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Head of Google Stadia Discusses the Reality of its Dream

Google’s greatest promise with Stadia is that it frees video games from boxes, unhinging the imagination of creators, of players, of streamers in a way never possible before in the roughly four-decade history of the medium.

Stadia aims to take the ubiquitous nature of gaming culture and apply it to the games themselves, making it possible for anyone, anywhere to play any game nearly instantly on just about anything with a screen and internet connection.

In an interview with Variety, Phil Harrison, head of Stadia, talked about the promise of Google’s tech, its philosophical approach to gaming, unanswered questions, and when the company plans to lend a bit more reality to its pitch in the way of hard facts.

The Philosophy of Stadia
“Throughout the last 40 years every game built has been device-centric, and package-centric,” Harrison said. “What I mean by that is that game developers have built for a box, they have built the game to specifically take advantage of that box until they’ve come up against the glass ceiling of the capabilities of that box. The content has reached that box in a package for it, initially as a cartridge or a cassette or a disc and then more recently as a download. But the mentality has been: I’m building for the thing and I’m going to deliver a thing for the thing.

“We just broke through that glass ceiling and we said the games are no longer device-centric. Games are data center driven and what that means for developers is a fundamental shift in the way that games are designed, made and played.”

That shift, Harrison said, likely won’t happen overnight because it will take time for those already so involved in the game industry to fully come to grips with the implications of what Stadia is.

“We’ll see over time developers understand and lean into the implications of that from a design point of view to think about the compute that they can use in the data center in support of their idea, the way that multiplayer works — which is no longer constrained by the open internet, but it can actually be accelerated by building everything inside the data center.

“This idea of a game being designed to play and a game being designed to watch, that being two sides of the same coin I think is really exciting. There are some developers who have thought really deeply about what that means and are starting to really show what that could mean for the future of games in a kind of stunning way.”

A bit part of that massive paradigm shift, in the eyes of Google, Stadia, and Harrison, is how a game can be not just summarized with a link, but delivered with one.

“The game is a link,” Harrison said. “That in itself is a revolution in the games industry. The idea that you could play a game, love it, send me a text message and say, ‘Try this,’ and I can just click on that link. I don’t need to install anything. I don’t need to download anything. I don’t need to have any custom hardware in order to play it. That is mind-blowing for developers when they start thinking of the implications of that. The idea that they will no longer be bound by the 16 by nine grid of tiles that may be on a particular game publishers’ or game platforms’ store.

“They can take their game to the community of where the players are and they can take the experience of pointing to a game, sharing a game, enjoying a game to where the community of players is on the internet. That’s why we use the expression, the internet is your store. That’s a fundamental revolution in the way that games are discovered.”

Reality Check
On paper, in a single demo, in discussion, everything about Stadia sounds revolutionary. But the concept of Stadia, the notion of removing the need for expensive, specialized hardware and tearing down the barriers created by walled-garden stores, isn’t really new. It’s the sort of thing that game makers have long dreamed of and game players, know it or not, have long wanted. The real revolution will be in that idea’s doing and so far Google hasn’t offered much in the way of concrete proof that its grand democratization of all things video games is actually possible on a large, international scale.

That’s trouble for a product set to roll out to United States, Canada, United Kingdom and most of Europe in less than nine months.

In the aftermath of Google’s Stadia press conference at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, many of the developers on hand were skeptical of the idea and left with a number of very important questions.

Google will host two more Stadia events by this summer

At the top of that list, based on the developers Variety spoke to over the course of the week, was the question of just how game developers would get paid for their games being played by people around the world. Google had nothing to say on the topic during the press conference, and Harrison declined to discuss the topic during his interview. Instead, he explained why Google wasn’t ready to talk about that topic just yet.

“We’re going to talk about that over the summer in detail,” he said. “It was important for our team, for me, that we started with the most important stakeholder in this journey, which is the game developers. We chose GDC as the venue for our announcement because we wanted to excite and educate and hopefully partner with the game developers to build games for Stadia.”

He did say that Stadia was having “lots of conversations” under NDA with prospective developers, which begged the question of secrecy in Stadia’s business deals.

While the cut developers kept when selling on stores or through platforms used to be a heavily guarded secret, the rise of competition among game stores — especially in the PC space — has made that less so recently.

Valve openly discusses that it takes a 30% cut and why, while Epic says it takes just 18%. Will this gaming revolution, then, extend to transparency in business deals?

“I’m not going to get into that debate here, but I think that one of the things that I would point to is that our platform is architected from day one to really give the developer some advantages in discovery and connecting their games to a gamer.”

Harrison noted that Google’s YouTube brings with it the immense scale of 200 million people watching games on its service every day. Toss a link into one of those video descriptions and it essentially becomes a store of sorts.

When pressed, Harrison said that it’s unlikely they would discuss the particulars of game developer deals in public.

Another major question that Harrison wasn’t ready to discuss, this one for game players, is the idea of ownership. What does playing a game through Stadia mean for the player? Do they own the game or rent it or something else entirely?

But that answer will come as we march towards Stadia’s launch, he said.

Currently, Google plans to have an event for gamers this summer, another event geared toward YouTube creators sometime before the summer and then the launch later this year, Harrison said. It’s at these events that the service will deliver more details about Stadia.

That YouTubers’ event will tackle, among other things, how those video creators will make money through the service.

“Google the platform is only measured by the success of the people who build their business on that platform,” Harrison said. “So the $110 billion we paid out to developers, publishers in various channels over the last four years is a phenomenal economic value.

“Our approach to Stadia is exactly the same. We want the developers to be successful. We want the publishers to be successful, and we now want YouTube creators to be successful in that way as well.”

