First OnLive, now Stadia: Cloud Gaming has been rejected by the market twice – it’s time to let it go

It’s a strange moment for me when it comes full circle that the least surprising news of all time – the non-ceremonial cancellation of Stadia – is just a week away from EGX. The Eurogamer Expo (as it was then known) 2011 was more or less the beginning of my career in gaming reporting, and it started when I managed to get an interview with OnLive’s Senior Vice President John Spinale, a smooth American businessman of the sort I had previously only been encountered through the medium of television. And always as a villain, even in shows produced by smooth American businessmen.

10 years later, and EGX is very different.

However, Spinale was extremely nice. He could see that I had never interviewed anyone before and knew how to put people at ease. Within seconds it felt like a normal conversation with someone you met in the pub. The huge gap of wealth inequality between us didn’t seem to matter. John was excited to tell me about OnLive, this strange new concept that was going to disrupt the gaming business, and I was excited to hear about it.

It was and is a brilliant concept, and the basic pitch for OnLive pretty much applies to the Stadia platform that died ten years later: imagine never having to buy new hardware. That was the first thing that appealed to me, at the time a clumsy call center worker, who saw the looming new generation of consoles as a less exciting new future and more like a £400 tax on joy.

This was once the future.

The games run on the server side, you see, so you never have to buy a new box. No more console generations. No more PC upgrades. Just pay for the games and the rest will be taken care of. And, hey, get kicked off the TV in the middle of a sesh? Don’t worry, brother! Just log in to your tablet, or laptop, or whatever else you have lying around, and continue in another room.

It sounded heavenly. Spinale demonstrated Dirt 3 on an OnLive micro-console sitting in front of us: an impossibly small black rectangle with HDMI, Ethernet, and an extraordinarily well-designed wireless controller that remains to this day one of the best pads I’ve ever held. The console itself looked like something left here by an advanced alien race, and the controller felt like it was designed by people who knew very well what they were doing. OnLive’s “gamer” credentials were legit and they had put a lot of thought into how to make their service attractive to the core market.

The OnLive controller feels great in the hand.

And that micro console? Perhaps one of the few Steve Jobs “one more thing” moments the Eurogamer Expo has ever had, everyone who attended that year got to take one home for free. A premium kit, heavy, made of metal, with a rugged controller to match. To be honest it was actually a torment to get it back to Scotland and hook it up to the ADSL line which I was sure wouldn’t work.

Well, it did, and after getting a press account to demonstrate the service, I spent well over three weeks flushing it for every new release it had. Input lag was noticeably worse than native running, but certainly not to an unplayable degree. Visually, it worked better after 6pm, where a break from the local restriction would allow a clear 720p stream of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine to stream into my home in West Lothian unimpeded.

The micro console was a heavy, featureless slab of alien technology from another dimension, and it ruled.

OnLive wasn’t snake oil, and the people behind it weren’t villains: it worked. And this was on the 2011 broadband infrastructure. It featured more than one innovation that we now take for granted across all platforms — a subscription service, for example, where a library of curated games was available for a small monthly fee. Just good business now. Back in the days? Absurd. Brag clips, where you could save the last fifteen seconds of gameplay and post to your socials – a feature neatly assigned to the premium feel controller – were an emerging feature of the service. “Your game is a video stream, so we take advantage of that in every way we can.” When the feature appeared on PS4 a few years later, baked into the native hardware and ready to revolutionize gaming social marketability, I wondered if OnLive itself had convinced Sony of the benefits.

Spinale was excited. Passionate about the product. And not in a rehearsed or cynical way either: I remember him being more than willing to deviate from the script, we joked about people drawing dots on the whiteboard in Duke Nukem Forever, that sort of thing. And as a former producer at Activision, he knew games: he understood the importance of input latency and deliberately chose games that felt snappy and responded to demo. Competitive shooters. Rally games that require constant adjustment of braking and steering, and so on.

Within a month he was no longer with OnLive. Within a year there was no one.

OnLive employees had no other divisions to move to when it died.

