Yesterday, Google announced that Google Stadia is shutting down in a move that should shock almost no one. However, if you are shocked, let’s talk about some of the reasons why the project has failed.
Unfortunately, this is a question that most streaming gaming services (including Amazon’s Luna and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now) have had to answer, and have often struggled to do so. While from a business perspective, it’s completely logical for these companies to compete for a larger share of an already $200 billion industry (directly attributable , since that’s where these devices would compete), it’s hard to see who the target audience for these devices is…
While most gamers will cite a lot of stats to compare consoles, graphics cards, or many other hardware components, they primarily boil down to two key questions:
How does the game look? How does the game feel?
Stadia was able to deliver on the looks, as it could stream in 4k (we’ll come back to this in a minute).
But how does it feel? The kind answer would be “laggy”. This is because every button press and, joystick movement had to make a round-trip to the cloud gaming service. Now, if you’re on a high-quality internet connection and relatively close to the hosting service, it might be playable at 10-20ms response times, but remote areas or lower-quality connections may push that well over the 1/20th of a second (50ms) threshold that is generally considered high.
And here we’re just talking about single-player games. The problem compounds for multi-player games, all but making them unplayable. In these cases, not only is there the response time to the service, but then add the game server responsiveness on top of that. Even with a very high-quality connection, this compounding delay already pushes the best use cases very close to that high ping threshold that hardcore gamers may tolerate.
One of the other initially-reasonable use cases for Stadia and it’s competitors is that they could be “console or gaming PC replacements”. Instead of buying a $500-700 console, or a $1000+ gaming PC, just buy this sub-$100 controller, dongle and pay a nominal subscription and you can do the same thing.
Like I said, initially it sound reasonable. But let’s circle back to the 4k streaming capability. That functionality will need an internet connection that will support about 25GB of steady data per hour dedicated to the Stadia service (even stepping down to 1080p would still require almost 15GB per hour). Essentially, that’s going to require an internet connection that costs at least $100/mo, and there’s going to be plenty of regions which will struggle to get those kinds of speeds or consistent connections.
While you might want that kind of connection for your console or gaming PC, it’s not quite the same requirement. While the consoles and gaming PCs do need quality connections to transfer gameplay data, Stadia is communicating that data plus the high-quailty video for the display.
Let’s say your a gamer who does primarily play single-player games, and picks up just a handful of titles each year to play. You’re not locked in to any publisher, and are probably spending $250 per year on games (assuming you buy some on release day and some on discount).
Stadia, and other services, have been using subscription models. As a baseline, you’re paying $10 per month for their standard service games, but this doesn’t include many “AAA titles”, or the premium titles that these types of gamers are more likely to buy.
So, getting access to those AAA titles is going to cost you more. Ok, you might not have an issue paying full price for a game, but that’s not how it’s priced. Instead, it also is a subscription, but this time for the games publisher, like Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Interactive, or many others, for an extra $15-20 per month.
So, now you’re already paying more than $300 per year. But with this model, what if the games you want come from multiple publishers. Adding each subscription compounds quickly, pricing out casual gamers, if the publishers games are even supported or available on the platform at all.
So why did Stadia fail? Forget the individual technical limitations or problematic business models. At it’s core, the Google team didn’t know their audience was, and the only likely beneficiaries of the Stadia product and services were Google and their publishing partners. And no matter how “cool” or “revolutionary” your products are, if your target audience doesn’t have a clear positive differentiator, it’s going to fail.