The rise of digital gaming, and why Google Stadia looks doomed to fail

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The internet is a pretty big deal. I think that even in this world of furious division, we can all at least agree on that. The extent to which this amazing globe-spanning technology has absolutely infected every tiny little aspect of our lives is both rather incredible and also wholly predictable. Human beings, after all, enjoy convenience, and that is typically, if nothing else, the primary advantage of the interconnectedness of the internet. Need to apply for a student loan and don’t feel like filling out the heaps upon heaps of paperwork? Fancy having a delicious meal from Five Guys but don’t wanna walk through torrential rain to get it? Do you really need the new instalment in your favourite harem manga but can’t bear facing the depressing reality of confronting everyone in your life who know of your filthy, disgusting weeaboo ways? Good news! Thanks to the magical power of the internet, all of this is now only a couple clicks away (for better or for worse).

This convenience the internet brings has inevitably snuck itself into entertainment media. Movie streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and many others allow users to stream video anywhere with an internet connection, or even download movies to be rewatched wherever you like. Finally, you, the helpless consumer, can now watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom at your grandma’s funeral like you always dreamed of. Media is as accessible as ever and the frustrating blockades of regional releases have mostly been subsided as a result of how easy it is to put your art out on the web for everybody across the globe. Until very recently, Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant sci-fi apocalpyse flick Snowpiercer was completely inaccessible in the UK by any legal means, but Netflix acquired the rights to the movie and made it available on their site, meaning we can all finally watch it here in Britbongland (granted, this happened so Netflix could produce an almost definitely inferior TV series adaptation but sometimes we must be reminded that we don’t live in a perfect world). As well as this added accessibility, digital gaming has lead to the unprecendented rise of indie gaming. Before the internet, indie gaming was virtually impossible, since, on top of your production budget, you’d have to pay for physical distribution, plus a marketing budget to get your game out there, among other expenses that are essentially negated by the fact that nowadays you can just release your game online in a couple clicks. The internet has massively increased the unintentional marketing tactic of word-of-mouth, and without it, some of the biggest games of past few years would have been lost to the wind. Undertale, Super Meat Boy, and Minecraft most of all represent the power of the internet in spreading and selling games. People often longingly harken back to the good old days where games took chances and pushed the medium forward for the better, as opposed to today’s trends of safety and monetisation. While this isn’t technically wrong, it isn’t entirely right either. The really daring games of today may not be welcome in the triple AAA market, but it thrives in the indie world. The impact Minecraft had on the gaming landscape was exceptional, and its innovative ideas can still be felt in major studio releases today. Even Dark Souls, which obviously isn’t an independent game, owes its success largely to the reputation it culminated in online circles. Without the internet, I’m fairly certain From Software’s game simply would have flopped. However, due to strong sales and highly favourable reviews, Dark Souls not only performed excellently, it’s revolutionary focus on stamina management in combat has had a huge impact on action games as big as 2018’s God Of War, and I’d argue it’s a change for the better.

God of War
God of War, among other games like The Surge, Code Vein, Nioh and many other games draw heavy influences from Dark Souls, a game made incredibly popular by its online reputation

