It’s been a week since the Google Stadia announcement at GDC, and its big promises still don’t add up. Who is Stadia for? Could it ever work from a technical standpoint? Why should game developers or streamers be excited about it when it’s not clear how the heck they could ever expect to make any money from it? We delve into those questions and many more on this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen.
We first talk about what we’ve been playing, with a big section on Sekiro at 32:49. In the second half of the show (50:34), we discuss the news of the week, from the Crypt of the NecroDancer studio making a Zelda game, to the rumours of an “enhanced” Nintendo Switch, to Google Stadia. In the off-topic section, we talk about all the Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes content available now (1:20:24), then wrap up with Kirk’s music pick of the week.
Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below:
Jason: ...You have this company wading into the streaming waters and throwing a bunch of money at this problem and hoping that it sticks, hoping that they can convince people to pay $60 for a game that you can’t download locally and you have no assurances that you’ll be able to actually save beyond Google Stadia. And hiring Jade Raymond to run this studio that will no doubt have a collection of talent that’s hired, and then five years later, we’ll see a Kotaku article about what went wrong and why they never shipped anything. Just, investing all this money in this service that I do not know what the audience is.
Kirk: Let me throw a thought in here as you rain and rain and rain on their parade.
Maddy: So you love it, Kirk?
Kirk: No. I share all that scepticism... if Google hires a whole bunch of a super-talented people, and then they just cancel the thing in a few years, all that talent went to waste for that period of time, and that’s a bummer. But to push back, or just to include a thought—looking at how Spotify works for the consumer. I’m not going to get into how Spotify works for the music industry and how horrible Spotify is, in a lot of ways. But just as a person who likes listening to music, the experience of using Spotify—of paying whatever it is I pay, $10 a month—and then any time someone recommends me music—boom, I check it out. That experience is so good and compelling that Google’s thinking here—that we’re eventually going to wind up doing the same thing for video games—has some merit. Whether this is the way we’re gonna do it, how this is gonna happen, it seems to me that they’re saying, “We’re putting a lot of people into this. We want to be the ones who do what Spotify is doing.” Because everyone at Spotify is making a ton of money.
Jason: The answer to that is yes, but [as far as we know] that’s not what they’re doing. They’re not doing a subscription service where you get unlimited games by paying X amount of money per month.
Kirk: But they’re establishing the infrastructure that will, at least, allow for that possibly in the future. Or is it just that that can never happen and we’re already past the world where there could be one service that you sign up for, and it’s just going to be five different services that you have to sign up for, the same as it is with TV?
Jason: How do you do that with $60 games? Where does the money for these games actually come from? Is Google just taking a loss in that hypothetical? If you’re Ubisoft, and you’re selling Watch Dogs 3 this fall for $60 on all the other consoles, and Google’s like, “Come to Stadia and be part of our subscription!” You’re like, where’s that revenue that I’m getting from all the other consoles? Where’s that coming from?
Kirk: Oh, I don’t know. You’re asking me?
Maddy: Yeah, Kirk, where is the money coming from?!
Jason: That’s why it can’t happen. I guarantee you that Ubisoft’s fall games are gonna be on Stadia, because Ubisoft is all mobbed up with them. And they’re most likely going to be sold for $60 on Stadia.
Kirk: There’s an interesting Spotify parallel here, which is that Spotify has essentially rendered recorded music worthless. Which is this very dark—I actually think that Spotify is really bad in a lot of ways. It’s this really dark effect that it’s had for musicians. As a musician—and Maddy, I’m sure you feel this too—I don’t even want to put my music on Spotify.
Maddy: I get basically no money from my Spotify plays. And I get a lot of Spotify plays. Those percentages are terrible.
