Sundar Pichai, the Google CEO, strode on to the stage at the 31st Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco during March 2019 to deliver a keynote product launch: Stadia, a console-free, cloud-based gaming platform. This was an intriguing proposition from the tech giant, which has no real experience in gaming. Pichai even started his speech by confessing that he wasn’t a big gamer, aside from playing FIFA 19 “quite a bit”.
It was left to Phil Harrison, the company’s vice-president in charge of the project, to sell the vision. He told the developers, designers and producers who had assembled for the conference that Stadia would be “a new-generation game platform purpose-built for the 21st century” – one where “the worlds of watching and playing games converge”.
With Stadia, Harrison explained, gamers could play high-resolution, AAA titles in real time, with no need to purchase a console. All you would need is a Google Chrome browser and an internet connection, and you could play the same games on any screen – whether a desktop, laptop, television, tablet or mobile phone. Say you’re playing Assassin’s Creed on your TV, but you need to leave the house – you could carry on gaming from exactly the same point on your mobile.
The new service would support cross-platform play and, given its ability to scale, would allow developers to expand games – “so that 100-person games like Fortnite could turn into 1,000-player battles royale.” And it would be fully integrated with YouTube, so you could watch a streamer play, click on a link and immediately be transported into the game world yourself, with no download, no updates and no install. A “share” button on Stadia’s WiFi-enabled controller – the only new piece of hardware – would let you start live-streaming your own session for others to watch or join in.
Gaming, Harrison said, is now the biggest form of entertainment on the planet, with over two billion players globally and hundreds of millions of people watching gaming content every day on YouTube alone. “Our vision is to bring those worlds closer together – to connect game developers with players and YouTube creators in a way that only Google can.”
A few months later, Harrison is standing at a high, white desk in his office at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. The Stadia team is housed in a two-storey office block towards the edge of the campus, which stretches 3km by 3km – meaning you could fit the City of London into it three times over. The whole complex feels less like a collection of high-rise company buildings and more like a Hollywood studio that has bought an entire town, giving each movie or TV show its own house. There are around 30 staff restaurants, including Indian, sushi, pizza, burrito and noodle eateries, as well as a hospital, sports fields and gyms. Employees like to say the company doesn’t mind if you go home at the end of the day, but does make it easier to stay.
Harrison, tall with closely cropped hair and a light Hertfordshire accent, joined Google in 2018, after a multi-decade career in the gaming industry. Having initially built a reputation as a games designer in the UK the late 1980s, he was one of the first people Sony approached to launch the PlayStation in 1992. He went on to run Xbox in Europe for Microsoft, before leaving to invest in gaming startups and regain a little work-life balance. Then came the call from Google.
“I was sitting round a campfire near Stonehenge with my family back in 2017,” he recalls. “Suddenly, up popped a Facebook message saying, ‘Hey, I want to connect you to somebody at Google.’ Pretty much the first thing I said to Google was ‘No, I’m not interested in working for you.’” But in the end he flew out to Mountain View, where he was convinced that Google’s ambition could provide the kind of gaming experience he’d been working towards for years.
Having invested in Gaikai, a high-end video game streaming service that was bought by Sony in 2012 to build its PlayStation Now platform, Harrison knew that cloud gaming wasn’t just an R&D problem. “It’s a scale problem, and if you try to count them on both hands, you run out of companies that could do this on a global scale before you run out of fingers,” he says. “I looked at Google’s network infrastructure, data centres, YouTube, engineering culture and long-term investment horizon and I thought – even if we’re only 50 per cent successful in lining up all of those planets, that’s going to be a pretty amazing constellation.”
He also knew that Google’s technology alone would not be enough to make Stadia a success. This is why the company chose to announce the new launch at the San Francisco conference – a full eight months before Stadia will become available to consumers in November 2019.
“The reason is simple,” Harrison says, spreading his fingers on the tabletop. “We have to excite one crucial stakeholder first, which is the game developers. We need to get them tuned into the opportunity of creating for Stadia. We’d been speaking to some developers for three or four years, because of the lead times in creating games, but we needed the developers onside before the consumers, or we wouldn’t have a platform.”
The company didn’t announce details of how the platform will work for consumers until early June 2019. It will operate a subscription model, with an initial offer of a starter pack for £119, which includes a dark blue Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra stick (needed to play on a TV), and a three-month subscription to Stadia Pro, which gives access to an assortment of free, full-price and discounted games in 4k resolution and 5.1 surround sound.
