Though other cloud gaming subscription services have come before, and several are in operation right now, Google's take on cloud gaming isn't just a subscription service -- it's a whole platform. Google's Stadia has its own hardware, and Google will offer more than just one subscription service -- customers will also be able to buy and rent games. It's an interesting business model, even if some have doubts.
Stadia enters a video game market that's changing quickly as cloud gaming grows. Video game stalwarts like Sony (NYSE:SONY) are clearly repositioning in an effort to combat -- and profit off of -- the shift away from hard copies and individual sales and toward streaming and the "games as a service" model.
But this market is also one with established norms and expectations, and consumers would be less than impressed if Stadia didn't launch with a number of games comparable to what Sony, Microsoft, and others have made the norm.
Stadia's launch list
On Nov. 11, Google revealed that 12 games would be available at launch. That was pretty late to be making such an announcement, especially considering that Google has been taking pre-orders since way back in June. Customers who committed to buying Stadia five months ahead of its release only found out about the "final" list of launch games a week before they were to get their hands on the system. (Google had previously confirmed some titles for Stadia, but not many, and not for launch day.)
And the list consumers had waited so long for was not particularly impressive, either -- not by the standards set by console systems, anyway. Google announced 12 titles for launch day and promised 14 more by the end of the year. The use of two numbers -- one for the actual launch day and one for a "launch window" -- is typical of the video game business, but Google's Nov. 11 numbers added up to fewer games than it announced for other major systems in years past. Both Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One debuted with 23 games, ready to be played.
Google's list did include some big-time titles from AAA video game studios. But the major games in question are also available for other video game platforms, like PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC. Google is gearing up to take on its established rivals by using its own first-party game studios to crank out original exclusives -- a strategy that has worked well for Sony recently.
But for its games to be discovered, Google needs gamers to have Stadia. And for consumers to be interested in Stadia, there needs to be enough games. Google may be a top company in tech, but to succeed in video games, it's going to need to match the expectations set by the companies that have been there for years. The Nov. 11 list of launch titles certainly did not meet that standard.
A quick fix for a troubled launch
Somehow, Google has already fixed its launch-day lineup problems. Late on Nov. 17, less than two days days before the launch of Stadia, Google nearly doubled its launch-day lineup by confirming another 10 games for launch.
That's a good thing, of course -- provided the games work well, which may be another matter (initial reviews of Stadia look decidedly mixed). But this whole episode serves as a good reminder of the established expectations and culture of the video game market and its notoriously demanding customer base.
The fact that streaming games make sense for business reasons doesn't necessarily mean that gamers will waive the expectations that were built during years and years of console-gaming dominance. Some reviewers have pointed out that Stadia's launch is more like the launch of a service like YouTube than of a comparatively finished product like a PlayStation 4 console.
But while investors and observers may lack a frame of reference for Stadia, Google needs to act as if that frame of reference is the console model. Consumers certainly will.