YouTube is rightfully under fire this week, but that’s not stopping Google from finally giving us all the details about its next big streaming service. Stadia, Google’s big play to define the next epoch of gaming, was officially announced back in March, but the March event was frustratingly devoid of details. Now we have them.
Stadia will launch in November. For the first few months—at least until 2020—you’ll only be able to access Stadia if you or a friend invest in the $130 Founders Edition. After that, anyone will be able to access Stadia. There will be a store where you purchase games.
At launch there will be 31 games, including: Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, DOOM Eternal, DOOM 2016, Rage 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Destiny 2, Get Packed, GRID, Metro Exodus, Thumper, Farming Simulator 19, Baldur’s Gate 3, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid, Football Manager, Samurai Shodown, Final Fantasy XV, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, NBA 2K, Borderlands 3, Gylt, Mortal Kombat 11, Darksiders Genesis, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Just Dance , Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint , Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 , Trials Rising, and The Crew 2. EA and Capcom will also have games on Stadia, but they will be announced at a later date by those publishers.
You can then play them in a Chrome browser, on your TV via Chromecast Ultra, or on the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3a (Google expects to support more devices in the future). There will be two kinds of Stadia subscriptions: A free Base subscription, or a $10 a month Stadia Pro subscription. The Base subscription will let you buy and keep any game in the store and let you play games at a resolution of 1080p at 60 frames per second. Pony up $10 a month for Stadia Pro, and you’ll get an experience similar to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Gold. That means heavily discounted games, and a few free games each month. The free games will stay on your account as long as you subscribe to Stadia Pro. You’ll lose access to the free games if you move to the Base subscription, but then get them back should you ever resubscribe to Stadia Pro. Subscribing to Stadia Pro also means you can play at 4K, 60fps, with HDR and 5.1 surround sound if your network can support it.
As we said, in 2019, the only way you can access Stadia is if you or a friend purchase the Founder’s Edition. You’ll probably have to deal with a few bugs and the occasional unpleasant streaming experience. But for you’re troubles—and $130—you’ll get a limited edition “Night Blue” controller, a Chromecast Ultra, a unique name in Stadia with no filler numbers (please no one take Alex before me), and Destiny 2. Destiny 2 has been available for PC, PS4, and Xbox One for a couple of years now and the Stadia version will include all current and forthcoming DLC. And if you already play on PC or Xbox One, you’ll be able to pick up where you left off—losing no progress since Stadia supports crossplay with those systems. (Google said it’s also working with Sony to support crossplay with PS4 but has nothing to announce for now).
In a conversation earlier this week, Andrey Doronichev, Director of Product Management for Stadia, stressed that the idea behind the Founder’s Edition is to give people an experience similar to a console. He expects people to play it primarily via the Chromecast Ultra on their couches. Though there will be day one support for browsers and the aforementioned Pixel phones as well.
A longtime YouTube employee, Doronichev was excited to detail how the streaming will work. He said that compared to YouTube, the Stadia streaming was an “orders of magnitude more complicated technical challenge.”
Stadia, like YouTube, is essentially a video stream. A series of Google servers handle all the gameplay and then send you a nice clean video. Doronichev pointed out that most video streaming right now relies on buffering. Extra frames of a video, also called a buffer, are sent to your device, ideally enough that you get a seamless viewing experience even if your network speed stutters. When you see a video stall and say “buffering,” it’s because there aren’t enough future frames available.
That buffer of extra frames is key to how we stream video, but you can’t rely on it when streaming games because you’re not just sending the stream, you’re controlling the game. The stream has to be able to pick up all of your minute movements, get them to the server, process it, then spit it all back to your display quickly enough that you experience zero lag and feel like you’re playing the game on the local device in front of your face.
Google thinks it’s pulled it off, but you’ll need decent bandwidth. Doronichev said you’ll need at least 10 Mbps for 720p and 35 Mbps for 4K—5 Mbps more than Google claimed back in March. While Doronichev didn’t note a requirement for 1080p at the time Google did send me a statement today saying “10 megabits per second will get you at least 720p 60 fps but you’ll often get 1080p at that rate. We have an adaptive algorithm that gives you the best possible quality based on your connection at that time.”
That’s problematic as a big chunk of the United States doesn’t have those kinds of speeds. As I noted back in March, according to Akamai, only 1 in 5 households in the US has speeds over 25 Mbps. In April Microsoft suggested the internet access problem in America was even more dire and that over 162.8 million Americans don’t even have access internet speeds of 25 Mbps or higher.
Doronichev and Google didn’t have a specific answer to this problem. Instead, Doronichev pointed to the 10 Mbps requirement for 720p, and then went on a spiel about the power of Google itself: “We’re relying on incredible technical infrastructure by Google that’s been delivering billions of search queries and videos on YouTube and such and have been evolving over many years. So you know I’m pretty sure we’re going to get there.” I love his optimism, even though my friend in the middle of nowhere Colorado might be bummed she won’t be able to play Stadia.
After my chat with Doronichev, Google followed up with a statement that gives a little more clarity on how Stadia will function, as well as a latency requirement for optimal quality (emphasis mine):
We have made major infrastructure investments to ensure that we have data centers close to many users. We have also invested in many innovations in how we deliver the game, and how a game behaves in the presence of latency. Any user within 40ms round-trip-time of a Stadia Point of Presence will have a great experience.
Moreover, if you experience variance in the quality of your network connection, our adaptive streaming technology will always provide you with the best quality experience appropriate for your connection.
So if you can get YouTube, you should theoretically be able to get Stadia, but the quality of the stream may not be as pretty as the people with the good internet. Doronichev seems optimistic that ISPs will start doing what they’ve put off doing for decades, and finally start providing better bandwidths in rural areas. I’m personally not as optimistic, but if you are the Stadia Founder’s Edition goes on sale today in Google’s store and launches in November.
Update 6/6/19 11:38pm EST: Since publication, Google has contacted us to clarify that the 40ms latency requirement cited above was specifically for Project Stream, and a new required latency has not yet been determined for Stadia’s launch.
Google also noted that the speed required for a 4K stream has changed from 30Mbps in March to 35Mbps in June, not 25Mbps to 35 Mbps. We’ve updated the copy above to reflect that and regret the error.