From 2020, the company will offer the controllers separately for £59 (though you do not need a Stadia controller to access the platform, which is also compatible with other controllers or a mouse and keyboard), and a Stadia Pro subscription for £8.99 per month. It will also start offering a second-tier streaming subscription, called Stadia Base, with lower resolution.
The first of the free games is Destiny 2: The Collection, and Stadia has confirmed 31 other titles at the time of writing, including Borderlands 3, Doom Eternal, Football Manager, Marvel’s Avengers, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Watch Dogs: Legion. All of these are, however, available on other platforms. In the way that the popularity of Halo helped Xbox take off, Stadia perhaps will need its “killer app” game.
Ultimately, the vision Stadia is trying to sell to developers and gamers is a kind of real-world Ready Player One – a multiverse of games linked by the cloud that players can move freely between, possibly even using the same avatar across game worlds. With streaming becoming the default way to consume entertainment – from music to video and now gaming – does this herald the end of the games console?
Sony is clearly worried. In February 2019, Sony’s chief financial officer, Hiroki Totoki, said that cloud gaming and video game streaming services could threaten PlayStation, damage if not destroy console sales and require a major investment in servers and infrastructure management – an area where Sony lags behind its rivals.
Microsoft is preparing to launch its own streaming service, xCloud, with public trials in October 2019, and Amazon is rumoured to be considering a rival service. In a move widely seen as defensive, console rivals Microsoft and Sony unveiled a partnership in May 2019, with plans to collaborate on cloud-based gaming.
“Historically, gaming was defined by the device you were playing on,” says Kareem Choudhry, vice president of cloud gaming at Xbox and the man looking to stymie Stadia’s ambitions. “Music and video started that way – now you listen and watch wherever you want. Now its gaming’s time. In mobile, music drove 3G, video drove 4G – and gaming will drive 5G.”
In a brightly-lit conference room across the hall from what looks like a student lounge – beaten-up sofas, bean bags and a huge screen with gaming controllers on every surface – Majd Bakar, the cheerful, Syrian-born head of engineering at Stadia, explains how the idea was born. It started, he says, with Chromecast – Google’s dongle that allows users to stream video or audio content from a phone or computer on to a TV, first launched in 2013.
“I joined Google from Xbox to develop Google’s Chromecast digital media player, but very rapidly it became clear there was a significant hole in the dongle’s offering: computer games,” Bakar says. “It’s the largest single entertainment industry in the world.”
According to the Entertainment Software Association, global video game revenue reached $134.9 billion (£110 billion) in 2018. For comparison, market research company The NPD Group puts global cinema box office revenues at $41.1 billion (up to $136 billion when combined with home movie entertainment revenue). Comscore reports video streaming services earning $28.8 billion, and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry puts the global recorded music market at $19.1 billion. At the start of 2019, Netflix told shareholders that gaming was a bigger threat to business than rival TV services, writing in its quarterly report that “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO”.
Bakar tried to get gaming to work on Chromecast. “The problem was, how can you get high-end, AAA games to a very low-end device?” he says. “Cloud gaming was the obvious answer for us, but as we learned more and as we understood the technology behind it, we realised it made more sense to develop a cloud service that’s available on any screen anywhere.”
The biggest challenge lies in latency – the time it takes packets of information to go from your device to the server and back again. Even fibre optic cables have roughly a 1 millisecond delay for every 120 miles; if you’re in London and the server is in Tel Aviv and you have optical fibre all the way, it would take about 30–48 milliseconds for the signal to return to you – provided the network wasn’t busy.
“For gamers, a latency of dozens of milliseconds is the most you can have to make sure that any delay is imperceptible,” says John Justice, Stadia’s head of product management. “That means you don’t score worse in your matches than before. The solution is complicated and hasn’t been technically possible before, which is why other services have struggled.”
Google’s first solution was to build more data centres nearer to users, but this wasn’t enough. There is also the matter of data compression. Since digital data was first compressed back in 1974 by a team at the University of Texas, there have been two options – “lossy” or “lossless” compression.
With lossless compression, every bit of data that was originally in the file remains after the file is uncompressed. With lossy compression, encoding and decoding discards some of the data to reduce size, using inexact approximations to recreate the content. Lossy compression is the way companies such as Netflix and YouTube can deliver apparently real-time video, but most streaming services use some level of buffering – meaning the video sent to your screen is some way ahead of your viewing. For buffering to work, Netflix needs to know what the next few minutes of video you’ll be viewing are, and send enough of it so that you never catch up with the decoding of data. Failure to stay ahead of the viewer leads to the dreaded loading screen.
