SAN FRANCISCO—At the Game Developers Conference, Google announced its biggest play yet in the gaming space: a streaming game service named Google Stadia, designed to run on everything from PCs and Android phones to Google’s own Chromecast devices.
As of press time, the service’s release window is simply “2019.” No pricing information was announced at the event.
Google Stadia will run a selection of existing PC games on Google’s centralized servers, taking in controller inputs and sending back video and audio using Google’s network of low latency data centers. The company revealed a new Google-produced controller, along with a game-streaming interface that revolves around a “play now” button. Press this on any web browser, and gameplay will begin “in as quick as five seconds… with no download, no patch, no update, and no install.”
“With Stadia, this waiting game will be a thing of the past,” Google’s Phil Harrison said. He then demonstrated Stadia gameplay on a Pixel 3 XL, followed by “the least powerful PC we could find.” The following gameplay was advertised as “1080p, 60 frames per second.” Harrison confirmed that existing “USB controllers and mouse-and-keyboard” will function with Stadia games, as well.
But you’ll want that Stadia controller if you’d like to access both a “capture” button, for immediate capture to YouTube (to either livestream or save for later sharing), and a Google Assistant button, which lets Stadia players access the controller’s built-in microphone. Google didn’t confirm whether existing controllers’ “share” buttons will work with any of the Stadia platform’s custom button functions.
Harrison confirmed one interesting Google-tinged combination of the Google Assistant and a live-streaming service: tap the button if you’re stuck mid-game and ask out loud for help. But we’ll simply have to take Harrison’s word for it, in terms of how that actually plays out and how intelligently Google Assistant will translate users’ mid-game requests.
After the event, Google provided a fact sheet to Ars Technica confirming more stats about the hardware included in the Google Stadia stacks. These include: custom-built AMD GPUS with 56 compute units and integrated HBM2 memory; “custom, hyperthreaded x86” CPUs (no manufacturer listed) that run at 2.7GHz “with AVX2 SIMD”; and “a total of 16GB combined VRAM and system RAM clocked at “up to 484 GB/s.”
The keynote included Google’s pledge that its network infrastructure includes “7,500 edge nodes closer to players to provide better performance.” Stadia’s stacks at Google’s data centers are powered by AMD hardware, the company said, with “10.7 teraflops of power in each instance.”
A Google engineer insisted that “at launch,” Stadia will support “4K, 60 frames-per-second performance.” If you don’t have a 4K set to enjoy that gameplay with, Google says its capture button will save and stream your gameplay content at that resolution, should the game in question support it.
Unreal and Unity were announced as supporters of the Stadia platform. Vulkan joins the party, too, as confirmed by id Software. The game developer confirmed that it needed “a few weeks” to port its current, unfinished code for the game to Stadia’s platform, and it confirmed that the upcoming game will work on Stadia at 4K resolution and 60 frames per second. (GDC attendees will get to see the game in action on the show floor later today.) id did not confirm whether the game will appear on Stadia day-and-date with existing consoles and PCs.
In one curious moment, Harrison told viewers that Stadia games’ effects and features vary, should a game be rendered on multiple GPUs within Google’s cloud system. This seems to imply that there will be an option to request more, or less, infrastructure dedicated to a single streamed game, but it’s currently unclear whether that will cost developers, or players, more money to access those.
Google has expressed interest in, and support for, cross-platform play, and the company insisted that its cloud-based platform will not be vulnerable to cheating or hacking due to multiplayer instances that aren’t exposed to “the public Internet.” We’ll have to wait to see how big console and PC platforms react to Google’s call for cross-platform support, however, especially if Stadia games revolve around their own walled multiplayer-server gardens.
As part of the Game Developers Conference, the event made sure to emphasize trippy features that game makers might access through Google’s cloud infrastructure. These included the ability to access intense physics systems, place thousands of cameras in various places in a game’s world, and re-skin games with a huge variety of machine-generated images. One example included a modern, 3D Tequila Works video game (makers of ) smothered in a seemingly endless swirl of images.
Stadia players, meanwhile, will be able to access a new twist for how to play a game: “state share.” As introduced by legendary game developer Dylan Cuthbert, this will “let a player instantly share a playable moment from a game.” Think of a “save state” within a classic emulator, which starts a player at a certain point in a quest with certain equipped items and progress; then imagine a modern game maker letting players click a URL (or share it on social media) and try those out for its titles. (Nintendo has toyed with something similar in the NES classic library on Nintendo Switch Online.)
Near the end of the presentation, longtime video game designer Jade Raymond finally had her new job at Google confirmed: Head of Stadia Games and Entertainment. This followed Harrison’s confirmation that Google Stadia will get “exclusive” games from this first-party game studio. “Our team will also be working with external developers to make all of the bleeding edge Google technology you’ve seen here today available to partner studios big and small,” Raymond said. This statement leaves open to interpretation whether this will lead to third-party exclusives for Stadia.
The only “official” site for Google Stadia as of press time is tucked into the Google Store. Missing from that site is a loud confirmation of exactly which game publishers are lined up to launch games on Stadia, beyond what the event showed of gameplay, a logo, and a trio of game developers’ assurances that they’re interested.
Ars Technica will go hands-on with whatever Google has on the GDC show floor following the event.
Google’s announcement follows weeks of teases and hints of a major announcement centered on some sort of streaming gaming solution. It also follows the public beta test of Google’s Project Stream, which let players try in a browser window. Google CEO Sundar Pichai mentioned that this test hinted to “the worst-kept secret in the industry” and reached “19 regions, 58 zones, and 200 countries.”
“Think about the way the web works,” Pichai told the GDC crowd. “You can easily share a link and it works seamlessly. We want games to feel that way too. Instantly enjoyable with access for everyone.”
The idea of streaming games in general has been enjoying something of a resurgence since the failure of streaming service OnLive earlier in the decade. Sony’s PlayStation Now, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and other similar services also run games on centralized servers and send the resulting video and audio over the Internet.