A First Look at Google Stadia (Part 2)
We wrap up this look at Google Stadia by focusing on several interesting features, such as its multiplayer ability and the ML it comes with.
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This article is a continuation of A First Look at Google Stadia.
While a vision and technical specifications are essential for a gaming system, they alone do not sell units or subscriptions. In the end, what matters are the features provided to the player and the developer creating games for the enjoyment of the player. The Stadia keynote was lacking some vital information in that department, but it did include some insightful information on features that align with its vision, including Couch Multiplayer, State Share, Crowd Play, and Style Transfer ML.
Multiplayer and Couch Multiplayer
Couch Multiplayer (sometimes called couch co-op) has been falling by the wayside in recent years. While some games, such as Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, continue to be staples of face-to-face, split-screen multiplayer, many other games have removed this feature. One of the difficulties in executing couch multiplayer is overcoming the tax that it puts on a console: Instead of rendering a single image for each frame, the console must now render multiple images and fuse them into a single image.
For example, if one player fires a weapon in view of a second player in a split-screen game, the console must render the image of the weapon firing from the perspective of the player who fired the weapon and the player who observed the shot. These two renderings are then put together side-by-side to form the split-screen scene. Rendering from a single perspective can be challenging enough, but as the number of players grows to two and beyond, the task can become overwhelming.
Since Stadia game sessions reside within the same network on different nodes, each node can be responsible for rendering one of the perspectives and then multiple views can be sent to another node to be fused. In essence, each player has his or her own Stadia node, and the nodes aggregate their frames into a single frame (image from Stadia keynote).
It is difficult to tell the applicability of this feature until games begin to employ it—if any do—but it does provide useful information on the potential for multiplayer games. As previously mentioned, Stadia's approach to gaming lends itself very well to multiplayer games, especially those with a considerable number of players. Seeing Couch Multiplayer in action shows how effective Stadia can be at simultaneously rendering numerous perspectives of the same environment and how data can be transmitted from one game session to another with very low latency.
Save states have been a mainstay of gaming since consoles became powerful enough to save a player's progress to persistent storage on the console or directly to the game itself. With Stadia, this ability is taken to the next level, allowing game developers to store a playable moment in a game and share this playable moment with anyone through a simple Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) link. Anything can be shared, including world state, player position, inventory—anything that can be packed into a shareable moment.
By clicking the HTTP link, another user can immediately pick up the game with the same state. Since Stadia streams its games, this is a skillful way to utilize HTTP links to share the state of a game session. We assume that the Stadia API provided to developers has a mechanism to capture playable moments, allowing for players to instantly capture the state of a game (image from Stadia keynote).
The potential of this feature is endless, especially for those who live-stream their game sessions: a streamer could capture a playable moment in a game and instantly allow his or her viewers to attempt a challenge for themselves. In some cases, viewers can also jump into the game with their favorite streamer through crowd play.
According to Ryan Wyatt, Global Head of Gaming and Virtual Reality at YouTube, more than 200 million users actively watch a game content each day. Even more astounding, users watched more than 50 billion hours of gaming content on YouTube alone in 2018—that's just YouTube; that does not count other successful platforms like Twitch. To close the gap between content creators on YouTube streaming games and their viewers watching games, Stadia includes a feature called Crowd Play that allows viewers to queue up and join a streamed game on YouTube (image from Stadia keynote).
YouTube will provide a link within the video User Interface (UI) allowing viewers to actively take part in the game being streamed. Although this is a great feature for some, other streamers will not necessarily want their viewers jumping into the game with them. Stadia allows the streamer to control whether or not they want their viewers to be able to join their game via Crowd Play.
While Crowd Play can be a great feature for some streamers, the jury is still out on whether this feature will be practical for large streams. For example, can anyone join via Crowd Play? If so, how does YouTube limit the number of viewers that can queue up if a stream has, say 100,000 viewers? This feature does look promising, but without more information, it can be unusable for some streamers.
