It’s a strangely complete moment for me, and the least surprising blockbuster news ever — Stadia’s unceremonious cancellation — comes just a week away from EGX. European Gamers Expo 2011 (as it was still called at the time) was more or less the beginning of my gaming reporting career, when I managed to interview John Spinale, the SVP of OnLive, a smooth-talking American businessman. So far I have only encountered this through the TV medium. And always as a villain, even on American Businessman’s slick show.
Still, the spine is very good. He could see that I had never interviewed anyone before and knew how to put people at ease. Within seconds, it feels like a normal chat with someone you meet at a bar. The huge wealth gap between us doesn’t seem to matter. John was thrilled to introduce me to OnLive, this strange new concept that will turn the gaming industry upside down, and I’m excited to hear about it.
It was, and is, a brilliant concept, and the basic idea of OnLive almost applies to the Stadia platform that will die in ten years: imagine never having to buy new hardware. This was the first thing that attracted me as a potless call centre worker who thought the upcoming new generation of consoles was less about the exciting new future than £400 for joy Tax.
The game runs on the server side, you see, so you never need to buy a new box. No more console generations. No more PC upgrades. Just pay for the game and everything else will be taken care of. And, hey, did you get kicked off the TV at halftime? You’re welcome bro! Just log in on your tablet, laptop, or whatever else is near you, and continue in another room.
It sounds heavenly. Spinale demoed Dirt 3 on the OnLive mini-console in front of us: an extremely tiny black rectangle with HDMI, Ethernet and a superbly designed wireless controller, by far the best controller I’ve owned one. The console itself looks like something left behind by an advanced alien race, and the controller feels like it was designed by someone who knows what they’re doing very well. OnLive’s “gamer” credentials are legitimate, and they think very hard about how to make their service appeal to the core market.
And that tiny console? This may have been one of the only Steve Jobs “another thing” moments at Gamers Expo Europe, where everyone who attended that year could take one home for free. A quality kit that is heavy, made of metal and comes with a powerful controller to match. To be honest, it was a real pain to bring it back to Scotland, plugging it into an ADSL line I’m sure it won’t work.
Well, it did, and getting a news account that demoed the service, I spent three full weeks flushing each new version of it. Input lag is significantly worse than running native, but certainly not to the point of being unplayable. Visually, it works better after 6pm, where a break from the local throttling will allow the crisp 720p stream of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marines to stream unimpeded into my West Lothian home.
OnLive isn’t snake oil, and the people behind it aren’t villains: it works. This is broadband infrastructure in 2011. It has more than one innovation that we now take for granted on all platforms – subscription services, one of which is a subscription service that gives you access to a curated library of games for a small monthly fee. Business is good now. At that time? absurd. Brag clips, where you can save the last 15 seconds of gameplay and post them to your social media — a feature that maps neatly to the advanced feel controllers — is an emerging feature of the service. “Your game is a video stream, so we’ll take advantage of it as much as we can”. When the feature arrives on PS4 a few years later, baked into native hardware and ready to start a revolution in the social gaming market, I can’t help but wonder if OnLive itself has convinced Sony of the benefits.
The spine is excited. Passionate about the product. Not in a rehearsed or cynical way either: I remember him being very willing to get off the script, and we joked about people drawing stuff on the whiteboard in Duke Nukem Forever, that sort of thing. And, as a former Activision producer, he understands games: he understands the importance of input lag, and deliberately chooses games that feel snappy and responsive to presentations. Competitive shooter. A rally game that requires constant fine-tuning of things like braking and steering.
Within a month, he left OnLive. Within a year, no one.
Of course, all of this was unearthed in 2019, when the idea resurfaced as a Google service under the name Stadia, but usually from proponents of the concept who insist that things are different now. The basic thesis is this: OnLive was a great idea, but when it launched not everyone had access to the broadband infrastructure they needed, and they were charging the same per game as a disc-based system, which is obviously insane .
All of th is is absolutely true… OnLive and Stadia. The fact that Stadia rarely seems to have learned from the mistakes of its predecessors is remarkable: almost as if the geniuses at Google didn’t bother to type “OnLive” into their own search engine, but plunged headlong into the description its infamous demise. Everything has parallel lines. Even the beautiful controller that everyone agrees with, hehe, it’s not bad.
Here’s the thing: OnLive worked extremely well by the standards of the time, when the most popular local home consoles at the time launched 480p visuals under SCART. In fact, it runs games smoother than the 360 or PS3 in many cases, with framerates hovering between 19 and 30 on the 360 or PS3 that most consider perfectly acceptable in blockbusters like GTA IV . Technology has never been an issue.
The main difference between OnLive and Stadia is the market conditions in which they are launched. Both platforms are trying to sneak in ahead of the next generation of expected consoles, positioning themselves as affordable, play-anywhere alternatives to the antiquated concept of a big black box under your TV. But Stadia has a huge, unprecedented advantage over its predecessor and the Big Three: It was launched before a global pandemic forced everyone to stay at home and impoverished them, at a time when a global shortage of chips would Exclusive luxuries that make the new Xbox and Playstation nearly impossible for even the rich.
Yet with every god in the pantheon smiling at Stadia, and Moses himself nearly logging in via Zoom to divide the Red Sea, no one cared. By Google’s own admission, bettors weren’t offended at all.
Why? Well, take your pick. No matter how good the technology is – and it’s good – it’s inherently a worse option than running the game locally on your own home hardware, in terms of image quality, input lag, performance consistency, vulnerability to strong winds: you name it. Still, the pricing model doesn’t reflect this fact. $60 discs vs. $60 glorious rentals isn’t an equation in favor of cloud gaming, even in a world awash in digital libraries that fit their minds perfectly. The situation in 2022 will be the same as in 2011. Math has not changed.
Is accessing Stadia cheaper and easier than buying a PS5? Very. Is this a better option than simply keeping your PS4? No, frankly. For most people who call, their existing list of games and friends is part of the Playstation ecosystem, and Stadia simply doesn’t have enough enticing products to warrant a lifestyle change.
Game development costs for cloud services are no different than development costs for traditional consoles, so the cost to consumers to access them cannot reasonably be expected to be different. This puts Stadia in the same absurd situation as OnLive, and any cloud service that positions itself as a true competitor to consoles will find itself in: asking the same amount of money for an essentially, obviously, inevitably worse experience.
You could argue that Stadia’s anywhere, platform-agnostic credentials provide ballast, built-in convenience and a greatly reduced cost of entry — when a decent internet connection is within easy reach — more than make up for in image quality , performance, input lag, and simply doesn’t feel like you own anything you pay for. You could say that; but the market doesn’t seem to agree with you, and it’s telling you more than once now.
Of course, cloud gaming has its place: as an all-encompassing way to emulate the PS3, as we’ve seen with PS Now and the new PS Plus (which many of OnLive’s tech and experts end up doing) . As an added value to Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s xCloud feature is subsidized by other home hardware-based businesses and essentially gives all of Stadia’s supposed advantages to an ecosystem that doesn’t fall on it when you mom want to watch Deadpool upstairs. As a way to run demanding games on underpowered handhelds like the Nintendo Switch, which can be played anywhere, but sometimes need a little help to bring the Resi 7 to your TV screen.
But as an alternative to the humble console? As a breach of the orthodoxy of running native code on native chips? As the real thorn in the eyes of the Big Three? Now, the question is being asked in an extremely high-profile fashion, with billions of dollars invested in two very different markets across a bay, both of which have checked the cargo and said the exact same thing: