Google announced the launch of a revolutionary concept: Google Stadia, in the 2019 Game Developers’ Conference. And its repercussions might well be profound. To be clear, this is the biggest thing coming out of Google’s stables in the past three years at least, which by itself is an eternity in digital-time.
What exactly is at stake here? This is a huge market valued at around 140 billion USD and around 2 billion customers.
So, what exactly is Stadia? To answer that, let’s first understand how gaming basically works. The gaming system today typically consists of a console, like the XBox (made by Microsoft) or PlayStation (made by Sony) which provides computing power, stores your games etc.; input devices like controllers; and output devices like screen and speakers. Games (software) can be played on conventional computers or on these consoles(hardware). Most of us are familiar with this ecosystem. Google wants to shake this up by moving the processing of the game from the consoles to their servers (in the cloud). Which effectively means, any device can work as an input and output device to play games: your mobile phone or tablet, your old desktop computer, or your laptop. In addition, Google will also sell a special controller which can be used for playing games on the Stadia platform.
Think of this as Kindle for games. Just like you can access your digital library and read any book in it from any device that has Amazon’s Kindle app installed on it, you can access and play any game from any device that has Google’s Chrome browser installed on it. And the controller is just like the Kindle E-Reader device.
So, why do I call this democratization? For starters, it completely takes the consoles and their expensive accessories out of the equation. To compare, an XboX starts at around INR 21,500, whereas the cheapest Android phone sells for INR 5,000. (a 4X difference right there). How can a cheap phone compare to the raw power and performance of the Xbox/ PS? Simple, because the processing power resides in Google’s servers (cloud), not on the local device. In effect, gamers will be paying to rent Google servers and the game, not buying it. While we do not know the cost of this service, it is likely to be much cheaper than the TCO (total cost of ownership) of owning a console.
Secondly, it is a fair assumption that most gamers or enthusiasts would already have a smartphone, so the entry cost is likely to be zero. Which means that the gamer population can now increase substantially, especially in the geographies where there is a demographic “youth bulge”, but not enough spending power.
Third, the sheer bandwidth required to make this work will push telecom companies to quickly adopt and roll out newer technologies, like 5G, and undertake further enhancement of the connectivity infrastructure. Unlike water, a fat pipe of data brings many more services along with it, which is good news, especially for the developing world. This will also help telecom providers to increase their revenues, with customized gaming data plans, higher charges for limited time higher bandwidth and so on.
Looking back, Google has done this before. Google’s acquisition of Android and YouTube, and their roll out created mini-revolutions of their own. In 2008, it would have been impossible to imagine that a decade later, there would be almost 340 million smartphone users in India. The real credit of this explosion goes to Google and Android, and not Apple, whose “Walled Garden” approach and unwillingness to strike the sort of deep vendor partnerships that build ecosystems, made it an nonviable option for the majority of people in countries like India. The same can be said of Youtube, which made paid video content, that could only be played using proprietary paid software, redundant. (Remember RealPlayer?). I have said this before: Google’s biggest legacy will be Android.
To be sure, there are issues that need ironing out. Latency, for one (Latency here can be simply explained as the time lag between pressing a button and its response seen on the screen..high latency is worse, lower better.). Also, recent history has not always been encouraging; Chromebooks have often run into rough weather because they follow the same approach of keeping processing power thousands of miles away from the device that needs it. Secondly, adoption depends a lot on gamers, who are a notoriously loyal an demanding bunch. Third, we do not know the revenue model, so the business side of the equation is still a mystery, albeit one that will be solved this year itself – Stadia rolls out in USA and Europe this year.
In sum, Google’s ability to create platforms consistently has helped it to reimagine our lives and shape it too.
We have a curious map in front of us, a map of overlapping kingdoms: Amazon as the platform that caters to our material requirements, Microsoft as the platform for our employment needs, Facebook that connects us with our loved ones and fulfills our social needs, and finally Google, that caters to our need to solve problems, push our creativity and derive enjoyment out of our mental efforts.
A certain Abraham Maslow might look at this map with a lot of interest.
It also raises another important question: What will Apple do next?
- I have tried to make this simple, but for some it may be a little too simple and stating the obvious. My apologies for that.
- I know that Maslow’s theory has its shortcomings, and also that almost all the players provide something that can be mapped to all other levels too. The last statement is just a quirky take on the situation)