How Google Stadia could foretell the future of video games

Google last week unveiled its vision for the future of gaming, and if it ever comes to fruition it could radically change the way video games are made, bought and played.

Stadia puts all of the heavy lifting on Google servers and network infrastructure, removing the need for computers, game consoles or high-end internet connections on the player's side.

Streaming subscription services are widely thought to be the future of games, with Microsoft, Sony and Apple all putting their ducks in a row in preparation, but technologically speaking it's a system that speaks to Google's strengths in particular. It could take time to hit its stride, and there is much we don't yet know — like the price, or when Stadia might make it to Australia — but the ideas Google has laid out can give us a glimpse at where the industry may be headed.

The Stadia controller, which connects directly to Google’s servers via Wi-Fi.

When you play a game over Stadia, it will essentially be no different than watching a video over YouTube, and the quality of the video should be about the same. The main difference is that instead of a server farm somewhere accessing and transmitting video files, it will be a much more powerful machine running the game and then sending the audio and video to you.

The fact that virtually all of the processing happens on Google's side means a lot of the limitations of traditional consoles can be sidestepped. Stadia's servers contain the kind of chips and solid state storage that would be too expensive for a consumer console, and they can be combined or upgraded as needed, making for faster loading and a near limitless canvas for game makers. Complex graphical techniques and AI algorithms that usually require a computer worth thousands of dollars to appreciate could be delivered directly to your old laptop that usually struggles to run games at all. This also means the market for high-end games could suddenly extend to anyone with a phone.

The key decider when it comes to fidelity will be your internet connection, exactly as it is right now with YouTube videos, but more complex games will not be more taxing on your network. Games require a more consistent stream than videos to be effective, and Stadia will likely never look as crisp as playing locally. But, with the advent of 5G and more stable home internet connections, streaming in HD will be a reasonable expectation for many people.

The difference between games played locally and games played in the cloud will be felt most prominently when it comes to multiplayer.

Traditional multiplayer games link people all over the world to each other or to a central server, meaning performance and complexity can be limited by the need to account for all kinds of internet connections. Things like real time physics systems, for example, are tough to pull off in multiplayer because of the need to synchronise them across the world.

But with Stadia the entire game will be happening at the same physical location on Google's end, with just the video and audio going out to each player. This potentially means more complex multiplayer games, and significantly higher player counts. If one player has lousy internet, it just means they'll get lower quality video.

The biggest problem with previous attempts at game streaming has been latency, meaning the time between a player pressing a button and it having a visible effect on screen. Google's idea to eliminate this is its own controller, which connects directly to the Stadia servers via Wi-Fi. Assuming a relatively low latency connection (satellite is definitely out, but other broadband should be fine), this could turn out to be almost indistinguishable from playing with a standard wireless pad for many games, even if it will likely never satisfy die-hard mouse-and-keyboard shooter fans.

The controller will also come in handy because it provides a consistent way to interact with the variety of screens you could use to play Stadia. Anything with a Chrome browser or Chromecast capabilities — including TVs, phones, tablets and computers — can boot up any game or let you continue your previous session in seconds, Google says. You'd even be able to click a link on a game's website or YouTube trailer and get playing almost instantly. Best of all, you'd never have to download, install or update a game again.

And finally, the social element of games could be much expanded with Stadia. Google has a keen interest in this area, given it already operates the largest repository of game-related videos on the internet.

Stadia will have the ability to capture the entire state of a given game — including where you are, what you've done and what has happened so far — to use in a variety of ways instantly. For example you could ask the Google Assistant how to get out of a particular dungeon, and it will show you a walkthrough someone made on YouTube. Or you could send a link with your game state to a friend or to your Twitter followers, challenging them to get out of the pickle you're in.

Public performance of games would also likely become much more common in a cloud future. Until now streaming video to your friends and followers has required a lot of processing power and internet upload capacity, but with Stadia the game will be streamed from Google servers to you and to YouTube simultaneously. This means that even if you're playing on a shaky mobile connection with barely enough internet for a standard definition image, your followers in the city could be watching you play your game, in real time, in 4K.

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