Google Stadia: Everything we know so far

Could Google Stadia finally make game streaming a great way to play?

google unveils stadia streaming service gdc news stage

Google Stadia is a brand new game streaming service that promises more than any that have gone before it. If all goes to plan, it will render everything about the game in its global datacenters on high-end PC components, before sending a cleverly compressed video of gameplay to the gamer via the Chrome browser. They then input their commands on a Stadia (or other) controller, which are then sent over the internet back to the datacenter. All of this should happen in the blink of an eye, making the experience analogous to traditional local gaming on console or PC.

That’s a tall order and few other companies have achieved anything close to that sort of seamless experience. If any company can deliver the perfect streaming experience, though, it’s Google. With datacenters all over the world, Google wants to bring high-end gaming to anyone on almost any device.

Pricing and availability

At some point before the end of this year Google will launch Stadia in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Europe. This likely means it will be in the latter half, or even the latter quarter of the year, as anything sooner would prompt a more firm date from Google to help build hype for the release. No details for a launch in other territories have been revealed so far.

The actual launch of Stadia in all territories is also waiting on Federal Communications Commission approval for the sale of its controller, which will form an integral part of the service, connecting gamers directly to Stadia via their local Wi-Fi network.

Pricing isn’t a topic that Google has addressed so far. Speculation has swung wildly, with some suggesting it will be Netflix-like, with access to a wide library of games for a set fee, while others suggest buying individual games will be the norm. There is also the possibility that such a service could tier its costs based on frame rates and detail levels, offering a set price for 1080P and another for 4K, for example.

Visuals, frame rates, and lag

google unveils stadia streaming service

Google Stadia is targeting a high-end visual experience, with gamers able to enjoy AAA games at up to 4K with HDR, at 60 frames per second. Google has suggested, however, that it will also offer reduced detail settings, with the lowest set to 720P. It’s not clear yet whether that will relate to pricing, or be more of a consideration for weaker internet connections.

Google has also promised that this is just the beginning, with greater visual enhancements like 8K resolution and 120FPS made possible over Stadia in the future.

That seems likely to be a way off for now, as even on the best gaming PCs, 4K, HDR, and 60 FPS are hard to achieve — especially with ray tracing. To make it possible on its servers, Google has combined an x86 processor (likely an Intel one) with hyperthreading that runs at 2.7GHz, with 16GB of RAM, and a custom AMD graphics chip. It’s said to uses HBM 2 and has 56 compute units, delivering enough raw horsepower for 10.7 TFlops.

That sounds like a modified Vega 56, although it’s equally possible that it’s one of AMD’s upcoming Navi line of graphics cards.

Also intriguing was a recent demonstration by UL Benchmarks (formerly Futuremark) which showed Stadia leveraging multiple GPU power as and when required to handle higher rendering demands.

Game streaming services of the past have struggled with high-fidelity visuals and high frame rates due to latency problems. Sending information from the gamer to the cloud, processing it and then sending it back to the gamer without them noticing the lag between, is not an easy task. Google claims that its vast array of global datacenters makes it uniquely placed to deliver on that problem.

Early reports from hands-on Stadia gaming during the Games Developer Conference (GDC) were very positive, with press and gamers reporting an experience that wasn’t far distinguishable from gaming on local hardware. That was at a trade show where connections are typically strong, however, and Google would have pulled out all the stops to make sure Stadia demonstrated well on its first outing.

Google’s Phil Harrison said in a chat with Polygon that home gamers will need a connection that’s 30 Mbps to handle 4K visuals. In Google’s “Project Stream” test in October 2018, it showed a 1080P rendering that mandated a 25Mbps connection, although Harrison claims that only around 20 Mbps was actually used for the stream.

Google has suggested that 5G may help gamers reach the required speeds to enjoy Stadia gaming to its fullest. While we await the rollout of such technologies though, Google has pledged to help gamers optimize their connections throughout hardware and software suggestions, as well as networking tips, to help best improve their connection speed and latency for game streaming.

What games can you play?

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was the first game to be played over Stadia, then called “Project Stream,” in October 2018 and has since been demonstrated on the main Stadia service. It will certainly be available to gamers who join Stadia later in 2019. Doom Eternal, and another unnamed game by Q-Games are planned for Stadia’s launch. Other games announced with future Stadia support so far include Trials Rising, Skull and Bones, and Anno 1800. As many as 100 developers are said to be working on ported versions of their games.

Google is said to be courting developers by offering to leverage Stadia to create virtual couch coop experienced in games, as well as giving them access to Google’s Style Transfer ML feature, which would see machine learning alter visuals in a game — a little like Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling, although more versatile.

id Software has suggested that it only took about a week of tweaking to optimize Doom Eternal for Stadia, so it may be that many games which are not designed with game streaming in mind could have it added retroactively. Google will have its own first party developers too, which suggests we may see some platform exclusives in the future.

That said, it is likely that certain games and genres will be better suited to Stadia than others. While Google can optimize the latency of Stadia as best it can, it will never compare to a game rendered locally, which means competitive multiplayer titles which rely on reaction times, will not be best suited for Stadia. Although fast-paced games like Doom Eternal may work well over the service, we would expect Stadia to be best suited to slower-paced, single-player experiences.

Whatever games do end up on Stadia, it’s not yet clear whether gamers will need to buy them individually or will gain access to a library as part of a subscription.

Devices and controllers

Google Stadia gamepad

A core tenet of Google Stadia is that you’ll be able to play your games just about anywhere. Stadia will be playable on desktop PCs, laptops, phones, and tablets, all through the Chrome browser. Gamers will even be able to move between devices, all while playing the same game, on the same save. If it works as seamlessly as Google suggests, you’ll be able to shut down a game at home, then hop on the train and continue playing on a more portable device. It’s the Nintendo Switch concept, but with a variety of hardware options and a consistent quality experience — in theory.

As for controllers, Google is championing its own Stadia gamepad for playing its library of games. Those controllers look like more streamlined Xbox One gamepads but with some neat additions. They include the usual twin analog sticks, D-PAD, four face buttons, shoulder buttons, and triggers, but also add a share button for showing off gameplay footage and a built-in microphone for easy voice communication in-game. It also has a 3.5mm headphone jack for those who want to use their own headset.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Stadia controller is Wi-Fi connected, so will deliver as immediate-a-connection as possible with the Google servers.

Despite its push for its own controller though, Google will also make Stadia compatible with other controllers like Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive controller, the Xbox One gamepad, PS4 gamepad, and keyboard and mouse, among others, as Windows Central highlights.

YouTube and Google Assistant

Outside of the gaming itself, Google is also championing two important features of Stadia. The first is Google Assistant integration. For those using the Stadia controller, it will be only a button press away and can help you beat a certain segment of a game. When you press the button, the Assistant will detect where you are in the game and can then pull up the most relevant YouTube Let’s Play video to show you how to get past it.

YouTube is a core piece of Google’s internet pie and it will integrate well with Stadia too. Not only will the controller’s share button make it possible to quickly and easily stream and upload saved videos in up to 4K resolution to the streaming video site, but Stadia will integrate with gaming streams too. Gamers can watch a YouTube stream of their favorite gaming celebrity and then jump right into the same game as them, or in the case of certain games, the very same save or multiplayer party.

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