I have been playing around with Stadia, Google’s cloud gaming platform for the past week. The games are run on a high-end computer in the cloud, rather than a player owned console or gaming PC. Stadia functions more like Netflix than traditional download, install, and play services that are currently found across a variety of gaming platforms. Game streaming has been tried before, and widely shunned because of the high input latency that has affected past cloud gaming schemes. Google’s service does not entirely solve input latency issues, but some benchmarks by publications indicate that it performs better than competing game streaming services. Digital Foundry benchmarks placed the added latency in a range between 44-56ms (milliseconds) over rival game consoles. I do not intend to duplicate these tests; rather, I would like to provide some perspective from a former semi-competitive PC games player on whether the latency added by a cloud streaming system like Stadia ruins the overall gaming experience.
I have spent more time than I care to admit obsessing over milliseconds of latency to try to eke out a competitive advantage over other players. I have been on the Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds leaderboards in the top 10. I’ve achieved H1Z1: KoTK Royalty rank in the past, and in Dota 2 I hit 6k MMR. I am by no means a casual gamer. I would also seem to be as far apart from the target market for a game streaming service as could be found. I have a high-end gaming PC, so what use would I have for a game streaming service like Stadia?
I sometimes enjoy single-player console games, but I don’t want to spend the money for a $350+ dedicated console to play them. Console games are also, with few exceptions, poorly ported over to the PC. Stadia adds value to my games library because it could allow me to play some of these console exclusives on Google’s game service instead of waiting for a PC port that may never come, and Stadia is absent that large upfront cost that is present with consoles like Xbox or PlayStation. I have seen some on social media suggest that the business model is a threat to locally run games, and I agree with that somewhat, but that threat is directed almost exclusively towards gaming consoles. If Stadia, or a competing service, really takes off, there will be no point for a casual console gamer to buy new hardware as they’ll be able to play their favorite games on whatever device they want absent a console. Multiplayer PC gaming will never move to a majority cloud streaming platform. The input latency is too high compared to the low-latency experience PC gamers are accustomed to. As for single-player games, a modern gaming console is basically a low-cost, higher input latency alternative to PC gaming already. Single-player PC games didn’t disappear when Microsoft introduced the Xbox, and I don’t think they’ll disappear if a service like Stadia takes off.
Is the latency noticeable?
There’s a subjective and objective part to that question. The objective portion deals with what we can measure in terms of input latency, and the subjective part is whether we notice the difference. You should be very careful in trusting a user’s subjective reporting on input latency, and that includes anything that I report. Take it with a grain of salt. There is a massive degree of placebo effect with input latency reporting. What we expect to happen, or what we expect to feel often ends being what we feel in terms of input latency. There was thread years ago in the Overclock.net forums where a user convinced a large number of people that disabling things like the High Precision Event Timer, and other seemingly random hardware features in a PC’s BIOS massively lowered a system’s input latency. He provided no evidence for this claim, but some users reported feeling a difference in their mouse movement after disabling these settings. Others disputed his claims. Can we trust their feeling? No, we can’t. Absent any measurement to back up his claims, the efficacy is dubious.
This issue is further compounded in Stadia by the variety of hardware and network configurations that are out there. A reviewer for Easy Allies noticed that the choppiness and input lag of Stadia games seemed to drastically decrease when he shut off his video capture hardware. Paul Tassi from Forbes had initially reported negative experiences with Stadia performance only to find out, with the help of Google support, that his ORBI mesh network was the problem. Once he connected via Ethernet, he reported having a positive experience gaming on Stadia.
I had a similar experience when running Stadia on my PC – even connected via Ethernet, with gigabit internet, the video was pixelated, particularly in dark areas. When I moved to my laptop, despite it being connected wirelessly, the video feed was immaculate.
Initially, I thought it was a bug with the Stadia service, but I later found out the issue was with my router, which was periodically dropping drastically in speed. As I have a secondary Wi-Fi access point, my wireless connections were not affected at all. When I plugged my PC directly into my ISP’s modem, the pixilation issues disappeared.
