I tried Google Stadia

If you haven't heard of Google Stadia, it's their upcoming video game streaming service that promises to be to video games what Netflix is to movies. Some people say it's the future of gaming. Keep your expectations reasonable.

The future of gaming looks a bit blurry and pixelated

As of January 2020, to play on Stadia you have to buy the 150€ kit from Google, which costs almost as much as a PS4 and includes a Chromecast, a controller, a Stadia code and a buddy pass code that you can give to a friend so they can try Stadia. I have a friend who was insane enough to dish out 150€ to Google despite owning a gaming PC, and he gave me his buddy pass so I could test some games on it.

Note: in order to make the videos on this page representative of the image and sound quality of Stadia, they are encoded with VP9 at a fairly high bitrate. If your browser doesn't play them, download links are provided, and you can play them with VLC or any decent player.

The registration process

Once you have the code, you would think that you can just go to stadia.com, login with your Google account and input the code, but no, of course you must download the Stadia app on your phone. Don't have a compatible smartphone? Don't have GApps on your phone? Fuck you.

Since Google apps aren't getting anywhere near my phone, I got myself a lovely Redmi 5 Plus with a broken screen for the price of 1€. After resetting the phone and deleting the previous owner's dick pics, I logged in with my old Google account, downloaded the Stadia app and created my account, all while avoiding to slice my fingers on the broken glass.

I would put some screenshots here but the phone didn't want to cooperate, so here's a picture of it instead.

The Stadia app

In the Stadia app, you can manage your friends, change some settings and set the streaming quality (note: you can only change it from the app, even though you can play from any chromium-based browser). If you have a Chromecast you can launch games from here, but at the moment you can't play on your phone yet.

The buddy pass gives you 3 months of Stadia pro subscription, which means up to 4k 60fps streaming and a couple games every month. Once it expires, you can either play in 1080p 60fps or dish out 10€ per month, in addition to having to buy the games at full console price, plus DLC. I was forced to input my credit card details but I immediately cancelled the recurring payment on the card before they could charge it.

First impressions

Italy isn't exactly renowed for our internet speeds, so I was surprised that Google chose it as one of the launch markets. The average residential connection in Italy is around 15 megabits, which is pretty much what I have: 20 megabits download, 1 megabit upload, 40-50 ms latency to Google. According to Google, this is more than enough for 1080p 60fps.

In order to give Stadia a fair chance, I played it on my desktop, which is connected directly to my router via gigabit ethernet. As a browser, I used Ungoogled Chromium on Windows 10. No one else was using the network.

Here's a video of me playing Stadia for the first time (game is locked in Italian):
Can't play the video? Download it (right click, save as) (468MB)

As expected, my first impressions weren't very positive. Input latency isn't as bad as I though it would be, it's like playing a game at 20-30 fps with triple buffering enabled, it must be in the 150-180ms range, which is worse than a console but not unplayable (depends on the game), although it gets a lot worse when playing via Wifi on my laptop. The worst part is definitely the image quality: even if the resolution is 1080p, the image quality drops significantly when moving the camera, when there's a lot of noise, in areas with little contrast, or if there are rapid changes like a lightning strike. This is obviously caused by the VP9 hardware encoder used by Google, which they tuned for the lowest latency possible, sacrificing compression and image quality. Sometimes it drops completely at random. The sound is decent, although it drops out for a fraction of a second every now and then.

My connection was completely saturated by Stadia during gameplay, so if you have data caps, you're not going to get much gaming done on Stadia, maybe 3-4 hours per month.

I later tried playing on my university's internet connection, and even though the input latency was definitely better, image quality was still pretty bad.

Here are some high quality screenshots to get an idea how it looks.

When it looks good

Lara burning some stuff Lara walking in a cave with some water Lara skinning a deer

When it looks bad

Massive pixelation in low contrast areas Sudden drop in quality, blurry and pixelated face of Lara Lara moving down a hill, looking at the sea and some vegetation Lightning strike

Trying some games

I tried 3 of the games included with Stadia pro to get an idea of how they feel and how they compare to the PC versions.

Tomb Raider 2013 Definitive Edition

This game runs on pretty much any modern PC, so I was surprised to see that the Stadia version looked different from the PC version on Ultra.

