Business / Tech

With launch of Stadia, Google enters battle for cloud gaming market

AFP-JIJI

Ever-expanding Google will become a gaming company Tuesday with the launch of its Stadia cloud service, which lets people play console-quality video games in a web browser or on a smartphone.

The internet giant hopes to break into the global video game industry — expected to top $150 billion this year — with cloud technology that could broaden audiences attracted by rich new features as well as ease of access with no more need for consoles.

But analysts say Stadia’s outlook is uncertain as its faces rivals such as PlayStation Now in an emerging and highly competitive market.

Stadia plays into a trend in which content — ranging from blockbuster films to work projects — lives in the cloud and is accessible from any device.

“All of these new services are merely pointing out that we don’t need sophisticated hardware in the home to access entertainment,” said Wedbush Securities equity research managing director Michael Pachter.

But analysts say Stadia could wind up as another bet that Google walks away from if it fails to live up to expectations.

“Stadia will live or die by its content,” said Ovum senior analyst George Jijiashvili. “The announced 12 launch titles are underwhelming.”

Google last month sold out of “Founder’s Edition” kits, which are priced at $129. Each kit contains a Stadia controller and a pendant-shaped Chromecast Ultra wireless connection device that plugs into television sets.

Stadia games are playable using Google’s Chrome web browsers.

Stadia also works with Google-made Pixel smartphones from the second generation onward, and on televisions.

Stadia Pro subscriptions, priced at $10 a month in the U.S., will be available in 14 countries in North America and Europe.

A reporter who got an early chance to try Stadia judged that the graphic quality stood out, and image fluidity was up to the mark.

In essence, screens are just windows for viewing in-game activity being handled at data centers.

One unknown is the extent to which one can play away from one’s own home on a variety of media. Google is promising to allow gamers the possibility of, for example, starting a session on a television and then switch into a smartphone during a commute. A roaming option is envisaged, but when it will be available is not yet clear.

A cord is for now required to connect the controller to a computer or phone, and TV gaming is the only wireless option so far.

Stadia is on par with using a home console in terms of seamless on-screen response to joystick movements — and Stadia is touting much shorter start-up times. Whereas it can take hours to install a purchased game on a console, Stadia gets to the starting line in seconds.

A small-scale test run could not erase all question marks. A key one will be the quality of the connection once the expected onrush of competitors fire up.

Subscribers will be able to buy games that will be hosted at Google data centers, but some free games will be available to subscribers, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection.

Some promised features, such as integration with YouTube, will not be in place at launch.

“Stadia appears to be rushed out the door before fully ready and, worryingly, Google is risking falling short on its promises,” Jijiashvili said. “These shortcomings, however, would be easily overlooked if Google can deliver a very reliable and high-quality game-streaming service.”

Google appears to be committed to doing just that, according to Ubisoft’s senior vice president of partnerships, Chris Early.

The French video game giant has been working with Google, and its games are among titles coming to the service.

“From what I have seen, their plans are too deep, they are too good and they are too invested,” Early said. “They are not calling it quits any time soon.”

He expects a long launch period during which Google will beef up Stadia.

But Pachter questioned whether subscriptions are the right approach: “The right model is pay as you go or pay for the game and play unlimited without a subscription. Amazon will try one of those and will win the streaming wars.”

Amazon has game studios but no online game service.

Meanwhile American tech veteran Microsoft has been testing Project xCloud, an online game platform.

“Next year, we’ll bring Project xCloud to Windows PCs, and are collaborating with a broad set of partners to make game streaming available on other devices as well,” Microsoft Vice President Kareem Choudhry said in an online post.

Sony Interactive Entertainment last month slashed the price of its PlayStation Now cloud video game service by about half in the U.S. to $10 monthly.

Japan-based Sony also boosted the library of games that PlayStation Now users can access through its consoles or on personal computers powered by Windows software.

Sony and Microsoft are also poised to release new generations of video game consoles next year.

“While we expect dedicated consoles to eventually lose relevance in the face of cloud gaming services, there’s no guarantee that it will be Google’s service — rather than Sony and Microsoft’s — that catalyzes this trend,” said Ovum senior analyst Matthew Bailey.