Google Stadia shows the future of gaming without expensive consoles, but it has serious problems at launch

Key Points
  • Google Stadia launches on Tuesday and CNBC had a chance to test it a week early.
  • It lets you stream high-quality games to select phones, computers and your TV, without the need for an expensive game console.
  • But there aren't a lot of games to play yet, some features aren't available and it's unclear how dedicated Google is to Stadia long-term.
You can play on Pixel phones, Chrome browsers and your TV with Stadia.

Google Stadia, the company's new streaming game service, launches Tuesday, just ahead of the busy holiday season for video games. I've been testing it for the past week and it's a look at the future of gaming where people don't own expensive consoles, but instead stream them from the cloud. It works well, but I'm not convinced that Google is going to be the biggest player.

Sony PlayStation now has launched and lets you stream to PCs and to a PS4, while Microsoft Project xCloud is in public beta testing and lets you stream to Android devices. Microsoft's will launch for all sometime in 2020. Unlike those, however, Stadia works in any Chrome browser, select Pixel Android phones and Google's Chromecast Ultra. You pay Google $9.99 a month (a free service with lower-resolution graphics is coming later) to render and run those games in the cloud, and then stream them down to whatever device you want to play on.

To be clear, this isn't a "Netflix of games." Instead, you need to buy each game individually, often at full price or a slight discount from the retail version. And, at launch, there are only 22 to pick from, many of them old, though it at least includes popular hits like Rockstar's "Red Dead Redemption 2" and Bungie's (aging) "Destiny 2."

For $129, you get the Google Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra for playing on your TV, and three months of Stadia Pro, which lets you stream in 4K and play select games for free with your subscription.

Here's what it's like.

What's good

Playing Red Dead Redemption 2 in the Chrome browser on a MacBook Pro.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I was able to stream two of my favorite games from Google's selection, "Destiny 2" (which I hadn't played before now) and "Red Dead Redemption 2," in high resolution and with max graphics right to a Chrome web browser on a MacBook Pro, and to the app on a Pixel 3a and Chromecast Ultra Google loaned me for the test. That wasn't possible before Stadia, and it's pretty incredible. To get these sort of graphics before, you either needed to shell out around $300-$400 for a console, or about $1,000 for a gaming computer.

Once you've installed the app and chosen a user name, you can start to buy games. They're not cheap, though Google offers slight discounts through Stadia if you pay for the Stadia Pro subscription. A free version of the service offers up to 1080p streaming of the games you purchase instead of 4K, but it doesn't include free games or discounts.

That's what was the most fun here: I loved being able to launch Stadia and jump into a game into seconds, no matter if I was playing on a Pixel phone, a laptop or my TV. I didn't have to sit around and wait for hours of game updates, as I do on my PS4, since everything is done in Google's cloud and games are always ready to play.

Playing Destiny 2 on a Pixel 3a.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I have very fast internet connection at home, so the games were really crisp and fluid most of the time. It felt, generally, like I was playing on a regular console. But every now and again, I'd be reminded I was streaming when the graphics in a game dropped to a lower quality, or if the game just unexpectedly quit. That doesn't happen often on an Xbox or a PS4, and it's bad news if you're trying to finish a level or fight someone in a multiplayer game.

The controller is really comfortable to hold over long periods of time and has good battery life. That's important, since it's the only way to control the games you're playing. The button layout is different, but it was just as comfortable and really similar to the Nintendo Switch Pro controller. Setup between devices was usually pretty easy. I just turned the controller on and plugged it into either the Pixel 3a or computer I was using. Google says the controller will eventually work wirelessly with phones as it does with the Chromecast Ultra.

The Stadia controller.

The Stadia software is also good. There's a friends list that shows your buddies who are online, and I liked that I could see a list of names of people I had recently played with in case I wanted to add them. But lots of features aren't live yet. You can't, for example, add friends to start a group party as you can on an Xbox One or PS4. That's coming later.

Finally, you can see why this might be really fun when 5G eventually launches broadly. With a fast internet connection on your phone everywhere, you might soon be able to stream high-quality games to your phone no matter where you are, whether it's from Google, Sony or Microsoft. That's exciting.

What's bad

The $129 kit includes a controller and a Chromecast Ultra.

I have some really serious concerns about Stadia.

