Rest In Piss, Google Stadia

It's finally official.

Google Stadia passed away this morning after a long battle with nobody-giving-a-shit.

It was inevitable from the moment the platform was announced, for reasons that were obvious to the most casual observer of the games industry and that now form the backbone of countless video essays and articles ridiculing the platform: Google’s institutional rot and history of cancelling any products at the slightest sign of weakness, reliance on the kind of high-speed internet infrastructure that most governments were reticent to invest any money into actually developing, the fundamental unreliability of fast-paced game genres over netplay, a ridiculous pricing structure that asked users to pay both a subscription fee and the boxed price of a game to use, and the tech sector hubris that is currently consigning both Amazon and Facebook to billions of dollars in losses with only a middling MMO and a legless metaverse to show for it.

These talking points will become, in time, the canonical narrative of Stadia; that it was a platform nobody wanted, that everyone saw as an inevitable flop, and a platform that was soundly felled by Google’s notoriously fickle axe for its failures when those initial fears were proven entirely well-founded. It’s a nice little narrative arc for the platform, suitable for a lot of hour-long videos with titles that include the phrase “The Rise And Fall Of” interspersed with developer interviews and sales data to prove that Stadia was an ill-conceived platform that rightfully failed.

I think there’s an important distinction to be made here: these are the reasons why Google Stadia is a joke.

I’m not entirely convinced they’re why Google Stadia failed.

Mostly, I’m worried that Google Stadia will be seen in a vacuum, and not as the canary in the coal mine it actually was.

For a while now, I’ve been concerned about a trend in the games industry I started to notice back in March 2021 that I termed the “era of content.” The AAA gaming space suffers from a fundamental insecurity with itself that drives it to emulate film and television and with those mediums changing distribution methods to prioritize streaming content, it was inevitable that games would copy the surface level implementation of the idea (a streaming service with a monthly subscription) without truly understanding that streaming services were less about the inexorable march of progress and “disrupting” viewing habits and more undergoing a shift back towards the vertical integration of the Hollywood studio system through the lack of regulation in the streaming space.

The thing is, the gaming industry already has the kind of vertical integration that got legislated out of the film industry by the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948. Every platform is a walled garden, with the debatable exception of the PC games market, with the platform holders moving further and further towards digital-only releases with each console generation.

They’re already the only game in town.

But the games industry also has a long history of encouraging recurrent user spending through subscription fees and microtransations, so it came as very little surprise when EA Access and Playstation Now became the patient zeroes of this current era of game subscription services in 2014, a year after Netflix began its development of original programming, and Xbox Game Pass followed in 2017. Stadia was announced in 2018 to launch in 2019, when Apple would announce their mobile-focused Apple Arcade subscription service and Nintendo would launch their Nintendo Switch Online, with its library of classic NES and SNES games.

Even then, the wheels were falling off Google Stadia.

Google, as the outsider in the gaming space, had none of the benefits of the ‘boiling frog’ effect that Microsoft and PlayStation cultivated over more than a decade of normalizing subscription fees for using their console’s online services through Xbox Live and PS+ that made it seem, relatively speaking, like a substantially better deal when you could pay slightly more money on top of that basic fee to get instant access to a library of games. Despite hiring previously successful executives from the gaming industry to launch the platform, they also institutionally lacked any instinct for the mechanisms of hype and PR spin that all major publishers cultivate a basic level of to sell their products to the gaming audience.

Google Stadia was being sold as a tech product to a gaming audience and, as a result of being unable to find the right messaging for a gaming audience, presented the rawest form of a pricing structure that was cultivated in the MMO space and expanded into the wider industry since Microsoft launched Xbox Live in 2002: paying a subscription fee to then buy games.

It wasn’t that Google Stadia was doing anything different to the other platform holders. They were just too upfront about it.

Like most tech unicorns of the early 2010s, the wave of optimism surrounding the pivot to streaming has largely receded and these platforms are inevitably doomed to try and get an increasing amount of revenue from a decreasing user base.

