When Google Stadia was launched in November 2019, the industry was excited. We were told that this was the ‘next big thing’ when it came to video games. No longer would video gamers be lumbered with expensive consoles and games that came in boxes. They would be free to play all the latest games using nothing more than their controllers, an internet connection, and a device with a screen that could make use of that connection. The world of gaming would become more streamlined and accessible, and the days of Sony and Microsoft dominating the market would come to an end.
We all know how that turned out. Google’s launch of the new platform didn’t go well. Gamers were either confused by the platform or found that they couldn’t get it to perform as described and didn’t like the fact that they had to pay to permanently ‘own’ many of the games they wanted to play. The unexpected expense of a Stadia-specific gaming controller didn’t help much either. Complaints made at the time were that it didn’t work with enough devices, couldn’t provide a reliable connection without glitching or lagging, and didn’t provide access to enough games. Reviewers were especially scathing – especially the reviewer from “Wired” who called the new platform “terrible.” That was harsh, but it reflects the frustration of many people who’d hoped for better by becoming early adopters of the exciting new platform.
Things changed slowly but surely over the twelve months that followed. Google introduced one positive change at a time, slowly turning the platform into something that looked more like the one we’d been promised. More games became available. The app became available on more devices. The requirement to own a Google-made controller was dropped, and a free tier was opened up. Google started practically giving Stadia subscriptions away with everything from YouTube Premium subscriptions to game purchases. These were baby steps, but the future began to look rosy.
Google had a clear idea of where it wanted Stadia to go, and it had a benchmark to compare itself to. The whole idea of Stadia is based on online slots. The invention of online slots revolutionized the casino industry. It no longer made financial sense for casinos to charge people for entry when people could play all the same games at home by logging into slots online UK websites, and they’d often get better incentives and promotions by doing so. Google wanted to shake up video gaming just as much as online slots websites have shaken up gambling. By breaking the connection between games and game consoles, they thought they could carve out a niche in the market. Up until the beginning of 2021, it appeared that they were still committed to this vision despite being disappointed with the comparatively low take-up of Stadia so far. All of that changed last week when the company published a statement that makes it sound a lot like they’re throwing in the towel.
The statement makes for bleak reading to anyone who’s bought Stadia hardware, spends money on a Stadia subscription, or owns several games through Stadia. In it, the company confirms that it’s winding its in-house games division down with immediate effect. In real terms, that means Google won’t be making any new video games from this point forward. The statement goes on to say that the company remains committed to ‘cloud-based gaming’ but appears to deliberately emphasize that it’s the concept of ‘cloud-based gaming’ that it’s committing to rather than Stadia itself. It closes by assuring people that they can still use their Stadia or Stadia Pro subscriptions and that more games from third parties will be added to the catalog. Even that comes with a caveat. The final two sentences return to the theme of the future of cloud gaming and creating the best possible cloud gaming platform but doesn’t mention Stadia by name at all. Reading between the lines, as several analysts already have, the message seems to be clear. Google likes the idea of being involved in cloud-based gaming and will continue to develop the idea, but it doesn’t want to be in the gaming development business anymore, and Stadia is no longer its chosen vessel. Like Google Glass before it, it sounds a lot like Stadia is about to be written off as a failed experiment.
Rather than being a service, which is how Stadia has been positioned until this point, it’s now being referred to as “a platform” upon which third parties can launch and run games. Google will no longer have any direct input. Companies and publishers can launch games on Stadia if they want, or not bother if they don’t. Google has never published statistics that might indicate how many people hold an active Stadia subscription, but we suspect that they would if the numbers were worth shouting about. All indications suggest that there aren’t many people using Stadia at all, and Google has decided that this isn’t likely to change. If there aren’t enough players, there’s no point spending time and money developing games for a small audience. There’s also little point in third-party companies going to the effort of making games available for Stadia if there’s nobody there to play them. Google hasn’t shut Stadia down yet, and might not do for several months. It now seems all-but-inevitable that they will, though, and they might even come to that decision before the end of the year.
Being the first big company to take a stab at cloud gaming was always likely to be a risk, and someone had to take it. Google deserves credit for that, at least. It will be a difficult pill to swallow for them if Amazon makes a success out of Luna because Amazon learned from the mistakes that Google made during Stadia’s early days.
Luna is still in its beta testing phase, with access limited to just a few hundred invited subscribers. It’s expected to go live later on this year. It could go the same way as Stadia, or it could achieve the breakthrough that Stadia always wanted to make. The era of cloud gaming is still coming, and it’s likely that it will eventually become the most popular way to play games. All that appears to have changed is that Stadia won’t be the vehicle that gets us there.