Google's ambitious push into gaming is floundering, and it's due largely to too few games on its Stadia platform - here's why developers have held back
- Last November, Google finally launched a major gaming platform that was in development for years: Google Stadia.
- Instead of having to buy games on a disc or download them from a digital store, Stadia users stream games over the internet - for customers willing to pay $130 for the "premiere edition."
- But the platform's launch was rocky at best, with missing features and a paltry game library. Months later, Stadia's game library still remains sparse.
- We spoke with game developers and publishers who said there are two main reasons their games aren't on Stadia: Google didn't offer them enough money, and they don't trust the mercurial company to stick with gaming in the long term.
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After years of development and hype, Google's long-rumored push into video games arrived last November, with the launch of Google Stadia.
Google Stadia isn't a game console, nor is it a game platform, really - it's a digital storefront run by Google where you can buy individual games. It's a hugely ambitious new platform, and it aimed to be the Netflix of gaming.
What makes Stadia so ambitious? Rather than downloading games or playing them off a Blu-ray disc, Stadia streams games to you wherever you are, like Netflix streams movies and TV shows.
It's such a big deal, in fact, that Google CEO Sundar Pichai himself introduced Stadia back in March 2019 at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. However, four months after Stadia's launch, the service is still extremely light on games: Just 28 titles are available as of this week.
Google says another 120 games are scheduled to hit Stadia this year, including some big upcoming blockbusters like "DOOM Eternal" and "Cyberpunk 2077."
But where are the dozens of indie hits that helped bolster the libraries of Sony's PlayStation 4, Microsoft's Xbox One, and Nintendo's Switch? Where are the games like "Bloodstained," "Shovel Knight," "Dead Cells," and "Untitled Goose Game" - the blockbuster indie games that sell millions of copies and inspire sequels?
These games have become critical to the success of any new game platform, yet, of the 28 games currently available on Stadia, just four fall into the indie category.
"We were approached by the Stadia team," one prominent indie developer told me. "Usually with that kind of thing, they lead with some kind of offer that would give you an incentive to go with them." But the incentive "was kind of non-existent," they said. "That's the short of it."
It's a statement we heard echoed by several prominent indie developers and two publishing executives we spoke with for this piece.
"It's that there isn't enough money there," one of the publishing executives we spoke with said. The offer was apparently "so low that it wasn't even part of the conversation."
The "incentive" isn't solely financial, but it's the main part of the equation.
"When we're looking at these types of deals," another prominent indie developer said, "We're looking at 'Is this enough money where we have the resources to make what we want, or is this an exclusivity deal that gives us security?'" they said.
Each of the people we spoke with, who asked to be granted anonymity due to ongoing employment in the video game industry, echoed this sentiment - and said Google simply wasn't offering enough money, in addition to several other concerns.
"There are platforms you want to be on because they have an audience and you want to reach that audience," one developer said. "That's what Steam is, or that's what [Nintendo] Switch is. They have big groups on their platforms, and you want to be with those groups so they can play your games."
But Stadia doesn't have a large audience to reach - at least not yet - so Google must create that incentive for developers. And the people we spoke with said, outside of money, there wasn't much reason to put their games on Stadia.
"If you could see yourself getting into a long term relationship with Google?" one developer said. "But with Google's history, I don't even know if they're working on Stadia in a year. That wouldn't be something crazy that Google does. It's within their track record."
This concern - that Google might just give up on Stadia at some point and kill the service, as it has done with so many other services over the years - was repeatedly brought up, unprompted, by every person we spoke with for this piece.
"With Google, it's easy to look at them as, well - it's Google!" one publishing exec said. "If anyone's gonna make it work, it's them. But they've failed a ton in the past and walked away from major services."
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."
He also sent over a list of all the major publishers that Google is working with, including major companies like EA, Bethesda, Ubisoft, 2K Games, and Rockstar Games.
But the vast majority of indie hits aren't published by these massive publishers. EA makes and publishes "Madden" and "FIFA." Bethesda makes and publishes "DOOM" and "Elder Scrolls." Ubisoft makes and publishes "Assassin's Creed" and "Ghost Recon."
All of these are so-called "triple-A" blockbusters - the video game equivalent of major film blockbuster series like "Transformers" or "Fast & Furious." Several indies show up on the list of upcoming games, including "Superhot" and several "Steamworld" games, but many others are still missing.
The absence of these games at the launch of Stadia last November, and their continued absence in the ensuing months, speaks to Google's inability to attract developers ahead of launch.
"It wasn't just a financial thing," one developer told me who decided not to publish on Stadia. "At the end of the day, I'm asking the question, 'Why would I do this?' And there was no positive reason to move forward. There wasn't really anything to want us to get in the door other than to be the first on the platform."
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