Google Disbands Stadia Game Developers And Signals Potential For More Trouble Ahead

from the ruh-roh dept

It's no secret that in the year and a half since Google launched its video game streaming platform, Stadia, things haven't gone particularly well. Game developers were wary at the onset that Google, as it has with projects like this in the past, might simply one day shut the whole thing down if it thinks the venture is a loser. The launch of Stadia itself was mostly met with meager interest, due to scant games available on the platform. Even then, the rollout was a mix of chaos and glitch, critiques of its promise for true 4k game streaming, very low adoption rates, and some at the company appearing to want to go to war with game-streamers.

And now, there are signals that the trouble is worsening. Google recently announced, completely without warning, that it was shuttering its in-house Stadia game development studio.

According to the report, developers at the studio were "shocked" by the sudden shutdown, since, only a week earlier, Stadia's leading executive, game industry veteran Phil Harrison, told the group "[SG&E] has made great progress building a diverse and talented team and establishing a strong lineup of Stadia exclusive games." The one-week flip-flop was "part of an apparent pattern of Stadia leadership not being honest and upfront with the company's developers," according to Kotaku, adding that many developers "upended their lives and careers to join the team."

The report says Stadia's developers found out about the studio closure at "almost the same time as everyone else." Stadia's developers had to wait three days before Harrison was available for a Q&A conference call, which the report describes as "contentious." The most chilling line in the report details Harrison's response to a question asking why the Studio was "making great progress" one week and then fired the next: "When asked what changed from the week prior, Harrison admitted nothing had and told those on the call, 'We knew.'"

If that strikes you as fairly shitty, well, yes it is. And if it feels like a flavor of exactly what game developers originally feared -- Google's penchant for quickly bailing on hyped up projects -- well, yeah, it's that, too.

But while the plight of developers and Stadia employees is a very real and non-trivial thing, for Stadia to succeed, it needs the trust of its customers. Trust is particularly key for Stadia because, as we so often point out, gamers don't actually own the games they play on Stadia. They, instead, pay for access to the platform. So, with PC gaming as an option and the new generation of consoles now released, the public has to decide whether to go with Stadia or choose a traditional option. And when Google comes out with statements like the following, that trust feels quite hard to come by.

Google doesn't publicly share how well (or poorly) Stadia is doing, but that blog post mentions that Google is looking for "the best path to building Stadia into a long-term, sustainable business," strongly hinting that Stadia is not currently a sustainable business. The post details what sounds like a pretty strong change in strategy, pivoting from the direct-to-consumer "game console" business and more toward being a technology provider for gaming companies.

If Stadia was ever going to be successful, it seems like that should have happened over the last several months. The pandemic is making gaming more popular than ever, and everyone else's sales are up across the board. Stadia was also one of the best systems to play the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077 on, especially given that the other best options were next-gen consoles that were perpetually sold out. If Google isn't seeing success now, it's hard to imagine a better opportunity for the service.

Which puts potential customers for Stadia in exactly the same place as the game developers that were fretting a year ago: if I game on Stadia, am I suddenly going to lose everything when Google decides to pull the plug?

Whatever else we might want to say for Stadia or the future of game streaming as a service, that question is the highest of hurdles.

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Filed Under: stadia, streaming, video games
Companies: google


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Feb 2021 @ 8:59pm

    Google's reputation more than anything will be what sinks it. It's a self-devouring loop that they've created for themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DocGerbil100 (profile), 23 Feb 2021 @ 9:01pm

    From Mr Bode's article of November 2019:

    "The biggest complaint most developers have with Stadia is the fear is Google is just going to cancel it. Nobody ever says, 'Oh, it's not going to work.' or 'Streaming isn't the future.' Everyone accepts that streaming is pretty much inevitable. The biggest concern with Stadia is that it might not exist.["]

    [...] Maybe Google succeeds in the space, maybe it doesn't. Maybe Google sticks with the project, or maybe like Google Fiber Alphabet execs get cold feet and hang up on developers mid-stride in a year from now.

