For a while it seemed like a pleasant dream. A fledgling cloud gaming service, led by former Sony director and Microsoft VP, Phil Harrison. It came at a time (launched on November 19th, back in 2019) when there was a global shortage of chips and graphics cards. A bleak world of enforced shut-ins and aspirant interior designers emerged in the pandemic. The climate couldn’t have been any more auspicious for an indoor entertainment platform. Netflix took off into the ether like a hypersonic missile. Tiger King exploded like a cultural atom bomb. And then, there was Google Stadia…
Now, a few weeks on from the September 29th announcement, we reflect on exactly what happened to Stadia and why Google finally abandoned their problem child – service is scheduled to fully shut down on January 18th, 2023.
Tale Of A Tall Order
So, mid-pandemic, you could’ve said the timing was ideal. The demand for what Stadia offered couldn’t have been any higher. Amid a tragic set of circumstances, Stadia’s free tier was set to ride the crest of hunkered-down indoor life – a month after the UK went into Lockdown One (the worst of them). The only problem was that larger waves were already being ridden by Sony and Xbox. Stadia had a daunting mission to stand out and impress locked-in gamers with their own similar streaming service.
It was a tall order. What scuppered Google early on was an economic model that mirrored PlayStation Plus – Stadia Pro subscribers were gifted free games each month, accessible only while they held a subscription – only most of these so-called free games came with a separate cost. This model works if subscribers are encouraged to hold on for new releases, or if they find titles with longevity within free catalogues that warrant recurring costs. It doesn’t work if game libraries are riddled with secret fees. Especially when Sony and Xbox are playing in the same water and their already established titles take the limelight.
Relevance was what the platform seemed to lack. We all know that attention is a fickle currency – grab it with both hands or lose it forever. The big idea to help Stadia on that front was YouTube integration. In theory, gamers could watch their favourite YouTuber, hit a link and be hurled into gameplay inside their browser.
The Browser Problem
Even from the outset it was clear there was a lack of traction and users just weren’t taking to the service. Throw in a few high profile losses that seemed to sour hope for a community-fostered platform. Sandbox adventure Terraria (think 2-dimensional Minecraft, with more fisticuffs) jumped ship after the developer was locked out of their Google account. Then executive Jade Raymond (known for Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry) in internal development studios finally split in 2021 and took a few senior figures at Stadia to help in her next venture: Haven. Also, other projects were being ruthlessly cut if they fell short of allocated metrics.
In short, the glittering idea of firing up games in your web browser didn’t quite fly (at least, not yet). The PS5, Xbox Series X and high-end gaming PCs were churning out immersive games that turned our indoor worlds into cinematic dreamscapes. While there were breakthrough moments – Destiny developer, Bungie, famously used the platform in the pandemic to allow employees to test Destiny 2. It just wasn’t enough to launch Stadia tech into the bright future it promised for itself. Of course, there could still be some life in offering it as a paid service for developers, or in selling a quality product that doesn’t require you shell out on pricey hardware.
For now, Stadia isn’t the first streaming service to fail, but it did seem to have the early steps of a true competitor. This games platform took down developers who no doubt poured months into porting games to Stadia. While the tech giant stumbled, many smaller dreams, ambitions and departments have surely been stomped under its feet. Make no mistake, this giant has deep pockets and good balance. It’ll be upright again in seconds, notwithstanding a few developers left sprawled in its footprints – dazed by the realisation of having to search for new jobs and hard-won distribution deals. Not to mention those Stadia customers, who no doubt thought they were befriending the Iron Giant, only to have it turn on them and transform into Robocop’s bullet-spitting Enforcement Droid 209.
Google has promised a full refund of all purchases for games and hardware on their designated stores. All staff from Stadia have either moved on, or will likely be relocated to various other Google ventures.