Imagine a world where you don't need expensive gaming hardware to play the next big release – a world where all you have to do is open the Chrome browser, pick out a game you want to play and instantly have it start without any need for a lengthy download or surprisingly large patch.
That’s the idea of Google’s cloud gaming service, Stadia. From Chrome tab to 4K, 60fps game, in five seconds. No installation. Google promises that Google Stadia's cloud computing power is the equivalent of a console running at 10.7 GPU terraflops, that's more than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined. If Google delivers on this promise, then it could be a game-changer.
Rather than needing high-end hardware, Stadia (which was prototyped under the Project Stream moniker) allows you to use whatever computer you have around to play videogames. Google handles all the heavy lifting on its own servers, which can process the latest version of the game at high resolutions and frame rates, encode it into a stream, and deliver the stream to you over the internet.
At launch Google promises Stadia will support desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones - without the need for a hardware box, instead running on Google's own data center.
We got our first taste of the service during an extended beta that ran back in 2018, and now it's been fully revealed at GDC 2019.
There's still much to learn as Google's Stadia rolls out, but based on what we played last year, the renamed Project Stream serves as an impressive showcase of what the future of cloud gaming could look like.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? Google's big gaming play – a 'Netflix for gaming' streaming service that's a true console competitor, one to rival (and potentially lead) the next generation.
- When is it launching? At some point in 2019, with launch territories including the USA, Canada and UK.
- How much will it cost? That remains to be seen – it's not yet certain if you'll need to pay for individual games, or pay for a subscription pass, or a combination of both.
How Google Stadia works
As long as you’re connected to the internet with a fast and stable connection and you’re using a recent desktop version of the Chrome browser, you’ve got the setup needed to use Stadia.
Playing a videogame on Stadia is as simple as opening a new tab in Chrome and going to the service's Stadia.com homepage, or even jumping from a YouTube video link about the game.
Google will prompt you to run a connection test that checks your internet bandwidth, the latency between your computer and the servers, and any data loss. Google requires a streaming rate of 15Mbps, latency below 40ms, and data loss below 5%. With these requirements met, you’ll be ready to dive into a game.
The beta of Project Stream offered Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which is nothing short of a demanding title. When you launched the game in your Chrome tab, it would go fullscreen, and run exactly as if it has been launched on a proper gaming computer (except without a deep graphics settings menu). You can play with a keyboard and mouse or connect a game controller and play that way.
All of your inputs on the computer get sent over to Google’s servers, processed in the game, and everything happening gets streamed right back to you. This is why that latency is so important, because you can’t have a good game experience if everything you do in the game shows up a second later.
The limits of Stadia are still being detailed, but Google has stated that Stadia will eventually be able to scale up to 8K / 120+fps frame rates, with 4K/ 60 fps play as the norm. That's way above the standard bar for quality PC gaming.
So, in effect, you’re opening a new tab that pipes all your inputs to a high-end gaming PC that streams back the visuals and audio to your computer screen. This system is simpler than some others, which set you up with a virtual desktop that then remotely runs Steam, Origin, Battle.net, or what have you.
In the case of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on Stadia, you are still required to log into a Ubisoft account to play, but beta testers aren’t required to own the game.
Stadia will also work with Google Chromecast – you'll be able to stream its games straight to any TV using Google's streaming dongle, not to mention phones and computers.
You'll be able to use keyboard and mouse or a gamepad to play Stadia, and Google's Stadia gamepad, a brand new piece of hardware, seems particularly smart. First off, the issue of latency – the gamepad itself connects directly to Google's cloud, which take a few of the steps out the data transfer chain, reducing the lag between your inputs being registered by the game. It also has a dedicated Google Assistant button, which Google claims will be loaded up with information on the title you're playing, offering tips when needed, or allowing you to access special in-game features from developers.
In addition, it'll support cross-platform multiplayer – so long as the other major game players want to take part, of course.
It’s unclear at this point whether Google will require players to buy games and pay for the streaming service in separate transactions, or whether access to select games will be bundled into the service.
What games will be available on Stadia?
Through the Project Stream beta, the only available game was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. While this didn’t give us much idea of what games Google will offer in the future, it did give us a good idea of what games Google's Stadia could be capable of offering.
For a 1080p 30fps game experience at High settings in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft recommends a system with the following specs:
- OS: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 (64-bit versions only)
- Processor: AMD FX-8350 @ 4.0 GHz, Ryzen 5 - 1400, Intel Core i7-3770 @ 3.5 GHz
- Video: AMD Radeon R9 290 or NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 (4GB VRAM or more with Shader Model 5.0) or better
- Memory: 8GB RAM
- Video Preset: High
- Storage: 46GB available hard drive space
- DirectX: DirectX June 2010 Redistributable
- Sound: DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card with latest drivers
For 4K at 30fps and high settings, the recommended specs bump up to include 16GB of RAM, a more powerful AMD Ryzen 1700X or Intel Core i7 7700 processor, and a beefier AMD Vega 64 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card. With Stadia streaming in video, this limitation could be eradicated, bringing AAA gaming to even entry level laptops.