    One year and three months for their internal dev team, perhaps not too many more months for the rest of the venture. If anyone has any faith left in this project, I can only salute their optimism.

    Oh, well. At least it lasted longer than Quibi.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 9:06am

      Re:

      And with Google you can't even wait and see. You might think give it 2 or 3 years and if it's still going then it's probably going to continue, but Google routinely kills stuff after 5+ years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Feb 2021 @ 9:04pm

    Which puts potential customers for Stadia in exactly the same place as the game developers that were fretting a year ago: if I game on Stadia, am I suddenly going to lose everything when Google decides to pull the plug?

    This is nothing new for consumers either. That's been the big question for tech conscious consumers (i.e. the only consumers aware of or potentially interested in Stadia) since day one as well. It was a self fulfilling prophecy in that no one wants to invest in something they assume google will kill on a whim so the platform never gets enough market share or profit for google to keep around.

    A big part of that was the requirement to buy most of the desirable games. Games that you will inevitably lose once Stadia is eventually killed off. It probably would have done better as a pure subscription service. If people could play the likes of Cyberpunk and AC: Valhalla for $15, $20, or maybe even a bit more per month where consumers know upfront that they are not buying the games (similar to a Blockbuster or Gamefly rental) Google may have found a larger market. Obviously the selection of titles would need to be there and the math would have needed to work out for such a system to be profitable. But if they had done that, even if you thought Stadia wasn't long for the world you may still subscribe for a few months to try it out and play some new games in the process.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 23 Feb 2021 @ 9:14pm

    So, with PC gaming as an option and the new generation of consoles now released, the public has to decide whether to go with Stadia or choose a traditional option.

    But are those options really any better or reliable?

    Most new computer games today are tied to some online service for delivery, patching and activation, all of which could be removed on a moment's notice.

    Then you have console games where you're likely to get a broken, half-finished game and the first thing it does is connect to an online service to download a butt-load of patches. Even if the game is fully playable out of the box (assuming it's a physical release), it still wants to go online and download patches to fix the numerous small bugs that it shipped with.

    And then there's the DLC, which can only be obtained by letting the game connect to an online service and download it. Sometimes it's trivial stuff like new skins, but sometimes there are whole new game modes, new maps/levels, etc. None of which can truly be backed up, you just have to hope that it stays available in case you ever need to re-download it. Assuming you still have the same account active.

    I know most people don't think that far ahead and I may not even be around in 20 years, but if I am, the majority of computer and console games being released today are probably only going to be available in their broken, unpatched forms as older systems are no longer able to connect to their online services and download the patches and DLC for those games.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Feb 2021 @ 2:10am

      Re:

      Yes, they are very much better and more reliable. Because THOSE online services are long established with massive userbases and profits, not a wishy-washy experiment by a company known for canceling most of their projects. Nobody is seriously concerned about something like the Playstation Network being shut down.

      And then, even if the online stores were somehow shut down, PCs and regular consoles could still play the games you have already installed or available on physical media (and do many other things besides). Whereas Stadia will instantly turn into an expensive brick the second Google gets bored.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rekul, 26 Feb 2021 @ 11:19am

        Re: Re:

        Yes, they are very much better and more reliable. Because THOSE online services are long established with massive userbases and profits, not a wishy-washy experiment by a company known for canceling most of their projects. Nobody is seriously concerned about something like the Playstation Network being shut down.

        Maybe not, but 5-10 years from now, when the PS7 is out, are PS3s still going to be able to connect to the PSN? Will all the PS3 digtal-only games still be available? All the patches? all the DLC?

        What happens when the licenses for the copyrighted music used in digital-only games expires and the games disappear from the online shops?

        And then, even if the online stores were somehow shut down, PCs and regular consoles could still play the games you have already installed or available on physical media (and do many other things besides).

