A few years back, a couple of academic researchers theorized that playing violent video games can make people less trusting, more paranoid. Maybe it’s true. I’ve been blasting aliens on the new Stadia cloud-based video gaming service from Google, and after just a few hours of it, I began wondering what is Google really up to.
When Stadia launches on Tuesday, is the company just trying to show us a good time, while raking in a few extra bucks? Or is Google really looking for a new way to keep an eye on us?
I’m thinking both.
Cloud gaming services like Stadia eliminate the need to own a game console, such as a Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation 4. Instead, Stadia video games are hosted by Google’s massive data centers scattered around the world, which pump them to your TV, smartphone, or computer. Players with fast broadband connections stream the games in much the same way Netflix streams movies.
Only Stadia isn’t Netflix. You don’t get access to hundreds of games. Instead you buy the games you want, paying roughly the same prices you’d pay at the local GameStop. A Google spokeswoman told me last week that prices hadn’t been finalized. But one premium version of the fighting game “Mortal Kombat” carried a $63 price tag.
So Stadia wasn’t created to save you money. It’s designed to let you play your games whenever and wherever you want — on a personal computer, a tablet, or one of Google’s own Pixel line of smartphones. You can get a Stadia app for other Android phones or for Apple iOS devices. But it can only be used to buy more games and manage your account, not to do any actual gaming. The ability to play games on these devices will probably be added later.
And of course, Google will record your every move — which games you play over and over, which games you play just once, or never. Do you interact with other gamers, and if so, which ones? The company might even track your in-game performance over time, to measure the effect of age on your reflexes. Next thing you know, you’re seeing Google ads for dietary supplements.
To use Stadia, you’ll need broadband and plenty of it. Google recommends a minimum of 10 megabits per second for basic high-definition image quality and standard stereo sound. Playing games with 4K video resolution and surround sound will require a 35-megabit connection, minimum. These days the average home broadband connection can download data at around 100 megabits, so millions of homes should be Stadia-ready.
Stadia costs $130 up front for hardware, including a game controller and a Chromecast Ultra unit that plugs into your TV and connects to your in-home data network. Then you buy the games you want to play. For an extra $10 a month, you can get a ”Pro” version that offers some games for free or at discounted prices, as well as adding support for 4K video and surround sound.
The opening-day lineup features about two dozen games, including retreads like “Destiny 2,” a shooter title that debuted two years ago. It’s a marvelous game, but nothing new. Google promises a boatload of additional games in the weeks ahead, and Google has even set up its own game development studio that will begin producing exclusive titles for the platform.
This lineup probably won’t attract hordes of avid gamers right away. But that’s just as well; the service needs to ramp up slowly, to make sure everything works. Remember that Apple’s new streaming TV service, Apple TV Plus, fumbled through a first day full of technical glitches. That’s bad for streaming movies, but disastrous for video games. The slightest bit of network lag makes a shooter like ‘Destiny 2” absolutely unplayable.
That’s what happened during my first test of Stadia. For awhile, I feared Google had screwed it up. Then I rejiggered my home Wi-Fi network to clean up the signal. Problem solved. Now I can dodge away from incoming enemy fire with a confident twitch of my thumb. If you can manage it, Google recommends using a hardwired Ethernet connection for the most consistent results.
But Stadia is up against tough competitors, including Sony’s PlayStation Now service, which just cut its price to $10 a month. Launched in 2013, it’s a more Netflix-like service that lets you play hundreds of titles in its library. And last month Microsoft began testing a similar service of its own, Project xCloud. The service will go live next year but already the trial version offers a library of 50 games, including the latest version of the perennial pro football favorite, Madden NFL 20.
And then there’s the Google thing. Unlike Sony or Microsoft, monetizing our private lives is Google’s core business. They’ve earned billions by tracking the data we search for, the e-mails we send via Gmail, and the videos we watch on YouTube. They’ve made a deal with a major hospital chain to analyze the medical records of millions of patients, who weren’t informed their data was being shared. And they’re bidding to acquire Fitbit, whose personal fitness devices record the vital signs of millions more. And now Google wants to monitor my gaming performance, and store the data right alongside everything else it knows about me.
I’d probably shrug off my paranoia, and get busy gaming, if Stadia offered lower prices and a better selection of games. But it doesn’t, so I won’t.