The future of gaming isn’t a box, but rather a place: The cloud. And it will arrive before the end of 2019. So says Google Inc., which unveiled a potentially disruptive new game platform called Stadia during a keynote speech at the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) in San Francisco on Tuesday.
The tech giant’s vision for the future of gaming is a global network of data centres dedicated to hosting and streaming games at maximum fidelity to any and every screen you use — including televisions, laptop and desktop computers, tablets, and phones — via either your Internet browser or a free app. No separate box required.
“It’s the most highly tuned platform to meet the needs of every member of the gaming ecosystem, whether you’re a developer, publisher, a YouTube creator, or, crucially, a gamer,” said Google vice president and general manager Phil Harrison, who joined the company last year to head up Stadia after a career working with Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp., and Atari SA.
Stadia servers will be powered by a new graphics processing unit (GPU) developed in partnership with American semiconductor manufacturer AMD, Inc. Google claims its chips are capable of pushing out in excess of 10 teraflops — more than the combined computing power of Microsoft’s Xbox One X and Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro — and will help deliver games in 4K HDR at 60 frames per second to players wherever they happen to be, regardless of the specifications of the device on which they’re playing.
Google presented a live demonstration of Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s "Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey" to show how Stadia will let players launch a game they just discovered from within their browser in as little as five seconds — a far cry from the hours it currently takes to download and install large game files on traditional consoles. Harrison also demonstrated how players can seamlessly switch between devices and continue playing, so long as each one has an Internet connection.
Game streaming has been a holy grail within the industry for years, with startup companies like Gaikai and OnLive attempting to own the space. However, the technology has always been finicky, with latency — the time it takes for player inputs to travel to a server and back — proving problematic.
But Google claims to have beaten this problem via a mix of cutting edge technology and a peerless network of data centres scattered across more than 200 countries. The majority of the world’s population lives within close enough proximity to these servers to keep their lag time low. “We have 7,500 locations,” said Harrison, “and they’re connected by a proprietary backbone of Google fibre optic cables covering hundreds of thousands of miles. This helps ensure we have the best performing network possible.”
Proof of Stadia’s performance was on display last fall, when Google ran a limited public test of its new platform under the code name Project Stream, handled in part by Google Canada’s Waterloo office, which is also responsible for creating Stadia’s developer- and publisher-facing user experience. It earned rave reviews from both pundits and players.
Since Stadia will be accessible through browsers or apps on almost any device and is compatible with most existing USB peripherals, including keyboards, mice, and controllers, consumers won’t need to purchase any new hardware to begin playing. However, Google’s hardware division has created a branded controller for Stadia that will connect to data centres via Wi-Fi and offer players additional perks, like pressing a dedicated Google Assistant button to access tips and tricks for a game without needing to pause play.
Google also used its GDC keynote to announce the founding of its own first-party game studio: Stadia Games and Entertainment. The new division will be headed up by Montreal-born Jade Raymond — best known for leading Ubisoft’s Toronto studio for five years — and charged with developing Stadia-exclusive software. There’s no word yet on what its first game will be.
However, some key questions regarding Google’s new platform remain unanswered. Perhaps the biggest is how players will pay to play. Stadia could take the form of a Netflix-like subscription service, with players paying a monthly fee for unlimited play, or players may still need to purchase individual games, as most do now. Harrison said that Stadia is in talks with publishers and developers as it works out its business model.
Another open question is how both players and game developers will react to some of Stadia’s more unusual features, such as State Share. State Share will allow YouTubers who livestream their play sessions to share a specific game state — a particular moment or scenario within the game — with other Stadia users so that they can instantly jump into the game at the same place and in the same situation as the streamer. This could be used as a means of disseminating demos prior to a game’s release, or YouTubers could use it as a way to create challenges within their communities.
And while Google’s network of data centres is massive, Harrison admits that there will be some locations in the world that won’t be close enough for an optimal streaming experience. “Inevitably, there will be some parts of the world that we are not yet able to reach. But the good news is that the Internet continues to grow every day and get faster for more people. And there are technologies just around the corner, like 5G, that we hope will make Stadia accessible to more people.”
Harrison is confident that Stadia represents the future of gaming, and that game streaming will one day fully supplant traditional consoles.
“Eventually, I’m pretty sure streaming will become (the standard platform for game delivery). It won’t happen overnight. And we don’t expect the transition to be immediate. But we want to position Stadia as the new generation of gaming platforms, purpose-built for the 21st century.”
By Chad Sapieha
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019