Streaming is the future of gaming. You can ask practically anyone, as long as that “anyone” is involved in selling games.
Ask Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan, who said in May that “the streaming era is upon us” (convenient for him, since Sony has been streaming games since 2014). Ask Microsoft, which is testing streaming through its xCloud service and plans to add the feature to its regular game offerings next year. Ask the CEOs of Ubisoft and Activision, both of whom seem to think traditional game downloads and discs will be a thing of the past in a few years’ time.
And you should definitely ask Google, which since March has been telling anyone who will listen that streaming is the future of gaming and that Stadia is the future of game streaming. But with the Stadia service going live for some pre-order customers today, a better question might be whether streaming is the present of gaming. More specifically, is Stadia a robust-enough product to convince players they can leave behind the comfort and safety of games running on local hardware in favor of games running on powerful remote servers?
After trying the service for a week through a pre-release reviewer program, the answer is decidedly “no.” As it stands at launch, Stadia is too limited and too unreliable, with too little advantage to justify giving up on the established way of delivering and playing games. While there are some interesting fringe benefits to a gaming life in Google’s cloud (and the potential for more in the future), today those benefits are not worth the headaches and risks associated with the transition to Google’s platform.
Google has been relatively up front about the bandwidth required to get a quality Stadia streaming experience in your home: 10Mbps minimum recommended for a “baseline” 720p experience; 20Mbps for 1080p; and 35Mbps for the full 4K experience. We tested Stadia on a Verizon FiOS connection (and the company-issued FiOS-G1100 802.11ac 5Ghz router) in the Washington, DC, area. Speed tests on that connection reliably get 100Mbps upload and download speeds, so bandwidth minimums weren’t really a concern (the connection gets a “Bufferbloat” rating of C from DSLReports). We also intentionally throttled the connection via router settings to test lower bandwidth limits, and we found streaming quality more or less conforms to Google’s recommended specs.
But getting a good gaming experience with Stadia depends on more than bandwidth. In a week’s worth of testing, the Stadia stream quality seemed to vary wildly based on the mysterious vagaries of our home networking.
When running on a wired Ethernet connection, Stadia just about performed as advertised. That means smooth frame rates that generally held at 60fps and controls that felt largely indistinguishable from those on local hardware (even with the Stadia controller connected directly to the router via Wi-Fi). While there was likely some additional input lag over local play, in Ethernet tests it wasn’t enough to be noticeable to the naked eye, even for twitchy shooters and fighting games. Playing with friends online was similarly smooth, with no significant lag over a wired connection (though we weren’t able to test out online voice communications during the pre-release review period).
The stability of wired Stadia play was in stark contrast to the Wi-Fi Stadia experience, which was inconsistent to the point of aggravation. This became apparent in our very first tests, playing Mortal Kombat 11 on a Chromecast Ultra stationed on a TV one floor above the router.
The first few single-player matches played beautifully, with crisp, smooth graphics and controls that made quick special moves easy to pull off. Then the Chromecast suddenly warned me that my connection had become “unreliable” and that “gameplay may stop” if it didn’t improve. The sudden message was all the more vexing because I was alone in the house, with no other devices actively running on the network.
At that point, I faced a noticeable drop in resolution and frequent frame-rate stutters that made the game nearly unplayable. As promised, gameplay was forced to stop a couple of times as Stadia kicked me back to the main menu (while I was able to reconnect relatively quickly and without losing my spot in the game, but it was still a major annoyance).
The Wi-Fi inconsistencies continued for the rest of the week. One day, the Wi-Fi connection would be so bad that I could barely get a Stadia stream to run for a minute on a Chromebook sitting mere feet from my router. The next day, that same Chromebook would provide an excellent Stadia stream in my downstairs kitchen even with a Netflix stream running on a nearby iPad. These were in locations in the house where I usually get a reliable Wi-Fi connection and where I didn’t run into similar problems when testing Microsoft’s xCloud beta on a Pixel phone last month (though xCloud resolution did bounce up and down a lot depending on the connection quality).
Even the “bad” Wi-Fi experience was often “good enough” for slower-paced games like Kine or Gylt, where a bit of visual stuttering or a missed input isn’t the end of the world. But on a game like Destiny 2 or Mortal Kombat 11, these frequent and unexplained quality dips did not make me feel like this was the future of gaming.
