Why Multiplayer Will Kill Stadia
No lag, immense accessibility, great graphics and sounds, everything seems in favor of Stadia but…
I was a skeptic of Stadia, being in my 40s, and having been playing videogames since I was 5, I was not able to accept the fact that we could achieve real-time performance with streaming. But I work in computer science and I firmly believe that there is no industry better than gaming at pushing technology to its limits, that’s the reason why I started devouring the few in-depth contents available about stadia and started increasing my hype, despite my disbelief.
While I worked on a company doing video streaming, I’ve played with my colleagues with h264 encoders to try to lower the latency and we have never been anything close to real-time… since I was not able to do it, it must be impossible, right? :)
Fast-forward to November 2019, a colleague of mine receives his Stadia founder edition and tries to tell everyone that it’s indistinguishable from local, he also says that there are occasional frame drops and that it works better on phone than local pc (from a lag perspective), I’ve basically heard what I needed to confirm my prejudice: it’s a nice tech demo but it won’t work for “real” gamers.
Still, I was interested in Stadia from a business perspective as you can read from the following article:
Why Stadia is More Important to Google than You Think
Game streaming services are the best chance to get back into the lucrative public cloud business
and I kept trying to get more details about it. One week ago I started my 2months free trial and I saw all my prejudice crumbling down. Stadia, from a gaming perspective, is AWESOME.
Stadia, from a gaming perspective is just too good
I firmly disagree with the pricing strategy but there was something else that kept nagging me but I couldn’t point out. Starting my free trial and playing Destiny 2 allowed me to understand what was bothering me. I have played First Person Shooters in a competitive way in the past (Urban Terror mod for Quake3) and I know how much reaction times and low lag are important to allow a decent competitive experience: 0 input lag is mandatory and sub 50ms network lag is the threshold to achieve a decent experience.
After I’ve played Destiny 2 on Stadia I was able to confirm that multiplayer lag is absent in Stadia and it was incredibly satisfying to be able to play with other people as if they were on my local network (ah, the good old LAN-party times). That’s when I’ve remembered that Doom Eternal was supposed to be available on Stadia and that the games catalog is not growing at a decent pace… why?
Perhaps a more interesting question is: why are popular free games missing? Think about League of Legends, Fortnite, and many more. Their business models are not about selling the game, increasing the reach of their platforms is a priority for them and they should not have any business obstacle in getting their game on Stadia, but they are not there… why?
My opinion is that current videogame companies serving successful games simply did invest too much in their infrastructure and this makes a “porting” to Stadia economically non-viable. Think about Riot, they have one of the most played games in the world and they invested immense capital in providing the lowest lag possible to players around the globe:
Fixing the Internet for Real-Time Applications: Part III
Over my last two posts, I've talked about the challenges facing real-time applications like League that arise from the…
Having your own infrastructure is also a form of technical debt: your code, your processes, and your architecture becomes tied to your infrastructural choices. Everything becomes optimized for that specific architecture, think about on-call engineers that have access to internal tooling to process real-time failures on the network or in the game subsystems. Moving to a different architecture? Nonsense.
In my previous analysis, I did not consider the technical challenges of moving big multiplayer games to different infrastructure and this was a serious mistake. Stadia’s benefits for gamers are most evident on massive multiplayer experiences, where 0 lag would allow better gaming (think about racing simulations) and opening up a leveled competitive field for e-sports, however transitioning existing successful multiplayer games might just not be convenient from an investment perspective (both CAPEX and OPEX) and this will be a critical element to Google’s ability to make Stadia succeed.
I don’t see a way for existing big multiplayer franchises to port their solution to Stadia and I don’t think Google will dedicate capital to sustain Stadia long enough to see new gaming studios creating successful franchises built on Stadia’s architecture and become big enough to sustain its business, for this reason, I think that they only way to make Stadia profitable in the near future will be to gather as many IP as possible from existing single-player games, hoping that the console sales will drop so drastically that Nintendo will be forced to move part of their IP to Stadia to survive. I cannot see a future where this will be even possible, but as COVID-19 is showing us, you cannot predict the future at all.
My bet is against Stadia now, I don’t think Google will be able to make it work from a business perspective even if the technology is incredibly good, maybe too good to be true (nobody believes it until they try it).