Microsoft Is About to Utterly Embarrass Google’s Stadia

Getting there first is, apparently, not everything.

INA FASSBENDER via Getty Images

There’s a scene in The Social Network, where one of the cofounders of HarvardConnection — arguing over whether or not to sue Mark Zuckerberg for stealing their website idea — makes a claim that is often taken as a sacred truth in real life.

Divya Narendra: We know he stole our idea, we know he lied to our faces for a month and a half.
Cameron Winklevoss: No, he never lied to our faces.
Divya Narendra: Okay, he never saw our faces. Fine. He lied to our email accounts and he gave himself a forty two day head start, because he knows what apparently you don’t, which is that getting there first is everything.

The characters in this movie are aghast — devastated in fact! — to learn that someone who was working for them had a 42-day head start to build a social network that they were convinced would make them rich. 42 days. Barely over a month. That’s all it took, the story goes, for The Facebook to get such a headstart that no one could catch it.

This is, of course, nonsense. And Microsoft is proving it.

Today, the company announced that it’s developing a TV app for its Xbox Game Pass service — which includes the ability to stream games via Microsoft’s xCloud technology — as well as a streaming stick, similar to the Chromecast. It’s not clear when these will launch or how much the stick will cost, but based on previous comments from Xbox lead Phil Spencer, sometime in the next few months is likely.

Meanwhile, Google’s Stadia is finally set to come to the company’s Chromecast with Google TV — as well as several Android TV devices — on June 23rd.

This is embarrassing.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Stadia is struggling to catch on, because there’s no single cause. The long delay to take advantage of some of Stadia’s best features, the slow drip of new (and, much more often, old) games, and the bizarre UI oversights all added up to a service that was underwhelming for most gamers.

Which is wild since Stadia accomplished an impossible task: convincing people that game streaming is feasible. It’s easy to forget, but when Stadia was first announced (but not yet launched) one of the biggest concerns about the service was whether it would work. Many other companies had tried and failed to stream games over the internet, and common wisdom was that Google was going to make a service that would only work for the select few with gigabit internet connections and live-in monocle polishers.

Yet, a year after its launch, Stadia’s performance — at least on the devices where you could actually use it — was taken so for granted that it was accepted in many corners of the internet as an acceptable, perhaps even ideal way to play one of the most anticipated games of the year. Where physical consoles were struggling to handle the poorly optimized versions of Cyberpunk 2077, Stadia’s much more powerful cloud servers gave users the ability to play at the highest possible graphics settings, on devices no more powerful than their phone.

This should’ve been a triumph moment for Stadia. At the very least, it could’ve brought in more users who were unsure of the benefits of a cloud-based console versus a box in their house.

A gamer who wanted to play Cyberpunk 2077 outside of a PC had three choices when the game launched:

  • Buy the game and play it on their old Xbox One or PS4 and potentially experience performance so bad that the game was pulled from the PlayStation store.
  • Buy a new, several hundred dollar console on top of buying the game, just to play it with better performance.
  • Or, buy just the game on Stadia. Get better 1080p performance without buying a console at all. Or, if you really want more pixels, you can spring for the extra $10/month to get 4K.

This should’ve been a no-brainer. Stadia was offering all the power of next-generation consoles — entirely for free if you’re satisfied with 1080p gaming! — without having to clamor to get the still-hard-to-find hardware.

On paper it sounds brilliant. But the devil is, as always, in the details. The easiest way to play a game on Stadia was — and still is — in a browser, which is all well and good but that form factor appeals most to people who already want to play on a PC. And if they want to play on a PC, they probably already have a halfway decent gaming PC — or streaming via a browser window isn’t that appealing in the first place.

If players want to game on their couch, with a controller, the primary option is with this one specific Chromecast. A new, much better version of the Chromecast — now with a new UI called Google TV, running Android TV underneath, which isn’t at all confusing — was launched less than a year after Stadia, but it has been kept out of the game for months. It’s also taken forever for popular Android TV devices like the NVIDIA Shield to get Stadia support.

Essentially, even if you were a die-hard Stadia fan since late 2019 when the service launched, you’ve probably been hamstrung, forced to use a niche set of devices that aren’t consistent with the way you would like to be playing.

That Google is only just now getting around to fixing this oversight — right as Microsoft is poised to do the same thing — is a catastrophic oversight. The promise of cloud gaming is that it’s available everywhere. Not just the places you can’t already play games, but also the places you want to play games now. If the only Nintendo Switch model available was the one that couldn’t be played on the living room TV, it likely wouldn’t have caught on quite as much.

Microsoft is still, technically, behind Stadia on some fronts. The company is still working on adding 1080p support for more platforms, while Stadia is streaming on many at 4K. While Stadia is woefully behind on bringing its service to more living room devices, support will land in June, while Microsoft’s TV app will likely come later than that.

But Microsoft also made one very important decision to solidify its cloud gaming ambitions: it bundled cloud gaming as part of Xbox Game Pass. As of April 2021, the service had over 23 million subscribers. Stadia doesn’t publish how many users it has, but it’s safe to say it’s not that high. By a long shot. Not all of the Game Pass subscribers use cloud gaming, necessarily. But they are paying money for the service it’s included in, and that’s enough for Microsoft for now.

Stadia still has a chance to solidify itself as a contender in the gaming world. Being underbaked is a survivable problem. First-party exclusives may be a non-starter for now, but the service itself works, and in many ways works better than its competitors. But that was never the issue. Prior to Stadia, the billion-dollar question was whether cloud gaming could work at all. As soon as we realized it could, that question didn’t matter anymore.

Now, the questions are: where can you play it? How many games are available? How much does it cost? And on these fronts, Microsoft has outplayed Stadia at every turn. Its subscription comes with hundreds of games built-in, the cloud gaming is essentially free, and soon you’ll be able to play it on your TV just as easily as you could play your Xbox.

This is a state Stadia could’ve reached before now. But it didn’t. Stadia had a head start for nearly two years and despite that advantage, it hasn’t been able to figure out how to make its business model more appealing, get the service playing on the devices that most people want to play on, or court enough game developers to attract players to the platform.

And that’s a damn shame. Because the only thing worse than killing Stadia, would be watching it wither.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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