Is Google Ready to Dominate the Gaming Market?

Nate Trees, Editor

By the mid-2000s, there were three major companies at the center of console gaming: Nintendo, a family-friendly industry giant from Japan who had been releasing video game consoles since the 1980s; Sony, a consumer electronics company, also hailing from Japan, who had broke into the market in the mid 90s with their PlayStation console; and Microsoft, an American company specializing in PC software and hardware who entered the market later than its Japanese contemporaries with its Xbox in 2001. Today, those same three companies are still at the forefront of what many refer to as the “Console Wars”; Nintendo with their portable hybrid console the Nintendo Switch, Sony with its PlayStation 4 or PS4, and Microsoft with its Xbox One.

All three thrive off the current Industry Standard; consumers purchase their console for around $300- as much as $500 at launch- and then buy physical or digital copies of games, using the console to play them. As of right now, consumers have to own a console (or a high-end gaming PC) to play said games, but Google’s newly announced program might completely change that. On March 19th, 2018 at GDC (Game Developers Conference) in San Francisco, Google announced their video game streaming platform, Stadia, which threatens to make the “In-Home console” business model obsolete.

But what is Stadia? Well, think about it like this: if consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation are like DVD players that you only use in only your home, Stadia is like Netflix or Hulu, in the sense that you can use it anywhere you have a smart-device and a wifi signal. Essentially, Google plans to offer a way to stream games the way you would a TV show or a movie, letting you play complex video games from prominent developers, whenever and wherever. The head of Stadia, Phil Harrison, describes the platform as “One place for all the ways we play.”

The appeal of consoles is that they’re really just specialized computers optimized to run specific programs, i.e. games produced for that console; a normal computer isn’t optimized to play games, and building or buying a gaming PC is often both expensive and difficult, so consoles offer a relatively cheap way to play games. The drawback, however, is that they stay inside the home, and the few handheld consoles that exist cannot match the computing power of a stationary console. However, with Stadia, all of the computation necessary to play a game wouldn’t take place on the device, but within Google’s vast network of data centers from all over the world, placed in around 200 countries with an estimated 2.5 million total servers.

So, what does this mean for the industry at large? Well, Stadia is set to launch at some point in 2019, and both Sony and Microsoft are slated to release next-generation consoles in late 2020 (Nintendo doesn’t seem to have any specific plans for new consoles, but they are planning on the release of slightly upgraded or cheaper versions of their current flagship console, the Nintendo Switch), so here’s what’s likely going to happen. If Stadia’s release goes as well as Google hopes, then Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will likely take a big hit to their sales going into 2020, and it may even preemptively sink their next-generation consoles; the industry will be completely flipped on its head, and Google might even gain a monopoly over the market. However, it isn’t certain that Stadia will succeed. Stadia’s streaming method of gaming demands an incredibly fast internet connection, needing speeds of 20-25 megabits per second for a stable experience. This isn’t an issue for most urban and suburban areas, but the majority of rural, small town areas in the US don’t really see speeds that fast. This might widely injure Staida’s chances.

That said, Microsoft and Sony aren’t ignoring Stadia’s threat of domination. The two rivals have just recently announced a partnership going forward to develop cloud streaming tech in hopes of combating Stadia, keeping the console war between them (and partially Nintendo), rather than letting Google upset the delicate balance of the industry.

How are consumers reacting to Stadia? According to what I’ve found, very few seem to really care about the Stadia. In fact, of the small sample of ten console users I asked, only two even knew what Stadia was (and even then they only understood it in vague terms). After I described the platform to them, one interviewee even remarked that Stadia “seems kinda dumb.” Google will need to invest heavily in a prominent marketing campaign to both spread word of the service and convince a stubborn consumer to swear off consoles.

Stadia’s premise of streaming games without a console has the potential to upset the entire gaming industry, but it faces roadblocks in both technical practicality, and consumer disinterest. Despite these glaring issues, Stadia has managed to scare Sony and Microsoft into an alliance, so maybe all is not lost for this revolutionary platform.