Perhaps other testers with different routers or Wi-Fi spectrum environments won’t see the same wireless issues with Stadia that we did. For now, though, if you plan to use Stadia over Wi-Fi, we highly recommend you borrow a “buddy pass” from a pre-order subscriber and test how the service works in your own home before making the investment.
Pick your poison
Stadia is in many ways three separate products bundled into one service. There’s the Stadia available on a Chromecast Ultra hooked up to your TV. There’s the Stadia available on Pixel phones (and other iOS and Android devices, eventually). And there’s the Stadia available on any PC or laptop that can run a Chrome browser.
Ideally, all three of these would feel like seamless parts of one whole; a down payment on Google’s promise of eventually bringing gaming to every screen in your life. At launch, though, all three feel like they were created by separate teams that barely talked to each other.
|Stadia launch feature comparison|
|Hardware/software||Chromecast Ultra||Chrome browser||Pixel 2/3/3a/4*|
|Max. Resolution||4K (with Stadia Pro sub.)||1080p*||1080p|
|Stadia controller||Wireless only||Wired only*||Wired only*|
|Buy games directly||No||Yes||No|
* Feature due for improvement/broadening in 2020.
Of the three versions of Stadia, the Chrome browser version feels the least robust. For one, it’s currently limited to a 1080p image. That might not be too noticeable on an average living room TV or on a tiny mobile phone screen. But it ends up being a real limitation when you’re sitting only a foot away from a big PC monitor (or even a moderately sized laptop monitor).
More than that, the Chrome browser stream is noticeably less sharp than the same games running locally, even at the same resolution. The Stadia version looks like someone smeared a thin film of vaseline on the camera lens before sending the image to the monitor, as you can see in the above album of screens comparing Steam and Stadia versions of Destiny 2 (the local version was captured at maximum settings and 1080p resolution). Google says higher-resolution streaming will be available via Chrome “as soon as early 2020,” but for now, the browser provides a passable but disappointing Stadia experience.
That’s a shame, because the Chromecast Ultra version of Stadia shows that the service has the potential to do more. The 4K images you get from a fully functional Stadia stream on your TV are hard to distinguish from those coming from a local PS4 Pro (assuming your Internet cooperates, as discussed above). Those images come with a bandwidth cost of up to 20GB/hour, though, so be wary if your Internet provider has a data cap.
Chromecast Ultra is also the only way to use the Stadia Controller wirelessly at launch (it needs to be hooked up via USB-C on mobile and PC, for now). That controller is one of the highlights of the Stadia launch package: it boasts a solid, well-balanced weight; comfortable, clicky face buttons and analog sticks; quality ergonomic design on the d-pad and shoulder triggers; and strong, distinct rumble motors. That’s especially important, because the Stadia controller is the only one that works with Stadia on Chromecast (so be ready to invest in another for local multiplayer).
If your Wi-Fi cooperates, the mobile version of Stadia provides a convenient way to play high-end titles anywhere in the house. And Stadia’s 1080p mobile stream resolution is plenty for the more limited smartphone screen real estate. But the mobile version is the only one that doesn’t support voice chat and multiplayer parties at launch, for some reason. That’s OK, though, because the mobile Stadia app is also the only way to buy Stadia games at launch, meaning you’ll have to pull it out before buying games for the Chromecast or PC versions.
That oversight doesn’t even cover all the features missing from all three versions of Stadia at launch. Stadia games don’t have an Achievement UI yet. You can’t share purchased games with a subsidiary family account. The ballyhooed Google Assistant integration, which has its own button on the controller, isn’t working at launch. And while you can capture screenshots and videos using a button on the controller, those captures are currently trapped on the Stadia mobile app, with no way to remove them or share them with the world until next year.
Many Stadia-exclusive features that were supposed to set the platform apart also aren’t ready in time for launch, despite being discussed publicly since March. You can’t share unique game states through an easy Web link. You can’t stream your gameplay to YouTube and let viewers jump into your multiplayer session immediately. And you can’t integrate your gaming viewpoint into another Stadia user’s screen.
Maybe one day these features and more will put Stadia at or above par with other game platforms. Right now, across all three hardware use cases, the platform itself feels a bit half-baked.
Listing image by Kyle Orland