The failed launch of Google Stadia

Written by Bartek Bezemer

I want to help you get more out of your online marketing by giving you insider tips and combine them with market trends to help you better reach your target audience.

March 11, 2021

Cyberpunk 2077 may have helped Google Stadia in the short term, although the launch was everything but a smash hit. 

Gaming companies have been dreaming of providing their products through a streaming service. Each is trying to break into this lucrative market to make gaming accessible to everybody. The average consumer can enjoy the latest games without the need for an expensive console or gaming PC. For the low, low price of a Netflix subscription, everybody can enjoy the best gaming experience with their internet connection. So why aren’t there as many subscription services for gaming as for movies? Wasn’t Google going to prove once and for all, that it could be done?

Google has done many great things, but they sure forgot how to market Stadia to the public. Google Stadia saw a mediocre launch. The reasons can be a multitude of different factors. One blatantly obvious one was perhaps because early adopters were aware of the tendency of Google to discontinue many of their projects. A whole website has been dedicated to tracking all the projects that Google has suspended. At the time of writing, there are 223 products that Google canceled. What did Google try to do and where did it fail? 

Gaming in the cloud: the race for reliable internet speeds

The Cloud, it’s a buzzword we’ve seen thrown around many times before. Smack the cloud label on it and it’s sure to sell like hotcakes. But we haven’t all massively adopted gaming in the cloud. What has prevented the launch of this media product, which has seen such wide adoption in recent years? 

While dense urban areas will have a stable internet connection, the same cannot be said for rural areas in large territories like the United States.

The first question that comes to mind is the stability of the internet connection. While dense urban areas will have a stable internet connection, the same cannot be said for rural areas in large territories like the United States. This was exemplified by Bloomberg, who explored why sparsely populated parts of the US have a slow internet connection. The internet was even so slow, it was unusable for daily use. 

Andre Reiner from Gameinformer rightfully said, ‘Part of the problem of streaming is players are at the mercy of their internet provider and the speeds they are getting.’ Without proper and consistent internet speeds it’s nearly impossible to stream content like games or even Netflix for that matter. Connecting all those different parts of the country with reliable internet, is a gargantuan task that even established parties and states aren’t willing to invest in. Even Google attempted it with its Fiber initiative. Ten years after the announcement from Google to revolutionize internet speeds and connecting rural areas to bustling urban economic hubs, a lot of those promises are yet to be fulfilled. In March 2021, Google Fiber was available in 10 cities. Cities like Huntsville, Kansas City, or Salt Lake City, who are far from what you and I would label as small rural communities. Despite this drawback, Google still decided the time was right to step into the untapped gaming streaming market. 

A new sheriff in town

In October 2018, Google demoed Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on what it then called Project Stream. Those familiar with AC: Odyssey will know that it’s a visually demanding game and therefore the perfect choice for Google to showcase its technology. Austin Goslin from Polygon was impressed with the preview, saying, ‘The first, and most surprising, thing you’ll likely notice when the game loads is that it … works.’ Further saying, ‘As for visuals, the stream was almost equally impressive.’ There were still some issues with the performance, namely in terms of audio which was underperforming during cutscenes. 

Google Stadia Logo
Google Stadia Logo. Courtesy of Google

A few months later, in March 2019, Google Stadia was officially announced. The streaming service would receive companion hardware, the wifi-connected Stadia Controller with built-in YouTube sharing. Yet it seemed that Google was still struggling in terms of creating a marketable proposition. Or in marketing speak, a USP, a unique selling point. Polygon observed how the tech-giant was searching for a way to market its new service, in the provocatively titled article, ‘Google has no idea how to pitch Stadia’. It’s interesting to point this detail out because sometimes marketers at smaller companies are looking enviously at the riveting success these companies are experiencing. Yet, even the companies at the top of the capitalist food chain experience the same challenges of a product launch in already highly competitive markets. 