Kirk: With musicians, you can make money through other ways, and the whole music industry has adjusted to this new model where you basically don’t make money on your music. And I’m not saying that games can do this, it’s just an interesting parallel. It feels as though that kind of a thing—I don’t know the particulars, I don’t know how it would be sustainable or where the money would come from—but I definitely understand why people are trying to make it happen. If you’re looking at the future, you can look at the present, and you can see it. You can see that’s where we’re going to wind up, one way or another. I can understand why Google wants to be one of the first ones there, to get there before everyone else and figure it out.
Jason: They’re making stuff for the generation after us, the generation that’s growing up now and playing Fortnite and doesn’t really care about owning things—
Maddy: I don’t even think that they understand that audience, to be honest. I feel like the way that they described that audience in their presentation did not ring true to me at all. They were talking about to trying to remove that divide between streamers and audiences, and get audiences immediately involved in playing a game. That isn’t actually why people watch Let’s Plays. People who watch a Let’s Play don’t want to immediately click a button and start playing the game. You’re not in the headspace for that when you’re watching a Let’s Play.
Kirk: You’re almost in the opposite headspace.
Maddy: It’s a completely different activity, and that’s also not necessarily why people watch Let’s Plays. Yes, okay, maybe you’re playing a game and you want to press a button and immediately go to a Let’s Play where somebody’s in the exact same spot. That was something they described. But I was like, that sorta ruins the game. I’m not even sure that’s a button I want. And also, the other thing that they described, where they’re like, streamers can share specific links and anybody can hop into their game. That’s literally facilitating raids, which is exactly what steamers have described hating for this entire existence of streaming. They’re basically mechanising something that streamers try to avoid. Yeah, great, you get to be the 500th person in line to play with Markiplier! What does that do for Markiplier? Nothing. And also, Markiplier’s bottom line is gonna be hurt by this, because now there’s gonna be a button on his videos telling people to go play a game instead of watching him play the game, which is how he makes money. And it benefits Google. It doesn’t benefit streamers. Why would streamers like it? And also why would audiences like it? I don’t get it.
Jason: A lot of this is very poorly thought out. And I think a large part of this, and a large part of the reason that I’m so sceptical is, to your point, Maddy—I don’t think people trust Google. I don’t think people trust big tech companies these days. The scepticism and cynicism for the Facebooks and Googles of the world has just continued to rise and rise and rise. And then Google comes out with this thing and they’re like, “Here, come, buy these games on our platform! Trust us, it’ll still be around! You’ll still be able to play all these games. This won’t go the way of Google Glass and Google Hangouts and Google Reader and Google Buzz and Google Wave...”
Kirk: It’s funny. All of those things didn’t ask us to buy something, and actually, Spotify doesn’t either. So when I imagine this super far-flung future where you just pay a subscription fee and you get all the games, it has to be so far away from where things are now, because buying a game—if I bought music through Spotify, I would be very sceptical of that. I bought a lot of music from Apple when the iPod was pretty new, and on iTunes you could buy music for 99 cents a song, and it was this big deal. I came to sorely regret that, because there was a period of time where I would lose my files. Now they’ve made it so you have access to those again if you still have your same Apple account, but I’m still at the mercy of this random company that could just decide at any moment—I think about MySpace. Did you see the stories that MySpace just deleted all this music off their app? That’s kind of a tangent or unrelated, but it’s the same thing, where these companies, at any moment: “Oh, whoops, we lost a whole bunch of data! Well, it was 15 years old, so who cares.” But lots of music that’s 15 years old is good. Lots of games that are 15 years old are good. And that makes me very, very wary of this, especially if you’re buying it from them.
Jason: If this was a subscription program where you pay ten dollars a month and you get access to any game on Stadia, I think that would be a very different proposition from what it’s actually going to be. And, to be clear, they haven’t talked about this stuff yet.
Kirk: You’re just assuming, or you’ve heard this?
