Stadia Is a Glimpse Into the Future—But Maybe Not Yours or Google’s
When Stadia works perfectly, it feels like the future of gaming. Laptop, phone, and TV: Google’s new game streaming service works across all three with the press of a button or two. The simple controller knows what to connect to and does so with ease. With Stadia, you can slip into a game typically found on a PC or console using almost any device. It makes you wonder why we’ve tethered ourselves to hardware for so long when the internet can give us all of that power at a considerably lower cost (and smaller energy bill). The problem is that Stadia rarely works perfectly. Instead, it offers us a glimmer of the future before crashing back down into the muddy present.
I desperately want to love Stadia because the concept is pretty damn perfect. It’s an idea that Nvidia, Microsoft, and the small French tech company Shadow have all explored. Traditionally, playing a game has required a console or computer that sucks up energy, makes lots of noise, and takes up space in your home. These new streaming gaming services instead rely on fields of servers in some air-conditioned warehouse to handle the actual gameplay, and then stream that gameplay to you over the internet like a super-responsive Netflix. The pitch is that you can play your games anywhere, at any time, provided you have a solid internet connection.
The problem, as I’ve noted ad nauseum at this point, is that the internet is rarely as robust as it needs to be to handle game streaming. Unless you live in a big city with access to big internet pipes, game streaming—and even 4K movie streaming—is a pipe dream. The internet in the U.S. is abysmal, particularly in rural areas. I have friends living 60 miles outside of Colorado Springs that struggle with getting HD Netflix streams on their Roku. Stadia would be impossible for them.
That’s because game streaming isn’t really just like streaming Netflix. When you press a button on your controller, that signal has to travel allllll the way to the server, be registered in the game on the server, and then that response has to travel all the way back to your screen, and it has to happen so fast you don’t notice the lag. Plus it has to give you a really sharp high-resolution image, otherwise, it will look like you’re playing your game on a potato.
That all requires a lot of very fast and responsive internet. Microsoft’s Project xCloud and Nvidia’s GeForce Now have both done a decent job of it. If the internet is fast enough, these services can give a good approximation of playing on a console without an actual console. But if the internet isn’t fast enough, the programs will tell you as much—and you’ll have zero games to play.
Unlike those services, Google’s Stadia doesn’t want to tell you no, which means it will operate (very poorly!) on less than ideal internet pipes. The internet at the Gizmodo office can sometimes get bogged down, dropping to a *gasp* mere 20Mbps. That should be more than robust enough for a 720p Stadia stream, but the stream I was served was a stuttering, blurry, and pixellated mess. Playing Destiny 2 on the Chrome browser of my MacBook Pro left me moaning “oh no” over and over again as my character jerked and jostled across the map. It reminded me of when I tried to play World of Warcraft on dial-up.
Erratic performance was fine back when I was playing something like WoW, but Stadia’s stutters made a shooter like Destiny 2 a miserable experience. Red Dead Redemption 2 fared a little better on the service, the game being less reliant on twitchy shots and jumps. But it was still a sub-HD performance that left all the characters looking like blurry blobs.
Stadia worked better on the Chromecast Ultra. Playing on a Pixel 3a provided by Google also gave me better results. (The Stadia app is also technically available on iOS, but downloading it will just remind you that servic