        With caveats. If a release is digital-only, once you lose access to it online (network goes down, the title gets removed), the only copies that will legally exist will the ones installed on systems. If those systems fail, or the user upgrades, the games are gone.

        Even if you have the game on physical media, you probably won't have access to the patches needed to fix game-breaking bugs. At least on consoles. I know you used to be able to download patches for computer games and apply them yourself, but with integrated systems like Steam and Origin, I honestly don't know if you can do that any more or if you can only let the game/system patch itself. And you also lose access to the DLC, because I'll bet you can't back that up. Even if you can, I'll bet it's tied to the system that downloaded it, so if that system dies and you replace it (or upgrade), your backups become useless. If it wasn't tied to a specific system, you could pirate it and companies aren't going to allow that.

        Piracy won't preserve the games either. Remember P.T.? The "Playable Teaser" for a Silent Hill game that never came out. It was removed from the network and now the only copies that exist are the ones installed on PS3s. Once those system fail, it's lost forever.

        NOTE: All of the above applies to DRM protected computer games and games on consoles. As pointed out by Max, this isn't an issue with DRM-free games from services like GOG.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Max (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 8:40am

      Re:

      Your most is not my most. The many, many games I've bought are all on GOG - and that's not by accident. The first thing I do after a purchase is download it immediately onto my local file server. If aliens abduct my whole city to place it into some sci-fi zoo, I will lose none of my ability to play them all in perpetuity, as long as they bother keeping the lights on, and my PC keeps ticking over...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 23 Feb 2021 @ 9:36pm

    who coulda predicted eh? big up front investment for a streaming service? graphic intensive twitch games completely over internet latency for input and hi res graphics? Seemed like a shoe-in

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 12:34am

    Failure even with the deck stacked in your favor

    If you can't sell and make a killing with a new 'console' during a period in which massive numbers of people are stuck indoors and desperately looking for something to entertain themselves with I'd say that's a pretty good indicator that what you're offering is really abysmal, whether that be from the pricing, the games available, the requirements of the console itself or in the case of Stadia all of the above.

    As bad as that is however this latest stunt(following soon after they gave Terraria's dev the shaft) has quite possibly killed the thing entirely, because if Google is willing to stab their own studio in the back like that other devs would have to be insane to work with the company, meaning Stadia is going to be stuck without any meaningful exclusives to tempt people in and if the only games they have to offer are ones that are much better on competing platforms/services good luck drawing in and keeping customers.

    They desperately needed some solid exclusives to breathe some life back into the console(changing the business model would help as well) but thanks to their treatment of their studio they've all but ensured that they're not going to be seeing any of those any time soon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Chad Brubaker (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 11:05am

      Re: Failure even with the deck stacked in your favor

      "... if the only games they have to offer are ones that are much better on competing platforms/services..."

      You definitely have a point regarding the disposal of exclusives and platform uncertainty.

      Performance, on the other hand, is not a problem that I have observed for Stadia, except when compared to extremely high-end (meaning in the ~$2K rage) gaming PC's.

      Witness the recent release of the all-but-unplayable Cyberpunk 2077 - I say "all-but-" because it was playable in the following formats (at least, as I read within a week of launch):

      • High end PC
      • XBox Series X in XBONE emulation
      • PS5 in PS4 emulation
      • Stadia

      In three of those four, I would have to have shelled out at least $500 for the cover charge (or, to be honest, considering the scalping situation, more like $750 - $1000).

      Or, I can pick up my Stadia Founder's Edition controller (offered for free to YouTube Premium customers), link to my Chromecast Ultra (included for free with the previously mentioned promotion), and play the game with quality equal to- or better-than the above mentioned. On Day One.

      Even without exclusives, Stadia has a business model - it will take a lot of months at $10/month to rack up to one of those systems (>4 years, not counting time value of money). Additionally, I can play it pretty much anywhere; I ponied up some extra cash for a specialized controller for my cell phone (the Razer Kishi), and now my phone makes the Switch look pathetic; again, only $60 out of pocket for extra hardware (got the Kishi on sale). I of course do not count the cost of my phone, since that is a given.

