When Google launched Stadia last year, it tried to put a brave face on a deeply uncertain debut. The Stadia launch was barebones, even for what was a relatively barebones service. Five months after launch, things haven’t improved much, with just 28 games currently available on the platform.
A number of game developers gave their thoughts on Stadia and discussed with Business Insider why so few indie developers have shown any interest in porting their games to the platform. The individuals and studios they spoke to raised issues in three broad categories. First, and the one intrinsic to any new platform or service, is that Google Stadia is a brand-new effort with no built-in audience. But because every new product or service goes through this phase, it’s important to have a good strategy for dealing with it. The typical way companies develop new markets is to offer substantial incentives to software developers to port games to its platform. According to the developers themselves, Google isn’t really doing this.
Stadia-offered incentives are variously described as “non-existent,” or involving an amount of money so low, “it wasn’t even part of the conversation.” It seems noteworthy that this is happening to indie developers, specifically. While Shovel Knight and Untitled Goose Game aren’t going to drive the numbers that Doom Eternal or Cyberpunk 2077 will, indie developers don’t need AAA budgets to make it worth their time to port a title to a new platform.
In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily alarming, either. Google is claiming it will launch 120 games on Stadia this year and it appears to be focusing on AAA titles. It’s possible that the company believes it needs to build its market by emphasizing top-tier launches with same-day or soon-after availability rather than building a back catalog of indie titles. It’s possible this difference in funding is part of a difference in strategy.
But if the low audience figures and near-zero funding is bad, the last piece of the puzzle is worse. According to Business Insider, every single developer they spoke to expressed very little faith that Google would put any effort into building Stadia into a long-term service. When a survey of developers reveals that every single one of them is concerned enough about the longevity of your platform to bring it up unprompted, it tends to mean you’ve got a serious PR disaster on your hands.
Google’s response to this news was remarkably tone-deaf. Here’s BI:
When reached for comment, Stadia representative Patrick Seybold said, “The publishers and developers we speak with regularly are very supportive, and want Stadia to succeed. It is also worth pointing out that not every publisher has announced their games for Stadia so far, and more games will continue to be announced in due course.”
In Which Google Reassures Precisely No One
Stadia has a problem: People don’t trust Google. When told that many developers don’t trust Google, Google’s response is “The publishers and developers we talked to want Stadia to succeed!” Imagine if you told your partner or spouse that you had serious concerns about whether you could trust them to keep their word and they responded with “My mom says she trusts me!”
Now, imagine what an actual response that addressed the problem might look like. “We at Google understand that our policy of killing services many people valued has created the fear that we might treat our customers poorly. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to reassure customers and developers that we are in this for the long haul, we are pledging to operate Stadia until at least December 31, 2025.”
That’s not the only option the company might take. Google could alternately pledge to operate the service for at least 12 months after deciding to cancel it, to give people time to play titles they’d previously purchased. It could take a truly radical step and promise that all Stadia customers would receive refunds on every title purchased in the previous 12 months in the event Google decided to cancel the service. It could also make it clear that this guarantee would only apply for the first few years of the service’s life and that it was explicitly being offered as a way to reassure gamers that they could count on Stadia for the long haul.
Google has an unusual product model with Stadia, an unproven distribution system, and severe trust issues. Typically, when companies sincerely want to enter a new, highly competitive market like gaming, they do so with their absolute best foot forward. The original PlayStation pioneered a new approach to third-party game development. Microsoft’s original Xbox was the first console to ship with an integrated ethernet port and Xbox Live revolutionized online play for console gamers. When Valve decided to start requiring its customers to use Steam (and everyone hated Steam at first debut), it tied the requirement to the launch of Half-Life 2, betting that one of the best games in history would be reason enough for people to try its new online service. The Epic Game Store has been highly controversial with gamers, but as far as developers are concerned, it absolutely followed this model. The EGS promise for developers is simple: “Sell your game with us and keep more of the profit.” Valve, meanwhile, has updated the Steam client more in the past year than any recent time I can recall. GOG recently announced its own incredibly generous return policy as a way of building customer loyalty.
My point in recounting all of this history is to illustrate that companies involved in every aspect of gaming commonly try to create customer loyalty by offering good deals or new features. Google could spin a service guarantee to be entirely in the spirit of this kind of outreach, but it doesn’t. Instead, we get the PR equivalent of “My mom thinks I’m cool!” There’s literally zero chance that Google hasn’t noticed the fact that almost every single article about Stadia raises concerns about the platform’s longevity. The company isn’t responding to the issue because it either doesn’t want to commit to supporting its own service or thinks that ignoring the fact that no one trusts it will magically make the problem go away. It won’t. Every month that Google refuses to address the fact that no one trusts Stadia to remain in business only reinforces the perception that the company isn’t serious about its own product.
Then again, it took Microsoft months longer than it should have to realize that the Xbox One unveil was an utter disaster requiring nothing less than a complete and immediate overhaul of the product. But if Google doesn’t figure things out soon, Stadia is going to die — not because it had to be this way, but because Google found it inconvenient to admit nobody trusts it.
This is a solvable problem. The solution is called “Spend the money required to do it right and prioritize good service over immediate profit.” It might require making some guarantees of service or experience that go beyond what Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, or Valve would offer. That’s literally the historical norm for how new companies compete for gaming dollars. When Sega wanted to compete with Nintendo, they designed an entire console game around the idea of an experience different than anything Mario offered. GOG survived for years as the only remote competition for Steam by offering a DRM-free platform. Asking Google to address its own weak points isn’t unreasonable when the company is asking you to pay full price for games with no assurance of long-term access, and the company’s stubborn refusal to perceive that fact is going to prove deadlier to Stadia than any rival ever could.
- Google Confirms Some Stadia Games Don’t Render at 4K
- Google Kills Google Cloud Print
- Review: Google Stadia Might Be the Future of Gaming, but We’re Not There Yet