Xbox Game Pass, the most successful in the gaming space and one of the earliest to introduce a tiered pricing structure, struggles to gain subscribers beyond its initial engagement and, allegedly, is no longer able to secure high-profile games due to “No Game Pass” clauses third-party publishers sign with Sony.

Sony, for their part, has publicly lamented the cost of keeping up with Game Pass for their ailing PlayStation Now service, while Apple Arcade has faced a similar fate to Apple’s Beats 1 before it of being minimized to the point of invisibility. EA Access (now EA Play) has become subsumed by Game Pass, part of the tiered Game Pass Ultimate subscription. Nintendo Switch Online has now doubled in price, offering haphazard ports of N64 games and additional content for certain game releases.

In time, these streaming services will get worse, and every current benefit of them will be eroded until they return to something more akin to their natural form of a few ‘free’ games as a fringe benefit of a subscription that’s principally there for consumers to subsidize the cost of the platform holder’s server infrastructure.

We’re already seeing it happen in film and television streaming. After selling their platforms on the lack of advertisements, most major video streaming platforms have ad-supported tiers either rolled out or in the works. Most now have linear television broadcasts as an option. Everything that distinguished streaming platforms from the old ways of watching television has eroded, only leaving the fact that streaming is Technically Not Television, and therefore not subject to the same laws and regulations of television, to underpay workers and increase the precarity of jobs in the film and television industry.

Stadia aggressively opened and acquired studios and exclusive contracts with third party developers to fuel their platform’s demand for exclusive content, and it was still more conservative in than the broader games industry. Only 150 people lost their jobs when Stadia shuttered in-house development and closed Stadia Games and Entertainment in February 2021 to pivot to a third-party focused strategy that would also never come to any kind of fruition, leaving countless independent developers who bet on the longevity of Stadia without any source of income. Apparently, that decision was made in September 2020, when Microsoft announced their acquisition of Bethesda Games Studios and made it clear to Google just how unequipped they were for the cost of doing business in the gaming space.

Yesterday, Microsoft laid off 10,000 workers in a purge that disproportionately affected Xbox Game Studios and Bethesda, already-understaffed due to a recession-imposed hiring freeze that has prevented their upcoming games from being finished and their ongoing games, like the ailing Halo Infinite, from being finished. They’re currently failing to buy Activision, the biggest third-party publisher in gaming, entirely to prop up Game Pass by offering the biggest third-party game, Call of Duty, as an incentive for subscribing. Sony has emerged as their key opposition in this, supporting various antitrust cases against Microsoft aimed at blocking the purchase due to concerns that any agreement to keep Call of Duty multi-platform wouldn’t be honoured once the sale went through.

I got a text as I was writing this that Riot Games, who made a spectacle of bringing their already ‘free’ games to Xbox Game Pass on their PC-centric tier, has laid off workers. EA has abandoned their own failed attempts at building system-agnostic walled gardens and solicited takeover bids from Google, Apple, Disney, and Amazon, to no avail. Nobody wants Ubisoft, either, because its structure is so unwieldy and its brand so toxic that everyone would rather wait until the company goes bankrupt so they can pick at its corpse for their valuable intellectual properties.

Embracer Group, the only publisher growing as everything else contracts, has propped up its entire business model of relentless studio acquisitions on government grants and the unsustainable rates that platform holders pay to secure content for their subscription services, shopping them to various streaming platforms to subsidize their development costs. They’re pinning all their hopes on a cross-media empire built around Borderlands and Duke Nukem movies that will assuredly flop and lose everyone involved huge amounts of time and money, if they ever release at all.

It’s clear that whatever happens in the gaming space, it will emerge from this current flop era in a different form, and it will be a form that has no space for the streaming service business model.

Google Stadia wasn’t an outlier, it was just the first one to fall.

So rest in toilet, Google Stadia. You didn’t start this mess, but you sure as fuck almost made it worse.