Here's a list of noticeable differences:

  • Lower res textures on Stadia
  • No TressFX on Stadia
  • Complete lack of tessellation on Stadia
  • No water ripples on Stadia
  • Different lighting
  • Completely different post processing: Stadia version has less depth of field and has an overall darker tone and more saturated colors
  • Different vegetation
  • No antialiasing on Stadia (no, blurring caused by video compression doesn't count as AA, Google)
  • Probably more...

I made a video comparing the 2 versions:
Can't play the video? Download it (right click, save as) (1.9GB)

Here's a high quality capture from Stadia, representative of the image and sound quality: Download (1.7 GB)

Destiny 2

This is a game I've never played, and probably never will after this experience. The image quality on this game is so bad that I had to check to make sure that it was running in 1080p (it was). The game is insanely blurry, it looks like Crysis 3 on the Xbox 360. Input lag was variable, but pretty high, especially at the beginning of the game.

Here's a video of me playing it (game is locked in Italian):
Can't play the video? Download it (right click, save as) (308MB)

I don't have this game on PC so I can't compare the 2 versions.

Thumper

Whoever thought it was a good idea to port this game to Stadia should be forced to play it from start to finish. I beat this game on PC and it's one of my favorite rhythm games, but I can barely get past the tutorial on Stadia.

Can't play the video? Download it (right click, save as) (10MB)

The only way to get play it is to anticipate keypresses, but later on the game gets way too fast for that, you'd have to press the buttons before you even see the obstacles, so it's a miracle if you can get past levels 3 or 4. Personally, I managed to beat the first 2 levels before getting too frustrated, but I don't ever want to play this again. The sad part is that the game is actually easier on Stadia than it is on PC, because to compensate for input lag, you don't immediately lose health when crashing into things like you do on PC. It's still completely unplayable. The game doesn't look different from the PC version at least.

Technical specs

We don't know much about the technical aspects of Stadia servers:

  • Some x86 based 4 core 8 threads 2.7GHz CPU (Probably an AMD Epyc shared between multiple instances)
  • Some AMD GPU based on Vega 56 (they probably had loads of these they couldn't get rid of) with 8GB of HBM2 memory
  • 16GB of unspecified RAM (probably DDR4 ECC)
  • Some kind of SSD (probably PCI express judging from the load times)
  • Some kind of VP9 hardware encoder, probably shares some GPU cores
  • Debian based OS

This is incredibly disappointing because it's essentially a midrange gaming machine. This thing is completely incapable of running any modern game in 4k. You would think that the whole point of cloud gaming would be to allow anyone access to prohibitively expensive hardware, but no, it's shit.

In conclusion

I didn't expect Stadia to be good, and to be honest I'm surprised that it's as good as it is: input latency is high but tolerable (just don't play rhythm games on it), but image quality is generally pretty bad.

This begs the question: who is Stadia for? In my opinion, Stadia is not meant to replace your gaming rig, hell even consoles give you a better experience than Stadia at the moment. Stadia is clearly meant for casual gamers, the kind of people who want to play some games every now and then but don't play enough to justify buying a console or a gaming PC. This was confirmed when I had one of my console gaming friends try Tomb Raider on Stadia and he honestly couldn't find anything wrong with it until I showed him the PC version and pointed out the differences.

What worries me is the fact that Google will almost certainly abuse their dominant position in the search market, as well as youtube, to push this service down people's throats, just like they did with Chrome 10 years ago. Try googling Shadow of the Tomb Raider in 6 months, I bet you that the first result is going to be Stadia. By the end of the year, I expect to see "Play this game on Stadia" buttons under youtube gaming videos. By the time our governments wake up and do something about it, it's going to be too late and we're going to have another Chrome on our hands.

If Stadia becomes the dominant gaming platform, it will be the end of digital preservation: there is no way to preserve games on Stadia if they don't come out on other platforms, and in case you don't know it, things don't last long in Google's world: of all the apps and games that I have purchased on Google Play a few years ago, only 3 still exist, the rest are gone and the only way to get them is piracy, and because games on Stadia don't run on your machine, there is no piracy.
This is a worst case scenario, one that I hope won't become reality. I expect Stadia to postion itself mostly in the lower end of the market.

So in conclusion, Stadia is shit, but it's good enough for casuals. If you can buy a console or a gaming PC or you already have one, stay away from Stadia.

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