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Praneet Loke
Praneet Loke

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A closer look at Stadia and gaming in the cloud

What a time we live in when one of the most anticipated games of the last decade plays better on Google Stadia than on dedicated gaming hardware in your living room! I am talking about consoles. Regardless of whether you are a gamer or not, it is likely that you've read about Cyberpunk 2077 and its performance on last gen consoles, which can still be found in hundreds of millions of households. Especially given that its been in development for quite literally a decade and comes from one of the most acclaimed developers CD Projekt Red (CDPR).

CDPR is also the maker of The Witcher series of games. You know, the hit Netflix show of the same name. Both inspired by the books.

Nevertheless, as a gamer and a cloud technology enthusiast I was excited to take a look and experience this all for myself.

A New Hope?

When Google announced Stadia about 2 years ago, the gaming community was rather quick to judge it; myself included. That's because that sort of tech has been pushed upon the gaming community in the past. OnLive was a service that existed sometime ago. It seems that Stadia is breathing new life into this concept. I'd say their timing couldn't be better. I can't think of a better story for them to tell than the time when their platform outshined consoles. Admittedly, this is because of the way the game performs on traditional consoles, but also because some of Stadia's promises held their ground.

OnLive vs. Stadia

Requirements OnLive Google Stadia
Custom controller Yes No You don't need the Stadia controller if you only plan on playing on your computer. But if you want to have a decent gaming experience on your TV without using your laptop/desktop to cast it to your TV you will need their controller. That's fair. More on this later on.
Custom streaming device Yes Yes Although, in Google's defense, the Chromecast doubles as a Miracast device so it is more than just for Stadia.
Subscription Yes No Stadia's Pro subscription is completely optional. That is, if you want to play in 4k with 5.1 surround sound, you'd better pony up $10/month. But to take advantage of your Pro subscription, you'll need the Chromecast Ultra. Google's 4k streaming device.

All in all, you can see where I am going with this. The similarities are there in terms of how this is setup. However, the technology running in the data center is vastly different. For instance, Wikipedia says OnLive used custom video compression chips on their servers which they operated in their own data centers across the US.

Stadia Hardware

There is no need for speculation on what hardware Stadia might be using, since they have it right on their website.

At the time of this writing, it is:

Stadia hardware specs

For good measure, Google partnered with AMD to design the GPUs for these machines. The consoles from both Microsoft and Sony have had custom AMD-designed GPUs too. The next-gen consoles have all AMD chipset too.

Those specs are no joke either. They are the sort of specs Microsoft and Sony are touting as next-gen hardware. More or less. But the benefit of Stadia is that hardware can be upgraded seamlessly whereas consoles cannot be. Or so they promise. How often these "transparent" hardware upgrades come about will surely meet the reality of economics, I say. Again, it stands to be seen.

The Stream

Despite Stadia's perceived dubious launch, the technology is no piece of cake. It's pretty amazing cloud technology. I have been playing Cyberpunk 2077 on Stadia for about 2 weeks now and sometimes I forget that I am not playing the game "locally".

Let me explain. Much like its video streaming counterparts like Netflix and Hulu, cloud gaming also has a video stream. But unlike video streaming, Stadia cannot buffer 5 mins of a game's stream on your Chromecast or computer or wherever it is you are playing. It's like watching live TV, but without any artificial delays other than the network latency itself. For the network latency to not affect the game too much, the video stream must be compressed and also adjust according to dips in network quality. It is in Google's best interest to really concentrate their efforts in ensuring the best gaming experience. The first sign of a poor gaming experience and they are done. The gaming market as big as it is, is also pretty unforgiving. The fact that a AAA game publisher like CDPR rushed to release -- a game that's been in development for about a decade -- in time for the holidays after a series of delays angered "gamers" on social media (to the point where the devs were receiving death threats!), has got to say something about the kind of pressure this market puts on companies. I don't judge them and would like to give devs the benefit of the doubt. CDPR is certainly not the first (Ubisoft, EA are guilty of this too!) and won't be the last company to find themselves in trouble for releasing a buggy AAA game.

Stadia's dedicated cloud gaming hardware renders the game using the dedicated GPU. I suspect these custom GPUs also have a dedicated hardware-based encoder of some sort. It wouldn't be too far fetched to think that because Nvidia's latest generation of GPUs support hardware-based encoding and thus freeing up the CPU for other things. This ensures that you have a stutter free streaming. These streams also need to be compressed efficiently (probably using the most common video codec H.264 or who knows Google might have even built a custom video codec for speedy delivery!)

With a video streaming to your Chromecast, it is now time to discuss the controller. The controller is its own technical marvel.

The Controller

As per another article, Google has a patent for the controller. I haven't read through the patent myself and haven't confirmed the relevancy to the Google Stadia controller. I wonder how different this is from OnLive's controller, though, since its controller setup may have had to be similar to Stadia's.

The controller needs to have an ultra-low latency connection with Google's servers for there not to be any perceived latency. Remember, what you see on your TV (or on your Chrome browser) is merely a video stream of a game that is being played elsewhere. Hopefully, at a data center closest to you. Your controller input needs to travel up to the Google's servers, rendered and the stream comes down to your TV. That's a lot of traveling if you ask me.

Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter demonstrated measuring the latency between the controller's input and the game's stream updating according to the input.

