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Google is convinced it can get game streaming right

I’m hesitant to believe him. I lived through the hype of OnLive a decade ago; we’ve heard these promises before, only to be sorely disappointed. Of course, 10 years on, Google is promising even more — seamlessly streaming games at 4K and 60fps with HDR, integrating “play now” options into YouTube, and even loading a specific section of a game via a hyperlink, on any platform, in just five seconds.

“It’s actually closer to three seconds than five seconds,” Harrison told me the day after revealing Stadia on the Google stage at GDC. “But we thought, you know what, five seconds is actually, probably a good enough promise.”

Google at GDC 2019

That’s how much confidence Google executives have in Stadia. It’s due to launch later this year (with an unknown payment model), and there’s momentum behind the entire initiative both inside and outside of Google.

Harrison is a 25-year veteran of the video game industry who has held leading roles at both Sony and Microsoft, and Google picked him up in early 2018; Jade Raymond is the former head of Ubisoft Montreal and executive producer of the first Assassin’s Creed games, and Google recently hired her to lead its Stadia Games and Entertainment arm. The top game-engine companies, Unreal and Unity, are partnering with Google on Stadia, alongside dozens of other studios.

At launch, Google says Stadia will be able to stream any participating game to any device — including Chromecasts, smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs — at up to 4K and 60fps, plus it’ll enable a handful of social and YouTube tricks.

“Our platform is capable of delivering all of the quality, all of the capability that we discussed, over conventional fixed, wired internet into your home,” Harrison said.

Google at GDC 2019

The problem I have with Harrison’s repeated assurance is that it relies on things Google has control over, like server hardware and distribution, and a special relationship that Google has with major ISPs. It doesn’t directly address the perpetual problem with game streaming: A lot of people have crappy internet.

No matter how powerful Google’s cloud infrastructure is, in-home and mobile connection speeds are a potential bottleneck that developers can’t R&D away. Harrison answered this critique as follows:

“Google’s been making investments in the fundamental fabric of the internet, the networking within our data centers, the way our data centers are connected, for 20 years. We’ve been a hardware company in the data center for longer than we’ve been a hardware company in Google Home or phones. That gives us some performance advantages in terms of the way the data reaches the ISP and how that data gets to you in your home. That allows us to deliver a very, very high-quality experience.”

Internet distribution has certainly expanded since OnLive and Gaikai tried to tackle low-latency streaming. Statista estimates 109.8 million homes in the US had a fixed broadband subscription in 2017, compared with 84.5 million in 2010. Internet speeds have steadily increased over the years as well, with the US clocking an average download rate of 96.25 Mbps in late 2018, according to Ookla. (Stadia recommends a minimum of 25 Mbps). Plus, Google’s big Project Stream beta in October went shockingly well. All of this is good for Google.

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