What latency feels like on Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform

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After peppering Google employees with questions regarding Stadia’s latency, pricing and supported devices to mostly no avail, I got my hands on one of their new controllers and pressed play on the Doom 2016 gameplay they were showing off on a big-screen TV.

Things started off pretty ugly. The frame rate dropped to a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the resolution dipped between 4K crispness and indecipherable blurriness and latency seemed to be as much as a half-second. As the Google employees looked nervously at each other, someone grabbed the controller from me and restarted the system.

After a system restart, things moved along much, much more smoothly. But what the situation sums up is that when it comes to game-streaming, things can be unpredictable. To give Google credit, they stress-tested their system by running Stadia on hotel WiFi rather than taking me down to Mountain View and letting me play with Stadia under much more controlled conditions.

Stadia is Google’s cloud game-streaming service and while there’s a lot we don’t know the basic tenants are clear. It moves console-level gaming online into your Chrome browser and lets you access it from devices like smartphones that wouldn’t be able to handle the GPU-load initially.

Despite the initial hiccup, my experience with Stadia was largely positive. Doom 2016 was in crisp 4K and I was able to focus on the game without thinking about the service I was playing it on, which is ultimately the best endorsement of a new platform like this.

This will likely be a great service for more casual gamers but might not be the best fit for the most hardcore users playing multi-player titles. While you may be launching this service directly from YouTube feeds of eSports gamers, this is something they probably wouldn’t use. That’s because the latency between input and something being displayed onscreen isn’t imperceptible, though it’s probably good enough for the vast majority of users (myself included) which is still a worthy prize for the company’s efforts to take on the massive gaming market.

Google Stadia VP Phil Harrison wouldn’t give me a proper range of where exactly latency fell, but he did say it was less than the time it took for a human to perceive something and react — which another Google employee then told me differed person-to-person but was generally 70ms-130ms — so I suppose the most official number we’ll get is that the latency is probably somewhere less than 70ms.

There is no hard truth here though because latency will really depend on your geographic proximity to the datacenter. Being in San Francisco, I connected to a data center roughly 50 miles away in San Jose. Google confirmed to me that not all rural users in supported countries will be able to sign-up for the service at launch because of this.

Other interesting things to note:

  • Google said they’d confirm devices later, but when asked about iOS support at launch they highlighted that they were focused on Pixel devices at launch.
  • It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to restore purchases of games you’ve previously gotten, you’ll unsurprisingly have to buy all of your Stadia titles on the platform.
  • You’ll be able to access games from YouTube streams, but there will also be an online hub for all your content and you can access games via links.
  • The controller was nice and probably felt most similar to the design of Sony’s DualShock controller.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot more at Google I/O this summer, but with my first hands-on demo, the service certainly works and it certainly feels console-quality. The big freaking question is how Google prices this, because that pricing is going to determine whether it’s a service for casual gamers or hardcore gamers, and that will determine whether it’s a success.

Update: We were playing a level from Doom 2016, not Doom Eternal

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