In fall 2018, Google made its interest in gaming known with Project Stream, a beta that let users play the high-end Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from a humble Chrome tab. The following spring, it announced Stadia, a full-fat gaming platform that would leverage the company’s computing and networking prowess to provide users access to games with no dedicated gaming hardware required. That service is available now (in a limited capacity), and it’s getting a lot of attention — both positive and negative. So what’s the deal? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Google Stadia?
Stadia is Google’s cloud gaming platform. If you’re not familiar with the concept, cloud gaming offloads the heavy lifting normally performed by a game console or beefy PC to servers in data centers. Your button presses are sent to those servers, which then send back video of the game. It’s kind of like YouTube, but you’re directly controlling what you see in real time.
Does Google Stadia perform well enough to play?
In a word, yes. I’ve been spending time with Stadia nearly every day since launch, and it works remarkably well on my home Wi-Fi (although coffee shop internet is generally pretty dicey). In Digital Foundry’s testing, it found that while the Stadia experience isn’t as responsive (or graphically rich) as that of running games locally on a high-end PC — Stadia introduced about 30 extra milliseconds of latency in the test — there’s actually about 50 milliseconds less input lag on Stadia than Xbox One X under ideal circumstances.
That hasn’t been the universal experience, though; plenty of users report “unplayable” input lag. There are countless factors that can influence the experience: the speed and quality of your connection, your Wi-Fi router, local interference, proximity to a Stadia data center, et cetera, et cetera. If you’re unsure whether your setup will work with Stadia, Google’s official speed test is a good place to start. If you’re still skeptical, wait to try the free tier later this year (more on that later).
What are Stadia’s connection and hardware requirements? What devices are compatible?
For connection speed, the bar for entry is surprisingly low: Google recommends a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second to play in 720p at 60 frames per second. If you want to play in 4K with surround sound, though, you’ll need a download speed that consistently stays above 35 megabits per second. That highest quality setting can chew through up to 20 gigabytes of bandwidth per hour, so anyone with a data cap should probably think hard before investing.
Stadia will run in the Chrome browser on practically any computer: Windows, Mac, Chromebook, whatever. Until recently, if you wanted to play handheld, you needed a recent Pixel phone, but official support for additional devices from Samsung, Razer, and Asus was added in February. Although you can use your phone’s hotspot to power a Stadia session on another device, you can’t play using mobile data on the phone itself, regardless of the strength of your connection — on mobile, it’s Wi-Fi only.
Basically any modern controller works on mobile or desktop, and game UI will update to show the correct buttons when using certain gamepads like the DualShock 4 and Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. You can also use your mouse and keyboard to play on your computer. If you’re playing on your TV using a Chromecast Ultra, though, you have to use the first-party Stadia controller.
How good is Stadia’s graphics quality?
Games can run at up to 4K and 60 frames per second, but not all of them do; notably, Destiny 2 runs at 1080p with graphical fidelity roughly equal to medium PC settings. Red Dead Redemption 2 runs at 1440p and in 30 frames per second. Both are upscaled to 4K — meaning that although those games do looks marginally better than their resolutions suggest, they’re not available in “true” 4K. In general, output isn’t as high quality as it would be from a top-tier gaming PC — and considering Google’s Phil Harrison claimed in a tweet in October that “all games at launch support 4K,” that’s not great. In a statement to Eurogamer, Google said the tools for 4K are there, but it’s on developers to implement them. It also said performance should improve over time: “We expect that many developers can, and in most cases will, continue to improve their games on Stadia.”
How much does Google Stadia cost?
To get in on Stadia right now, you’ll have to pick up the Premiere Edition bundle that includes the Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and three months of access to Stadia Pro — both for you and for a friend. The kit costs $129. After the three-month trial is up, Pro is $10 per month. That $10 gets you 4K streaming (where applicable), 5.1 surround sound, discounts on some titles, and access to an expanding selection of free games. Most games have to be purchased a la carte, though, and they’re generally full price.
Sometime in 2020, Google is set to add a subscription-free base tier to Stadia. On that plan, you’ll pay full price for the games you want to play and be able to stream them in 1080p on any compatible device. There aren’t any discounts or free games, but there’s no hardware to buy and no recurring fees, either. We don’t know yet exactly when the free plan will be available, but Stadia accounts on Pro from Founders or Premiere Editions will be converted to free accounts that retain access to purchased games once the trials expire, even before the free tier’s general availability.
Free games included with Stadia Pro
Stadia offers a selection of games for free to Pro subscribers. These games change on a monthly basis, though once you’ve “claimed” a free game, it’s yours for as long as you’re a Stadia Pro subscriber. If your Pro subscription lapses, you’ll lose access, but you’ll get claimed titles back once you re-up. Google seems to remove the ability to claim titles on an irregular schedule; some games are available to be claimed for only a month at a time, while others like Destiny 2 and Farming Simulator have had multi-month stints.
- Destiny 2: The Collection
Farming Simulator 19: Platinum Edition
- Added December 2019, removed March 2020
- Metro Exodus
- Added February 2020, to be removed April 2020
Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration
- Added January 2020, removed February 2020
- Added November 2019, removed February 2020
- Serious Sam Collection
- Stacks on Stacks (on Stacks)
- SteamWorld Dig 2
- SteamWorld Quest
- Added January 2020, to be removed April 2020
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
- Added December 2019, removed January 2020
Where do I buy Google Stadia?
As of now, you can only snag Stadia directly from Google. If a friend bought a Founders or Premiere Edition, you can petition them for a Buddy Pass to test the service out. It seems likely that you’ll eventually be able to pick up kits and controllers from Google’s usual hardware retailer partners — Best Buy, Target, Walmart, and the like — but we don’t know if or when that will be the case.
As Stadia news continues to develop, this post will be updated regularly. Be sure to check back often to stay up to date on Google’s gaming platform.