Google Stadia, the megacorp’s service to stream playable games on TVs and mobile devices without a console or PC, is the company’s leap into the melee of cloud gaming. Google is typically the biggest fish in any pond, but in cloud gaming it competes with other heavy hitters like Microsoft (xCloud), Nvidia (GeForce Now) and Sony (PlayStation Now).
As with those services, Stadia games run on powerful data center servers, which makes it possible to render and stream demanding games to lightweight hardware like phones. Sometimes using a custom Stadia controller, sometimes not. Google also provides a platform and tools for developers to create Stadia-optimized versions of their games; your subscription fees go for extra features, such as 4K and freebies.
If you think Stadia sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Fortunately, we can help cut through the hype and explain its promised, but still missing, features.
Google Stadia: Everything you need to know about the…
When Google initially announced Stadia at GDC 2019, it hyped a lot of its grand ambitions, such as Crowd Play and State Share. But while those all may eventually come to fruition, at the moment it’s quite a pared-down version of the company’s vision. That’s common with the incremental rollouts of these services.
For instance, Stadia only works over Wi-Fi now; network connection speed and quality are so important for a decent cloud gaming experience that all the companies that offer the option to play non-native mobile games over cellular networks are being very cautious. Hence the excitement around 5G. And Google is a latecomer to cloud gaming, so it’s still at the working-out-the-basic-kinks stage while others have leveled up on to refining the experience. That partially offsets the advantage of its extensive network of data centers.
How much does it cost?
Stadia is now free for anyone with a Gmail account. Google opened up the service to everyone on April 8, and those who sign up will receive two free months of Stadia Pro, which comes with nine free games in April including GRID, Destiny 2: The Collection, and Thumper.
At launch the company offered — and has since discontinued — a Founder’s Edition, which included a limited-edition blue controller, a Chromecast Ultra streaming device, three months of Stadia Pro, Bungie’s full Destiny 2 experience, first dibs on a username and a buddy pass that gave a friend three months to try Stadia Pro.
That has since evolved into the $129 (£119) Premiere Edition, which comes with a white Stadia controller, Chromecast Ultra and three months of the Pro subscription. In mid-January 2020, Verizon announced it would be bundling Stadia Premiere Edition with new subscriptions to its top-end Fios Gigabit broadband plan beginning Jan. 29.
Stadia subscription tiers
$9.99 (£8.99) a month
Started April 8
Now (only with Premiere Edition bundle)
Up to 1080/60fps, stereo sound
Hardware permitting, up to 4K/60p HDR and 5.1 surround
Periodic limited-window offers
Limited time discount offers, percent varies
Stadia is available in North America (plus Puerto Rico and Alaska, but not Hawaii or Guam) and selected countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia, including the UK.
How do I buy games?
The Stadia game store lists the current titles available for the service. Game prices are typically the publisher prices and sold only through Google. Pro subscribers get access to occasional deals for games that happen periodically.
If you decide to cancel your Stadia Pro subscription or choose not to subscribe after your free three months are up, it reverts to Stadia Base, so you can still play any Stadia games you’ve paid for. However, you lose access to any free games or content that you got as a perk of the Pro subscription. Google saves your progress and add-on history so you can resubscribe and pick up where you left off.
If you return the entire Premiere hardware bundle for a refund within the 15-day window, you lose the Stadia Pro three-month trial and the aforementioned freebies. Game purchases can be refunded within two weeks and less than two hours of gameplay.
The flip side of this, though, is what happens if a game publisher “cancels.” We’ve all seen content disappear from IP-heavy subscription plans like Netflix and Amazon Prime (I still haven’t gotten over Doctor Who disappearing at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve), and some games have been known to drift in and out of subscription services. Google intends to keep games available to play if you’ve spent money on them, but that’s a little too fuzzy to consider as a policy.
In its current state, you can officially play Stadia games on select Android phones — Google’s Pixel 2, Pixel 3, Pixel 3A and Pixel 4; and as of Feb. 20, Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, S8 Active, Note 8, S9, S9 Plus, Note 9, S10, S10 Plus, Note 10, S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra; the Asus ROG Phone and ROG Phone 2; plus the Razer Phone and Razer Phone 2.
It also works on iPhone and iPads, TVs (with a Chromecast Ultra and Stadia Controller), in the Chrome browser on laptops and desktops, or on Chrome OS devices. As usual with iOS apps, you can’t actually buy games within them, just manage games and play them. However, that doesn’t mean people haven’t been running them with various degrees of success on unsupported devices, including the Nintendo Switch and not-Google phones.
Since launch, Google has expanded its controller support beyond its own Stadia Controller ($69 or £59) to any HID-compliant one, which includes many Xbox Controllers and the DualShock 4. It supports TVs via the Stadia Controller (over Wi-Fi) and Chromecast Ultra; the service requires at least Android 6.0/iOS 11 or tablets running Chrome OS 77. You can connect controllers via USB or selectively via Bluetooth, and Stadia does support keyboard and mouse play using Chrome.
Playing Google Stadia for the first time
Stadia itself still only runs wirelessly over Wi-Fi — no cellular connections yet, though you can always try running that way using your phone as a hotspot — but a wired Ethernet connection is still the preferred method for all these services. Google specifies minimum bandwidth requirements for each quality level of 10 megabits per second (720p), 20Mbps (1080p) and 35Mbps (4K). As for data usage, the company says it sucks up to 4.5GB, 12.6GB or 20GB per hour for either of those resolutions, respectively. If your connection is a little erratic or drops, Google buffers the game state for a few minutes to give you an opportunity to fix it.
April’s Stadia Pro games Current game lineup Upcoming gamesWhat’s next?
On Jan. 16, the Google Stadia team laid out plans for the first three months of 2020. Along with more features rolling out, the team expects 120 games to be released this year. Among the features promised to arrive next: Expanded capabilities for gaming via stadia.com, including 4K support, Google Assistant improvements and wireless gameplay with the Stadia Controller
An update on Feb. 27 to the Stadia app showed Family Sharing, YouTube streaming and game capturing are partially coded in, which could mean the features will be coming soon.
On Thursday, April 17, Google updated the service to provide 5.1 surround sound on the web via the Chrome browser. There’s also an on-screen keyboard now accessible when a gamepad is connected. Stadia app users will also see notifications about their connections when playing.