Why Google’s Stadia could be a problem for video game preservation
At the 2019 Game Developers Conference, Google formally announced its entrance into the gaming space with Stadia. Unlike its competitors such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Stadia is an all digital streaming platform that uses Google’s data centers as the console rather than a dedicated hardware box. It boasted incredible technical features such as running games at 4K resolution with HDR at 60 frames per second. Other features include players being able to pull up YouTube tutorials of the exact part they’re having trouble with while they’re playing, as well as being able to instantly download and install a game by clicking a button on a trailer. However, even with all of its bells and whistles to differentiate it from its competitors, the battle between PlayStation, Xbox, and even Nintendo have taught us that exclusive content is king. Google realizes this, so the company also announced that Jade Raymond (previously of Ubisoft and EA) would be leading its first party game studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment.
The concerning part regarding Stadia’s first party content is the fact that the platform is digital/streaming only. Stadia games won’t have a physical presence in retail stores like GameStop, Target, or Best Buy. This presents a problem because of Google’s tendency to shutter projects after they don’t get enough traction (remember Google Plus and Google Glass?). Game preservation is a problem in the video game industry, and Stadia, as it stands, is likely to exacerbate it if the platform doesn’t take off as successful as Google wants.
Sony’s history can provide a few examples about the lack of video game preservation. When players purchase or download a game digitally from a storefront like PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, they don’t actually own the game, but rather the license to it. A great example of this is P.T. from Konami. This game was put on the PlayStation Network store only to be removed later on. After the game was removed, players who missed out on downloading the game to their hard drives had no choice but to go on EBay and pay exorbitant prices for PlayStation 4 systems with the game installed if they wanted to play it. Another issue pertains mostly to multiplayer servers. Late last year, Sony announced that it would shut down multiplayer servers for several of its PlayStation 3 first party titles such as Twisted Metal and PlayStation All Stars Battle Royal on January 31st, 2019. After that date, players would no longer be able to play online multiplayer matches, and any trophies that required online play would be permanently unobtainable. However, the game is still available for digital purchase on the PlayStation Network store and players with either the digital version of the game or own a physical copy will be able to play the game offline in its campaign or local coach co-op. Unfortunately, this can’t be said for Epic Games’ online only multiplayer game, Paragon. As a result of Fornite Battle Royal’s enormous success, Epic Games decided to divert its resources to the game and left Paragon to die. Epic Games shut down Paragon’s servers on April 18th, 2018. Since the game is an online only multiplayer one, even people who own a physical retail copy of the game are unable to play it, leaving the case and disc as non-functional glorified collector’s items.
Do you see where this is going? With Stadia’s digital only streaming platform, as well as Google’s track record of historically ending projects prematurely, its own first party support could disappear as quickly as it arrives. Even if its eventual first party games receive critical acclaim, if the commercial success isn’t there, Google can one day decide to turn everything off and those licenses that players paid for? Gone. Since the platform is streaming only, there’s not even a hard drive to install the game locally to and play it after its been removed from the storefront.
Microsoft toyed with these ideas with the Xbox One back in 2013, but the concept of streaming and digital ownership didn’t catch on quite yet. In 2019, the concept of an all digital future is slowly becoming a reality. It’s rumored that Xbox has been working on an all digital version of the Xbox One to test the market for an all digital platform. Microsoft has also been working on its xCloud service similar to Google’s Stadia, to support Xbox One and its next generation Xbox console, code-named Scarlett. However, it’s still up in the air whether or not the next generation Xbox will also contain a local disc drive, but most likely it will in order to support both physical games and digital games for at least one more console generation. Additionally, Microsoft has two decades worth of gaming experience and plenty of first party franchises to ensure their success in the space. The Xbox One introduced its backwards compatibility program back in 2015, allowing the system to play both select Xbox 360 titles and original Xbox titles either as a digital download or with the physical disc if players still owned them. This was a big step in video game preservation as older hardware is more susceptible to failing.
One final example, and one that most mirrors the worst of what could happen with Stadia, is the closing of the Nintendo’s Wii Shop Channel. It closed down earlier this year on January 30th, 2019 after 12 years of being online. Most notable among its offerings was the incredible Virtual Console, which contained much of Nintendo’s immense catalog of retro games and legacy content. This digital only feature was also present in the Wii’s successor, the Wii U, but didn’t have nearly as many games and the Virtual Console is completely absent from Nintendo’s latest device, the Switch, most likely in favor of its new Nintendo Switch Online service. Another great feature was WiiWare, a service for original and smaller downloadable titles. There were quite a few quality WiiWare exclusives such as the Konami “Rebirth Trio”. Unfortunately, Nintendo also removed the ability to add Wii Points, the online shop’s currency (and the only way to purchase games) on March 26th, 2018. So unless you had a stockpile of unused points, you wouldn’t be able to purchase anything from that date onward anyway. Whether it’s 2 years, or 12 years from now, what could happen with Google’s Stadia? Its digital only streaming platform could go the way of Nintendo’s Wii Shop channel and all of its exclusive content can be lost to time forever.
The last major entrant into the platform gaming space was Microsoft’s Xbox back in 2001, around the time when Sega pulled out of the race. Now Google’s trying to be the 4th major player. With the shortcomings of an all digital streaming platform, along with Google’s checkered history, and without any first party exclusives at the moment, will Google stick around long enough for Stadia to be a force in the gaming industry?