Understanding Stadia is not easy, it seems. When NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW game-streaming service finally launched out of beta last week, many tech and gaming news outlets, big and small, reported about it. And most of them immediately jumped to comparing GeForce NOW to Google Stadia – A comparison that makes absolutely no sense. And I am going to tell you why.
Some of the reports on the GeForce Now launch went as far as declaring NVIDIA the winner of the cloud gaming war. Because of all the issues Stadia has and how much better GeForce Now supposedly is.
All this shows only one thing: Most people, including “experts”, still don’t understand what Google Stadia is. At all.
Comparing Stadia to streaming services such as Shadow, Playstation Now, or GeForce Now is about as accurate as comparing an elephant to an ant. If you want to compare Stadia to anything else, the only valid option is to compare it to other gaming ecosystems like Playstation and Xbox.
As a side note: This is a pretty long article. I will first explain what Stadia is and why it’s different from anything else. After that, I will take a deep dive into all the issues Stadia currently still has and speak about some of the major criticisms.
Stadia is a platform. Not a streaming service.
What’s the difference, you might ask? And why does it matter? After all, Google Stadia is streaming games over the internet, right?
Absolutely right. But that’s where all similarities end.
The difference between Stadia and “the rest” is that the rest is merely streaming existing games from servers to your device. In the case of GeForce NOW, they are simple Windows servers, mimicking your local gaming PC. They send audio and video to you the same way Netflix does.
These services are nothing but interactive playback devices. They don’t introduce anything radically new, other than a different way of consuming existing games. These games, however, are still the same PC and console games that you already know, constrained by the system they were developed for. These games essentially just run on another computer instead of your own. That’s it.
Understanding Stadia: What is a platform?
Stadia, on the other hand, is an entire platform. Just like the PC is its own platform, and just like the Xbox and the Playstation are its own platforms. These platforms (or systems) consist of a set of APIs, infrastructure and services that games are developed for and that games run on top of. All platforms are very different from each other (even PC and Xbox, both Microsoft, are vastly different).
For example, when you play a multiplayer game on Playstation, the technology and infrastructure required to make it all work is part of the Playstation platform. Game developers don’t write their multiplayer code from scratch for each game. They plug their games into the multiplayer infrastructure provided by Sony. Yes, this is a very simplified explanation, but in a nutshell, that’s how it works. To stay with the Playstation example, if you chat with other players in Call of Duty, you’re not chatting in CoD; you’re chatting on Sony’s chat system that’s part of the Playstation platform.
Games need to be specifically developed for every platform they run on, to make use of its underlying technology stack. This, by the way, includes porting games. When developers port games from, say, PS4 to PC, they rip out all the core platform functionality from the PS4 version and replace it with the equivalent PC parts. In most cases, even the actual game code itself has to be adapted and re-compiled.
So essentially, a platform is a technology stack that games run on. It provides the infrastructure and services required for games to run. With the traditional platforms (PC, consoles), the platform is a hybrid, where parts of it run locally on your machine and other components run in the datacenters of the platform providers and game publishers.
Streaming is the least interesting aspect of the Stadia platform
Stadia streams content, yes, but it’s just a means to an end. Stadia is so much more than just running a game on a remote server and streaming it back to you. As described above, there is an entire platform behind it, a whole ecosystem, and reducing Stadia to just the streaming aspect doesn’t do it enough justice. Hence the comparison to game streaming services that do nothing else but stream is pointless.
Let’s dive a little deeper.
What makes Stadia’s platform different from other platforms?
I know, right? A buzzword that everybody is throwing around these days, as much as every company seems to be attaching AI stickers to all products nowadays. It’s all marketing, right? Here is the thing – a lot of people don’t even know what cloud actually means. Because marketers have abused the term so severely. The average consumer sees cloud as internet services that offer some kind of utility online. When people think of the cloud, they think of Dropbox. They think of Gmail, or they think of Flickr. In other words, they think of apps that run “somewhere on the internet”. And while that is mostly accurate, it is not even half of the story.
What is Cloud?
