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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stadia’s performance has improved since launch. The case for the service hasn’t.

Google Stadia's performance for users seems to demand too many compromises.

Two weeks ago, I demonstrated how big an issue latency was with my Stadia experience. Now, it’s gotten better — but with a lot of compromise.

I’ve always subscribed to the notion that technology should work for us, not the other way around. And I’m tired of working to play Stadia. Playing on my Chromecast Ultra on my home 4K TV set over Thanksgiving weekend, I couldn’t even get a stable frame rate anywhere close to 60 frames per second. That sometimes dropped to as low as 10 frames per second, even on a Stadia-approved “excellent” Internet connection at home. Google’s ProjectStream site also rated my Internet WiFi as “great.” Yet these were the results.

To play Destiny 2, I also had to drop data usage all the way down to “Limited data usage,” which costs 4.5 GB per hour, with my resolution capped at a mere 720p. It wasn’t high definition gameplay, but I just wanted to be able to play the game comfortably. Disregarding the blurry visuals, the game played beautifully.

This past week I tested Stadia again through my crowded work Internet, which created the latency shown in the video review below. But lo and behold, Destiny 2 played at a stable 60 frames per second at the office. I was able to complete a full Strike at work without being distracted by connectivity issues. The promise of Stadia was in my hands, just blurrier than I had hoped.

Google Stadia is a great concept for the next generation of gaming, but its input lag — which is variable — makes it nearly unplayable. (Video: The Washington Post)

The performance improved for me within a few weeks, but it was puzzling that my home connection started to stagger. This only happened this past weekend, a disappointment after several days of stability.

Other reports since Stadia’s November release have been mixed, although mostly positive. An Esquire reporter described great experiences at home and at work. But others reported shaky experiences similar to mine. YouTube gaming critic Jeremy “ACG” Penter called it the “worst launch of any hardware I have had the misfortune of living through,” citing similar lag and latency issues. Google, in turn, advised users to “limit the number of devices” on the same WiFi network, inspiring mockery that drew parallels between the new service and 90s dial-up Internet.

This inconsistency is a big problem, because consistent performance is one thing consoles can offer. What good is cloud gaming when the results are unreliable? Stadia works great in one home, terrible in another. Sometimes it’s fine at work, other times it’s unplayable.

The diverse results have created a question among users of what the real performance is. The answer is all of it. Some have resorted to accusing others of playing Stadia “wrong” or not in an “ideal” environment, but streaming should not require ideal conditions to function at a base level — full stop.

I stopped trying to achieve the ideal Stadia experience. I played with 720p resolution with the laundry list of caveats noted above. But while the service ultimately worked for me (sort of), the asking price of $130 for a Stadia Premiere Edition feels steep now, given what’s offered.

The NES console was discontinued in 1995. These developers are still making games for it.

Stadia, as it is now, is far from its final form. Stadia promises to be accessible without subscription (capped at a top-level resolution of 1080p) to everyone, sometime in 2020. The controller and Chromecast Ultra are not necessary if you only want to play via your Chrome browser or your phone. (It currently only works on the Google Pixel.)

Despite all the caveats and hedges, I actually do think Stadia would be a good gift idea for one particular type of person: early adopters.

I’ve had more fun testing Stadia than I have playing the games on the service. It made for a great conversation piece, describing the weird experience of playing video games whenever I have access to Chrome. It was fun showing off 60 frames per second online gameplay from Mortal Kombat 11 on a Google phone.

At $130, the price isn’t quite right, but it’s affordable for gear heads used to plunking down hundreds of dollars for less versatile products. Yes, it’s ridiculous that there’s a price gating off what essentially feels like “early access” to a service. And yes, 4K gaming should not be paywalled by a subscription service when the Xbox One X or a PC can offer it out of the box.

But Stadia users will be future-proofed when (or if) Stadia is able to provide a stable performance for everyone. Plus you get a nifty looking and comfortable controller. I say this as a compliment: The Stadia controller, with its clean design and muted colors, makes for a lovely shelf piece. It looks classy on a nightstand.

The game library and business model are the biggest sticking point for the service. Stadia needs games you can’t find anywhere else. It needs more accessible games, preferably cross-platform titles like Fortnite. The games need to be casual grabs for attention, not long, prestige TV-like experiences. There’s absolutely no reason for me to want to play a 100-hour story-driven title like Red Dead Redemption 2 at a place as distracting as work or a coffee shop.

Here is where Stadia is missing its best opportunity: The most common gaming device in America isn’t the PlayStation or the PC. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 60 percent of adult gamers play via the phone. By catering to the hardcore console and PC crowd, Google is trying to grab attention from gamers who have little time or reason to give it. They’re too busy playing the games they already own and not worrying if they need to lower the resolution on a game’s graphics.

The service has underperformed. Despite every Stadia player owning Destiny, the game’s Stadia servers are now infamously deserted. And Google shouldn’t have promised 4K resolution images with 60 frames-per-second gameplay, even as their marquee titles, such as Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2, are rendered only in 1080p and upscaled to a resolution that isn’t even a 4K image. (Google responded by saying it’s up to the third-party developers to offer the feature, but it’s not the developers that over-promised these features in their marketing.)

In its current state, I can’t possibly recommend Stadia as the end-all, be-all provider of gaming content to anyone. You’ll find the most value out of it as a supplementary service. I have been using it as a launcher for Destiny 2. Stadia saves my daily progress, so later I can pick it again on the more superior and stable Xbox One X and PC experiences.

For its part, Google does seem serious in its commitment, most notably hiring famed Assassin’s Creed producer Jade Raymond to head up its first-party efforts. Stadia will remain an anomaly until it boasts a library worth looking at.

As of now, Stadia is a decent luxury item. There’s value in the time saved by the removal of downloading games and their updates. Is this luxury worth $130, though? That’s the only question worth asking today.

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