First, even though there are 22 titles available now, with more coming, it's hard to predict whether Google will be able to continue to attract publishers to launch their new games on Stadia, or at the same time the games launch on PC, Xbox or PS4. My guess is that'll likely depend on how many people actually sign up and play. If you're spending $129 and investing in a monthly service, you kind of hope you'll be able to play most new games, which is pretty much a guarantee on other systems.

And you don't own any sort of physical copy of the game. So you lose everything if Google decides to shut down Stadia or if you cancel your subscription. This is true with Xbox and Sony and on PCs, too, if you rely on streaming services there, but it's highly unlikely any of those will just shut down.

Some of the games I have in Stadia.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's an entire website dedicated to projects killed by Google, including 156 services, 18 apps and 16 hardware projects. I hate to recommend Stadia if it just ends up in this graveyard a couple of years from now after people have spent hundreds of dollars on games and the subscription.

I wasn't able to play with friends either. I could jump into multiplayer matches in "Destiny 2" and play with strangers, but the option to group up and use voice chat with friends I'd added in the Stadia app wasn't functional. Neither were lots of other things that were promised but are either coming at launch or later. For example, you can't upload video clips of your gaming sessions to YouTube and the Google Assistant button doesn't work right now.

I know that I was among a small population testing Stadia over the past week or so, but here's a warning: If lots of people don't end up signing up for Stadia, online games are going to be pretty lonely. I tried playing "Red Dead Redemption 2" and pairing with people in "Destiny 2," but often found that there weren't enough people to join me on missions or raids.

Expect to see this screen a lot if people don't sign up.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Only during a test with Google and Bungie employees online were there enough people. If nobody buys Stadia, you might not be able to finish or even play missions that require multiple participants.

It also stinks that while support is eventually coming for iPhone and more Android devices, you have to own a Pixel 2, Pixel 3, Pixel 3a or Pixel 4 to play Stadia on a phone. Right now, the Stadia app that you can download for iPhone and other Android phones just lets you manage and buy games. At least you can play in Chrome on most computers or on a Chromecast Ultra on your TV.

Also, you need a relatively good internet connection (at least 35 Mbps) to play in 4K. Your broadband connection probably can handle this, but hotel rooms and Wi-Fi in coffee shops sometimes have very slow internet, so you'll probably want to switch down to 1080p or 720p when you're there.

Google notes that 4K streaming will consume about 20 GB per hour. If your cable provider has an internet cap, you might want to use the "balanced" option, which cuts data usage down to 4.5 GB per hour by streaming games at a lower resolution. You only need to pay for Stadia Pro if you plan to stream in 4K and want a couple of free games. If you want to save data or don't have a fast internet connection, don't pay $9.99/month for the premium version.

Should you sign up for Google Stadia?

Stadia data center where it runs games in the cloud.

Not right now.

Look, Stadia is fun and it seemed to work well. I love that it lets me play some really good games wherever I go. Trust me, I'm the target audience, and I'll probably continue to play. But the regular gamer should be more cautious than me, and there's no need to ditch your Xbox, PC or PS4 just yet.

Google Stadia lacks a big library of games to pick from, and most of the features you need (aside from 4K) are available in the free version. That means you don't need to pay $9.99 a month. You should wait a while to see the types of games will launch in 2020, and if lots of people end up joining the service. Then you'll know there's going to be people to play with. And maybe, over time, we'll get a better indication if this is something Google will continue to support, so you know that if you buy games you won't be out hundreds of dollars if Google decides to kill Stadia.

Google has the foundation in place. There's enough here for it to be really successful. But it's going to have to pull gamers away from three platforms they've grown up using: PCs, the Xbox and PlayStation. That won't be easy.

More importantly, Microsoft, Sony and Nvidia are all working on similar experiences. Microsoft's Project xCloud is in testing and will work on phones just like Stadia. It's expected to launch publicly in 2020. Sony already lets you stream to a PC, and Nvidia's service works with PCs and the NVIDIA Shield set-top box.These are all established players who will definitely have the latest games and huge libraries of content.

Google Stadia is a look at the future of how we'll game. I'm just not totally convinced it will be the service everyone pays for.

Google announces new game streaming service called Stadia
Google announces new game streaming service called Stadia