine this with a requirement to purchase a game on top of a subscription fee, and Stadia has faced an uphill struggle. Stage two, as it is unofficially called, aims to carve out new ground in this ongoing fight.
Arguably the most consequential advantage of the second stage of Stadia comes from its ability to operate outside the confines of both Chromecast Ultra and its first-party controller. This has been a game-changer for many potential customers for two primary reasons. The first is that the official Stadia controller is notoriously fickle, and cannot operate via Bluetooth. Since many players already have superior console controllers like the DS4 which run well on Bluetooth systems, this limitation was a concern. The requirement of Chromecast Ultra was also problematic, costing an additional $70 on top of game and subscription fees.
Stage two of Stadia, while still not freely available over all devices, can now integrate as a simple program over a range of officially supported devices from Asus Rog, Google, Samsung, Razer, and more. It can now even operate without the use of a controller, though concerns with UI makes this approach unsound for most games. For the all-important latency, testing by tech experts Gamers Nexus has indicated some general improvements compared to how the system operated last year. In their tests of Metro: Exodus, for example, they found that maximum delay during their game time was reduced from 129.2 milliseconds to 116.7 milliseconds. Average delay and minimum delay saw similar small but important reductions, and other games followed a comparable trend.
The Path Forward
Stadia’s improvements have painted it in a more positive light, but the one issue of unavoidable latency could hold it back from achieving what Google wants. To illustrate this point, we’ll draw comparisons to other types of entertainment with related concerns. Consider the forms of online roulette such as those available from Betway. None of these traditional tables require immediate reactions, the aim of the game being to predict where the ball will fall in advance, so they’d work fine on a system like Stadia regardless of worst-case latency. The same is true even if we move into the area of more demanding live streaming online casino titles like live roulette. The appeal lies in watching the ball spin and land; however, again, instantaneous reactions are not necessary, so these have no issues even if played a world away.
Straight video streaming like on Twitch or YouTube marks another example where latency is of little concern. Even if lag runs up to or over a second, the experience for this type of media will suffer in no appreciable way. In essence, no harm no foul. A game like Doom Eternal is the exact opposite. Relying on a heavy amount of rapid action, any latency via video streaming risks putting Eternal over the acceptable threshold and into unplayable territory. Couple internet latency with the display lag of televisions like those listed on CNET and a jump into the sludgy-feeling 150-millisecond range is largely unavoidable.
The unfortunate truth of this situation is that the laws of physics are absolute. The fastest elements we have in current gaming data transmission are fiber optics, which operate at around 30% the speed of light. It seems ridiculous but if you factor in the dead-weight of processing bottlenecks and server distance, this is simply too slow. Conceivably, some obstacles could be removed by placing Stadia servers in every population center in the world, but even for a company the size of Google, this isn’t a financially viable avenue.
Better, But Never Perfect
Stadia still has its problems, but there’s no denying the service has made some major strides in the ten months it’s been active. Many of the remaining frustrations users have with the system are likely to be remedied over time, but it’s important to remember that, in some instances, game streaming can never fully measure up.
Because of this, it might be best to think of services like Stadia as more of an alternative than a replacement. Make no mistake, for slower-paced titles like turn-based games, game streaming could become a force to be reckoned with. For anything requiring the highest levels of speed, however, they’ll soon be reaching a wall no existing technology will help them scale.
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