Getting The Best Experience

While I have tried to play Cyberpunk 2077 on Stadia using Wifi, the experience is just not good enough. Even while connected to the 5Ghz band of your router, in real world scenarios, you are likely to encounter some amount of interference or crowding. There is simply no replacement for a hard-wired connection here. To eliminate any possibility of a bandwidth reduction, you must use a wired connection and also ensure that you have nothing else in your network that is internet-heavy (like watching YT, Netflix, Hulu etc.) It is also the reason why Stadia recommends playing using a hard-wired internet connection. Although I think they should be stronger with that recommendation, almost to the point where they require it, like OnLive did

Perhaps with more devices certifying for Wifi 6, it may not be much of a problem in the near future since the standard specifically addresses maintaining QoS for multiple devices simultaneously. But there is nothing like a good ol' cable capable of handling Gigabit speeds. A nice Cat 6 cable will be more than enough in this situation. Beyond that, you are talking data center cabling which is not required and quite honestly you will never realize its potential in home use.

Lastly, I recommend getting the Chromecast Ultra. Its power adapter comes with an ethernet port and offers up to 4k streaming for games played on Stadia.

Cost

The cost of all this of course cannot be simple. Let's try to calculate the cost.

Since Stadia uses custom hardware, we can only draw approximations from similar hardware from their cloud services offering.

Resource Quantity Montly Cost (USD)
Nvidia Tesla T4 GPU 1 160 (approx.)
A2 instance type (accelerator-optimized CPU) vCPU (including memory) 1 30 (approx.)

The above prices are monthly costs for a consumer using those resources on GCP. That's easily over the price of one next-gen console. I haven't even included the storage costs here and probably some other costs that I am not even aware of.

Those machines are pushing out a lot of data with the 4k 60fps promises Google is making for Pro subscribers. The subscription costs just $120/year. They have got to be losing money here in order to gain gamers' trust. I doubt the free Stadia experience comes cheap either. There is still cost involved in operating those machines. And you only pay for the games in the free experience whereas in the Pro tier you pay for the games, get monthly free games (of Indie quality) and get 4k (whenever possible). That's a great value for $9.99 if you ask me.

It is a herculean effort to have people ditch their consoles (or just "one highly anticipated game performing poorly on consoles" πŸ˜‰) so I guess this is Google's way of getting more people to signup for the service to maybe try and offset the cost in the future. I can't imagine the Pro subscription staying at $9.99/month for too long into the future quite frankly. OnLive offered a plan for roughly $15/month. That was back in 2010. Everything's way more expensive now and Stadia is certainly not using 2010 hardware. These are high end specs.

Not Alone

Stadia is not alone in its foray into the $60bn USD gamingmarket. Amazon tried its hand and although, it met with failure, it appears it hasn't given up just yet. Amazon's approach was to start a gaming studio from the ground-up, though. And not to compete with the console market like Google is.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon enters changes direction or perhaps starts something parallel to its game development efforts. Seeing what Google is up to and the sudden success of Stadia is hard to ignore for a company like Amazon given that its cloud computing arm, AWS, has been partnering with Nvidia to create custom GPUs for all sorts of things. In fact, cloud gaming is one of the use cases for the AWS-specific G4 instances that sport an Nvidia T4 GPU. They are fully capable of what Stadia is doing along with RTX. They even have gaming drivers that you can install on Linux, Windows Server 2019, and Ubuntu.

Then there's Nvidia's own GeForce Now service and the Nvidia Shield console and controller. GeForce Now is a cloud gaming service, but not in the same way that Stadia is. With GeForce Now you need to buy the game from a service like Valve's Steam and give GeForce Now access to it. Then you can use Nvidia's cloud prowess to play the game with the highest specs, though, there are some limitations. I thought I read somewhere that you can't play the game whenever you would like and that you'll have to enter a queue during busy times. The one big reason why this could be attractive to gamers will experience Nvidia's famed RTX. A feature that is typically attributed to high-end gaming GPUs and most recently the next-gen consoles. RTX is one of the biggest selling points for the next-gen hardware.

Speaking of Steam, Valve offers Steam Link for free. A service that allows you to play a game running on another computer. Sounds like something you have read before, yes? πŸ™‚

Finally, let's not forget Microsoft and Sony. Microsoft is already offering Project xCloud in the form of its Xbox Game Pass subscription. And what about Sony? Well, that's a different story. We'll have to wait for Sony's move on this one.

Final Thoughts

Since the early 2010s, cloud hardware has come a long way. I haven't even talked about the memory and the SSD that Stadia offers in its hardware stack right from its first generation. That in itself is a generational leap for the traditional living room consoles. Seriously, the next-gen consoles Xbox Series X/S and Sony's PS5 just now have built-in SSD along with GDDR6 memory. Cloud gaming certainly has some strict network requirements and its success is rooted in consumers having the best internet connection. Not to mention the proximity of these cloud gaming capable machines, housed in data centers, to the consumers. I don't believe it will replace traditional gaming experiences, be it through consoles or gaming PCs. If there is one thing 2020 has taught the world, it's that anything can happen.

I am excited to see what this next decade brings for gamers. One thing's for certain, a new contender has entered the arena. Its name is Stadia.

Discussion (3)

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hassan_k_a profile image
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still the problem with the Cloud gaming is the infrastructure and how level of maturity it has reached in the place where the player lives

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praneetloke profile image
Praneet Loke Author

Yep. Absolutely! The success of the such platforms is definitely hinged on good internet access. Google can have very high end machines in their data center, but it wouldn't matter if a player has a poor internet connection. It is to be seen how they might solve that problem too someday. They are sort of in their infancy right now and I think they'll tackle that problem at some point. I also think there are a few avenues to explore for that. Maybe use a custom hardware on the client side that can help with that problem. I do think they are off to a good start, though.

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hassan_k_a profile image
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I can't agree more.