Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Stadia has weathered some rough headlines lately, including one or two here at the Fool. In recent weeks, many Stadia users have expressed anger and disappointment with what they perceive as a lack of communication from Google and a failure to fulfill the promise of the streaming video game platform. Google has been answering. Responding to fan frustration last month, the tech giant revealed new games that Pro subscribers can download in February. And now, at least one Google executive is talking about Stadia's long-awaited free tier.
That's not to say that there has been a sudden deluge of information from Google. We still don't know exactly when the free tier -- called "Stadia Base" -- will appear. In fact, all we really have is a vague reference to "the next few months."
We'll get there when we get there!
When will Stadia's free tier arrive? Speaking with Protocol, Google executive Phil Harrison said that "over the next few months you will be able to experience Stadia for free."
That's not very specific. Though to be fair, it's more than we knew a month ago: The most that Google had said about its free service previously was that it would debut sometime in 2020. Harrison's statement suggests that we'll see Stadia's free tier before summer begins.
But "over the next few months" isn't going to be music to the ears of disgruntled Stadia customers. Those who purchased Stadia's "Founder's Edition" hardware kit for $129.99 ahead of the platform's big launch were given three free months of Stadia's premium subscription service, Stadia Pro, as part of the deal. Stadia came out on Nov. 19, 2019, so it doesn't take a math whiz to see the problem brewing here in mid-February of 2020.
Right now, there is no free tier of Stadia. So what happens to users who let their Stadia Pro membership lapse? It certainly seems as if they will lose access to the cloud gaming service until the free tier arrives -- and that's not great for them, and certainly not great for Google.
Back to basics: Stadia Base
Customers (and, for that matter, observers and tech investors) are clamoring for Stadia's free tier. But when it arrives, what will it look like?
According to Google, the differences between the two tiers are pretty straightforward:
|Stadia Base||Stadia Pro|
|Price||Free||$9.99 per month|
|Resolution||Up to 1080p||Up to 4K (on select devices)|
|Frame rate||60 fps||60 fps|
|Sound||Stereo||5.1 surround sound (TVs only) or stereo|
|Purchase games via Stadia||yes||yes|
|Free games to download||no||yes|
It should be noted that "free" does not necessarily mean that newcomers can just grab a Bluetooth video game controller, fire up a PC, and start streaming. Google will presumably still require that customers on the free tier buy Stadia hardware. Harrison's statements to Protocol have caused some minor confusion on this front, though. "[With] no money down," Harrison said, "[and] without having to put a box in your home, (emphasis mine) you can just click and play amazing games straight from our data center."
Some blogs have taken this to mean that there's no hardware requirement for Stadia's free tier. But Stadia's hardware is already what you might call "sans box": Everything is housed in the Stadia controller, with no console-style box required. There's nothing on Google's website that suggests users will be able to play Stadia without a Stadia controller anytime soon.
Of course, it's possible that Google could focus on profiting from its platform (to play a game on Stadia, users have to buy it via Stadia's platform) and might someday allow gamers to skip the hardware purchase. That doesn't seem imminent, but these are the sorts of rumors that swirl when the company itself keeps customers largely in the dark.
Hurry up and wait
Google has an incentive to accelerate its plans for a free tier. Nvidia's (NASDAQ:NVDA) GeForce Now streaming games platform debuted (or, perhaps more accurately, redebuted -- the service has existed in some form or another for years) earlier this month. That cloud gaming option includes a free tier and ready-to-stream support for a slew of PC games on Steam and other marketplaces. By rolling out a free option and allowing customers to stream games they already own through other platforms and marketplaces, GeForce Now has arrived with more games and much more available for free than Stadia can boast. GeForce Now doesn't even require users to purchase specific hardware.
With new competition on the scene and zero hour for its promotional subscriptions fast approaching, Google needs to act fast and reveal its free tier. A window of "the next few months" isn't going to cut it.