In essence, the Stadia product itself is fairly simple to explain. You buy a simple piece of hardware, create an account, and off you go. No extensive install procedures or upgrading your television or PC. You just need a screen and a reliable internet connection. Concerning the latter, your mileage may vary. Despite this Ben Kuchera at Polygon highlighted, ‘It’s a difficult marketing challenge, because we’re so used to thinking of mandatory internet connections as a bad thing, something that limits how we can play our games, and now Google is trying to sell us that requirement as a service.’ Referring back to the disappointing internet speeds experienced in parts across the world.

The disappointing Stadia games library

But another issue is lurking in the shadows because internet speeds in a lot of urban areas are reliable enough to facilitate reliable streaming. The issue I’m referring to and which might be one of the biggest challenges for Google Stadia is its lack of blockbuster games. Sure, it has some interesting titles in its library, but you won’t win the fight with games like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, GRID, or Hitman 1. Just to name a few. Those won’t help Stadia convince the avid gamer who is pre-ordering the biggest upcoming releases for years already. Kuchera on this matter said, ‘Google Stadia is an interesting service with a lot of potential upside, but focusing on non-exclusive games gives the impression that Google has nothing else to talk about.’ And he was right because the numbers spoke for themselves. 

Google Stadia Compatible Devices
Google Stadia Compatible Devices. Courtesy of Google.

In 2020 the Google Stadia mobile app had a modest 1 million installs. This alone is a poor achievement after two years, to say the least. In an attempt to boost the sales of Stadia,  which was less than stellar, Google offered a first two months free-of-charge promotion in the same year. The reasons are not difficult to spot. Google is trying to get Stadia off the ground by any means necessary. So was there anything that could save Stadia from imminent cancellation? 

Cyberpunk 2077: A blessing in disguise

One of the breakthrough moments that kickstarted the Stadia craze, was the epic deal of Cyberpunk 2077. The release of Cyberpunk was less than stellar, but Stadia enabled gamers to experience the game to full potential without having the hardware to match. In November 2020 Google announced it would give a free Stadia Premier Kit when pre-ordering Cyberpunk. 

This promotion was a straight home run because Cyberpunk 2077 worked great. Richard Leadbetter said on Eurogamer, that it rivaled the Xbox Series X visual performance. While in a technical sense, the Xbox Series X was performing better at times, it was still impressive. Leadbetter saying, ‘This is where cloud systems like Stadia offer a distinct advantage – and while not perfect, the quality of this port is definitely very decent.’ It’s the perfect alternative for the troubled last-gen consoles, on which you can read more in an earlier piece on the failed launch of Cyberpunk

In December 2020, Stadia was finally released on iOs. A big step in making the service easily accessible to a broad audience. Owners of the iPhone and iPad could enjoy games available on the Google streaming service. You might wonder why Apple has been reluctant to onboard Google Stadia in their app store. The answer is fairly simple. Apple is trying to get into gaming too, namely in the form of the Apple Arcade. Although this service is a far cry from Google Stadia’s, limited but present, AAA line-up. The games released on Apple Arcade are small, unknown franchises, produced by indie developers. Apple had to recognize that Google wouldn’t eat away market share from the Arcade, which was targeting a completely different audience. 

Google has the data center infrastructure to make it work

In another article, I’ve looked at how Amazon was gaining the upper hand against Netflix. And one of its competitive advantages was its state-of-the-art server infrastructure. Having the best games in town isn’t the only way to win the streaming standoff. Delivering a reliable experience is just as important to convince users to sign-up for your service. Google has data centers all over the world, from which can provide quick access to content. To make the dream work, Google invested up to $15 billion from 2007 to 2019 in its data centers, and it’s not stopping there.

