Stadia hands-on: Big gaming promises and lots of unanswered questions

Want to know what most of the companies claiming to have the ability to "bring gaming to everyone" have in common? They aren't around anymore, and gaming as an industry remains largely unchanged by the effort. The other thing those companies had in common is a general lack of resources, and very little experience when it came to actually building something for the gaming community at large.

Google, on the other hand, is Google, and it wants to change the way we play games. To do that it has been silently acquiring industry veterans and pulling together its massive cloud-based resources to make its pitch to the world. And as cool as all of that sounds, it's still not entirely clear the company is up to the challenge.

Gaming for all, with the usual caveats

Stadia, which is the plural of "stadium" for those not catching on to Google's clever play on words, is an entirely cloud-based gaming platform. There is no console, no default configuration, and very few minimum system requirements. Your Stadia "console," if you can call it that, lives on a server rack in a Google data center, and offers computing power significantly higher than modern gaming consoles.

With no console in your home or at your desk, there's no install times or loading screens. Stadia is promising the ability to jump into a game five seconds after clicking a browser link. And those links could be anywhere, in a YouTube stream or an email or a text message. You can send a friend a link to join you in a new game you just found, and be playing online with them just about instantly. And if you're watching someone play a game on YouTube Live, you can actually join a lobby to play with that person if they choose to allow it.

But the real feature here is the ability to play anywhere. If you want to play on your phone or tablet, you can. If you want to play on an old laptop, all you need is the Chrome browser. If you'd like to use your television, just pop in a Chromecast Ultra (opens in new tab) and connect a gamepad via Bluetooth. Which gamepad, you ask? Basically all of them. At GDC 2019, Google set up demos featuring older Logitech gamepads and brand new Raiju Ultimates (opens in new tab) side by side. Xbox and Sony are included as well; Stadia works with the new Xbox Adaptive Controller for those with accessibility needs.

Of course, the "best experience" comes from the official Stadia Controller, which is not yet available to demo. Two of the three colors expected to be available at launch were hidden behind glass cases, and to be honest they look like all of the other modern game controllers available today. Sitting on an end table, this controller would be easily confused for an Xbox One X or Nintendo Switch Pro controller. Which is good, because Microsoft and other companies have put decades of research into designing high-quality controllers and there's no need for Google to remake the wheel here. But since we haven't actually touched one yet, it's hard to say how comfortable it actually is compared to the competition.

This all sounds awesome, but very little of it is available to actually test right now.

The big features you get with this controller are a screen capture button and a Google Assistant button. The capture button is basically standard at this point, since Sony and Nintendo have made capturing video and screenshots on the fly a single-button activity. Everyone wants to be able to share their epic moments, or instantly live stream to friends and fans. As for the Google Assistant button, that's somewhat less clear. Google is hoping developers will lean into supporting this button in their games, but the only demo we saw on stage was someone asking the internet for help with a difficult part of a game when it happened.

This all sounds awesome, but very little of it is available to actually test right now. Stadia isn't launching until the summer, and the demo stations Google's offering are mostly things we've already seen before. Assassin's Creed Odyssey ran beautifully in the Project Stream demo, and we saw more of that again. Even with access to developers tools, which artificially adjusted the data connection we had, the quality drops didn't feel like deal-breakers. Input lag was less noticeable in ACO compared to Doom, where being able to twitch the controller really matters. There was definitely a little bit of a delay, which made a game I am deeply familiar with feel just slightly off.

So much we don't know

Google's presentation for Stadia was beautiful and bold, but it was also light on details. We have no idea how much any part of Stadia is going to cost, or what the launch lineup is going to look like outside of a few educated guesses. We know Doom Eternal is claiming to support 4K streaming at 60FPS, but it's unclear what kind of internet connection you're going to need to pull that off. With the average internet connection in the U.S. hovering at around 15Mbps, it's important to know whether Stadia will scale down seamlessly. And if all you get is a 720p at 30FPS connection with those lower speeds, is this service going to be worth it?

Whether this is really the future of "gaming for all" is an open question.

What about all of these sharing features? What anti-abuse tools is Stadia going to include at launch for people who allow others to join their games when streaming? Will these tools be integrated in the YouTube Creator interface, or will Stadia be its own system separate from YouTube?

The good news is there's a fair bit of time between now and "summer" for Stadia to answer these questions. But in delaying, the competition is going to be making its own announcements. Microsoft's Project xCloud makes some similar quality claims when compared to the Stadia offering, and the Xbox team needs to work way less hard to court developers to its gaming platform. By the time E3 rolls around, Stadia could have some very serious competition.

Through all of the confusion and anticipation, there's a lot of promise here. Stadia is being presented as a massive leap forward, totally absent the Google brand, and it's run by people who genuinely love games and have been working in this industry for a very long time. It's more than enough to leave me curious to take a deeper dive into this platform, but whether this is really the future of "gaming for all" is an open question.

