The rollout of Alphabet's (GOOG -2.53%) (GOOGL -2.50%) Stadia service has had its ups and downs. But the tech giant recently announced a big change that should give it a boost: Now, users can access the cloud gaming platform for free via a trial subscription of Stadia Pro.
The change is a welcome one for a cloud gaming platform that, not so long ago, was getting some very rough press coverage (including from The Motley Fool). Because gamers don't need to buy hardware to use the service, the free trial means they can test out the full Stadia experience without spending a dime.
A launch day's journey into night
Super-fans who subscribed ahead of launch day used Google's cloud service with the Stadia Premiere edition: a hardware setup that included a Stadia controller and a Chromecast device with which to sling the video game images onto a TV screen. The Premiere Edition also included a Stadia Pro free trial account.
Stadia Pro is the premium version of the subscription service -- but it was "premium" relative to nothing when Stadia launched, because at that point, the only way to get access to the platform at all was to splurge on the bundle that included the premium subscription. The controller, while not technically required on some platforms (players on Android could use Bluetooth controllers, for instance), might as well have been: Again, buying the hardware bundle was the only way to get Stadia in the first place.
Then there are the games. Though Stadia's games stream from the cloud, it doesn't exactly follow a Netflix-like model. Games are purchased individually on the platform (and gamers must purchase titles anew even if they already own a game for a different platform). Stadia Pro subscribers can also access some games for free (the selection refreshes each month) and subscribers keep the games they already bought in past months.
It's a setup with some shortcomings, and a rocky launch day and a rough few first months of operation shone a spotlight on some of them. Stadia's support for hardware other than the Stadia controller and Chromecast was shaky. The game library was limited, despite Google's rush to add new titles ahead of launch day and a later decision to release new games to placate its dissatisfied user base. With the free trial accounts of launch-day subscribers expiring ("free" being a somewhat questionable descriptor here, since those customers had to pay up-front for the bundle), it was high time for Stadia to launch a truly free version.
Better late than never, here it is.
Free for all
Stadia now offers two crucial features that should significantly widen its potential reach. First, there's a free way to get an account. Technically, gamers are required to sign up for a free trial of the paid version of Stadia (the aforementioned Stadia Pro). But after the free trial, these Pro accounts will revert to regular, unpaid Stadia accounts. And since the only way to get a Stadia account before was to buy hardware, this marks the first time that Stadia can be accessed without spending anything.
This erases the need to have a Stadia controller -- a de facto requirement until now. (Gamers still need the Stadia controller to use their Stadia games with a Chromecast, but they can use other means to control their games on mobile devices and within the Chrome browser).
The important thing here is that Google is making it easy to try out Stadia without having to invest any money in controllers or premium subscriptions. Users will still have to acquire games on the platform, but that, too, is easily (and cheaply) solved by via the free trial offer, since plenty of games are available free each month to Pro Subscribers -- paying and free-trialing alike.
Stadia has not always impressed, but the debut of its free version could be a big moment in the evolution of cloud gaming. And while it may have come a little later than fans had hoped, it's coming at a relatively good time all the same. Many of the potential subscribers whom Stadia is targeting are currently socially isolating (something that Google acknowledges in its announcement). And despite Stadia's missteps, competing services like NVIDIA's (NVDA -3.78%) GeForce Now haven't managed to take advantage. Maybe it isn't too late for Stadia to gain the inside track in cloud gaming.