Google is getting into video games. And it’s playing to win.
The search giant, speaking at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco Tuesday, unveiled Stadia, an ambitious game streaming service that could present the most significant challenge yet to console makers such as Sony and Nintendo.
Scheduled to launch later this year, Stadia will allow subscribers to play top-tier games at the maximum resolution on virtually any screen—TV, PC, laptop, phone, or tablet—without needing the latest and greatest processor, graphics card or console. Players will interact with games via a Stadia controller, made by Google.
The pricing model and other details for the service and controller will be unveiled later this summer.
Google has already signed up several major game publishers to the new service, but to ensure it also has major exclusive titles, it has also created its own studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment. Industry veteran Jade Raymond, a veteran of Ubisoft and Electronic Arts who led the creation of the Assassin’s Creed franchise (among others), will head that unit.
“The power and accessibility of streaming will give billions unprecedented opportunities to play video games in the future,” said Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot in a statement. “We are proud to partner with Google … building on what we’ve learned with Project Stream via Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. This is only the beginning, and we can’t wait to continue collaborating closely with Google on what’s next for Stadia.”
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Google executives sat down with Fortune to discuss Stadia’s evolution and what the company can offer gamers that competitors can’t.
“If you look at the games industry today, it’s very fragmented,” says Phil Harrison, vice president and general manager of Stadia. “You’ve got people playing on mobile, on PCs, on consoles. I would love for Stadia to unify the screens, so that developers have a bigger audience to create for and gamers have the absolute best quality experience as they play and a seamless link to share what they play and what they stream with their friends.”
What is Stadia?
Stadia is more than the game-streaming service Google previewed with Project Stream last year. While it will offer a large catalog of titles, all playable in 4K at 60 frames per second with surround sound, it will also tie in with YouTube, letting players watch their favorite game streamers and, should the mood strike them, play the game they’re watching on that YouTube stream in seconds.
You Tube Creators, another term for streamers or influencers, are a central part of Stadia, says Harrison.
“Creators become a very important part of our platform,” he says. “A Creator can be talking about the latest game or the latest feature for a game and their subscribers and fans can click and instantly play that experience—and, in some cases, play that experience with the Creator. We’re bringing those two experiences together and that’s powered by technology that only Google has.”
Stadia got its start four years ago at Google; internal testing has been going on for about a year now. It was born, in some ways, from the company’s Chromecast project, the streaming media adapter that lets people play online content on their television.
Shanna Prevé, director of global product partnerships for Stadia, was the co-founder of Chromecast and has been a key member of Stadia’s creation. Development on this project, she says, has followed the same basic vision as Chromecast.
“With Chromecast, we bet big from the beginning on the future of the computer,” she says. “What we tried to do was look 10 years into the future and asked, ‘How can we build a product that would take advantage of where computing was heading?’ When I look at our approach with cloud gaming, we’ve taken a very similar approach. We wanted to bet big on the cloud, bet big on mobile and make sure there was tight software-hardware integration. I think that has transitioned to a very developer-first focus.”
Stadia, in fact, is viewed within Google as a data center, giving game makers access to tremendous amounts of computing horsepower that could lead to eliminating some of the limitations of modern game making. Game developers routinely have to kill planned features because a gaming system’s hardware is incapable of handling what they want it do to.
“For the last 40 years, game development has been device-centric,” says Harrison. “The creator of the game works, and in many cases scales down their vision, to fit within the constraints of the device they are targeting. We are turning that completely on its head. This allows game makers to scale up their vision.”
Stadia Games and Entertainment
Outside game developers like Ubisoft are critical to any game platform, but exclusive titles are also a key differentiator.
To stay competitive, Google has launched a game studio , with Raymond at its head. The company is also working with some external, independent developers to create titles that will be exclusive to Stadia.
Raymond’s first day with Google was March 11, so the company understandably isn’t talking about titles it develops in house, but Harrison did say the internal focus on game development will allow both Google developers and partners “to unlock the deep technical partnerships with Google.”
All of the titles, though, will launch at the 4k, 60 fps standard and will be upgradable to future high-end video specifications, including resolutions of 8k (eight times the resolution of high definition video) and 120 frames per second (making for a smoother video experience).
Another key to playing a game on Stadia is the controller. Google has introduced a Wi-Fi controller that it says will link directly to the game inside the company’s data center, rather than pairing with a device in the home. That, says Harrison, is key to smooth gameplay without any lag.
The controller will also integrate a Google Assistant button and have a built-in microphone, letting players interact vocally with both the game they’re playing and the Stadia platform. Additionally, there’s a “Share to YouTube” button, letting anyone stream or share a gameplay clip to any audience they choose—themselves, friends, or the world at large. And the controller will let players immediately access Google divisions, like YouTube, that can help them as they play without having to switch to a different device.
“Imagine you’re playing a game and you’re stuck,” say Harrison. “Historically, you would go to a second service. You’d probably Google a walk through on a different device or go on YouTube and watch someone playing through. Then you’d try to recreate that in the game. With Stadia, because YouTube is integrated into the platform, you’d say ‘Hey Stadia, how do I defeat this boss and it brings up the video straight away. … It integrates watching and playing at the same time.”
Stadia launch details
Gamers will have to wait until E3, the video game industry’s annual trade show in Los Angeles, in June or possibly later before they learn some crucial details about Stadia, including the price—specifically, whether Google will sell games on a per-title basis, like traditional retailers, or a Netflix-like, all you can stream model. (Harrison hints both will be an option, saying, “Our platform is very flexible and will enable developers to engage with their fans in a variety of ways.”)
The service will initially roll out to gamers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe (including the U.K.) this year. Google says it plans to expand to other countries “as quickly as possible in 2020 and beyond.”
It’s also unclear, as of now, whether Stadia’s mobile and tablet compatibility will be limited to Android devices.
What is clear is the competitive threat Google presents to traditional gaming platforms. The company’s tremendous cash reserves could be used to lure game makers into striking deals to release titles first on Stadia, giving the platform a limited periods of exclusivity. Currently, Microsoft and Sony often battle for those exclusive windows.
That puts tremendous pressure on the three console makers, which are exploring the same technology. Sony currently offers PlayStation Now, giving players instant access to a library of 650 games (mostly older, catalog titles) for $99 annually. And Microsoft Microsoft will begin public trials of its take on game streaming later this year.
While Google certainly has high expectations for Stadia, Harrison says the platform’s purpose is not to drive others out of business. (Granted, any such admission would probably send a red flag to regulators who are already concerned about Google’s size.)
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for the fantastic work of the games industry over the past 40 years,” he says “So we’re very respectful of the companies that brought us to this point. But Google has some very unique capabilities in the cloud—not just technology, but technology at scale and I think that’s really the difference.”