      Plus, I don't have to pay for hardware upgrades (like PC users do). And since I am a low frequency gamer (maybe 8-10 hours in a month; I have a toddler), this model works much better for me than shelling out for a top of the line console.

      This is why everybody is currently rushing to get their own cloud gaming on-line. I've used NVidia Shield as well, and it works, although the interface is a bit clunky (plus, nice to have access to some of my steam titles on mobile - I didn't say I wasn't a PC gamer; I just don't have a High-end PC. I get most of my games from Humble Bundle and GOG, which typically don't require a lot of horsepower).

      But I agree - even though I feel the product itself is great all of this is overshadowed by the fear that Google will just kill it, and the move to kill off the development studios just reminds everybody of the fact the google has a tendency to just axe services regardless of the level of entrenchment might exist in the userbase.

      Wow - that got longer than I expected - if you made it this far, sorry everybody!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Feb 2021 @ 2:22am

    It's dead, Jim

    What Google needed to do was make it absolutely clear they were committed to making the platform a success at any cost. Something they would certantly have had the money to do.

    Launching a new gaming platform is an uphill battle to begin with because of the ridiculous levels of brand loyalty in the market. Releasing it as yet another Googleish "throw it at the wall and see if it sticks" experiment all but guaranteed its failure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PeterScott (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 4:59am

    We are trapped at home and can't even buy a GPU, and ...

    Gamers are trapped at home, and can't even buy a GPU and Stadia is still going nowhere. It should be the perfect storm for Stadia winning, and it's shutting down studios.

    Of the online services Stadia has the worse model from a consumer perspective.

    From Microsoft, you get a streaming Buffet, like Netflix, so only pay a small monthly flee for a large choice. The Netflix of games. Which is kind of what people were expecting from Google before the details emerged.

    From NVidia. You bring your own games, and you can obviously take them with you when you leave.

    Stadia: You buy full price "Stadia only" version that can only be played online with them. This is buy far the worse option for consumers. You are locked into paying full price for games, that you can't take with you and could just be rendered dead at a moments notice.

    I really have to wonder why everyone doesn't just choose one of the superior online models from Microsoft or NVidia. Though last I heard NVidias service is so popular it's hard to get in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 5:01am

    A service that requires US broadband infrastructure to be excellent was always doomed to failure. They needs to hit the ground running with a stream of hot exclusive titles to make it worth having in the places it works, instead they got the same titles as everywhere else, later and at full price.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Feb 2021 @ 10:22am

    Modern Consoles

    I'm not a fan of the idea of having the hardware I'm gaming on be more than a few feet from me... that said, it seems these days even if you have the physical hardware in your possession, some a-hole at the company that made it can still screw you over by disabling functionality with an update and/or remove your purchases over arbitrary reasons (my favorite one had to do with media I purchased... it was wiped by an update and I was told that I was welcome to repurchase it).
    So yeah, Stadia may go away as soon as google ditches it, but it's not entirely different that what Sony has done (yanked functionality, 'disappearing' purchasing) or what seems to be the Evilution of gaming consoles...
    I may just go back to playing solitaire ... with a deck of cards. Or dust off my Atari 2600 that still works even though it's been long abandoned by it's creator!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 24 Feb 2021 @ 4:07pm

    A poor idea finally dropped

    Google has a unique ability to take ideas that are plausible, even scientifically sound and then ... bailing out whenever it isn't Google something enough.

    Didn't get into Strand because at that time I was using Comcast. Having to rely on Comcast not screwing me over to play games that Google could screw me over by sucking money to dump the concept a few short years later; A firm nope. Not me.

    America needs to acknowledge that internet is a right, and as such needs to provide the backbone, or fund it so everyone has 1G service. It has become utility, and as such is a right. Not that Texas agrees with utilities being a right. Much like their views on staying alive in a winter storm.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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