Cloud actually describes a set of different technologies that redefine how computing, storage, and network resources are utilized. Clouds pool resources that used to run on isolated, dedicated computers and appliances and make them available as one unit. Let me give you an example:
The fundamentals of cloud computing – simplified
Before cloud technologies (mostly virtualization) were invented, companies that needed to provide a service to their users (let’s say email), would run x amount of servers, when one single server wasn’t enough to handle the load. Each of the servers would run its own OS installation, each server had the same software installed, and each of them had to be configured and maintained individually. Each server was dedicated in itself, and to the service it provided. The network then took care of distributing the user traffic to those servers. Servers were essentially cloned, often enough to serve as many users as possible.
With cloud, you pool all your available servers together and make them act as one large unit. Through virtualization, that pool is dynamically sliced up into smaller portions that can then be consumed by services running on top of them – either in containers (the new trend) or virtual machines.
Furthermore, there are no hard boundaries. A slice can be 0.1 CPU cores taken from a single machine or 500 cores, spread across multiple physical machines. And when set to 5 cores and the service needs more, it dynamically grabs more on the fly. The same applies to memory, GPU, etc.
Imagine you could connect five gaming PCs to each other and make them act as one. The games you install would roughly have five times the performance and resources available but would see it as one PC.
The same principle is applied to most other resources, not just servers. Even the network in a cloud is virtualized. And it goes beyond that. There is a whole stack of software and APIs that service the apps running on the cloud. Databases, distributed filesystems, you name it.
Again, this is an extremely oversimplified description, but for the sake of bringing a point across, it’s sufficient enough. I hope. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to elaborate.
The Stadia approach is radically different
So how does all this benefit you, the gamer? Well, fundamentally, Stadia removes the confinements and limitations of single system gaming machines. Games are no longer restricted by the lowest common denominator, the single gaming PC or console sitting in people’s homes.
Instead (and in theory), games on Stadia have access to a vast amount of resources. They don’t run on your local PC or five-year-old gaming console. They run on a cloud. A supercomputer so big that it doesn’t fit into a single datacenter.
Game developers no longer have to keep low performing PCs or consoles in mind when creating their games. It doesn’t matter anymore. Because the games run on top of pooled resources, they can do things that wouldn’t be possible on your PC or console.
Example: Scaling the multiplayer experience
For instance, on Stadia, multiplayer games can scale up to tens of thousands of simultaneous players. In multiplayer games on traditional (legacy) platforms, you are limited to the number of players a single multiplayer server can handle. Take The Division 2, for example. A single Division server can host a maximum of 12 players at any given time. On Stadia, this could be scaled up to much higher amounts. Imagine PUBG or Fortnite maps ten times the size with 100 times the players, and you get the idea. Whether that particular idea is a good idea is a different story 🙂
Larger maps and higher player counts are just one of many possibilities a cloud-based approach can bring to multiplayer experiences. Here is another example of what is possible:
Example: Multi-GPU rendering
Or take GPU performance. Multi-GPU rendering (like NVIDIA’s SLI) has always been sort of a hack and didn’t perform very well. AMD’s solution had similar issues, and DirectX 12’s multi-GPU API never really took off, sadly. Stadia offers pooled multi-GPU rendering as a cloud service. Developers make a simple API call in their code, and just like that, their game is rendered by multiple GPUs. Not only two, but 3, 5, or 10. Imagine the graphical possibilities this enables.
Here is an interesting thread on Reddit, where developers discuss this and give their opinion: Developer side of multi-GPU games?
The video below showcases Stadia’s multi-GPU rendering in action. While the graphics might not look very impressive at first glance, pay close attention to the water. Google used one GPU to render most of the polygons in the scene while using multiple other GPUs to animate the water (they call this real-time fluid deformation):
Example: Computational workloads and AI
Google didn’t just build an entirely new cloud for Stadia. Stadia runs on top of the existing Google Cloud. The same infrastructure that powers all of Google’s other services also powers Stadia. Gmail, Youtube, Google Maps… they all run side by side with Stadia, sharing the same pooled resources.
What this means is that Stadia can potentially tap into all those resources as well. For example, Google is running huge farms of specialized machine learning hardware called TPUs (Tensor Processing Units). They are custom chips designed by Google for the sole purpose of tackling machine learning workloads, something that requires enormous amounts of processing power. Google uses these TPUs to power its AI services like image recognition, speech recognition, synthesis, and so forth. Stuff that makes the Google Assistant possible, or the facial recognition in Google Photos. For literally billions of users. These TPUs also feed into Stadia. Game developers can simply tap into them to make use of machine learning and AI in games – at a scale that would otherwise be impossible. Your PC or console simply can’t do this.
