For this opinion piece, let’s start with the necessary disclosures:
- I consider myself a Google fanboy: I have owned/continue to own multiple Pixel devices, I am exclusively an Android user when it comes to phones, I have a Google Home product in every room of my apartment, and I even recently added Google Wi-Fi.
- I think Chrome OS is superior to Windows 10 and would use it exclusively if I had access to the same games and gaming platforms as I do on my PC.
- I am not concerned with privacy and user data outside of bad actors using said data to steal my identity or cause similar harms. You are welcome to all my Google Cloud recordings of me drunkenly yelling at Google Assistant.
- I admit Google is probably evil and that my affection for their products is a real blind spot.
- I also admit that Google should be broken up, if only so that each piece can truly focus on only a handful of products, rather than their whole machine reinvent things they already do (and, in the case of Hangouts, do well) over and over again.
- Google has been on a downward trend for me and I am less gung-ho about their products than I once was, but at least they aren’t Facebook.
If you haven’t heard, Google Stadia is a new gaming platform that promises AAA titles streaming over a network to any supported device. At this point, details are sparse, but Google is promising a functional, stream-only platform and does not appear to be launching any kind of set-top box to accompany it or make it work better. Like many, I have been less than impressed with the roll-out overall, and I wanted to share what would have made it a more appealing product to me.
Yet Another Platform
One of my biggest problems with Google is their willingness to start over repeatedly. This is most evident when it comes to their various messaging platforms. “Back in the day”, there was GoogleTalk, sometimes called Google Chat or Gchat, which I used frequently within the Gmail interface as an alternative to sending lengthy emails.
From there, Google created Google Huddle, which I did not use, and Google Hangouts, which I still love despite using it less-and-less. Both were associated with Google+, a new defunct social network, but I used Hangouts exclusively for its own sake. I preferred Hangouts over things like Skype because it always seemed to work better, and the interface was cleaner.
For a while, I used Google Fi as my mobile phone carrier, and with that, I was able to use Hangouts as my primary messaging service for online gaming friends who also shared my appreciation for it in addition to using it as my primary texting app for everyone else. I also used (and continue to do so) off-and-on Google Voice, which is a whole other animal that I primarily maintain now for access to a free local phone number for Craigslist transactions.
Google Hangouts began to lose some of its features and moved back to Verizon. On their network, Hangouts no longer did text messaging (I believe this was/is a Google Fi exclusive feature), so I moved onto Android Messenger and briefly flirted with Google Allo (it mostly sucked) and never used Google Duo. None of these work as well as Hangouts used to and they all do different things for different reasons despite not having to.
That is four paragraphs dedicated to one line of products Google keeps failing at. Admittedly, it is one of their most referred to failures, but that does not include all the other splintering they force. A new Android phone comes pre-installed with apps for Google Play, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, Google Play Games, and Google Play Books. Except for Google Play Music, all these apps are really wrapped up in Google Play itself. Of course, Google Play Music is another can of worms since there is also YouTube Music, which itself is separate from YouTube, with neither being YouTube TV if you happen to also have an Android TV linked somewhere on your Google account.
Google Play: Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere
With that in mind, adding Google Stadia makes sense to differentiate the product. Yet, with so much differentiation, fragmentation, and forking, I feel like adding yet another line further undercuts the lack of trust in Google to follow through with anything. If anything, announcing Google Stadia as another extension of Google Play or in conjunction with a philosophical shift in how the company treats Google Play would have gone a lot further.
For example, imagine if this new product was called, wait for it, Google Play. Along with the announcement, Google revealed a complete overhaul to their digital marketplace and promised to end segregating their services. In turn, they would be able to put the focus on every device and platform within the Google family having access to the same marketplace in a way that I do not think is currently clear enough.
Android, Android TV, & Chrome OS First
Likewise, I would have promised this new Google Play with this new game streaming feature, and soft-launched it as an alternative platform for game publishing across the Google platform spectrum. One of the big issues with Google Play for gaming is the ease in which games can be pirated and distributed on black markets. Despite having a larger global market share, mobile exclusives almost always go to Apple products first because of their superior walled garden.
With Google Play Stadia, Google could leverage their cloud services to provide a gaming platform to all their products that is more secure, more user friendly, and is device agnostic. Anyone with any Android, Android TV, or Chrome OS could play any game on the service and have their sessions and saves carry over.
Google Stadia will likely already be doing this, but I think focusing on Google products first would help get the kinks out of the platform first before launching a premium service option. Plus, it would help shore up the gaming weaknesses of their three major operating systems and give users the impression that Google is in it for the long haul with all three and wants to find even more innovative ways to unify them.
Beyond finding ways to get around Google’s less than sterling reputation, I also felt Google Stadia was boring. Ten years ago, I was an early adopter of OnLive, a service which mostly worked, but failed to catch on. More recently, I have had success with Sony’s Playstation Now service as well, though I never hear anyone talk about it. For Stadia to standout, Google needs to do much, much more. My idea is simple: leverage playing games in the crowd to recreate couch co-op for a new generation.
For many of us, services like Discord, Hangouts, and Vent before them function as social spaces. Though I did sometimes use them to play games together or coordinate in-game activities, I mostly use these services to sit around and chill with online friends, whether we play the same game or not. When I was a kid, things were different. To play games together, you had to be in the same room. Google Stadia could easily bridge the gap between the two.
Imagine an online-only game streaming service that promises the ability to play single-player and multiplayer games “alone with friends”. Video and voice chat could be directly integrated. Whether you are all playing multiplayer simultaneously or not, such a service would help recreate that “everyone on a couch” feel that is sorely missed in an internet-driven age of socialization.
For example, imagine you are playing a brand-new Assassin’s Creed game and your friend wants to watch AND talk to you at the same time, without any latency issues or worrying about hearing their own voice echoing back at them. He could do this whether he owns the game or even has Stadia downloaded because you are leveraging your broad messaging platforms to let Google users go anywhere in the Google ecosystem. If he is on the Stadia platform and wants to play, you could seamlessly give him control and then be the one watching and chatting while he plays.
You could make these gaming hangouts private or public. They would work on all games, even those pesky ones with local-only multiplayer, and even single-player games that lack multiplayer. The focus would then be on leveraging game streaming to synchronize gameplay, inputs, and video chat across multiple users.
Apply the same features and logic to all the other products on Google Play, and suddenly you can go from watching a movie with friends to showing them a cool part of your favorite single-player game, to playing co-op game while a few others log on to hangout with all of you. Make that work on phones, televisions, and literally any other device, and suddenly the internet can bring people together to do things together in a way that just makes sense.
I doubt Google Stadia will be great though I am sure it will work. I imagine it will get support for a couple of years before falling out of favor. Google will always be doomed to repeat itself because that is the thing they do best.