Google Stadia: Could the Service Kill Consoles Like PS5 and Xbox Scarlett?

It's not looking good for the traditional model.

The video game console may face an invisible killer: Google Stadia. While the streaming service has yet to launch, its promise to run on all manner of devices could spell the end of the traditional model of gaming to the detriment of the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Scarlett. Why buy an expensive box to play games when you could just fire up Chrome, connect a controller and be on your way?

“The worlds of watching and playing games converge into a new generation game platform, purpose-built for the 21st century, powered by the best of Google,” Phil Harrison, a former Sony and Microsoft executive that joined Google as vice president last year, said on stage at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco on Tuesday. “Our vision for Stadia is simple: one place for all the ways we play.”

A lot of factors are unknown about Stadia, including the service’s price, but the first details are tantalizing. Data centers in over 200 countries offer over 7,500 edge node locations around the globe to serve up content. The system saw a trial run in October under the name Project Stream, demonstrating a version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey that ran smoothly in the browser. The final version is set to launch in 2019, the same year that some analysts predict the Xbox Scarlett will launch and also close to the launch of the PS5.

Even without many details, Stadia’s announcement sent Nintendo and Sony stock tumbling, reported the Financial Times.

Google Stadia: Can It Beat the Console?

In terms of raw power, Google claims it already has the upper hand. Stadia promises access to 10.7 teraflops of graphics processing power, compared to the 4.2 teraflops from the PlayStation 4 Pro and the six teraflops from the Xbox One X. It also uses a custom-made 2.7 GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. The specs for the upcoming Sony and Microsoft consoles remain unclear, but seeing as how Stadia’s computer muscle can be traced to distant server farms, they should face few limitations when it’s time to begin adding even more power down the road.

google stadia announcement
Majd Bakar, the head of engineering for Stadia, announces that Google has partnered with AMD to create a specially designed GPU for the platform that's more powerful than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined.

In a world dominated by Netflix and Spotify, consumers are beginning to expect streaming content. Consumers like being able to press play and get going. Consoles already hold an advantage over the PC as users don’t need to worry about speccing out their desktops with the latest graphics chips. Stadia arguably takes this simplification to a whole new level, as Harrison demonstrated how a YouTube viewer can instantly start playing a game after watching the trailer.

Stadia’s portability is also not to be underestimated. Harrison showed how a user can seamlessly switch play from a computer over to a mobile device, ready to take the same game with them on the go. Nintendo offers a similar value proposition with the Switch, which users can play on the big screen or elsewhere. The Switch has already sold 32 million units in 36 months on the shelf, more than the PS4 at that stage and the same as the wildly-successful Wii.

Nintendo Switch home hybrid console by Nintendo
Nintendo Switch

Of course, the popularity of streaming is not lost on Sony and Microsoft. Sony debuted its $19.99 per month PlayStation Now service all the way back in 2014, while Microsoft is set to unveil a similar xCloud service. Sony offers access to over 600 PS4, PS3 and PS2 games via both PS4 and Windows PC, meaning users don’t even need to buy the console to get started.

Google Stadia: Will It Fail Compared to Consoles?

Detractors will still point to the simplicity of consoles, which offer super-low latency for lightning-fast reactions during gameplay. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey may play smooth enough on Stadia, but how will it run with an Apex Legends round where reaction times are pretty much the be-all-end-all for beating human opponents?

Consoles may also keep the upper hand on peripheral support. Stadia showed a specialized controller and also claimed gamers could use any input method they liked, but it’s unclear how it may work with other forms of input like motion controls or camera support. PlayStation Move allows players to poke a sword in Skyrim or swing a golf club, experiences that may not translate onto Stadia.

Besucherin probiert das PS4 VR Set aus - Gamescom 2017, Köln
PlayStation Move in action.

The rise of virtual reality could also prove an Achilles heel for the service. While its design is expected to support 8K resolution and 120 fps at a later date, today it offers 4K resolution at 60 fps. Google made no mention of VR support, even though the area is growing in interest with the likes of Sony’s PSVR and Oculus Quest. Even if it does support VR, framerates below the HTC-recommended 90 fps could make users feel nauseous.

The HTC Vive headset resting on a car seat.
Where does VR fit into this?

Predictions of doom and gloom for the console have also been proven wrong before. Before the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One in 2013, pundits warned that the then-booming mobile gaming industry could pose a threat to dedicated boxes. Wired declared the game console “dead,” CNN declared it “dying,” and Complex analyzed the death of the games console.

This January, Sony announced the PS4 has sold 91.6 million consoles, more than the PS3 and on track to overtake the legendary original PlayStation that sold 102 million units. Reports of the console’s death have been greatly exaggerated before, and may well be again. Don’t put your money on the console dying just yet.