I’ve spoken at length now about the clear benefits digital gaming can have on the industry as a whole, but there’s a fairly major setback that often dissuades people from online purchases altogether: ownership. The question of whether or not the individual truly owns the games has permeated since the dawn of digital gaming itself, and for good reason. While it seems nonsensical to state that spending money on a product does not mean you own that product, there is no end to the unfathomable greed of some of these corporations, so the concept of ownership should really be taken into question as the world transforms around us. Back in 2014, known piss-drinker Konami released P.T. (Playable Teaser), a short horror game which immediately caught the internet by storm due to its incredible ability to scare. The game ended up being a teaser for Silent Hills, the newest in Konami’s long-running Silent Hill franchise, which was confirmed to be directed by a pair of well-respected auteurs, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima and Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro. Needless to say, this generated a fair amount of hype among players, excited to see how the talented folks behind P.T. could impress with a full game release. Of course, months later, Konami decided to scrap the project entirely after a violent falling out with Kojima left the director pushed out the company and forced to move onto other things. However, another decision, which left people confused and angry, was for P.T. to be removed from the PlayStation Store permanently. Even people who had previously played the game and later uninstalled it could no longer redownload it. The only (legal) way to play P.T. now is if you still have it installed on your PS4, and considering the fact that those consoles now sell for more than double the price online, the likelihood of someone playing the game now is beyond slim. You might be saying ‘oh but Ali, P.T. was a free game, nobody really lost anything in this situation aside from a finely-crafted horror experience’, which is a fair point to make. However, the more interesting, and perhaps more worrying, question that spawned from this situation is this: what’s stopping Konami, or any company for that matter, from scrubbing other games off of online game stores, perhaps even ones that people bought? We’ve seen similar such things occurring in the case of Alan Wake a couple years back and, more recently, many Telltale Games properties following the developer’s surprise shutdown, where the games were removed from storefronts entirely, though are thankfully still downloadable if you already bought the games (at least to my knowledge, please correct me if I’m wrong here). It’s a little concerning that these games can just straight up disappear in an instant. Imagine if Steam shut off one day. Just think about the amount of games that would be lost forever. Sure, a lot of Steam games are just cash grabs and shovelware, but I’m sure there’s plenty of incredible video games, just waiting to be discovered, that may never be found. They may simply be removed forever, which is a pretty scary thought.

Google Stadia #2
Google Stadia offers a $129 introduction pack with some added benefits, but is it enough to entice consumers?

And thus, we finally reach Google Stadia, which appears to be pushing for the next step in digital gaming: streaming. We’ve already seen this transition occur in other mediums, such as movies and music, and it’s even been toyed with in games as well. PS Now is a subscription service offered by Sony, which allows players to access a wide library of games, which they can stream whenever they like. However, this service has been met with its fair share of understandable criticism. The main problem is perhaps the most obvious, and that’s latency issues. While streaming a song or a movie is simply a matter of playing audio and video in real time, video games are unique in their interactivity, which is a far greater issue to tackle. The stream has to not only relay a consistent feedback of visuals and audio to the player, it also has to be ready to change constantly due to player input. It’s an added layer of challenge for streaming services to tackle, and while PS Now is more or less functional, it’s never really taken off due to the limitations of current internet speeds. I’ve personally tried PS Now myself and after about half an hour of borderline unplayable Red Dead Redemption, I decided to cancel my free trial. Google has promised that this won’t be a problem on Stadia, claiming 7,500 servers have been set up around the world, ready and prepared to allow Stadia to function as promised. However, I’m still not convinced that, even with the many resources being pumped into this project, modern internet speeds will allow such a service to exist right now. It’s worth noting that Stadia is also available on mobile devices, and with 5G currently being integrated into most phones, this is perhaps the demographic Google are aiming for. This would make sense; after all, the mobile gaming market rakes in billions upon billions every year, and Google are clearly attempting to combine the console and mobile markets for maximum profits. However, I’m not entirely convinced this will be successful. Let’s assume that all mobile phones are fully capable of streaming Stadia games at peak performance. Will there still be a demographic for this kind of gaming experience? There’s such a heavy stigma against mobile gaming from the gaming community that, even without considering the comparatively tiny screen of a mobile phone, I don’t think people who already own a console or gaming PC will be remotely interested. But okay, that’s probably not who this is aimed at. It’s targeting mobile gamers. Would they be interested in playing Doom Eternal or Baldur’s Gate 3 wherever they desire? I highly doubt it. The appeal of mobile gaming tends to be the ability to jump in and out very quickly to waste time between other things. Games like Threes or Clash of Clans excel in this market because of that characteristic, but that’s not the appeal of most console games at all. Games like Metro Exodus or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are normally best experienced over long stretches of time, absorbing the atmosphere and immersing yourself in the world, not in the five minute gap between business meetings. I can see this potentially paying off for live service games like Destiny 2 or The Division 2, but those games still require a fair amount of concentration when mobile games often live or die on their accessibility. I know for a fact that I invest more brain power into games on my PS4 than I do a game like Cookie Clicker. I just don’t see much crossover between mobile and hardcore gamers. It could pay off, but I feel that demand for high-quality portable games has already been filled by the Nintendo Switch.

