The problem with a gaming platform that relies entirely on the internet is that it relies on the internet. Stadia, Google’s new streaming game platform, will require that users have a robust internet connection to work, and that’s a big problem. “It’s what has plagued game streaming from the beginning,” said Pat Moorhead, Principal Analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. A game streaming service simply can’t work if there’s lag. And in America, there’s a lot of lag.
Sitting in the room for the announcement in San Francisco, just a few rows behind big names in gaming like Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot, and AMD’s Lisa Su, I found myself struggling to connect to the internet so I could report on Stadia. There were hundreds of people packed into the room, and the GDC wifi had slowed to a crawl. Even when I switched over to my hotspot and plugged directly in I struggled to get 1 Mbps download speeds. Here we were at one of the most connected conferences in one of the most connected cities, and I couldn’t even send a Slack message. Forget streaming a game like Google did on stage.
My colleagues back in New York only faired a little better. Sure, they had 70 Mbps download speeds, but Google couldn’t seem to stream the damn announcement well. From time to time it hiccupped and stuttered, as streams often do. It was an announcement all about how good Google is at streaming, and it was failing to stream.
Google and GDC were having an internet connectivity issue. The U.S. has an even bigger one. In Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet report back in 2017, it claimed only one in five households in America could get 25 Mbps download speeds. The average speed of American internet is 18.7 Mbps. The UK fares a little better: a study from OFCOM last year revealed average speeds across the country to be 46.2Mbps. However, that was calculated from a small sample size of 4,861 homes across the country, and there's a big divide between urban and rural areas. The same study also noted that just under half of the country still relies on ASDL connections rather than "superfast" fibre, which means their speeds are limited to less than 20Mbps. So while the average may be a respectable 47.3Mbps, that's undoubtedly inflated by Virgin customers receiving speeds up to 350Mbps. Realistically, almost 50 per cent of the country is still using standard broadband which averages between 5 and 15Mbps.
That kind of data is important, because 25 Mbps is what Google told Gizmodo it expects Stadia to require for 4K and 60fps quality games. [Note: Stadia boss Phil Harrison told Kotaku that 25Mbps was likely the minimum for 1080p gaming, and that 4K resolution would require around 30Mbps.] That means, in the US at least, only one in five households will get Stadia’s prettiest picture. Google might have mocked the idea of waiting for games to download to play in its keynote earlier this week, but it seems to have forgotten that the benefit of a game stored locally is that it works no matter the lag.
And then there’s the multiplayer problem. Games like Apex Legends or Fortnite, or even Rocket League are super popular but already frequently victim to less than stellar internet. A blip in a person’s internet is currently the difference between life or death at the hands of a 13-year-old across the country. Google needs 25 Mbps just to let you play a single player game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The additional data required for a multiplayer game could easily saturate less robust internet connections.
And what happens if those internet connections are saturated and a person has less than 25 Mbps speeds? “If you have less bandwidth, we’ll give you a lower resolution,” Google Stadia’s Phil Harrison told our sister site Kotaku. For most households, Stadia is hamstrung from the start.
But both Rodriguez and Moorhead were optimistic that Google could pull some rabbit out of a hat. No, the company won’t suddenly be providing low-cost, high-quality internet to everyone (it can’t even do that for the few US towns it launched Google Fiber in). Instead, both point to Google’s ability to push a lot of video down a pipe on YouTube. If anyone can solve the streaming hurdle Stadia faces, it’s the company that made YouTube a video streaming giant.
“The amount of bandwidth they could save with VP9 versus MP4 was just massive,” Moorhead said. VP9 is the codec Google developed for YouTube, and Moorhead sees the development of something similar helping Stadia perform. After all, streaming a game, for the most part, is just streaming a live video so quickly it can capture all your interactions in real time. If Google could do it for YouTube, it’s maybe not a giant leap to think it could pull it off for video games.
But the caginess of Google’s response to bandwidth concerns suggests the company isn’t at that point yet. Instead, it’s providing a service about on par with Nvidia’s GeForce Now, which has been in beta since 2015, and which gave me issues in my hotel even as I was trying to write this piece. Game streaming in its current state is only so-so. The internet just isn’t ready.
Internet connectivity as a whole wildly inconsistent and unreliable, and so far, Google’s response to that issue has been painfully underwhelming. Something both Moorhead and Rodriguez cite as cause for concern about Stadia. You can’t announce a streaming service and then not make one mention of the bandwidth requirements except when hounded by email or pressed on a podcast.
It’s a problem that won’t be easily solved with an algorithm or AI (though both could certainly help matters), and it makes Stadia look awfully unappealing next rumoured services offered by Microsoft and Sony with their next generation consoles. Why on earth would I drop cash to play games on Stadia, when I can get a console that will stream my games in the instances I do have really good internet, but also let me download the more bandwidth intensive ones when I don’t?
Featured image: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)