Harrison also raised the notion that Stadia can also be empowering for traditional media publishers in a way that game coverage has never been able to in the past. Links to games could be part of game reviews or editorial coverage in the way some sights now use Amazon affiliate links. Only in this case, the game could be played nearly instantly.

Finally, developers and gamers worry about the reliability of streaming a game when it has to travel not just around the world to a home, but then navigate that home with potentially bad cables, bad wifi or myriad other networking issues.

Harrison insists that won’t be a problem, pointing to the company’s Project Stream test, where it made “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” available using the tech that will power Stadia.

“We actually learned a lot from Project Stream,” he said. “We had over a million hours of gameplay which we were able to anonymously analyze and there were very, very few outages at the ISP level. It was a tiny, tiny fraction of a percent, almost immeasurable in the data. The vast majority of challenges that players would face were environmentally inside there own homes. What we will do and are committed to doing is helping educate and inform players so that they can set up their system the best and optimizing their in-home setup to get the best experience. In some cases that might mean the player needs to upgrade the router inside their home.”

While anecdotally, I heard concerns about how Google would deliver on Stadia, Harrison said he doesn’t believe that’s the general feeling among game makers.

“We’ve had phenomenal support from game developers and publishes all around the world from places that you would expect and some places that you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “You’ll see us share in the summer our launch line-up and beyond and you can make a judgment then as to how successful you think we’ve been. I’m super happy with the way we have built this out.”

Inception
While Harrison has only been with Google for the past year or so, work on Stadia started in earnest about four years ago.

Google, Harrison said, always has a number of research and design efforts in the works. Some focus on software and services, others on hardware. Harrison likened these efforts to flowers blooming in isolation. But on occasion, he said, teams will decide that multiple initatives should be joined together to try and create something better than its parts.

“Where Stadia started was actually out of the Chromecast team,” he said. “They had had a huge success with Chromecast in empowering streaming of linear media, particularly TV and movie content. And then it was like, ‘OK, so we have this platform, what else could we do with it? Is there an opportunity for us to actually stream games through this technology.”

Google also happened to have a lot of expertise in networking, particularly because of its work building out Google Fiber, which gave the company a unique perspective on that technology.

“The third piece of it was the networking fabric that we build into our datacenters. It’s not something that we talk about publicly, but we have some very leading edge, arguably the most leading-edge hardware innovation inside the data center.

“Just joining those three things together into an opportunity to really accelerate into a very vibrant business.”

Harrison added that Google was already really invested in games, but mostly through its work with Android and Google Play.

“There’s a vast majority of the gamers on the platform there,” he said. “YouTube was very much emerging as a strong platform for viewing content and, although embryonic, our Google Cloud platform for hosting multiplayer games on behalf of developers with publishers.

“So we already have a very, very significant games business, but it just didn’t have a physical manifestation like perhaps some of our competitors do in the pure console space.”

While Google’s broader push in the video gaming space with Stadia does have one piece of hardware — a solidly designed, but unnecessary game controller — it’s mostly hardware free. It certainly has no console

But Harrison doesn’t believe that the success of Stadia would spell the death of traditional game consoles.

“I think that there is a macroevolution shift that’s happening in all forms of media consumption, whether it’s music, whether it’s television, increasingly moving to streaming,” he said. “And I think games will eventually move to streaming in a very significant part, but I would never say exclusively because I think that in the same way that there are still a small number of people who buy blue ray disks to watch movies and there’s still a small number of people who buy CDs and vinyl to listen to music — and those tastemakers are super important to those categories — I think that will continue to prevail in games as well. But if we want to get games from tens of millions of people playing to hundreds and eventually maybe even billions of people playing, streaming is the only way to do that.”

Virtual Computers
As Harrison spelled out, Stadia is actually the merging of three different sorts of technology: Chromecast-like streaming, solid network infrastructure, and powerful data centers.

It’s the datacenters, essentially hives of computers, that will actually run the games when a person plays them.

It virtual computer is referred to as an instance. An instance uses traditional computer and video game console components like a 2.7 GHz X86 CPU, 16GB of video and system RAM, Vulcan graphics functions, and the Linux operating system. While most games can run on a single instance, there’s nothing stopping a developer from creating a game so powerful it will need multiple instances to run: something a typical personal computer user wouldn’t be able to do on their own.

“If a developer comes to us with a compelling scenario that is a total network fabric game we would be all over it,” Harrison said. “We’d love that.”

The fact that no one has yet pitched such a project is likely the byproduct of it being such a new idea, one that only a handful of companies in the world could likely deliver on.

“In order to do (something like Stadia), the technical investment, the reach, and distribution of network infrastructure, the scale of community with something like YouTube, there’s a tiny, tiny fraction of companies that have those components of success,” Harrison said.

The Internet of Games
Google’s Stadia may be the first major company to breach the notion of ubiquitous gaming, but it won’t be the last. Electronic Arts showed off its version of game streaming at E3 last year. Valve recently upgraded a feature on its Steam store that will allow players to stream their PC games from their home computer to their personal smartphones. PlayStation has a similar feature for its PlayStation 4. And Microsoft — one of the few other companies with all of those key components necessary to do full-fledged international game streaming to anything — announced its intentions last year to get into the game streaming business.

It’s a significant, paradigm-shifting moment in the relatively young history of video games, so I asked Harrison what he sees as the most important element of it, specifically, the most significant thing that Stadia may one day deliver.

“Today the barriers to entry for playing a high-end game are immense, there’s a very high, upfront cost for the game, for buying the console or a high-end PC rig, so the democratization of access to high-end games through any screen in your life is a game changer,” he said. “The fact that I can click on a Youtube video, discovering a game for the first time and be playing or into that game in less than five seconds and seamlessly move it from phone to tablet to laptop to desktop to TV and anywhere in between, that’s just science fiction come true. And that’s not something that we’re promising multiple years from now, that’s now.”

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