GamesQuest 10: Google Stadia's Business Plan

Google Stadia has been announced at GDC, bringing us closer to the inevitable game streaming future. But on the way Google will not have it easy. In this episode of GamesQuest I am speculating about possible business models, including one in which the players are not the target audience at all.

In case you already know all the Stadia announcements you could skip my summary and get straight to my commentary starting at 07:06 or read the excerpt below.

Links from the episode:

Transcript excerpt


Here is what we don’t really know about Stadia: content and pricing. This was an event for developers so I guess that is fair but I’m sure developers would have liked to see a bit more as well, especially about the pricing side. Google promised more info in the summer. They carefully avoided to promise anything for E3 but that would be a good opportunity to use up Sony’s empty space there.

Stadia will be lacking content

Let’s start with the content. Doom Eternal is the only game we have heard of so far. Ubisoft is a partner and we have already seen Assassin’s Creed streaming on Chrome. There are some smaller companies mentioned but that’s it so far. Stadia Games and Entertainment still seems to be in a spin up phase. So any big games from them are still somewhere in the future. Also we heard a bit more about tech demo stuff like a game built around state sharing. This sounds interesting but all together they are still thin on content right now.

So this is where I would see an uphill battle for Google. That cool YouTube integration is lame if all the coolest let’s plays are for games that I cannot play right away. And it’s also the area in which the big competitors Microsoft and Sony can already point to a large catalogue.

Bundling Stadia with YouTube Premium

Maybe Google plans to compete on the pricing side. But so far nothing has been said about price or even business model. This doesn’t stop people already talking about it and criticising Google for it. I’ve heard everything now: free ad supported with Google-like tracking on everything, pay per game, subscription, or a combination thereof.

To me the obvious way would be the subscription. It’s what Microsoft does with GamePass and I always assumed that is what they want to do with their streaming service xCloud. But I guess Microsoft could just offer xCloud as a free service on top of your existing Xbox library.

Stadia would be convenient for whoever doesn’t have a powerful PC or console but why would I want to pay an extra monthly price for only a handful of games. An interesting idea would be to do it like Amazon does with Prime. It’s one low price but you get streaming music, movies and shows, and one-day delivery. Hardly anybody uses all of those things, but of course it makes it look like a great deal. As Stadia is supposed to have a big YouTube integration anyway, it could just be a YouTube Premium feature and make that service more attractive as well.

Cloud service for game developers

There is another pricing option that I haven’t really seen mentioned anywhere. Stadia could be sold as a service for developers. Basically as a new Google Cloud offering specifically for game developers. In a gaming future that is all cloud and streaming based this would be a compelling offer. Developers just pay for computing power, as many already do in some way or another, and have a way to work around the platforms and their cuts. No 30% for Steam or whoever. Publishers could do the transaction on their side and then just link out to Stadia which runs on any Chrome based platform. I think it would make sense to approach that in a tiered way. Smaller indie devs could use Google’s own payment options in which Google takes a cut from the final price. Bigger publisher pay more up front to do it all themselves. But the whole gaming infrastructure, the really difficult part of it, comes from Google and runs off their data centers.

Google wouldn’t have to worry that much about creating content right away. Their in-house studio would just produce tech demos and help other developers create their games on Stadia. It would be an interesting option for Google to detach itself from the game platform wars and simply have an additional offering for Google Cloud where it is already competing with Microsoft and Amazon.

Latency is not important

Now I also want to talk about the few points that people criticize. A central one is the issue of lag and people don’t see how they have a stable enough internet connection for this. I think the whole latency discussion was why Google brought Marty Stratton and Doom on stage. This is a fast-paced first-person shooter and id Software, a well known and loved studio, trusts in Stadia that it can deliver for those kind of games. Ars Technica has a bit on how it took Google some time to convince id Software that Doom can run on Stadia. Of course this sounds a bit like PR talk to convince other developers to trust Google as well, but I like the rather honest approach.

From what I can read out of the games press articles it works just fine and most players will hardly notice a difference. If Stadia will never be able to compete with some high-end PC and carefully designed low latency setup, so what? Why does it have to?

There is a lucrative junk of the market for Google to take while different models exist side by side. The same question can be asked for the bandwidth problem. “This will not work outside of bigger cities with current bandwidths and data caps in the US!” Again, so what? It’s not like it’s the only option to play games. But is streaming the future of gaming? Definitely, convenience and ease of use are major factors and bandwidth will catch up eventually just as it did for music and video streaming.

Welcome to the Netflix-Hulu-Amazon Prime-Apple TV+ of games

For me, the more important questions are about ownership and the whole subscription nightmare which becomes too much at one point. Personally, I’d love to see subscriptions and traditional models side by side, so I’m subscribed to the platforms I play most on but still have a chance to buy a game on another one if I really want to play it. But even then, I still expect that either one will be streamed at some point, just like I have my bought movie collection on Amazon now and I can stream or download it as I wish without the need for a physical disc.

Also game preservation is an issue. In theory it should be easier to just spin up any old image on a virtual machine in the cloud but we’ll see what happens there. This also goes hand in hand with the worry that Google might just discontinue Stadia sometime in the future. It is always going to be hard to address that in a satisfactory way though.

All those concerns are somewhat moot now. Only time will tell what Google actually does with this tech. I think it is exciting and I think it will change the gaming landscape quite a bit. I’m sure that in a couple of years we will look back and be amazed at how we needed special hardware to run games. Just like we look at VCRs and DVD players now. There is still room for fans who buy Blu-Rays for the extra fidelity or DVDs if you don’t have good internet but the majority just streams their movies and soon games.