Challenging Amazon and Microsoft for the attention of gamers and for the billing of game industry customers, Google announced a planned game streaming service called Stadia at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Stadia, which will be integrated with YouTube, is expected to launch toward the end of the year. It represents an attempt to make gaming less onerous – playable without installation or downloads – and more powerful – high frame rates and high resolution for multiplayer titles – from a hosted service that can limit cheating and hacking while promoting engagement.
To underscore the importance of the project to the Chocolate Factory and to people who may not pay much attention to the troll and trigger-finger market, CEO Sundar Pichai took a turn on stage to to link the specialized concerns of game development to Google's broader focus on ads, data and compute rental.
Games have inspired people to pursue careers in technology and play an important role in the development of Google technology and infrastructure, Pichai said. He credited Google's progress in AI in part to its efforts to create software that can master games like chess, Shogi and Go.
"Another example we have is Waymo, where we use simulations in gaming to test things that aren't actually possible or safe at scale in the real world," said Pichai, noting how its self-driving systems have driven billions of hours in simulations.
He also underscored the extent to which the performance demands of gaming push the industry to improve its technical infrastructure. In the desktop era, gaming drove CPU performance; in the cloud era, with Moore's Law winding down, there's more focus on bandwidth, throughput, and latency.
Stadia will provide developers with a place to host and stream games, allowing players to play them in the Chrome browser (and other browsers eventually, it's said) across multiple forms of hardware – mobile, desktop, laptop and TV displays.
Google will also offer dedicated hardware, the Stadia controller, as an input mechanism.
Having a big backend
Part of Google's value proposition for Stadia is its compute infrastructure, spanning 19 regions and 200 countries connected by hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables.
Google is promising to deliver streams at 4K HDR resolution at 60fps with surround sound, and to reach 8K eventually. The biz claims its game-centric data center hardware will use unnamed x86 CPU cores and AMD graphics chips, and run Linux with the Vulkan graphics API, operating at 10.7 GPU teraflops, which is better than the Xbox One X (6.0 GPU teraflops) and PS4 Pro (4.2 GPU teraflops) consoles combined.
On traditional platforms, clients applications and servers communicate over the unpredictable internet, said Phil Harrison, Google VP and general manager of Stadia. "In Stadia, the game client and server both remain on Google's backbone."
This end-to-end encapsulation will also help prevent cheating and hacking, according to Harrison.
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Another part of Stadia's appeal is its integration with YouTube. The GDC preview video showed how developers will be able to embed links in YouTube videos that will launch depicted games in the browser in a matter of seconds. Such interaction could have significant revenue, discovery and engagement implications for game makers, not to mention YouTube game streaming celebs.
Stadia's YouTube connection should give it a fighting chance against Amazon's Twitch and rumored Cloud Games platform and Microsoft's game portfolio, which includes its nascent xCloud streaming service.
Stadia gives Google another shot at knitting together a social network, now that Google+ has shut down. The narration of the demo video sounded like early Mark Zuckerberg evangelizing sharing and community, back before Facebook had to deal with electoral sabotage and murder streaming: "From the beginning of time, games have brought us together."
And thanks to the internet and toxic behavior, games have driven people apart, away, and to the mute button. If Google and its game industry partners can figure out how to ensure everyone gets along, can keep the playing field level for gamers and game makers alike, and can deliver the promised performance, Stadia may be worth visiting. Expect more details to come this summer. ®
PS: You can find a list of Google's other launched-then-swiftly-axed services here, on killedbygoogle.com.