The same principle applies to typical CPU workloads as well. Take Real-Time Strategy games. Your CPU in your computer or console may be able to calculate the movements and decisions of a few dozen or maybe even a few hundred enemy units. On Stadia, due to the nature of pooled CPU resources, those calculations can be spread across multiple machines and CPUs, making it possible to dramatically increase the number of enemy units in a single game instance.
Stadia is a paradigm shift – for developers and consumers alike
Let me cite Phil Harrison, CEO of Stadia, from an interview he gave to Variety back in 2019 – It nicely sums up the general idea of Stadia:
“Throughout the last 40 years every game built has been device-centric, and package-centric,” Harrison said. “What I mean by that is that game developers have built for a box, they have built the game to specifically take advantage of that box until they’ve come up against the glass ceiling of the capabilities of that box. The content has reached that box in a package for it, initially as a cartridge or a cassette or a disc and then more recently as a download. But the mentality has been: I’m building for the thing and I’m going to deliver a thing for the thing.
“We just broke through that glass ceiling and we said the games are no longer device-centric. Games are data center driven and what that means for developers is a fundamental shift in the way that games are designed, made and played.”
That shift, Harrison said, likely won’t happen overnight because it will take time for those already so involved in the game industry to fully come to grips with the implications of what Stadia is.
“We’ll see over time developers understand and lean into the implications of that from a design point of view to think about the compute that they can use in the data center in support of their idea, the way that multiplayer works — which is no longer constrained by the open internet, but it can actually be accelerated by building everything inside the data center”.
Common arguments against Stadia debunked
In this section, I am going into some of the more common and prominent arguments that are frequently made against Stadia.
The bandwidth argument
But Google uses a lot of bandwidth. It transfers dozens of gigabytes of data in just one hour of gameplay. It eats up my capped data plan and my internet is too slow. It will never work.Random Gamer Outrage Cultist
Yadda yadda yadda… This is an argument mostly made by people in the United States. The world is a lot bigger than that, though. Not every country has ridiculous data caps and low bandwidth. When it comes to Internet services, the USA is a third-world country, it seems. But Google is tapping into a lot of markets, not just the US. So people claiming that Stadia will fail due to bandwidth issues have a pretty narrow field of view. Economically, it still makes sense for Google as it can serve more than enough customers who don’t suffer from lousy internet service. Reaching enough people that can consume Stadia is not the problem.
While that might not be a super helpful assessment of the situation if you belong to that group of people, know that Stadia could fail for a plethora of reasons (we’ll get to that later), but bandwidth is not one of them. If bandwidth was an issue, services like Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime Video, and so on would all have failed a long time ago.
By the way (and I am not trying to be salty here): GeForce NOW has a bandwidth requirement of 50 mbit/s for 1080p streams. That’s 15 more than Stadia requires at 4K. Just saying.
Google’s servers are too far away. The latency sucks.
Latency certainly is an issue, no doubt about that. But it’s an issue that can be tackled, for the most part. For the foreseeable future, streaming games over the internet will likely not be an alternative for esport gamers or people who play fast games where just a few milliseconds can make the difference between winning a match, or losing it. Stadia is not for them. And game streaming services like GeForce NOW are not for them, either.
However, a lot of games work pretty well with higher latencies. Think single-player games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Tomb Raider. Or just about anything that works well on consoles, given how bad latency is on consoles, overall.
And that is the market that cloud gaming providers and streaming services are targeting.
Regardless, Google – and all the game streaming services – are working hard to reduce latency. One approach is rendering the game at much higher frames per second internally and then outputting a 60 FPS video stream. The higher the FPS, the lower the latency. Another approach that Google is trying is to use specialized game controllers that connect directly to the cloud, sending all input signals directly to the game, which can save yet another few milliseconds here and there.
Google’s massive global network
The argument that Google’s servers are too far away is a myth. Google’s global network operates at a scale that is so big that it’s hard to comprehend. Here are some numbers to chew on:
Google has datacenters in almost 20 regions across the planet. Each region hosts multiple datacenters, at least three. Each datacenter is connected to each other by the largest fiber network in the world. Google’s network is larger than the networks of all major ISPs combined. Let that sink in for a minute.
