Well, this was inevitable: Google wants to take over the video game market, a $140 billion industry that also happens to be one of the few left where the tech giant hasn't already attempted dominance.
After Google announced its plans in March to launch "the Netflix of gaming," a streaming video game service it calls Stadia, it released some additional data earlier this month. Then, last week, some journalists and other outsiders finally had the chance to try an early version of Stadia for themselves.
Here's what we know -- and why Google's plan to attack the video game industry is especially interesting. To start with, Stadia will involve:
1. A 100 percent cloud-based system with no hardware
This is the key difference between Stadia and every other big gaming system. There's no console to buy. No hardware at all really, save an controller (optional, see #2). You play on a TV, desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or Pixel smartphone.
2. Minimal lag time
Fractions of a second lag time can mean the difference between winning and losing. But Google says it's figured out how to almost eliminate lag time, and "transmit ... from the data center to your screen faster than your eye is transmit[s] ... to your brain."
3. A controller, but it's optional
Google's patented (.pdf) game controller includes a button to access Google Assistant and another to immediately capture gameplay video. But, it's optional. You can use any other supported controller instead, or even just your computer's keyboard and mouse.
4. Multi-tiered user access as a customer acquisition strategy
Google is starting with zero customers, and its going up against even bigger companies, like Microsoft. So, its solution is a multi-tiered user strategy. You can sign up now for $129 Stadia Pro (Founders Edition), or play a la carte in November when it launches. Why pay now? Among other things, you can pick your user name first.
5. A development platform
Google needs users (see above), and it needs developers to produce great games to attract those users. As Kevin Murnane pointed out recently, this means Stadia isn't just a streaming service, it's also set up as a highly advantageous development platform for video game producers.
Plan vs. execution
It's a pretty impressive plan, but execution is another matter entirely. (Remember Google Plus?) And gamers are skeptical, to put it lightly.
In fact, literally all of the recommended videos that I saw on Google-owned Youtube after Google's big announcement video earlier this month involved cynical takes on Stadia.
Among their criticisms:
- Streaming games at the rates Google suggests could easily meaning blowing past most Internet users' monthly data caps.
- If you're using a mobile phone on a cellular network, look out. Although, it might not matter, as the download speeds required for peak performance seem to be home broadband level.
- Actually, a third giant critique: Stadia will likely hit or miss based on the games.
Yeah, what about the games?
Much as the biggest threat to Netflix seems to be what happens if it can't provide the content that viewers want most of all, if Stadia can't provide the games people want, it will mean squandering its other big advantages.
So, it has to make the math work for the biggest and best developers, and that includes most likely letting them create their own subscription services, layered on top of Google's.
In the meantime, it means big potential opportunities for some of what Google itself calls "Triple A" game developers and publishers. For example, the first game Google highlighted for Stadia comes from Larian Studios, which said it had to triple the size of its development teams to meet Google's needs.
(You can find a list of all the introductory games here, including some top attractions.)
Will Google win? Maybe. But for our purposes there are two key takeaways.
The first is that this is a battle worth fighting for Google. The gaming market is gigantic -- but it could arguably be even bigger if customers didn't have to choose and buy a dedicated console in order to play. No-console streaming makes that possible.
And second, if any company has a shot at the Great White Whale of gaming -- meaning true, high-quality streaming -- well, let's just say a lot of people have lost a lot of money betting against Google.