In addition, id Software confirmed Doom Eternal is coming to the Stadia - with the team only taking a few weeks to transfer the title onto Google's cloud streaming service. id Software's Marty Stratton revealed Doom Eternal is capable of running at 4K 60fps at native HDR on Stadia.
If the service can handle Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 1080p 60fps and Doom Eternal at 4K/60fps, Stadia is going to be capable of playing a whole lot of games at these settings. Other major titles could easily see support on the service.
Games with a major online focus may have dicier prospects on Stadia. Since competitive online games are often fast-paced and require split-second reaction times, the extra latency introduced by streaming will likely be an issue for serious competitors. But Stadia looks better placed to beat this issue than other similar services, with infrastructure that no-one else has in terms of fibre optic cabling, and a Wi-Fi controller that connects directly to Google's cloud. That could mean online multiplayer titles such as Fortnite supporting thousands of players rather than just hundreds.
Google also announced the launch of Stadia Games and Entertainment. This will be a new arm at Google, with the sole aim of designing games exclusively for Google's game streaming platform.
Google Stadia will also allow for developers to implement split-stream local couch co-op easier, through Stream Connect. This should allow players to not only view but interact in each other's worlds.
But, perhaps the biggest development for content creators and their viewers, is Crowd Play which will allow viewers to play games with their favorite streamers by simply clicking a button.
The big focus here is on designing a system that's both easy to play and easy to show off to your friends. To that end, Stadia will send both a 4K signal to both your device and to YouTube simultaneously, allowing you to record what you're doing.
The last feature Google showed off was called State Share - i.e. the ability for you to share any spot in your adventure with anyone via a Google link. One use case would be that State Share would allow you to record your spot in a tough boss fight and challenge your friends to beat it.
If you're stuck, either in your game or your friend's, Google Assistant integration will allow you to access guides and walkthroughs on-demand.
What was Project Stream like to use?
At its best, Project Stream was good. At its worst, well, Google won’t let you play below a certain threshold of quality, and you wouldn’t want to anyway.
We tested Project Stream on varying setups. We played on an unstable 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connection, a fast and nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi connection, and on an ethernet connection held steady and offered high bandwidth. Keep in mind this was without the dedicated hardware Google has now introduced.
We also played on a 5-year-old Chromebook, a 2-year-old Razer Blade, and a modern desktop gaming rig that would be happy to run Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 1080p/60FPS on its own hardware. We even started one computer up while another was running the stream, and Google simply transferred control over to the second computer, with no stop in the stream.
Across the board, we’d describe the experience as at least playable. The highly dated Chromebook hardware didn’t hold it back from playing. The biggest issues come from a bad connection: if the connection speed drops, so does the game quality, with lower resolutions, latency, and far more noticeable compression.
That said, in our experience, the visual degradation came before the latency, so we were able to continue battling enemies smoothly even if they started to look like ghostly swarms of pixels.
Overall, the graphics were fairly good throughout, especially when playing on a high-bandwidth connection using ethernet cables. Colors, shadows, and anti-aliasing look fine, and the frame-rate seems to vary between 30 and 60fps.
The low frame-rate was one of the two issues we noticed. The other was compression. Most of the time, it’s not super jarring, but when there’s a lot of detail in a scene and a lot of movement, the compression turns it all into a bit of slop. Character faces become a blur and hard edges (noticeably the character’s hair) go soft. Will Stadia have fixed these issues by launch?
It would seem to be a sign of the lower bitrate enabling this type of streaming, but the truth is that most of the time it’s unnoticeable, and would be even harder to spot if you weren’t looking for it (we were looking for it). Panning the camera and running through dense wooded areas in the game (and combining the two) were the only times we were turned off by the dips in visual quality.
The experience isn’t mind-blowing, at least until you remember that it’s using so little of your computers processing power that you’ve literally got a full-system virus scan going in the background and nothing changed. The visuals are comparable to what you’d get on a console, except with compression artifacts here and there. And, with a stable connection, it compares rather favorably to in-home streaming on a Steam Link.
While the price and service model Google adopts will go a long way in determining whether Stadia is worthwhile, we can say right now that its prototype works, and it looks good doing it. But, will Microsoft’s xCloud do it better?
- Looking for a fully baked game streaming service? PlayStation Now is available now