In game streaming, buffering is all but impossible, as the player interacts with and changes the content on a second by second basis. All forms of lossy compression use some sort of “codec” – a portmanteau word combining coding and decoding. Stadia required a codec that could send and receive data without any buffering at roughly the speed of light. Back in 2011, when Bakar started work on the project, there wasn’t a codec capable of the compression games needed.
In 2010, however, Google had acquired On2 Technologies, a small codec technology firm in upstate New York. Since it was founded in 1992, the company had created a series of video codecs called TrueMotion, designed specifically for gaming – initially for the Sega Saturn console. Fresh iterations of the technology were known by their version numbers; by the time Google acquired the company, its latest codec was VP8, speedy but poorly equipped to handle high resolution images. Engineers then worked on VP9, which deals with high-resolution images in an innovative way – expanding sky pixels, for instance, to fill more space.
“The VP9 codec is open, but in Stadia’s case, we do special work in the encoder that makes it super fast,” Justice says. “That encoder still follows the VP9 standard format, so every VP9 decoder out there can read the streams. But our encoder is specially optimised, making it much faster. We put a lot of special sauce in there.”
In theory, this means massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Neverwinter or World of Warcraft can actually deliver on the offer they seem to be making. Currently, the massively multiplayer element of such games is in fact the result of a kind of online smoke and mirrors known as “shards”. In effect, developers balance the number of players with available computing power by dividing players into shards, or subgroups, on different servers. That means players are restricted to interacting with a small subset of the overall game community.
“There’s only enough computational power to maybe render 50 or 100 people on the screen, but really there are many, many more people in that world – they’re just in a parallel universe,” says Jack Buser, Stadia’s director for games. “But think of the creative possibility of removing all those limitations. You could have hundreds of thousands of people on screen at a particular time – with the potential for millions of people, jumping in and out of a single instance in the game anywhere you can place a link on the internet. It would be one giant world that goes on for decades, never turns off and never resets. We’ve dreamed of this, but it was always the kind of thing you would only see in a movie until today.”
There is one fully functioning single-shard game, called EVE Online, available on Steam. It’s a community-driven spaceship MMO where players can explore, set up mining operations and industries, plot and plan in an ever expanding sandbox. The game is slow-moving and, for players used to high-adrenaline action, can verge on boring – until, every now and then, insane events sweep the game. In 2014, for instance, 7,548 players took part in a 21-hour player-versus-player battle known as the Bloodbath of B-R5RB. In June 2019, a vast non-player fleet of aliens attacked the majority of players at the same time.
Stadia’s potential – and the thing that sees the team’s faces light up – is that it could offer an EVE Online-style experience at Fortnite’s breakneck speed. But first, it needs the games.
Two people have been given the job of overseeing content so compelling that it will attract players to Stadia: Jade Raymond and Erin Hoffman-John.
Raymond is something of a legend in the gaming industry, known as much by her leather biker jacket as for her enviable CV. The Canadian producer worked on The Sims Online at Electronic Arts (EA), developed Assassin’s Creed for Ubisoft and helped EA create its Star Wars games.
“Playing games is fundamental to being human,” she says. “People don’t choose a new platform because they love its technology – they go because their hearts are touched. Would Xbox have been a success without Halo? We have to make sure that the core gamers are our core fans and the people we are delivering value to first.”
Raymond is creating a publishing team to work with external developers to make exclusive content for Stadia, while also building Stadia’s own internal game studio. Her move to the company in March was widely seen as a boost to Google’s gaming credentials.
Hoffman-John’s role is more future-focused. She runs Star Labs, a prototyping games studio on the ground floor of the Stadia building. The games she and her team build are intended to explore what could be possible on the platform. Currently, they are toying with the idea of a dragon world – an immersive wilderness where you find a dragon egg, see it hatch and raise the dragon to recognise your voice. You have to feed and care for it – much like a Pokémon – but can also ride it, fight other players, form groups and guilds, and carve out territory.
Growing up in San Diego, Hoffman-John loved Dungeons & Dragons – the original multiplayer role-playing game that used pencils and dice. When the game came under assault from religious groups, who feared it would convert players to satanism, in the 1980s, her parents banned her from playing, and she discovered America Online – with chat rooms devoted to D&D. Soon she was building worlds and running text-based adventures on the computer instead.
