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Google's new Stadia platform faces muted reception tied to game launch slate

Google LLC's new cloud gaming platform Stadia met with tepid enthusiasm from analysts and early adopters who criticized the service's slate of launch titles and lack of promoted features.

Although Google nearly doubled the number of games on Stadia to 22 in a surprise announcement before the service's launch on Nov. 19, the total still lags far behind what competitors Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. offer on their own cloud gaming services. Moreover, expected multiplayer and social game features were missing at Stadia's launch, though Google promised to roll out those features in the coming months.

SNL Image

Four of the launch titles available on Stadia, Google's new cloud gaming platform.
Source: Google

Stadia is now available to users in 14 countries with the purchase of a $129 bundle that includes a Chromecast Ultra streaming media player, a Stadia Controller and a three-month subscription to Stadia Pro. Priced at $9.99 per month, Stadia Pro provides users access to two free games and higher-quality streaming. Stadia itself allows users to stream games over the cloud, without having to use dedicated hardware like a gaming console or PC, on a range of devices based on Google software, including computers running the Chrome browser, Pixel smartphones and Chrome-based tablets. It also allows for streaming on any TV connected to a Google Chromecast Ultra device. The company plans to add support for more Android phones and Apple Inc. iOS-based devices in the future.

Unlike other cloud gaming services such as Sony's PlayStation Now and Microsoft's xCloud, which is currently in closed beta, Stadia does not offer users instant access to a collection of games, aside from the two free titles currently included through a Stadia Pro subscription. Instead, users have to digitally purchase the games they want to play on the service, with prices ranging from $20 to $60 per title.

Analysts said this business model is a tough sell for gamers, given the more extensive and sometimes exclusive range of content offered by the competition.

"Stadia will live or die by its content," said George Jijiashvili, a senior analyst at research firm Ovum with expertise in gaming hardware research. "With the exception of one exclusive, these games have been available on other gaming platforms for several months or even years, making it difficult to generate real excitement."

Jijiashvili noted that Google understands the importance of first-party content and has opened a game development studio in Montreal to create exclusive titles for Stadia. However, the company faces intense competition as both Microsoft and Sony continue to invest heavily in gaming hardware and software.

"Google still has a lot of work to do before Stadia truly gains mainstream appeal," said Matthew Bailey, a media and entertainment analyst at Ovum. "Stadia's launch comes at a time when console incumbents Sony and Microsoft are stepping up efforts to generate buzz around their next-generation consoles, which are set to launch towards the end of next year, likely alongside a much more appealing list of new titles."

SNL Image

Stadia's main store page
Source: Google

One of Google's goals to make Stadia stand out from the competition was to offer the ability to stream games over the cloud at a native 4K resolution. PlayStation Now's streaming resolution caps at 720p. Microsoft's xCloud is capable of outputting up to 1080p in beta, but it usually hovered around 720p in tests by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

In S&P Global Market Intelligence's tests of Stadia, several games — including Destiny 2: Collection, one of the free titles included in the Stadia Pro subscription — do not render in native 4K resolution, but are instead upscaled via various techniques. Google confirmed in a statement to news outlets that it was rendering 4K streams at a native 1080p.

While the resulting picture quality for Stadia is better than other cloud services, it fails to match the overall clarity of Microsoft's Xbox One X, which supports native 4K resolutions, as well as Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro, which also offers upscaled 4K resolutions. Furthermore, Stadia, like other cloud gaming services, has a significant amount of input lag, which causes a noticeable delay in the action during gameplay.

"Input lag is the death knell for competitive gaming, especially if you are playing with gamers from other platforms that might hold an advantage," said Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit. "Your average consumer may not notice, but this is one reason why I think serious competitive play will take place on local devices for the foreseeable future."