In addition to the datacenters, Google operates so-called POPs, Points of Presence, which are mini-datacenters that offer core services as well as connectivity into Google’s datacenter backbone. These POPs are often located inside the networks of ISPs around the globe, as well as all major internet peering points where different ISPs interconnect. Google operates POPs in over 90 internet exchanges and over 100 interconnection facilities around the world.
But that’s not all. In addition to the POPs, Google operates thousands of edge nodes, reaching even deeper into the networks of ISPs, including your ISP.
Here is a little map showing just how vast Google’s network (and thus, Stadia’s reach) really is. Every yellow dot represents a POP, edge node or actual datacenter:
Unless you are living in the middle of Africa, Greenland, Antarctica, Afghanistan, or the Russian Tundra, chances are you are very close to Google. Much closer than you’d think.
Google will bury Stadia on their ever growing graveyard of apps and services.
This is another argument that many critics bring to the table all the time, over and over again. Why should we trust Google, given its history of canceled products and services?
This is a valid argument, but if you look at it rationally, it is unlikely that Google will just dump Stadia onto the graveyard. For one, take a look at the scale of Stadia. It’s one of the biggest and most expensive product launches in Google’s history. They have invested billions. And you don’t just throw billions out of the window, especially not if you’re a publicly listed company that has to explain business decisions to shareholders and investors.
Stadia is not just another web app that you build and then throw out after the experiment fails (Google Plus, cough cough). Google did not only invest billions in Stadia, but it also upgraded its datacenters, developed specialized hardware, and formed partnerships with other companies, mainly publishers and hardware manufacturers like AMD. There is no easy way out. You don’t just push a button and make Stadia disappear. It would have massive, dire consequences.
Stadia won’t go away anytime soon
Google sees Stadia as one of its main pillars of business going forward. From a business development perspective, Stadia has the same significance in Google’s portfolio that products like Youtube have. It’s not just another experiment. That doesn’t mean Stadia can’t fail, of course.
Furthermore, take a look at what is present on Google’s infamous product graveyard. Most of the products on there are small, tiny experiments that most people have never even heard about. The list also includes a plethora of apps and companies that Google has acquired and then shut down to get their hands on the technology developed by those companies. It also contains many products that were merged into other services, not shut down.
There are, in fact, very few products and services on that list that were of particular important substance. The biggest one, no doubt, is Google Plus. And that product hasn’t even shut down. It was rebranded to Google Currents and lives on as a service inside of G Suite (Google’s portfolio of products for business customers).
You don’t own the games on Stadia
True. You don’t. You don’t own the movies and TV shows you watch on Netflix either, and you don’t own the music you listen to on Spotify. While I understand and support the argument, most people don’t seem to care. Otherwise, services such as Netflix or Spotify wouldn’t be such a huge success. Now, this counter-argument is a bit weak, and I get that. After all, on Netflix or Spotify, you pay a monthly fee, but you don’t have to buy any additional content. It’s included in the price. On Stadia, however, you do. You actually have to buy the games. But I think my point is still valid, to a certain extent.
Furthermore, if you buy a game on a physical disc or as a digital download on Steam, you don’t own these games either. You buy a license that grants you the right to play the game. That license can be revoked at any time for a multitude of reasons, right or wrong. Even with physical discs, you have to register the game through one of the launchers like Steam or UPLAY and those providers can easily lock you out, physical discs or not.
So I am not sure the ownership issue qualifies as an argument against Stadia.
Yes: Stadia actually does have massive issues
It’s not all roses, of course. To the contrary. I am pretty sure Stadia isn’t even close to where Google wants it to be. They have launched the service way too early because obviously, they are not ready. And if Stadia ultimately fails, then it will be for that reason. They should have given this a few more years to mature.
I am not going to list all the issues that Stadia has. We all know what they are, and they get frequent coverage elsewhere. None of these issues are all that relevant to Stadia’s success, though. They are growing pains. Minor hurdles that just have to be jumped.
If I had to name one, though, it would be this:
No current Stadia games actually make use of what Stadia has to offer
The biggest issue is that all the possibilities that Stadia’s cloud platform offers are not at all utilized by any current Stadia game (with the one exception being Gylt). So all consumers get to see are existing games without any added functionality, and to them, it just looks like another game streaming service. And hence the comparison to GeForce NOW is actually understandable (but still wrong).
