Tech giant Google is getting into gaming in a big way with a direct challenge to the giants of console and PC gaming. It’s called Stadia.
Former Sony and Xbox executive and current Google gaming boss Phil Harrison detailed the platform today at an event in San Francisco during the Game Developers Conference, saying it would link all the ways people play games. The core of it is that it’ll be a gaming platform that runs via streaming, no console or PC needed and no games downloaded or running on a disc at the users’ end.
Harrison and a host of other presenters boasted of high-end gaming running in 4K and 60 frames per second, streamed across Google’s network to any screen you can think of.
“This new generation of gaming is not a box,” Harrison said. It will launch later this year, first in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Europe.
Crucially, Harrison and the other assembled presenters did not say how fast users’ internet speeds would need to be to get the sky-high performance hyped throughout the event, let alone to enjoy multiplayer games that run entirely via streaming.
Previous game-streaming services such as OnLive have offered similar hardware-free or hardware-light propositions but didn’t hit it big in part due to users’ discomfort, distrust or dissatisfaction with connection lags. Google argues that its custom hardware network can offer high enough quality gaming to satisfy and even convert people used to buying games on disc or downloading them. The company prototyped the Stadia tech last fall by allowing users of a program called Project Stream to play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in a Google Chrome browser. We had tested it ourselves and were impressed. That service had required users to have download speeds of at least 15 megabits per second and latency of 40 milliseconds or less.
Update - 7:25pm: A Google PR rep tells Kotaku that Google’s Project Stream was able to provide 1080p, 60fps gameplay for users with 25 megabits per second connections. “When Stadia launches later this year, we expect to be able to deliver 4k 60 fps at approximately the same bandwidth requirements,” they said.
Kotaku readers have shared their own experiences with Stream in the comments to this article, some saying performance was superb, others saying it was lacking. Download speeds are just one factor for having an optimal connection and those speeds and the latency of connections will be a key factor for Stadia’s viability.
At the event, Harrison walked through an example of how Stadia might work. Someone could be watching a trailer for a game, click the option to play now and be playing within five seconds. “No download, no patch and no install,” Harrison said. “Stadia offers instant access to play.” He said it reduces the friction between being excited about a game and playing it.
Stadia will work on TVs, tablets, laptops, and phones. It’ll work with existing controllers when playing on a laptop and PC. Stadia will also have its own controller. The Stadia controller, which is optional, connects to Google’s streaming data centers directly over WiFi, for limiting latency. It has a capture button that shares to YouTube and a Google Assistant button that’ll activate the controller’s microphone to provide help in a game. The Stadia controller is required for using the service on a TV, Harrison told us in an interview late on Tuesday.
During the presentation, Harrison said that Google has already shipped Stadia development kits to more than 100 studios and announced the creation of Google’s own first-pary development studio, Stadia Games & Entertainment. It will make exclusive content for Stadia and will be run by Jade Raymond, the longtime game producer whose credits include the creation of the Assassin’s Creed franchise at Ubisoft. Raymond said her team will also work with external studios to bring Stadia’s features to their games.
“I’m actually not a big gamer,” Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said at the start of the keynote. But he said he leads a company full of people interested in solving hard technology problems. To that end, the presentation of Google’s platform today was angled as a way to offer an approach to gaming that is based on streaming games over a low-latency network.
Pichai showed off the company’s custom server hardware and connections.
The idea, he said, is “building a game platform for everyone,” removing hardware barriers.
Google is saying that is thousands of edge nodes and racks of powerful hardware can offer significant technological muscle to provide games running at high specs. For launch, they’re promising 4K gaming at 60 frames per second.
Stadia is being built with the help of PC giant AMD, which is offering a custom GPU for the platform’s server-side processing (remember, nothing is really happening on the device Stadia gamers use to play games).
Crucially, at the event the Stadia team didn’t immediately clarify how fast a user’s internet needs to be to get the best performance, a make or break element of Google’s plans. That answer emerged later in the day with comment from Google PR as well as in our interview with Harrison, who said users would need a 30 Mbps for 4K, 60 fps gaming.
As for the games? The first game announced for Stadia turned out to be the upcoming Doom Eternal, which Id Software producer Marty Stratton said took a few weeks to get working on Stadia. Stratton said the game would run at 4K and 60 FPS.
Harrison noted that Stadia would support cross-platform play.
Some proofs of concept shown for Stadia include things like allowing couch co-up through streaming that doesn’t tax the performance of a game, the ability for multiple people to view the same game world from a range of perspectives, again without a hit on performance.
Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert (of PixelJunk gaming fame) introduced a Stadia concept called “state share,” which enables the game to code a particular moment (where the player is, what they have, a specific moment int he game) that can be shared via a link. Cuthbert said his team is making a game that is based all around this concept, but couldn’t unveil it yet.
Another Stadia feature demoed today is something called Crowd Play. They demoed it by letting people watch a stream of a game and the queue up to be next to take over the game and play it. This, YouTube Gaming’s Ryan Wyatt said, would allow YouTubers to curate a group gaming experience.
Harrison said Google will reveal more about the platform’s launch line-up this summer. For what it’s worth, sets of icons shown on Google’s event stream even before the game began hinted at some of the games that could be on the service.
We’ll share more as we find out.
While we described Google’s Stadia as a competitor to traditional console and PC gaming models, it’s also worth considering that one of those bastions of traditional console gaming, Microsoft, is also prepping a streaming-based service. Project xCloud, revealed last year, is intended to also enable high-end gaming experiences on a wide range of screens, freeing people from needing to own a PC or console to play games that would otherwise only run on those devices. In a company blog post a week ago, Microsoft said that users would be able to “test it in real-world scenarios later this year.”
If you’d like to hear a whole lot more on Google’s plans with Stadia, we interviewed Harrison earlier today on Splitscreen, and you can listen to that (or read the essential notes) here.
Note: This story was updated throughout the day with more details about Stadia and its competition.