The company will invest another $3.3 billion in its European data centers in the following two years. In 2019, it planned to build a data center in Finland, which would total $670 million alone, increasing the total investment into its Finland operations to $1.4 billion. In 2019 Google had 58 data centers operating across the world. According to DataCenter Knowledge, the Finland expansion will strengthen the gaming streaming service Stadia, which’s running through the Youtube video-streaming infrastructure. 

The subscription age

But servers aren’t the only reason why Google might have a permanent seat at the gaming streaming committee. To determine why we’ll have to travel back in time. Ten years before the launch of Stadia, another company ventured out in the world of streaming, Onlive. In 2019 Gameinformer spoke to the former CEO, Steve Perlman, and asked about his views on Stadia. 

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and many others, even Dollar Shave Club, have normalized the adoption of subscription services.

In terms of making the service a success, he said, ‘I’m going to say this: There is no reason why Google cannot be successful.’ He noted that from a technical perspective, Google has all the infrastructure in place to reliably deliver content. Although turning it into a profitable business, requires many more components. In terms of long-term success, Perlman elaborated, ‘I really think that, in time, just like how Netflix has eliminated the need for – I mean not many people buy physical media anymore for movies, right? I think it’s inevitable that the same thing is going to happen for gaming.’ And this is where he might be right on the mark. 

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and many others, even Dollar Shave Club, have normalized the adoption of subscription services. Contrary to when OnLive launched. Onlive was pioneering in a rather conservative market. Especially the hardcore gamer scene which loves its physical discs. The thought of digital gaming was foreign to many gamers or unattractive, to say the least. Although in the end, it’s the mainstream consumer and casual gamer who is the biggest target audience for game publishers and hardware manufacturers. The hardcore gamers are the catalyst, not the end goal. 

Expanding the games library

Looking solely at the game library, you might think that Google Stadia has the cards stacked against it. Apart from the boost it received from Cyberpunk 2077, there isn’t a real platform exclusive that will draw users in. Google reinforced this by dissolving its gaming studio. In 2021, Phil Harrison, Vice President, and GM at Google Stadia, said in a blog post, ‘Given our focus on building on the proven technology of Stadia as well as deepening our business partnerships, we’ve decided that we will not be investing further in bringing exclusive content from our internal development team SG&E, beyond any near-term planned games.’ Jade Raymond, known for her involvement with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, announced she would leave Google. According to the post, she would pursue new challenges outside Google. But, despite this development and where others have failed before, Stadia might become a success. For multiple reasons. 

Their server network is one of their core assets and they keep investing substantial amounts in their infrastructure. Only a limited amount of companies can rival it. Reliable data centers are just as important for a streaming service as its content. Combine both and you have a customer for life. The only hurdle Google has to overcome is gaining trust with its customers, namely that it won’t prematurely terminate yet another one of its services. Leaving consumers with another dent in their brand perception of Google. Now as this is a marketing blog, we have to touch upon the marketing campaign surrounding the product. 

If Google really wants to push the product into the mainstream, it has to go hard or go home.

Transparency was one of the key challenges for the project. It would take another year before potential customers would learn about what the pricing would be. This goes for many products. Cars. Gaming consoles. It’s nothing new. But it left many gamers in the dark. And as there was no point of reference, speculation and uncertainty would haunt the service like a ghost. 

The product also felt like an MVP, a minimal viable product. The library was limited and not earth-shattering. Where were the platform exclusives that Sony and Microsoft were always flaunting during their presentations? Google Stadia felt like an emulator for current generation games, which were already available to the fans who loved those franchises. So who was Google targeting anyway? The simple answer is, who knows? Few hardcore gamers. A few casual gamers. It’s a mixed bag. 

Google wasn’t really pushing the product either. It was announced and it would quietly enter the market. Where were the flashy Youtube ads with influencers having the time of their life? Why didn’t Google claim an event like Sony with the UEFA Champions League? It just faded out of existence. If Google really wants to push the product into the mainstream, it has to go hard or go home. Or else it will become like many other guerilla products from Google. A distant memory. 

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