Indie game devs are taking a gamble on Google’s Stadia, and it’s paying off

The early days of Stadia have seen a mix of good and bad news. Google’s cloud gaming service has become a reliable, stable offering, with solid performance over connections that meet its stated minimum requirements. The problem? Its game library is limited.

Google has turned to independent studios for help, bolstering its selection with games like Celeste, Monster Boy, and the Steamworld franchise. Some indies have even launched as a timed Stadia exclusive.

This is at odds with Google’s initial pitch for Stadia, which focused more on high-end features, like 4K resolution and HDR, that shine in demanding AAA games such as Red Dead Redemption 2. However, this shift has been to the benefit of independent studios that took the risk of partnering with Stadia early.

Risky partnerships pay off

Indie titles are making their mark on Stadia in 2020, but that’s the result of partnerships that took root in the months before Stadia’s launch. Google’s search for partners started months before the platform launched in November 2019.

Eddie Lee, founder of Funktronic Labs, says his studio connected with Google over a year ago. “Stadia was looking for fun content on their platform, and we were looking for a solid partnership that allowed us to complete the development of Wave Break without any compromises to our creative vision,” said Lee. The result is Wave Break, a vibrant boating game reminiscent of old-school arcade games. The game launched as a timed Stadia exclusive on June 23, though it will eventually come to other platforms, as well.

Brjann Sigurgeirsson, CEO of Image & Form (the studio behind the Steamworld franchise), reported a similar timeline. “One of Google’s biz devs reached out to me quite sometime before Stadia was announced,” Sigurgeirsson said. The talks started small, focused on bringing just a single game to Stadia, but quickly gained momentum. “After a while, we expanded the discussion to encompass all of the Steamworld titles we’ve released for PC so far.” All four Steamworld games were free to Stadia Pro subscribers at the time they were added to the platform.

Steamworld Quest

Unsurprisingly, none of the studios we contacted wanted to divulge exact details of how they were compensated by Stadia, but all seem satisfied. Ian Sundstrom, the indie developer behind Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks), told us that compensation was the “biggest incentive” behind his decision to partner with Stadia. Multiple developers said their studios received both lump sum and commission-based compensation.

Challenges, but no more than most

The studios that signed on with Stadia were unsure what to expect from the platform. Stadia had yet to launch at the time, and while cloud gaming has existed in various forms for over a decade, none of the studios we spoke with had previous experience developing for a cloud-first platform.

Despite that, the challenges of developing for Stadia came from familiar complications. Wave Break and Stacks on Stacks (On Stacks) are both built with the Unity engine, and the studios behind these games reported early issues making their titles work properly.

“The port of Wave Break to Stadia definitely had a lot of unique challenges, such as resolving rendering issues with Vulkan and some other technical stuff with Unity,” Lee said.

Sundstrom backed up that statement, saying the “biggest challenges were related to being one of the first group of Unity games porting to Stadia, which meant that a lot of the tools and techniques of doing so were still being ironed out.” The complexity of these issues, however, did not seem unusual to Sundstrom. “The majority of the port work is very similar to working on any other platform,” he said.

The developers we spoke to found one part of Stadia surprisingly easy — Stadia itself. Studios have encountered relatively few hurdles using the cloud gaming platform itself and noted few technical issues with the quality of Stadia’s experience. On the contrary, developers praised the service’s low latency and consistency.

The majority of the port work is very similar to working on any other platform.

Sigurgeirsson’s Image & Form reported few roadblocks. “I’ve asked our guys, and they thought it was really smooth sailing — actually much easier than porting to some other platforms,” said Sigurgeirsson, adding that “the admin systems we had to deal with were easy to use and not frustrating at all.”

Mark Backler, Founder of Sketchbook Games (developer of Lost Words: Beyond the Page), said there’s at least one unique advantage to developing for Stadia, because “having everything online means you don’t have to set up and maintain dev kits.” He went on, explaining this “means that everyone on the team can test the game and have instant access to the latest version.”

Modest success, hopeful outlooks

Stadia’s reception among the gaming community has been skeptical. That’s a feeling we share. In our Stadia review, we said, “Google’s execution has turned Stadia into a maze with no exit and plenty of dead ends.”

The developers we spoke to reported mixed reactions from their fans. Sigurgeirsson said that, among his studio’s fanbase, “some were surprised, some congratulated us, and some — perhaps not fans, but readers of the news that SteamWorld was coming to Stadia — reacted with what I guess you could call ‘jaded internet-ism.’”

Launching the game on Stadia Pro brought us many more players than we had expected.

Sundstrom reported positive results, particularly from Stadia Pro players, who could claim Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) for free with a Stadia Pro membership in the months of April, May, and June. This free promotional period earned Herringbone Games both a paycheck (from Google) and attention. “Launching the game on Stadia Pro brought us many more players than we had expected,” he said.

All the developers we spoke to remained optimistic about Stadia’s long-term potential. “It won’t kill the consoles — neither did mobile, although many people thought it would,” Sigurgeirsson said. “But cloud gaming is both accessible and affordable. I believe more and more industry players will try to offer cloud gaming services like Stadia.”

Sunderstrom had similar thoughts. “I was personally surprised at how well the tech actually works,” he said. “It still remains to be seen if the public will widely adopt cloud gaming, but I do believe it will remain part of the gaming ecosystem in the future.”

Stadia has rolled out slowly, but that doesn’t buck the expectations these developers had for the service. None of the developers we spoke with were under the illusion Stadia would become a breakout success. Instead, they see Stadia as a way to put games in front of an audience that might have otherwise overlooked them. For indie developers, that’s often worth the risk of coming to a new platform.

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