Yesterday at GDC 2019, Google officially entered the console space. Well, that’s what I would be saying if the company had actually unveiled a new console. What they actually announced was “Stadia,” yet another attempt at a video game streaming service.
Yep, Google’s “Stadia” is definitely a platform, it’s just not going to have a physical box. Users will presumably subscribe to this service through Google and treat it as something akin to a Netflix or Amazon prime for video games. There will be no local machine whatsoever. The demo shown at the conference looked rather nice; some footage was shown of a game being played with little to no input lag and drop-in co-op with no noticeable drop in performance. It sounds nice, but then every other attempt at a service like this sounded nice too. Furthermore, absolutely no mention was made regarding what games the service will offer or how much it will cost people to use it.
I’m sure that Google will be able to get the streaming part of it down without much trouble; it’s Google after all. If they can’t set up a good network for this sort of thing, then no one can. My problem isn’t with the streaming aspect though. Instead, I’m concerned about access and what this is going to do to game ownership. This is something that cannot be accessed without a fast internet connection, which a lot of people don’t have. Heck, this is probably not going to work well at all if you live outside of a city. We just don’t have the sort of internet infrastructure needed for something like this to be the “next big thing” that will replace all of our game boxes. One major benefit of the box is being able to play your stuff offline after all.
Then there’s ownership to consider. We already massively consume digital games, but that’s at least tempered by the fact that we still have to download them onto our own machines. Even if the internet goes out, we can still play most of those digital titles because the necessary data is all there. We “own” that data in a sense, as it can only go away if we choose to delete it. That all goes away if absolutely everything is sitting in a Google data center somewhere. The internet could go out, we could get banned, or Google could just decide to end the service one day. Once any of those things happen, then “your” games go too, since they were never really yours to begin with. It’s not exactly a consumer-friendly situation, is it?
Companies in the gaming space have been pushing for something like this for a long time, and indeed it has its benefits. Fast access to a large library of digital games that can be played independently of physical box constraints sounds good in theory. However, embracing something like that is incredibly dangerous for the average gamer. It would mean giving up all pretense of power in our relationship with game makers and platform holders. Nothing would be ours; everything would be theirs, and we would have no choice but to agree to whatever terms of service they cook up and accept any usage fee they demand. There wouldn’t be any other choice. There would be no “I’ll just play my stuff offline instead,” because offline gaming wouldn’t exist anymore.
Google “Stadia” certainly sounds cool, and it’s not going to replace more traditional boxes anytime soon. Still, I’m concerned that it will see too much success too early and posiibly push gaming down a path that’s decidedly unfriendly to those of us who’ve been enjoying it since we were kids.
What’s your take on this? Do you see the “Stadia” service as dangerous, or is it just another Google service that we need pay no mind to?