Google’s long-anticipated gaming service, Stadia, finally landed yesterday with a resounding thud. The “cloud gaming” platform was announced earlier this year with a lot of lofty promises. The central idea of Stadia is that rather than running video games on a computer that is located in your home, the computer actually exists in a Google data center, and video from that is sent to the player, who sends control inputs back. Theoretically, anything with a screen and an internet connection — a phone, a TV, an ancient computer — would become a cutting-edge gaming system. In practice, that’s far from the case.
In the run-up to its official launch, Stadia has been beset with confusing messaging, missing features, and a lackluster lineup. What has been portrayed as a product launch is, in all honesty, a beta rollout. By most accounts, and my own experience with a couple of titles, the technology works. Yesterday, I played Destiny 2 pretty flawlessly in a Chrome browser window. But everything outside of the core technology is a mess. Players who want to use Stadia this year had to buy a $130 Founder’s Edition, which includes the game controller and Chromecast Ultra, and many of these kits did not ship in time for yesterday’s launch. If you want to play in 4K, the highest resolution Stadia offers, you can only do that via Chromecast right now.
Clearly, this train is being built as it’s already rolling down the tracks. Google initially announced a paltry lineup of 12 games for the Tuesday launch, only one of which, Gylt, is a new title not available on other platforms. Late Sunday night, it expanded that number to 22 (old) games, a clear sign of desperation. Many of the futuristic features that Google showed off in its initial demo — simultaneously viewing the streams of friends you’re playing with, asking the Google Assistant voice software for help if you get stuck, using the Stadia controller’s basic wireless capabilities — are not yet implemented. Stadia is quite literally half-finished. It works, I guess, but it doesn’t yet offer the radical convenience that was promised, or anything close.
Google has the sheer muscle to ride all of this out, if it chooses to. Online services oftentimes don’t iron out their kinks until a critical mass of people are using the tools and supplying useful data. Google already has data-center infrastructure and video-streaming expertise, so it’s not entirely clear how much of a money suck this whole project really is for the company. It’s also not clear how committed the company is in the long term, though it helps to think of Stadia less as a gaming platform and more as a complex program for getting people to make YouTube videos. Despite the current pathetic state of Stadia, I can’t help thinking that none of these early stumbles matter.
The real secret weapon for Stadia, the one that matters above all else, is the fact that Google owns Google. It controls the most important search engine, and the most powerful means of directing and controlling information, on the planet. Last week, the Wall Street Journal put out a long piece on the evolution of the Google search algorithm over time, and how those tweaks affect the first page of Google search results, which is usually the only page that a user sees. When you search for things on Google, you’re likely to be bombarded with a dozen different curated links before you ever get to the actual search results.
If you search for a news event, Google will surface recent headlines from its News tool before it gets to links ranked by its search algorithm. If you search for a how-to guide, you might also see a list of related questions that people have also asked. If you search for a movie, it’ll give you recent showtimes. Search for a bit of trivia and Google might surface it in a snippet so that you don’t have to even leave the search page. Atop all these possible modules are targeted ads that clients have bought.
As an example, let’s say I search for “avengers.” On a desktop browser, before I scroll through anything, I get five different modules: a sponsored result (an ad) for Avengers toys; an informational box about the 2012 movie, including its rating, runtime, and critical consensus; a link to the Wikipedia page for said movie. There’s also a module that tells me where I can pay to rent the film — two of the five options are platforms owned by Google.
Google already has a track record of tweaking its search product in order to benefit itself first and foremost. It’s not altering the results for specific terms by hand, just to be crystal clear, but it is optimizing the overall search system for this outcome. The European Union ruled in 2017 that Google boosted its own services over competitors in search results.
Google has an opportunity to capture a portion of the gaming market simply because it has the immense ability to direct attention. Eventually, Google wants users to be able to click a button in their browser and immediately jump into a game. Imagine someone searches for a popular video game; Google could offer a “Play Now” button and instant gratification. Imagine someone searches for one of the new consoles from Microsoft or Sony next year; Google could directly place competing advertisements next to those results. Microsoft, for instance, is working on a competing game-streaming product … but nobody is going to learn about it through Bing.
Whether or not a product structured in this way is fair for the marketplace is a matter for antitrust investigators. In the meantime, my point is that Stadia’s dreadful word of mouth is of almost no consequence, because Google’s main way of raising awareness is not through any grassroots effort among hard-core gamers, it’s by hawking it at the top of search results served to anyone vaguely interested in gaming and in possession of a smartphone. Stadia is not a product for people who know about video games already, it’s a product for people who might learn about them mainly through doing what we’d all do: Googling.