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The internet has, for better or worse, transformed the way we live our lives. Information that would have once required suffering through books, newspaper articles and a £10 bribery to uncover is now a simple Google search away, using those brilliant social media rectangles in our pockets.
Similarly, with the introduction of services like Netflix and Spotify, entertainment media is always mere seconds away, through the introduction of online streaming. One medium that hasn’t been infiltrated by the internet in quite the same way is video games. Gaming is unique as media goes, due to the simple addition of interactivity. Now, thanks to the magic of video games, not only can you watch a demon get ripped in half, you can press a button to do it yourself!
However, this adds an extra layer of difficulty when it comes to streaming. On top of rendering the audiovisual aspects of the game, streaming must also account for player input, continually adapting to how the player’s actions change the world. Executing is poorly results in lag, where the game cannot keep up with the player’s inputs and reacts late, which makes for a borderline unplayable experience (multiplayer enthusiasts will fully understand how frustrating this can be).
Google has promised to fix this with the introduction of its service, Stadia. Using servers set up all around the world, Google is boasting 4K, high framerate gameplay on a wide selection of games, including but not limited to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2. To combat lag, Google has cited “negative latency” as a solution, a concept by which an AI will, necessarily, predict which action the player will perform next, and prepare for it, thus eliminating lag. Furthermore, this will eradicate load times, and all games will be playable not just on your TV, but also (internet willing) your phone, tablet, computer, all at high-performance rates.
All of this is very impressive if properly implemented, but Stadia has encountered some pushback. Firstly, the issue of internet speeds. Many first impressions of the service have claimed consistent problems with performance, with claims of low latency. Verge reported issues with individual Chromebooks which couldn’t run the game, despite operating on the same internet speeds. The lag issues stopped after testing it on a wired connection, replaced by noticeable screen resolution compression, unable to achieve that promised 4K display. While these are impressions on the Beta build from a year ago, the point remains that we don’t know how the final product will perform and early previews aren’t very encouraging.
Another aspect of Stadia is the accessibility of its game library. All purchased games are tied to your Google account, making it straightforward to use. However, this brings into question the nature of game ownership. What if, one day, you lost access to your Google account? Would you lose access to all your Stadia games? As far as we can tell, there’s no clear way to back up your purchases. When asked about game security, Google assured customers that their games will always be secure, even if a game’s publisher pulls out of the Stadia service. However, this does not answer whether these games will be playable if Google pulls out. The company has an infamous history of cancelling many of its business ventures (check out killedbygoogle.com for the staggeringly long list), so who’s to say Google hasn’t already dug Stadia a shallow grave in case it flops on release? There’s no concrete answer for this issue, and the lack of clarity is certainly worrying.
In an interview with Edge, VP of engineering Madj Bakar stated: “We think, in a year or two, we’ll have games that are running faster and feel more responsive in the cloud that they do locally”. A year or two, you think? Google is essentially asking consumers to buy their product based on the promise of better things to come, which isn’t very reassuring, and this vagueness surrounding Stadia may prove to be its downfall upon release. With the continued reliability of XBOX and PlayStation, Stadia may be too foreign a concept to succeed in the current gaming landscape truly. Perhaps, given a few years and improved technology, we might be streaming all our games. But today, on my terrible student wi-fi? Absolutely not.