mobile gaming
The mobile gaming market has made $10 billion in 2019 in North America alone, and Google aims to capitalise on that market with Stadia

I’ve railed on Google Stadia a fair bit in this post but you’ll be glad to hear that there is no upside and there’s something even worse to discuss. This is an issue that’s less to do with general incompetence like the ones mentioned, and more so one concerning shady business practices. I’ve talked already about the concept of ownership in a digital world, but Google Stadia perhaps takes things one step further by asking a lot from the consumer. Stadia is demanding the standard $60 fee for a new game, essentially for the privilege of streaming that game on their potentially dysfunctional platform. With typical digital purchases, you could at least make the argument that you have some ownership over the game, on the basis that you can download it whenever you like, provided you always have access to your account. Even sites like GOG.com allow players to download games DRM-free, which means they now own the game permanently, without requiriing internet access like sites such as Steam. However, in the case of Stadia, there is no guarantee that the service will remain in operation forever. Google have an infamous history of cancelling many of their projects (just have a look at the website Killed By Google if you need convincing). This suggests a lack of confidence in their own products, or at least evidence of poor management on multiple occassions. If Stadia doesn’t perform well, what’s stopping them from shutting down the servers and removing any and all access to the games any given consumer has purchased? There’s no chance in hell they’ll provide refunds; they are only a $715 billion megacorporation, after all. Furthermore, despite direct questioning on the matter, there has been no guarantee that players can download their games for safekeeping in the event of a Stadia shutdown. Google is essentially expecting consumers to trust them and hope that they don’t simply give up on the prject entirely after a couple failed years. However, why should I, a consumer with a perfectly good PS4, be expected to shell out $60 for a game that may or may not be playable in the future, when I can just pay the same amount for the same game on a console that I know won’t die out due to poor performance. Even if Sony stopped supporting the PS4, I can still play games on it for as long as it’s still operational. Stadia can’t promise the same constistency, so why should I, or anyone else, care? This lack of clarity on many aspects of the Stadia are reasons enough that I don’t think consumers will see Stadia as being worth the risk.

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Google Glass, Google+, Google Hangouts and many others are among the huge number of projects abandoned by Google. Will Stadia suffer the same fate?

However, depsite the plethora of potential issues with Stadia, there is a solution that may well save their skin. The service appears to be operating within a fairly archaic payment system – $60 for every new game – when there is a saviour just beyond the horizon. That saviour, my dear reader, is subscription services. It is worth noting that PS Now has been around for a while as a subscription service and yet never truly took off, so maybe that’s evidence of the format not working financially. However, you need only look at the recent massive success of the XBOX Game Pass to see how this could be beneficial for Google. Head of XBOX Phil Spencer has stated that Game Pass already has “millions of subscribers” and that number appears only to be rising by the day. XBOX’s decision to release its exclusive games on Game Pass from the first day of release has been a hugely profitable one by the looks of things, and perhaps Google need to do the same. One other downside to the Stadia that I haven’t really touched on is the lack of exclusives. Google did announce the opening of its own exclusvie game studio, but we probably won’t see a game from them for at least another three years so the promise of exclusive games is a weak one right now. That’s why I think the Stadia should have released much later, when internet speeds have improved and they actually have some games under their belt worth playing. Going back to my previous point, if Stadia launched as a subscription service with maybe a 7-day free trial, a la PS Now, I think a lot more people would be on board for the idea. The lack of ownership security will be a big reason to avoid Stadia, but if it were a matter of paying X amount of money every month, that worry would be completely negated. There’s a tacit agreement when it comes to subscription services like Netflix or XBOX Game Pass, where you’re not paying for any particular product, but rather the ability to enjoy many products, and Stadia would function the same way. That is how I can see Stadia, or any other video game streaming service in the future, taking off, but if it continues down the current path, I see only disappointment and despair for Google’s gaming introduction.

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