Style Transfer ML
At times, developers want to tweak the style of a game and see how it affects the look and feel, but that process can be difficult, requiring changes to countless assets. Stadia includes a feature called Style Transfer ML that uses Machine Learning (ML) to apply an image to the entirety of the video frame for a game. This application is performed in real-time, changing the style of each rendered frame, rather than pre-computing the rendering. For example, Google demonstrated this feature by applying Wassily Kandinsky's Yellow-Red-Blue to a gray-box game to produce the following style (image from Stadia keynote):
While not a player feature, Style Transfer ML is a nifty feature for developers and an interesting application of ML in game design. At the moment, we do not have an example of a Stadia game using this feature in production, but it will be interesting to see how applying this feature—possibly in a dynamic manner—can add some interesting flair to games.
Stadia is a multi-platform service that can be streamed to a wide array of devices. Many of these devices—such as phones, tablets, and TVs—do not natively have standard inputs, such as controllers or a mouse and keyboard. To support these devices, Google is launching a new piece of hardware: The Stadia Controller (images from The Verge: left; right).
Aesthetics and Controls
This controller is reminiscent of the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, but according to Digital Foundry, feels like an Xbox One controller. The controller includes the normal assortment of buttons and triggers, such as the A-B and X-Y button pairs, two analog sticks, a D-pad, and a pair of left and right trigger buttons. It has a USB-C port at the top and a 3.5 mm headphone jack at the bottom (image from Stadia keynote, annotations added).
In addition to these standard features, the face of the controller sports two more buttons:
- Google Assistant button (left): The Stadia Controller includes a built-in microphone that allows a player to press the Google Assistant button and ask Google a question about the game currently being played. Google Assistant will then search for the best results to help the player and display them directly on the game device (i.e., TV, tablet, etc.). The Assistant mechanism is a significant improvement over the usual way of getting help in a game: search YouTube or Google for help by manually typing a question on a second device. Google Assistant helps to keep the player immersed in the gaming experience, rather than breaking away just to come back seconds or minutes later.
- Capture button (right): The capture button allows a player to save and share an experience directly to YouTube. This experience can be captured just for the use of the gamer, shared with friends, or shared with the entire world. Although not explicitly tied to the simultaneous stream discussed in the Stadia keynote, it seems logical that the two features are linked together. The utilization of simultaneous streaming means that experiences will likely be captured in the high quality available, even if the player him or herself is not able to stream the highest quality (i.e., if a gamer is streaming at 1080p, the capture button will save or share the stream at 4k).
In addition to the white controller (accented with Stadia orange), the Stadia Controller comes in black (accented with white), and a light-teal (accented with fluorescent green—image from Stadia keynote):
There is one major factor that differentiates the Stadia Controller from other video game controllers: It connects over WiFi directly to the game instance playing in the Google Data Center. Most controllers are connected over some short-distance wireless protocol, such as Bluetooth, directly to a console. Instead, the Stadia Controller connects to the game session, allowing a player to identify which device you want to run the game on and pairing that device with a player's game session running in the cloud. According to Harrison:
According to The Verge, the controller will be paired with a companion app:
We do not know if this means that the controller will be programmed to connect directly to a Stadia game session over WiFi or if it will communicate with the companion app over a short-distance wireless protocol and the app will, in turn, communicate with the Stadia game session (i.e., use the app as a proxy to the Stadia service). Considering Harrison said that the controller directly connects to a Stadia game session, we are inclined to believe that the controller will have WiFi capability and will be directly paired with a game session; the app appears to be a supplement to the controller, rather than a proxy to the Stadia service.
Google has not yet given a price for the controller, although they stated in a Kotaku interview that they would talk about the cost of the service—which we would assume would include talk about the price of its peripherals—in the summer.
The Stadia keynote and accompanying interviews with the media provided a great deal of information about Google's plans for Stadia, but there were a few key pieces of information that were missing:
- What is the price? Google did not provide a price for the Stadia service and declined to disclose this information to Kotaku in an interview. The closest we got was Harrison saying, "I’m not going to talk about it today… We will talk in great detail about that in the summer." When pushed by Kotaku on whether "summer" meant Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) on June 11-13, Harrison simply reiterated, "In the summer."
- When will it launch? Apart from a vague, "Sometime in 2019" statement by Google, we do not have an exact launch date for Stadia. With one quarter of 2019 already gone, the exact release date of Stadia will be important in determining whether the game streaming service will be able to tap into the summer and holiday seasons and gain much-needed momentum going into its first year.
