In the wake of Google shutting down its Stadia Games & Entertainment (SG&E) group, leaks about the underwhelming game-streaming service have started to emerge. A Friday Bloomberg report, citing unnamed Stadia sources, attaches a new number to the failures: “hundreds of thousands” fewer controllers sold and “monthly active users” (MAU) logging in than Google had anticipated.
The controller sales figure is central to the story told Friday by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier: that internally, Google was of two minds about how Stadia should launch. One idea looked back at some of the company’s biggest successes, particularly Gmail, which launched softly in a public, momentum-building beta while watching how it was received over time. The other, championed by Stadia lead Phil Harrison, was to treat Stadia like a console, complete with some form of hardware that could be hyped and pre-sold. In Stadia’s case, the latter won out, with Harrison bullishly selling a Stadia Founder’s Bundle—and this worked out to be a $129.99 gate to the service. Without it, you couldn’t access Stadia for its first few months.
As Schreier reports, Harrison and the Stadia leadership team “had come from the world of traditional console development and wanted to follow the route they knew.”
As part of his Stadia-launch mission, Harrison approved deals costing “tens of millions of dollars” to woo publishers like Take-Two and Ubisoft to launch their games on Stadia, Schreier reports. Exactly how many millions of dollars Stadia spent on these deals is unknown, but Schreier claims that “the amount of money Google was willing to spend came as a shock to veteran game developers,” which implies a figure larger than $10 million.
Even with such a financial incentive in his pocket, however, Take-Two CEO Stauss Zelnick eventually admitted to shareholders that gamer uptake for Stadia didn’t meet his previously optimistic expectations. As he said in June 2020: “The launch of Stadia has been slow. I think there was some overpromising on what the technology could deliver and some consumer disappointment as a result.”
The article mostly retreads the messy, public history of how Stadia missed the mark with critics and potential buyers, including the service’s lack of transferable game ownership and its lack of a clear à la carte subscription option made popular by video-streaming services like Netflix. The report hints at least one game project that was canceled as part of SG&E’s dissolution earlier this month: “a cross between a Google Assistant and a Tamagotchi pet, allowing players to interact with smart creatures in all sorts of fun ways.” This digital-pet game would have leaned in part on Stadia’s server infrastructure and would have “only worked on a cloud platform,” Schreier says.
Also on Friday, Wired’s Cecilia D’Anastasio published a report citing additional, unnamed sources on the woes of Stadia development. According to that report, Google forbade game developers in the SG&E group from “using certain game development software,” which D’Anastasio likened to “roadblocks on the very fundamentals of game-making.” Additionally, she reports that Stadia’s ambitious goals for internal game studios were hamstrung by serious issues with Google infrastructure:
Google’s famously long and involved hiring process can take six to nine months. And it took time for Google to broaden its hiring standards to accommodate skill sets necessary for game development rather than its traditional fields. The goal was to bring in 2,000 people over five years to work on developing games for Stadia, two sources say.
That “five year” count aligns with previous SG&E Director Jade Raymond’s claim that Stadia needed “four years” to turn around ambitious games, far beyond the less than two years those teams were actually given.
D’Anastasio’s report also backs up Schreier’s allegations about Stadia user counts, claiming that the service “did not meet internal expectations in 2020” and amounted to “unremarkable subscription numbers.” And both reports go into detail about how unique Stadia features, particularly the “State Share” option to jump directly into a mid-game moment, were hyped and advertised well before any game had actually implemented them, thus depressing fan interest.
Savage launch for Savage Planet
This news follows a messy interruption to one of SG&E’s only game launches before its dissolution: a Stadia port of the PC and console game Journey to the Savage Planet. The game was developed by Typhoon Studios, a studio that Google acquired in late 2019 and folded into SG&E, but days after the game’s Stadia version launched as part of the Stadia Pro paid subscription service, SG&E had shut down. In the days that followed, Stadia Pro subscribers began complaining that the game would freeze on its opening “press start” menu, and players had no recourse in terms of changing the game’s save file or toggling other settings.
Questions mounted about who might be able to fix the issue, and one Reddit thread catalogued how Stadia support pointed fingers at the game’s prior publisher, 505 Games. This prompted a 505 representative to tell an affected fan, “Reach out to Stadia support again and inform them that the publisher for that version of JttSP is actually them.”
On Monday, February 22, weeks after the bug was first discovered (and days after the Reddit thread spread far and wide), the game received an update fixing the issue. Stadia representatives declined to answer Ars Technica’s questions about who exactly patched the game or whether the game’s original developers at Typhoon were still employed at Google.
That work to keep the game maintained is a reminder, at the very least, that Stadia continues to operate as a home for third-party games streamed from Google’s servers to players’ homes. Paid $10/mo Stadia Pro subscriptions include access to a library of over two dozen games, while “free” accounts can either buy Stadia game licenses à la carte or access free-to-play software like Destiny 2.