I don’t think I was the only one, for instance, who thought that Google was going for a “Netflix for games” approach – a subscription service much like Xbox Game Pass, except that you could browse the catalogue and start playing any game you wanted instantly. Putting aside whether that does or doesn’t devalue the games themselves, and the ways in which that would or wouldn’t be good for devs, as a selling point the concept is pretty strong, particularly when you factor in gameplay-changing ideas like sharing save states, or clicking on an ad to instantly start playing. Point is, that pitch would certainly help make the Pro service – and the tech driving the platform – appealing.
That, however, is not what Stadia is offering, as was confirmed via a recent-ish Reddit AMA from Andrey Doronichev, Stadia’s Director of Product. In that AMA, he said: “To be clear, Stadia Pro is not ‘Netflix for Games’ like some people have mentioned, a closer comparison would be like Xbox Live Gold or Playstation Plus. The Pro subscribers get 4K/HDR streaming, 5.1 sound, exclusive discounts and access to some free games. Roughly one free game per month give or take. Starting with Destiny 2 (yay!).”
Yes, you read that right, roughly one free game per month. In other words you’ll start with no collection and then gradually accrue one over many, many months. (Provided you keep up your Pro subscription.) That’s the kind of pace where it’d probably be better to just download the free game at the start of the month and avoid the need for consistent, fast internet in order to actually PLAY it, not to mention the amount of data streaming games in 1080p or 4K will chew through.
So, it’s not Netflix for games. Nope, it’s a digital storefront married to cutting edge streaming technology. Not just that, once the Base version of the service launches in 2020, there’ll be no reason not to have an account, as you can just sign up for free. The service will have to actually offer something compelling to make you spend money, as opposed to falling back on a gaming smorgasbord that may be more about quantity than quality.
To be honest I actually think this is better in the long run, as it means Stadia needs to distinguish itself in more novel ways. In the short term, however, I don’t see much point in subscribing to Stadia Pro – there’s very little content here, and if I’m going to pay full price for a game, I’d prefer to cop the initial download and the subsequent patching to have a guaranteed low latency, consistent experience. And at least then the game is on my actual console or PC. With Stadia you pay full price to be at the whim of Google’s servers and your ISP in order to play the game you own. And if Stadia fails, well, you’re out of luck.
Doronichev had a response to this point too, and it was… condescending, frankly. In answer to a question about what happens if the Stadia service is discontinued, he said: “We get this a lot. I hear you. Moving to the cloud is scary. I felt the same way when music was transitioning from files to streaming. I still have all my old CDs in the garage… although it’s hard to find a CD player these days :)”
You know why people are happy to just stream their music now? Because the catalogue at their fingertips is absolutely massive and thus outweighs issues like lossy sound quality. The Stadia comparison only works in a world in which you sign up for a Spotify subscription and get one album for free, with another one added to your account each month. Want to listen to something else? Oh, sorry, you need to pay full price for that.
Doronichev dug himself an even deeper hole immediately after, saying: “The same happened to Movies and Photos and my Docs and other files… And it’s great! Games are no different. Eventually all of our games will be safely in the cloud too and we’ll feel great about it.”
I couldn’t disagree with these comparisons more. If I have an important Google Doc I’m working on, I can choose to access it offline or save it to my computer. I don’t have any photos that are only in the cloud – I have copies of them all saved locally to devices in my home. And all these things are in formats that are broadly compatible anyway. Say I use a cloud photo hosting service that goes belly up. Provided I get notified before the service is discontinued, it’s a simple thing for me to pull my photos off it before they’re no longer accessible. In the AMA Doronichev said that: “From day one we’ll support Takeout, so that you can download your game metadata, including saves if you want to,” but good luck doing anything with that metadata, and which other platforms will those saves work on, exactly? And will we have to buy said games again? It seems likely.
I feel like Google should be focused less on telling us how great it will be having control taken out of our hands, and more on how our gaming lives will be meaningfully enriched. State sharing, for instance, could definitely be a game-changer, but it doesn’t really make as much sense now that the Netflix model is out. State sharing allows developers or players to share saves at very precise moments for others to experience, and when it was announced, I assumed this tool would be all about bespoke, bookended challenges.
I pictured a thriving ecosystem in which popular YouTubers or IGN personalities could find cool slices of fun or ridiculous challenges within games – micro-challenges, essentially – that they’d then share out to their communities. It would be a way for people to be actively involved, would feed back into content creation and the good ones would propagate virally.
In the Netflix for games model, anyone with a Stadia subscription would instantly be able to take part in any save state challenge, which would obviously be huge… and certainly more likely to succeed than a system in which you see a save state challenge and then need to buy the game to attempt it.
I doubt that’s how things will work, however. Google still has a golden opportunity to deliver on the potential of state sharing, even without the Netflix model. I could definitely see a world in which challenges under a certain length are a free-for-all, or in which anyone who is subscribed to a YouTuber can do their challenges without owning the game in question. Maybe this stuff is gated behind Pro subscriptions? That would certainly make getting one more alluring.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if Stadia completely upends how game advertising works too. Sure, you may not be able to click on an ad and immediately start playing the full version of a game, but I’d be willing to bet that if you don’t own it you’ll probably be able to play the start of the game, or a more traditional demo slice, before being prompted to buy, and being able to do that instantly without any download is definitely appetising.
Stadia, then, could usher in a new era of try-before-you-buy, and that functionality could very well be the Trojan horse to get people signing up for accounts. And then, as Stadia starts to differentiate itself, as Google’s first party developers and partners create exclusive, hopefully unique experiences for it, it’ll become ever more essential.
The service element of Stadia, then, may not be quite what we expected, and the technological questions are still there for many parts of the world, but the long term prospects actually seem brighter this way. Instead of relying on more experiences, Stadia will hopefully deliver new experiences, and for me, that’s far more compelling.