See at Stadia (opens in new tab)

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • I am all in... Playing remotely has always been a huge want for me. Sony really pissed me off by not making Remote Play available on all Android phones {I own a PS4}. The reason I switched over from Xbox to PS4 was for this new capability they were launching way back when. But limiting that ability to only their Xperia phones was a mistake. Now, if Stadia pulls a rabbit out of a hat with this being real and true, Sony will loose me as a customer. Sony was short sited when they didn't need to be.
  • Just to add injury you can now remote play on iphone. I believe you can still simply install the package for remote play on android from non playstore sources.
  • So no more selling games that you beat. Sad are the days that physical copies are gone. But that's neither here nor there.. I wonder if this is going to be a pay per game service like traditional consoles or a subscription service that would allow you to play your friends at a moments notice in the latest game. Maybe tiered subscription... One game our two games etc. The other thing that is a bit concerning is the ability to share game invites via text and email. Just wait for the inevitable phishing and malware that will be spread!
  • Subscription. But don't tell anyone, it's still a secret.
  • This is going to flop HARD.
  • Only if they try, fail and give up. Version 1.0 games will be bad but Version 3.X games should catch on like Steam did.
  • Sad to say but this looks like the trend in the future for gaming, gaming on the cloud/cloud streaming, cost of living is rising, parents are less reluctant to fork out money for consoles/games and online services.
    From a parents point of you and if the pricing model is good, this could be very appealing to them, companies have tried and failed in this department, it just takes one company to do it right and they might have something, Google could be that company, the amount of money they are putting aside for this is like spare change to them so they can afford to experiment, not so much for smaller companies.
    Lets hope they do something different and do it better, then it could take off, only issue with this is your internet connection, that is the biggest factor I can think of.
    I'm old school, I like having the physical hardware along with my retail copies of games, I'm on the fence on this until more details is released.
  • I understand about parents (I am a dad of 3) and forking out money for consoles and games but there is another consideration; data caps. If you reach your data cap quicker then that means you either need to pay for each gig you use after your cap is reached (which will get super expensive super quick) or upgrade your internet plan (if available) which will COST MORE! So actually, I don't see this as a viable alternative to buying consoles and having the games in your possession.
  • I think people are ignoring what is actually going to be the biggest issue with Stadia. It isn't data speeds. It is data caps. I am already pushing up against my ISPs caps and this would demolish them.
  • Seriously. I just moved back to the States after living abroad the past few years and every ISP in the area has data caps. I'm already at 80% with almost 2 weeks to go!
  • Bingo! I don't often even use half of my 1 terabyte data cap but if I start streaming games then I'll blow through it within no time.
  • They will run a parallel service called Stadium that runs at 480p an then kill them both 18 months later.
  • Thanks for mentioning how most American's internet is nowhere near fast enough to make this viable. We don't live in a tech metropolis with fiber, gigabit, and (soon to be) 5G modems. It can be really frustrating reading gushing articles from the majority of tech journalists who are completely out of touch with the conditions a majority of us live with. Another big downside to streaming is the inability to mod the game.
  • Oh yes, you raised a pretty good point regarding mods.
  • Definitely a drawback when it comes to benign modding. But a big upside to streaming is the inability to malignantly mod the game to gain unfair advantage through circumventing intended account development to edit development/gearing/etc - should cut down dramatically, if not completely, on cheating.
  • Stadia's biggest threat will definitely be Microsoft and XCloud. I'm awaiting more details excitedly but Microsoft has close rationships with dozens of developers, a huge backlog of games from several generations, and have already touted their low latency (10ms or less) and low internet requirements (9-10mbs with the intent to lower it further) in their testing.
  • Agreed. Microsoft has tons of experience in the gaming industry and their cloud technologies are (IMHO) further ahead than Google's.
  • yeah assasians Creed didn't run to well on project stream. even on the pixelbook. couldn't enjoy it
  • If you have Android TV, you will already using the TV for gaming with connected controller. So, Stadia will upgrade this procedure.
  • I care about the quality of the experience. Will be sticking with my PC and console.
  • Where this has promise is the fact that you wont need an expensive box to interact with it. Where it will have issues is scalability. Internet speeds and data caps are going to severely cripple this service in the US. People aren't going to drop consoles for poor graphics and laggy gameplay.
  • They have tried this over and over and all that happens is lag and slowdowns and crashes. If anyone can maybe get this to happen its Google but I will believe it when I see it.
  • There are so many issues with this, not the least of which is latency. Twitch controls do not work well on streaming services. Esports would be impossible on a service like this.
  • A few seconds of lag on 85% of people's crappy service speeds+dead entitled gamers due to said lag no matter the game=DOA
  • I am personally looking forward to this. I wish I would have signed up to be a beta tester. Long time PC gamer but, with life, I no longer have the money or time to update my PC.
  • Yeah I can already see the buffering icon when my whole house is using wi-fi around 7 o'clock in the evening 🤣
  • Will it work with a nvidia shield or will I still have to buy the chromecast ultra?