Google Stadia Will Be a Resounding Failure — the FCC Made Sure of It

There are not enough words in my vocabulary to express how skeptical I’ve been towards Google’s advances for gaming, prior and after the announcement of Stadia. It’s got a stench all-too-familiar of loss, and a rush towards a trend that may not be all that successful after all, and there’s reason to believe Google won’t be the one to break the curse of cloud gaming as it so wishes to do.

Latency won’t be the only issue Google has to reckon with — the way we consume video games has to radically alter shape within the remainder months of this year, something that has very little chance to occur.. In what ways you might ask? Well, in the way that Google expects you to impulsively buy/rent a game after watching a trailer, and is capitalizing on the success of its video platform and potency of its streaming efforts to ease up the transition.

If I’ve seen any premature signs of success, they must reside more on the Microsoft side after we’ve seen what the company has been able to do with livestream delivery over on Mixer — the feedback is almost instantaneous, and their low-latency mode is pretty much the industry standard. If things are shaking up to be even the slightest bit ambitious on the host side, Microsoft has a lot more to show for. Google on the other hand, have been riding high on the success of the — heavily curated — trial of Project Stream, and if they’re not careful enough, they might bite more than they can chew, and will be subsequently unable to deliver the service at the volume they’re predicting. They won’t need any regular cloud infrastructure— it’ll have to provide ample processing room with their newly acquired hardware to support potential millions of customers all at once. We’ve no assurance that this will occur without hiccups, and the industry’s track record isn’t exactly flush with great examples pointing to the contrary.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

The issues aren’t strictly logistical however — the calculus of relying on infrastructure to improve in a timely manner is an already lost one.

At the tail end of 2018 — which in the grand scheme of things, is an eternity ago — FCC chair Ajit Pai revealed a wildly controversial plan (which ultimately failed) to redefine broadband in lesser terms so that more areas in the US are considered having retroactively better internet coverage — this kind of pro-telco, anti-consumer behavior has been the tune to which Ajit sung since he assumed FCC responsibilities from the comparatively more competent — but not any less repugnant — Tom Wheeler. The FCC has shown no commitment to hold telco providers to account, and they’ve certainly not achieved that with their repeal of Net Neutrality as House Democrats scramble to restore Obama-era regulations, setting them back to square one.

When the legislators and lawmakers of the country Google is expected to yield the largest clientele of its game streaming service from aren’t that concerned about the well-being of the internet as an open platform where every piece of information’s traversal is to be treated agnostically, how can we expect them to push for increased competition, fiber installation lines, or even improved speeds, and the elimination of data caps? Telco providers have shown no real will to advance on these issues, and Google is sure to lose a fight with the Trump administration if their entire goal is to deploy this service and have consumers possess the infrastructure necessary to use it in a way as to not make it completely useless.

The issue of latency here is paramount — even if Google has the necessary server space to make way for all instances its customers might require, the American audience will be severely underserved under current FCC leadership. It won’t strictly be the case that consumers have to demand of better treatment, but they’ve no real fallback to rely on in case all efforts for deep reform and change are met with a collective shrug of lobby interests, and cheapitude. Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and all the rest of the big players, have absolutely no incentive to comply without legislative oversight, and without the political capital to tip the scales in favor of a large majority in what has become a bipartisan issue for most, they’ll not heed the sensible call for better internet connectivity.

Google can try to expand its Fiber program all it wants — the fact of the matter is, most US households are left with what is considered an abysmal internet connection by all modern standards. If Google Stadia is to succeed, they’ll either have to enter the race to the fastest national provider of internet connectivity themselves, or, they’ll have to campaign much harder for telcos’ firm grip on internet laws to be loosened.

Beyond what is most obvious in that case, there will not only be infrastructural hell to pay — the public has to be as equally willing to let go of Phil Harrison’s legacy of a snake-oil seller back when he was still working at Sony.