- What are the launch titles? Apart from Doom: Eternal and Assassin's Creed: Odessey, we do not know what titles will launch with the service. Technology and conceptual demonstrations are important, but in the gaming world, games are what matter. In particular, launch titles are what can make or break a system—as seen with the success of the Nintendo Switch, which essentially launched with just The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Judging by the opinion of some of the leading voices in the gaming community, a lack of launch titles (in quality, not just quantity) could hang Stadia out to dry.
- How will Stadia work on non-Google Devices? So far, we have only seen Stadia running on Google devices (i.e., Pixel 3XL for phone demonstration), which begs the question: how will Stadia work with competitor's products? For example, will Stadia work on Apple iOS (e.g., iPhones and iPads) or other consoles, such as PS4, Xbox One, or the Switch?
- Will Stadia support cross-play with other consoles? Google mentioned that Stadia would be cross-platform, but the definition used was not the traditional definition. Google claims that Stadia will be cross-platform in the sense that it can be played on a phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, and TV. Traditionally, cross-platform means playing a game on one console or PC and being able to with others on a different console (i.e., Switch and Xbox One players being able to play the same game against one another). It will be vital to see if Google is willing to open its Stadia service to allow players to game cross-platform with existing consoles or if it will segment itself and only allow Stadia players to game with other Stadia players—much like Sony has been accused of.
It is still early in the life of Stadia, and more information will be coming in the summer—possibly at E3 2019—but there are still some significant, unanswered questions that must be resolved before judging the viability of Stadia.
(Note that this section is solely the opinion of the author, and does not represent DZone's collective opinion on Google or Stadia.)
Stadia is a massive leap in the technology of game streaming, and it would take a company with the resources of Google to pull it off, but there are some significant concerns that I have about the acceptance of Stadia as one of the major players in the game industry. Specifically, I have three concerns:
My first concern is with Google's overall approach to Stadia. Google admitted to approaching this problem as a computer science problem, rather than a gaming problem. This may seem to be a pedantic distinction, but it is a vital difference that Google seems to be missing.
Gaming is more of an art than a science—how to create an engaging and enjoyable experience—and while computer science is a significant part of this art, putting primary focus on computer science would be equivalent to focusing on vibrations and wavelengths when making music, instead of focusing on making music that pleases the ear. While the technology that Google explained in its keynote is sound and its vision is sufficiently ambitious, it is missing some core desires that would bring the gaming community to the table.
Primarily, Stadia did not put its focus on games. Apart from Assassin's Creed: Odessey—which was already a known game from Project Stream—and Doom: Eternal, Google has not announced any other launch titles or exclusive games. It cannot be overstated how important a well-defined lineup is for the success of Stadia, and, at the moment, Stadia's lineup is not just lacking, it's completely non-existent. Games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are one of the reasons that Nintendo Switch proved nay-sayers wrong and has exploded out of the gate. Gamers primarily connect with the games, not the features, of a platform. In the end, the platform is only a means-to-an-end, and the love engendered by players comes from the experience they create playing memorable games on the system.
My second concern focuses on the lack of hands-on demonstrations of the product. From an engineering perspective, I could spend days and weeks enjoying the cleverness and ingenuity of Stadia's design, but we have still not seen Stadia in action on canonical machines with less-than-ideal network connections. Even with Google's connection, Digital Foundry noticed input latency, which is a bad sign to start. Since Stadia, by the nature of its design, seems geared towards multiplayer gaming, low latency and immediacy of input are essential. If players cannot execute an action and have that action immediately reflected in the game, the platform is a non-starter.
My third concern is the privacy of the service. Google and Facebook have both been on the hot seat lately for their collection of user data (and their handling of this data) and it comes as no surprise that many are hesitant about letting Google further into their life. The microphone feature of the Stadia controller, specifically, has many concerned. While this may seem like paranoia, there is more validity to this concern than Google would like to admit. Before Stadia can become a mainstay in the gaming community, it will first have to address privacy concerns and earn the trust of the average gamer.
Although I may appear sour on the outlook of Stadia, I find the technology very impressive; but there is a still a long way to go beyond computer science before Stadia can establish itself as a big player in the gaming community. Only further announcements from Google will bring its vision closer to reality, but in the meantime, the introduction of Stadia by Google has brought some much-needed outsider competition into a market that has been hyper-focused on reinvention, rather than innovation, for a long time.
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