Review-in-Progress: Google Stadia is an incredible feat when it decides to work

Google isn’t a company to do things the normal way. It takes a lot of risks and decisions that would be seen as stupid if they were anyone else but Google. I think I get it. If you’re going to be like everyone else, there’s no point if everyone else already exists.

Sometimes this behaviour pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Google Stadia is one product where it could potentially pay off, and where it may not. That’s a truism, I’m aware, but it is worth stating. A cloud-dependent product like Stadia depends on buy-in. If users don’t hop on, then there is nothing to do but pre-write my “Google shuts down Stadia” article and schedule it for 2021, because that’s what going to happen.

Last week, I had a chance to try Stadia over at Google’s London offices and I came away with a mish-mash of thoughts.

My thoughts on Stadia in a nutshell:

  • The Stadia App is minimal and essentially Google.
  • The controllers (mostly) melt into the background.
  • Gaming on Stadia is good and seems magical in a controlled environment.
  • If things can still go wrong in a controlled environment, imagine gaming outside Google HQ. 

First of all, I really like Stadia’s design aesthetic. I’m probably a rare breed of person when it comes to liking Google’s minimal aesthetic, so take my opinion here with as much salt as is good for your heart. Google’s Stadia just takes that philosophy and runs with it.

In hand, Stadia’s controllers feel like pretty much any other controllers. They look nicer than some; the lime green Panda controller is unspeakably Google. As I type it, I think of it as falling just short of an endorsement. Consider game consoles or keyboards like a doorknob. The better it is at working, the less noteworthy it is. It’s a window to an experience, not an experience in itself. So when I say Google’s Stadia controllers felt ‘pretty much’ like any other controller, that’s a good thing. For the most part, they melted into the background and I didn’t have to consciously think of them at all. Where they erred and drew attention to themselves was with the placement of the Assistant and Screenshot buttons over the Start and Select ones. I get that Google wants to prioritise sharing and Google assistant, but I’d rather my fingers hit the actually useful buttons rather than the ones that I’m likely to use once and then never again.

Once I got past that hurdle, using Stadia itself felt magical, at first. There’s the whole ‘Wow, I’m really playing Mortal Kombat on a mobile’ factor. Not mobile Mortal Kombat with no chance of combos and weird graphics, but actual full-fledged Mortal Kombat on a Pixel 2 XL.  Playing it in Google’s controlled environment also contributed to this feeling. You could switch from a Pixelbook to the Chromecast to the Pixel 2 XL pretty quickly. There was also almost no latency when playing either Tomb Raider or Mortal Kombat, although we aren’t experts on the frame-specifics needed for fighters. The visuals were almost impressive. If it fell below my Xbox One in quality, I didn’t notice.

In other words, Stadia is a decent experience in a controlled environment.

That is, until a minor glitch occurred. To showcase the local multiplayer functionality of Stadia, we opted to play a two-player match of Mortal Kombat locally. You can guess from the phrasing that this didn’t go as planned. “It’s supposed to work,” “Just give me a second.” and “It worked last time” are words no man really wants to say, especially in the context of showing off a shiny new product feature. They had to be said anyway. The app registered that all four controllers were connected, it should have been a simple matter to start the game. Alas, it took the better part of 10 minutes of demo time to get this to work. We only had one two-player match at the end of it all.

The Stadia glitch was a splash of cold water on the excitement. Sure, Stadia had performed excellently prior, but excellent really amounted to on-par with existing products. All we wanted to do was play Mortal Kombat to see which was right. Sure, it may be demo blues, or it may be something else, but we had no alternative other than fiddling with it until it eventually worked. Let’s change the scenario from a PR demo to a Christmas morning multi-player session or a birthday party session. Google wants us to trust and say ‘it just works’? Fine, but it has to just work.

Questions after questions began to pile up. Sure it was pretty good at Google’s HQ, but how will it perform at home? Sometimes my WiFi service dips to the point where YouTube decides 240p is the best quality, can Stadia keep up there? If the issue we had with the controllers recurs on an initial unboxing, will people at home be more patient than us? Ten-year-olds getting this for Christmas? Semi-drunk college students trying this out in a dorm room? We can rule out pro-gamers out of this because the lack of games just makes this a non-starter for anyone who wants the very best games as soon as they’re out.

My experience may very well have been an outlier, but those few minutes did shake my faith in Stadia. And that’s just me speaking about the isolated gaming environment without talking about the concerns regarding the number of games in its library or how it competes with XCloud. Everyone’s sat around waiting for Stadia to flop, as The Verge opines. Google needs to prove them wrong. I don’t think their launch can do so, but maybe 2 -3 months down the line? We’ll see. No doubt Google would like us to reserve final judgement until its full potential is realised, but there’s no half potential discount at the Google Store where Stadia is being sold right now. That’s the thing with Google products in 2019, isn’t it? You’re paying full price for a lot of promise. Good promises of very good experiences, but you’ll just have to wait and see.

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