If anyone still remembers, the E3 2005 reveal of the PlayStation 3 was marked by wild proclamations on part of Sony that the IBM Cell would come to fully change the way in which games are made, and consumed — in a pitch shockingly similar to that of Google. Players were promised the world. A wide departure from the promise of Toy Story-level of graphics on the PS2 — it seemed realistic at first, but no one truly knew the magnitude of the lies being delivered on stage until E3 of next year rolled around, and Sony had nothing but a Full HD port of Gran Turismo 4, many pre-rendered trailers, a ludicrous Six-Axis demo, and a plethora of forgettable fixtures, to showcase the power of its newest console.

Ever since the fraudulent PS3 reveal, the gaming industry has been struggling since to meet increasing demands of better-looking games, and gameplay systems ever-so-complex. But as we continue to count the tally, we realize that very few products have been able to aptly deliver. Most of gaming history’s biggest controversies have been predicated on the infamous word that has become the “downgrade”. And if Google Stadia is anything short of the 4K 60FPS marvel Google keeps promising, there’ll be a lot to make up for, and potentially, the entire product line’s life, will be at stake.

It keeps being touted as the Netflix of gaming by the gaming press — but I just don’t see it. If Netflix was the app you launched to put on a cooking show while you browse Twitter or do some cleaning…what does Google expect us to do with a controller but to press buttons and pull triggers? Do they seem to think the cognitive load of binge-watching television is as easily transferable over to the video game medium? Again, there’s so much I keep asking, with none the answers provided by Google, or its crowd of optimists. There’s so much we still don’t know about Stadia, that it keeps begging the question whether Google’s announcement was one of urgency, or was it purely used to gauge reactions and adjust expectation. If it’s the latter, Google should’ve been far better off pushing wider adoption of Vulkan on the mobile side, rather than beg every developer to take advantage of it while they develop for Stadia.

A Stadia controller being held. From the official reveal trailer.

3rd party support won’t suffice, nor will Google’s first-party efforts. If the Wii U has taught us anything, it is that Zelda, Mario, and a slew of AAA Ubisoft games, aren’t enough to move units. Google Stadia will have to do so much better than id Software’s latest hellish shooter — it needs to be a central hub where all, and any video games can be played. In a universe where Microsoft and Sony hold the keys to their platform-published games through custom graphical API’s and a robust ecosystem, Google will have to yank the existing army of developers who have no interest in switching load from DirectX to Vulkan, without it resulting in unneeded grief, manpower, money, and precious effort spent in what is an end-user unaffecting process. Short of providing software engineers and literal cash so that the effort may be seen through, it’s unlikely anyone will budge away from Steam and Microsoft’s DirectX as the standard to aim for.

It doesn’t exactly help that Google Stadia doesn’t have an identity beyond which that touches the hands — does Google expect consumers to just buy a controller and whisk away at their Chromecast-hooked TVs to start playing, or do they have a solid brand strategy in mind? If Hangouts was able to fail on the back of a forced preload on Android phones, Google Stadia will have an even greater hurdle to overcome. Google has simply not been known to give its products the time to prosper, and solidify their ground — sometimes, taking a shiv to the development process and expecting people to still give a shit after no updates or significant interface overhauls have been made for months on end. Google Allo faced the same problems — with the latest update on the Play Store dating back to January of 2018, and investment being paused in favor of a more lucrative project. The fear here, is that Google will simply take away from Stadia if it sees that it hasn’t succeeded as it expected it to — worst case scenario, they have plans to use Google Stadia hardware for machine learning, or artificial intelligence if the need should ever arise.

I don’t condone much of the toxicity in the gaming community, but I’ll have to wonder if a slap on the wrist is the only way Google will stop pursuing the impossible, and will just settle for building a custom PCB and selling it to the masses while supplementing a far cheaper effort in becoming a storefront for digital games and tighter integration with Google services. What we get on offer however, is the faint promise of a future only those rich and privileged will be a part of — if none noticed, Google Stadia will but not be anywhere near Asia, Africa, Latin America, or Mexico on its first days.

Phil Harrison said in an interview with Kotaku’s Jason Schreier and Maddy Myers “Stadia is the plural of Stadium”, and he further expounded on Google’s commitment to unite gamers under one banner. That banner for the time being, looks awfully white — not only in chosen demographics, but also the racial makeup of upper middle class neighborhoods. That’s where Google will draw the widest rift, and it’s one they’ll have to close if they proclaim to be even half as inclusive as they currently are.

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