The big promises Google made for Stadia are all but invisible. They haven’t delivered. And that’s the key to Stadia’s lousy reception.
No game streaming service in existence can be compared to Stadia
And there is a simple reason for that: Stadia is the only cloud gaming platform in existence today. All the competitors are just streaming services. None of them do even remotely what Stadia does. And Stadia, just to re-iterate, is not about streaming.
Stadia won’t be the only one for much longer, of course, because the entire industry is preparing for cloud gaming (of which streaming is just one aspect). I’ll explain it below.
The future of Stadia and the competition
Google is in the process of creating its own first-party game studio that will develop games specifically for Stadia. Games that will actually make use of all the potential of the platform. Naturally, all of these titles are going to be platform exclusives. But we are a long way from seeing results. We all know it takes years to develop new games and IPs. And Google’s game studio had only been founded in 2018.
The studio is led by several industry veterans that Google hired from other big shot publishers and studios. The studio’s CEO, Jade Raymond, was at the helm of developing games like Assassin’s Creed. She led several Ubisoft and EA studios in the past. Stadia’s CEO, Phil Harrison, is no newcomer either. Before he joined Google, he was a vice-president at Microsoft and responsible for Xbox. And before that, he served as a president at Sony, being responsible for the Playstation.
Google is on a hiring spree
It doesn’t end there with the big names. Google hired more key people like Jack Buser, former senior director for Sony’s Playstation Now service. Stadia’s Creative Director, Julien Cuny, spent more than ten years at Ubisoft. Stadia’s Engineering Director, Relja Markovic, spent 12 years at Microsoft as CTO for HoloLens, Xbox, and PC Studios. Michael Johnson, Stadia’s Global Marketing Director, previously held similar roles at EA and Microsoft. The list goes on.
And Google really is on a hiring spree. Their jobs website currently lists 70 open positions for Stadia, and they already hired hundreds. On top of the thousands that already work for Google Cloud.
What this shows is that Google is heavily investing in human resources for Stadia and its game studio. Despite all the criticisms, despite all the negative press, Google is pushing on. Stadia won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon.
Let’s talk about Stadia’s competition. Stadia does not really compete with streaming services such as GeForce Now or Xbox Game Streaming. Stadia competes with other cloud gaming platforms that have yet to emerge.
And that’s probably the very reason why Google launched Stadia so early: The first-mover advantage. They know others are building, and they wanted and needed to be the first to market.
Several business, finance, and tech analysts believe that Amazon is working on its own cloud gaming platform. If anyone has the resources to go head to head with Google, it’s Amazon. They operate one of the most significant clouds on the planet (if not the largest cloud). It’s called Amazon AWS (Amazon Web Services), and it’s the predominant service on the Internet. When you use Twitter, you use Amazon AWS. When you use Netflix, you use Amazon AWS. When you use Twitch, you use Amazon AWS. While mostly invisible to the consumer, a lot of the Internet services they love and use run on top of Amazon’s cloud.
Amazon has all the resources to pull something off that’s similar to Stadia. And apart from Microsoft, they are currently the only ones who do.
Speaking of Microsoft, its Azure cloud takes the second spot in the list of world’s largest clouds, so I don’t really understand why its xCloud streaming service is just that, a simple streaming service. I would have expected that Microsoft built a cloud gaming platform akin to Stadia, especially after they recently said that it’s not Sony or Nintendo who are the biggest competitors to Xbox but in fact Google and Amazon.
People jump to conclusions too quickly. They write off Stadia before it even launched to the masses, and they write it off because they don’t realize what Stadia actually is: A new, cloud-based gaming platform and ecosystem. Not a game streaming service. A new platform that’s still in its infancy, no less.
Cloud gaming is the future. Ten years from now, no one will be buying consoles anymore. Because consoles won’t be able to provide anywhere near the capabilities and resulting game experiences that cloud platforms will be able to offer. Consoles won’t be able to keep up and will become obsolete. The same is true for the gaming PC.
You don’t have to be a fan, and you don’t have to like it. But it’s inevitable. And Stadia will be at the forefront of it all.
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Attribution: The cover photo of this post was created by ljdesigner and shared on DeviantArt under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.