Jason: This is what I’ve heard. It’s educated speculation, let’s call it. What I’ve heard is that they haven’t really finalised a lot of this stuff yet, and that’s one of the reasons they can’t talk about it, is because they don’t really know exactly how it’s going to work yet. But no video game publisher in the world is going to sell a game for $60 on PS4 and Xbox One and then allow Google to include it as part of a $10 a month subscription. And if you look at what Game Pass is doing right now, that’ll give you some clues as to what a model like this could actually look like. That’s a lot of older games. It’s a lot of games that are already heavily discounted by the time they come out on Microsoft Game Pass. And then Microsoft’s own first-party games are part of that as well. I think that is a model that is a lot more realistic than Google coming around and saying, “Hey, we’ll give you millions of dollars to put your thing on our service, but you won’t actually get any revenue, because you’re not actually selling it. It’s part of this subscription model.” It’s just not realistic in any way, and not feasible in any way. It’s also very disappointing that they haven’t actually talked about any of the games they’ve funded, because I know that they’ve been funding a bunch of indie games, and they talked about their first-party. I’m sure that they’ll have some sort of conference around E3 time where they show off some of their actual games.
Kirk: I thought they were gonna be at E3. I thought that was the whole thing. Are they not gonna be at E3?
Maddy: We don’t know!
Jason: [Phil Harrison] kept being cagey about it, so I bet it’s this funny thing where it’s like, “We actually have a conference the week before E3.” And they’re gonna try to preempt E3 in a typical Google way.
Kirk: I can’t really see Google deigning to go to E3. I feel like Google would do its own thing.
Jason: That’s why they would do it the week before, the Friday before E3. They would totally do their own press conference that’s like, “Come see what’s next for Google Stadia!” And they’ll have a whole—exactly what an E3 press conference is, except it’ll just be pre-E3. But when we start seeing what games they actually have to show, maybe it’ll be a more attractive proposition.
The other thing we haven’t even talked about is the latency issues. I played Assassin’s Creed in Project Stream, and it was good. It ran remarkably well. But there was still a noticeable latency when you played it. You press a button and there’s clearly a millisecond difference, which you definitely notice if you’ve played games before. And that’s going to continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future. Google’s trying to reach billions of people, right? They’re trying to reach way broader audiences than the console audience. But the demographic out there of people who don’t own consoles because they can’t afford them or don’t want to, but would buy a Google Stadia controller and sign up to Google Stadia, but also have super high-speed internet, good enough internet to get on this? Who are those people? And who out there is like, “I want to play the new Watch Dogs game on my phone on 5G in a couple of years while I’m at the supermarket.” I just don’t know what audience there is for it.
Maddy: I don’t either. And I also wonder—okay, let’s say hypothetically they do make a 1,000-person battle royale, and it becomes the hip new thing that every competitive gamer wants to log in and play. Hundreds of people all trying to kill each other in this game. It’s not gonna work because there will be lag. You can’t have a competitive game where you have a wifi controller. There’s a reason why fighting game players fight for wired controllers in every single thing, and play on LANs, because you can’t do it. This is a significant hurdle for competitive games. You can’t do what they’re describing and have it actually be a competitively viable game that isn’t just going to annoy the shit out of everyone. I don’t even get the premise of what they’re saying.
Kirk: They wind up extremely limiting the kinds of games that they can sell right out of the gate. They’re like, you can play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the new Doom. Okay, that’s two games. But even Sekiro, I’m playing that on PC and I just modded it to run—now it’s running at 120 instead of 60. Playing it at a super high frame rate makes the game more readable, and this is a really precise combat game.
Jason: Ooh, I should do that.
Kirk: You definitely should... that’s my hot tip. And that’s a single-player game like the ones they’re talking about. Even that, I would rather play it at 60 than at 30, and I would rather play it at 120 than at 60. And I definitely wouldn’t want to play it over the internet, because then I’d be getting owned by bosses thinking, “Well, fuck this! This wasn’t even my fault! I can’t tell the timing on these attacks!” Because those milliseconds really matter in that precise of a game, and that’s not even Fortnite, Overwatch, Counter-Strike, or a fighting game. They’re really limiting themselves.