At Stadia, her mission is to work towards reaching the “next billion gamers” – “something of a concept for Google”, she says. “There are nowhere near enough game developers to reach a billion extra gamers, so we need to radically widen the content pipeline and the ability for developers to really amplify themselves.”
The high development and marketing costs of gaming can be fatal to small companies, and there is a huge division between AAA and indie studios. “The indies are known for being very innovative, but often that innovation won’t reach the market for many years – by which time the indies are not there to benefit from it,” she says. “If they could iterate very quickly, throw out an entire level and make a new one in a week instead of in three months, then all of a sudden you get a lot more swings at that problem.”
Cloud computing allows for cheaper tools, which could make this kind of iteration possible and allow for more options in-game. Hoffman-John gives the example of character diversity. “One of the reasons that we see narrow demographics in gamers is representational … do I see people that are like me in the game?” she says. “If you can create a character with 8,000 animations for the same price as creating one with 15, then you can suddenly have hundreds more characters representing far more demographics.”
Her team is also bringing some of Google’s natural language processing into Stadia’s game development tools in a bid to create characters who respond believably to individual players. Currently, designers have to imagine every possible conversation, and type character responses in by hand. “What I want is a character that is, say, kind of neurotic, really likes ice cream and had a really passive aggressive mother,” she says. “The AI will create all the little ticks and patterns in the dialogue resulting from that kind of background. Ideally, that character would have a simple memory so when you encounter them hours later, they remember conversations they had with you.”
All of these tools, she believes, will enable a crucial part of Stadia’s vision – to provide a liminal space between games for players to be creative and express themselves, and to construct their perfect digital self.
Aside from games, Google is counting on its not-so-secret weapon to help attract developers and players: YouTube. In 2018, users viewed over 50 billion hours of gaming content on YouTube, making it the largest gaming spectator platform in the world. This may be small compared to the global TV industry (a report by Eurodata TV found that average TV viewing around the world in 2018 was 2 hours 55 minutes per day), but in terms of a dedicated targeted audience for developers to market new games to, it offers a huge opportunity.
Stadia plans to expand on this by offering a feature whereby viewers can easily jump into a game with their favourite YouTube stars. It could also work with video game trailers. Like what you see? Just click and start playing.
The man in charge of this fluid viewer/player interaction is Stadia’s director of product, Andrey Doronichev. He gives me a tour of the Stadia building, with Willy Wonka-style rooms full of multicoloured controllers, and smaller suites with huge sofas and large two-way wall mirrors that allow the Stadia team to observe people testing the system.
Doronichev recalls that, as a child, he really wanted a new Star Wars game, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, and worked shifting manure at his parents’ farm to buy it. When he did, it took two hours to copy to his computer – and then he didn’t have enough memory to run it. He had to wait six months for his parents to upgrade his computer before he could play it. “My job here is to make that delay into zero,” he says.
For all Stadia’s promises, there remains one big question: can it succeed? And what will it mean for the gaming industry if it does?
“This is definitely the kind of power move that only a large tech company could make,” says David Farrell, lecturer in computer games at Glasgow Caledonian University. We meet in a pub in Edinburgh, south of Scotland’s gaming hub Dundee, where the companies behind Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto, Crackdown and Minecraft were all originally based. In 2018, Edinburgh-based Cloudgine, which developed real-time cloud gaming technology, was bought by Fortnite creators Epic Games to help move its Unreal game engine into the cloud.
“Cloud gaming is the future – although when it comes to the next generation of consoles, Google’s offering isn’t the most exciting thing around, and it’s not clear how long it’ll take to get there,” he says. “In the long term, Google isn’t really trying to be Xbox; they’re trying to be the platform on which everyone else builds their cloud gaming. EA is using Google as its streaming provider rather than developing its own streaming tech – so essentially, they’re offering their ‘Netflix of gaming’ on the back of Google technology. Unless Google comes up with some killer app games, it’s just building the pipes for cloud gaming to run through.”
George Jijiashvili, senior analyst at tech research giant Ovum, has reservations about the technology, especially when it comes to latency and lag. “Most of what Google is promising is possible and deliverable, but there are three or four pain points that will take a few years to be ironed out,” he says. “The biggest one is networks – they can open up new data centres closer to hubs, but most of the networks users are receiving are low quality, and were put in place to transfer voice or small packets of data.”
