Google Stadia highlights the difference between gamers and people who play games

Google’s Stadia game streaming service launched last week to mixed reviews. Many commentators were skeptical of Stadia from the start: its unveiling at GDC in March 2019 revealed very few details, and the follow-up introduction event at E3 a few months later was similarly vague. The broad promise of Stadia was “AAA games, everywhere”: to instantly load a console-quality game and play it on your phone, laptop, television, etc. It’s an old proposition that was thought by many to have died with OnLive, but with streaming becoming the primary means by which consumers interact with digital content, Google has resurrected games streaming with Stadia into a category that will soon include services from Amazon, EA, and Microsoft / Sony.

The Verge’s review of Stadia touches upon all of the important aspects of Stadia that are lacking at launch, but I think the following two tweets comprise enough of a review for most consumers to use in deciding whether or not to pay $130 for Stadia, plus $10 per month, plus up to $60 per game:

Leaving aside specs and performance, as well as the long list of features that Google has declared are “coming soon” to Stadia, it’s worth considering what audience the Stadia and other similar games streaming services are meant to serve. This excellent Twitter thread classifies Stadia as a technology chasing a problem, but I believe games streaming as a whole may fall into a different category: a product chasing a problem for the wrong audience.

The Electronic Software Association revealed in its 2019 Essential Facts report that 65% of the general American population plays video games — and that the most common gaming device for 60% of those people is a smartphone:

Console gamers do not comprise the majority of gamers: Nielsen estimates that 160MM American households own game consoles versus 203MM people in the United States who regularly play games on their smartphones. And in 2018, mobile games revenue eclipsed the combined revenue of PC and console games for the first time. More people play mobile games, and spend more money doing so, than play PC and console games.

Yet the Stadia is designed for console gamers: it was built to make AAA, console-quality experiences available everywhere and on all devices. Which calls into question the value of using one term — “gamer” — to describe people who play video games as if they are a monolith. The gamers who reflexively upgrade their consoles each cycle and obsess over graphical fidelity have different motivations and expectations than the gamers that load up Candy Crush on their morning commute. These are two wholly different groups of people, and lumping them together serves no commercial purpose, yet Stadia was ostensibly built to serve a mix of needs from both of them.

Do console gamers really need to play games anywhere? And even if they did, are they willing to compromise on graphical quality or reaction times to do so? Similarly, do smartphone gamers really care about streaming when most smartphone games can be downloaded in under a minute?

In my original assessment of Stadia, I hypothesized that the service might simply be a means of giving YouTube better, proprietary access to game streaming video (as well as better-converting advertising inventory):

And indeed, as this article asserts, the Stadia may be more of a YouTube strategy than a games streaming strategy — or, at least, the Stadia may serve the purpose of further aggrandizing YouTube as games streaming goes mainstream. 50BN hours of gameplay footage were watched on YouTube in 2018, and 200MM people watch gameplay footage each day on YouTube: YouTube is an important part of the gaming ecosystem, and Stadia unifies the viewing experience and the first-hand playing experience in a way that could create a powerful virtuous circle between first-person and third-person gaming engagement. Players will be able to drop pins into gameplay footage on YouTube and then immediately open the game at that moment and start playing. Likewise, players will be able to seamlessly switch between devices, retaining their in situ game state.

There is still a compelling case to be made that this is the ultimate purpose of Stadia, or at least one of its primary purposes: the combined Stadia (instant, first-party content) and YouTube (audience aggregation) platform has the potential to position Google as a leader in gaming. But as it was rolled out, Stadia brings together technology in a way that finds no audience: not the console gamers and not the smartphone gamers, who are more numerous and more lucrative as a whole.