Streaming was always likely to be a major theme of E3, and so it has proved. Microsoft announced the first public demonstration of Project xCloud at its press briefing yesterday, while Bethesda announced an SDK that will help reduce latency and generally optimise the performance of any streaming service.
One company got the ball rolling early, however: Google, which promised to reveal more details of its Stadia streaming platform this summer when it was first unveiled at GDC. Many interpreted the summer to mean E3, but instead it elected to get ahead of the crowd and show its hand the week before.
Stadia will launch first as a premium subscription service in November, Google revealed last Thursday, with a free tier following in 2020. The premium service, Stadia Pro, will offer higher fidelity streams than the free Stadia Base tier, though paying subscribers will still have to purchase the vast majority of games individually. This model wasn't quite what many were expecting -- including several industry analysts, who discussed the details with
"Stadia may be considered to be a luxury that existing console and PC gamers are willing to forgo, at least for the time being"
Michael Pachter
Piers Harding-Rolls, research and analysis director for games at IHS Markit, acknowledged the logic in having both a free and a premium tier. The former, Harding-Rolls said in a report, would be invaluable, "as a user acquisition channel for those trying out demos or trailing content via promotional links across YouTube and other sites." Stadia Base will also open up monetisation opportunities through business-to-business marketing, he added.
"It is not a surprise that Google is delaying launch of this free tier until 2020," Harding Rolls said, "as it gives the company the best shot of maintaining service quality as it scales its users."
Opinions are split on whether Google's decision to launch a premium subscription service first will prove to be correct. David Cole, founder and CEO of DFC Intelligence, described a monthly subscription for a service like Google Stadia as, "a very tough sale."
"I thought they would have gone in reverse and started with a free service and then looked to charge," Cole said. "The premium is somewhat baffling."
Cole continued: "Five years ago I said Google was the biggest threat to upset the traditional game industry. Stadia and Google as a concept looked like it could have a major impact. Now it is like the end of The Wizard of Oz. This is just another of many such services we have seen over the years; nothing special, and Google does not seem to be just dipping its toe in the game market."
Google caused a stir when it first announced Stadia, but its launch strategy may not appeal to the gamers it appears to be targeting
Lewis Ward, research director at IDC, noted the similarity between what Google is proposing with Stadia Pro, and the earliest iteration of Sony's PlayStation Now service. When PS Now first launched, Ward said, it employed a rental model, which charged users between $8 and $15 to rent a game for 90 days. The value this presented was rightly questioned, and Sony eventually shifted entirely to a subscription model that exchanged access to a catalogue of games for a single fee.
"My point is that it appears Google is going back to where PS Now started in many ways, and is likely to trend in the direction of PS Now over time from a business model perspective," Ward continued. "A subscription plan is the way to go long-term.