Majid Bakar insists Google has developed a solution to this. “Our platform and infrastructure allows for techniques that create additional time buffers,” he says. “We can generate frames in less time than it takes consoles or PCs, and with our machine learning experience we have built models to help with the prediction and generation of content faster. This counteracts the impact of network distribution time.”
But consumers will still need an internet connection of a certain speed to make full use of Stadia’s offering. Google says that players will need a 35 Mbps connection for the top-end 4K resolution experience or 20Mbps to play in HD, with a recommended minimum of 10Mbps. Matthew Handrahan, editor of trade site gamesindustry.biz, thinks this may be asking too much. “I lived in Berlin until six months ago, and I could only dream of 6Mbps,” he says. “We will only be able to judge properly when they’re out in the wild and not in high-speed San Francisco.”
Then there’s the issue of Stadia’s business model, in terms of attracting both game developers and end users. At this point, the service lacks the exclusive, hugely desirable AAA games that consoles traditionally use to gain market share. These are not cheap to develop. Most AAA games cost up to $70 million in pure development costs, with marketing spend on top of that. The real killer app games double that figure. Grand Theft Auto V cost $137 million back in 2013, and Halo Infinite – the kind of game Stadia is up against – is rumoured to have a budget of between $200 million and $500 million. And while Stadia offers a monthly subscription, Jijiashvili says that “it’s not the Netflix service some gamers thought. People who sign up will still have to purchase games. Unlike music with Spotify, where albums died and cheaper individual tracks became the offer, you can’t break games down into smaller chunks.”
Handrahan says that developers are desperate for a new marketplace. “Virtual reality has stalled so there’s been no new platform since mobile gaming 15 years ago,” he says. “But developers are wary about Stadia. They are waiting to hear how their games will earn money in the free streaming service.”
Typically, platforms take 30 per cent of a game’s cover price, meaning big publishers take 70 per cent, and developers without a big publisher end up with 40 per cent. Increasingly, revenue for developers is shifting towards in-game spending, meaning they earn more money per minute of play rather than per copy sold. Developers offering a game with a defined end goal – such as first-person shooter Doom, which on the PS4 takes an average of 23 hours to finish, or the beautifully simple puzzle game Gorogoa, which takes just over two hours to complete – might struggle financially on a subscription streaming service.
That said, increased competition among gaming platforms could be good news for developers. In December 2018, Epic Games opened its digital store for Mac and PC games, targeting Steam owner Valve, which currently controls 90 per cent of that market. In a bid to disrupt Valve, Epic is taking just 12 per cent of a game’s earnings.
Google remains tight lipped about its financial agreements, but Miles Jacobson, studio director at Football Manager developer Sports Interactive Games, says their deal “works for us – which I haven’t been able to say about other attempts at streaming platforms previously”.
He does, however, think that future arrangements need to include ancillary revenues. “We need to be better as an industry at monetising away from just core game sales,” he says. “Mobile has done this in some ways, both good and bad, but we also need to look at merchandise opportunities – and doing some kind of deal with the content streaming platforms, like YouTube, to actually get a cut from them when people use their platform to watch our content be played – just like music companies have for music being used in any context on the videos on their platforms.”
Back in his office, Phil Harrison suggests everyone is missing the big picture.
“Arguably, the least interesting thing about Stadia is the fact that it’s a streaming platform,” he says. “Every successful technology disappears – it becomes ambient and you only think about the experience. That changes fundamentally the way that the game is designed and the market works.”
For the last 40-odd years of game development, he says, every game has been device-centric. Its design has been gated by the capabilities of the box, and the hardware and software inside. Each time a developer wants to move a game to a different box, they have to go and reinvent some aspect of it.
“Stadia turns it on its head,” he says. “We are allowing the developer to make the game once and then bring it to any screen in your life, so that you, the player, has the relationship with the game, not the device. That’s a big mental shift in the way that games are made, but also the way that games are played.”
He compares this to the history of the moving image. In the very early days of cinema, creation and distribution of content was vertical, not horizontal. Films only worked in certain cinemas, because they were shot on certain cameras. “Then the distributors democratised the exhibition of movies and created a platform that everybody could build to – which detonated a huge explosion of content and access to content.”
What game would he design with all of Stadia’s potential? He pauses. “I now look at games through the eyes of my children,” he says. “I would love to create an experience that my eight- and ten-year-old sons would allow me to play with them. To have that shared experience where we can go on a journey together as a band of brothers. Those kind of experiences become shared and memorable if you go to a theme park with your kids taking photographs and videos – why shouldn’t you have the same experiences when you go into the game world?”
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