Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Stadia is at the forefront of what may be the next big revolution in video games: cloud gaming. Google's new video game streaming platform and its accompanying hardware represent a challenge to established video game giants like Sony (NYSE:SNE), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY).
Other cloud gaming competitors will come soon, including other tech giants: Amazon is working on cloud gaming projects. The prospect of Google's big arrival on the video game scene, as well as the broader shift toward "video games as a service" and away from the traditional video game sales model, has had Sony and Microsoft moving to address cloud gaming weaknesses in the months ahead of Stadia's debut. Now, the big moment is here -- and Stadia isn't quite delivering on the hype.
Stadia may yet become the service that was supposed to change video games forever, but it certainly is not that service right now. Stadia's debut has been marred by pre-order issues, laggy gaming, and poor reviews.
Stadia's stumble out of the gate
Stadia's launch-day issues started before launch day itself. A week before launch, Google announced what was supposed to be the final list of launch-day games for Stadia. Just 12 titles were on the list, a number that was well short of the standard set by Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 years earlier (both of those systems debuted with 23 games ready to play). Less than 48 hours before Stadia's launch, Google announced an expanded list of 22 games, rescuing Stadia from its first launch-day embarrassment.
But the launch-day game lineup wasn't Stadia's only problem. Google also had to announce that customers who pre-ordered Stadia might not be receiving their Stadia hardware on launch day. The two special pre-order editions of the device, the "Founder's Edition" and the "Premier Edition," were in short supply ahead of launch day and were sent out on a first-come, first-served basis to those who had placed orders. Google says every pre-order customer will have their device within two weeks.
Meanwhile, the first reviews were already coming in. Google gave game reviewers' early access to its platform and games -- standard practice in the games industry -- and the reviews posted before and shortly after Stadia's big launch were largely unkind. The Washington Post advised would-be customers to put off buying Stadia until Google fixed some issues. The Verge compared the service to a Beta version, suggesting Google's platform was not ready for prime time. The New York Post was typically blunt: Stadia, its headline declared, is "a lag-ridden mess."
The fact that lag and input latency were referenced in so many negative reviews is a huge problem for Stadia. Lag is a particularly important issue with cloud gaming in general; streaming games relies on an internet connection, and lag issues were always going to be the biggest challenge to the whole concept. With too slow of a connection, the gamer's controller would feel out of sync with the game, creating an imprecise and frustrating experience.
Google's server muscle was one reason to believe in cloud gaming, but there are other factors, including the user's internet connection and, crucially, the way that Stadia is designed to connect to a TV: Google's new gaming device broadcasts screen images via Google's Chromecast protocol. The Washington Post review concluded that games streamed smoothly on mobile devices but lagged on Chromecast, meaning that the issues experienced in their testing were related to Chromecast, not to internet speeds or Google's servers.
A silver lining
By the standards of video game consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Stadia's launch could not have gone much worse. But if there's a silver lining here for Google, is that's Stadia isn't really all that comparable to those existing consoles. Stadia is a service, not just a system.
There are server-side updates and other changes to be made, and the ultimate goal is to change the business model for video games, not just to make a profit after a splashy debut. Google will have more chances to make Stadia into the platform it was supposed to be.