Stadia, because it’s a novel service, becomes a lightning rod for a user’s networking and hardware issues. That’s not to say the service is absent bugs, but the default with most games or online services is to assume it’s a user hardware problem first unless there is evidence that the service or the game itself is affected. With Stadia, that assumption is flipped on its head. We assume the problem is Stadia by default.
My experience with the input lag of Stadia games is generally positive, with the exception of Destiny 2 on my PC. For whatever reason, the input latency with Destiny 2 when running in Chrome on PC was horrible. I noticed it immediately, even in the game menu. When running it on the included Chromecast and the controller, it seemed fine. None of the other games I purchased on the Stadia service were similarly affected. Red Dead Redemption 2 felt good, and so did the Stadia platform exclusive Gylt. The best experience, in terms of bugs or periodic hitching was on the Chromecast connected with ethernet. With this configuration, I haven’t had a single stutter in the last ten hours of gameplay. Chromecast on a wireless connection was also stable, but I would use ethernet unless you have no other choice.
What I have come to realize after years of scouring blurbusters and paying thousands of dollars for computer hardware, is that consistency is the most important factor in dealing with input latency. So long as there are not wide fluctuations during gameplay, a player can get used to a comparably high input-latency service like Stadia, and unless you have both side by side, or the latency is egregiously bad, you’re not immediately going to notice it. The majority of the games that I played on Stadia were much more responsive than I expected, and with the exception of Destiny 2, none of them could be categorized as unplayable. The lack of novel games and dependence on multiplatform non-exclusives is currently the weakest part of the Stadia experience, but If Google can manage to capture interesting exclusive games or enable me to play some of the slow-to-port console games on day one of release, I’m going to keep using the service in the future.
Stadia launched with only a single platform exclusive called Gylt. Gylt is a single-player survival-horror platformer by Tequila Works that reminded me a great deal of the old Resident Evil games but with a softer narrative and horror touch. Gylt takes place in a town that appears to have been morphed by the combination of some mystical force, and the bullying and subsequent disappearance of the main character’s younger cousin. Armed with her trusty flashlight, Sally creeps through the world, searching for her lost relative. The story is told both through gameplay and journals discovered around the game-world that detail Emily’s experiences at the hands of her peers, and those of other troubled individuals that have been sucked into the mystical vortex.
Monsters stalk the world, and the collectibles, which are hidden in various locations around the map, are intimately tied to how the story plays out. But their collection was not in the least bit tedious, and the difficulty of finding them was not so high as to make the gameplay annoying. I typically do not enjoy chasing after collectibles and solving puzzles at all, but the way Tequila Works intertwined their search with the narrative progression sucked me in. I wound up looking forward to reading the journals that were found next to other collectibles.
The game-world is moody and foreboding, and navigating the town requires an exciting fusion of stealth and combat. As you shine your flashlight in the dark, it reveals etchings and writing on the walls that detail the merciless bullying that drove Sally’s cousin into the mystical vortex. There are no other people in the town, save for a ghostly old man, Sally, and Emily. Besides the monsters that stalk the halls of the school, and the other various buildings around the town, are the mannequins. The mannequins are posed, frozen in time, caught in some act of bullying, or they’re merely observers, forever watching and doing nothing to stop the bullying of Sally’s younger cousin. They line the bleachers of the gymnasium, pointing and watching, or they push and strike another student. As you’re exposed to this world, the monsters call out to you, some with verbal hostility, and others pretend to be your friend, telling you everything’s going to be okay – those monsters are the worst, the most frightening. Their friendliness is contrasted with their staccato, jittery, movements as their wooden arms dangle and bend at the joints, and their heads rotate to see behind them, white eyes gleaming in the dark. As I heard more of Emily’s story, distilled through Sally’s guilt, it made me want to get both back to safety.
Periodic upgrades to Sally’s flashlight and additional weapon unlocks give the player some strategic depth in dispatching monsters. But the combat is fairly linear until the last portion of the game, which features enemies that are terrifying and hard to dispatch. I found both the narrative and the gameplay compelling, and I highly recommended Gylt to anyone with access to Stadia.