This, of course, was all dredged up in 2019 when the idea bubbled up again as a Google service under the name Stadia, but often from proponents of the concept by insisting it was different now. The basic argument goes something like this: OnLive was a great idea, but it was launched at a time when not everyone had access to the required broadband infrastructure and they were charging the same per game as disk-based systems, which is clearly insane.

All of this is absolutely true… from both OnLive and Stadia. In fact, it’s remarkable how little Stadia seems to have learned from the mistakes of its ancestors: almost as if the geniuses at Google didn’t bother typing “OnLive” into their own search engine and the wealth of material charting its infamous downfall. . Everything has a parallel. Even the beautiful controller that everyone agrees on is pretty good.

Whatever you think of Stadia, that controller was legit.

Here’s the thing: OnLive worked perfectly by the standards of the time, when the most popular native home console threw 480p images over a SCART cable. In many cases, it would even make games run smoother than the 360 ​​or PS3, where a framerate between 19 and 30 was considered perfectly acceptable by most in blockbuster titles like GTA IV. Technology was never the problem.

The main difference between OnLive and Stadia was the market conditions in which they were launched. Both platforms tried to sneak in just ahead of the next anticipated console generations, positioning themselves as affordable, playable anywhere alternatives to the stuffy old concept of big black boxes under your television. But Stadia had a huge, unprecedented advantage over both its predecessor and the Big Three: It launched just before a global pandemic would force everyone in and impoverish them, and at the very same time, global chip shortages would destroy the new Xboxes and Playstations. to an exclusive luxury that even people with the means could hardly get hold of.

And yet, while every god in the Stadia pantheon smiled, while Moses himself practically logged in via Zoom to part the Red Sea in his favor, no one cared. In Google’s own words, the gamblers just weren’t thrilled.

It’s easy to forget that these were like gold dust until recently.

Why? Well, take your pick. Regardless of how good the technology is – and it is good – it is inherently a worse option than playing games on your own hardware at home, in terms of picture quality, input lag, performance consistency, vulnerability to high winds: you name it. And despite this, the pricing model did not reflect this fact. $60 for a drive versus $60 for a glorified rental isn’t a comparison that works in favor of cloud gaming, even in a world saturated with digital libraries and perfectly normalized to the idea of ​​it. This was no less true in 2022 than in 2011. The math has not changed.

Was access to Stadia cheaper and easier than buying a PS5? enormous. Was it a better option than just keeping your PS4? No, honestly. For most people who made that call, their existing games and friend lists were part of the Playstation ecosystem, and Stadia just didn’t have enough enticing offerings to warrant a lifestyle switch.

Even a very lucrative Ubisoft deal couldn’t get bums on seats for Stadia.

The cost of developing games for cloud services is no different than for traditional consoles, so it cannot reasonably be expected that the costs for consumers to access games will be different. Putting Stadia in the same absurd situation that OnLive was in, and where any cloud service that positions itself as a true competitor to consoles will find itself: charging the same amount for an inherently, obviously, inescapably worse experience.

Yes, you can say this for Stadia: it had a nice pad.

You could argue that Stadia’s play anywhere, provide cross-platform credentials, the built-in convenience and greatly reduced cost of entry – when a decent internet connection is within reach – makes up for the decline in picture quality, performance, input latency, and just not feeling like you own the content you pay for. You could argue that; but it seems the market doesn’t agree with you, and has told you that more than once now.

Cloud gaming has a place in the mix, of course: as a round-the-house way to emulate a PS3, as we’ve seen with PS Now and the new PS Plus (which many of OnLive’s tech and experts turn to). came) . As an added value to Xbox Game Pass, where Microsoft’s xCloud feature is being subsidized by the rest of the decidedly in-home hardware-based business, essentially giving all the supposed benefits of Stadia to an ecosystem that doesn’t fall for its ass if your mom wants to watch Deadpool upstairs. As a way to run demanding games on underpowered handhelds like the Nintendo Switch, which have nailed the game everywhere, but sometimes need a little help getting Resi 7 to the TV screen.

But as an alternative to the humble console? As a disruption of the orthodoxy of running local code on local silicon? Like a real thorn in the side of the Big Three? The question has now been asked in an extremely high-profile manner, with countless billions invested, from two significantly different markets across a time gap, and both markets checked the goods and said exactly the same thing:

no.

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