SAN FRANCISCO—Google’s Phil Harrison tells Ars that Stadia game streaming should provide a smooth, full-resolution experience on Internet connections above a threshold of 20 to 30mbps, a level that should allow for “hundreds of millions of potential players in the markets that we’re talking about.”
While the company set a threshold of 25mbps for its beta testing late last year, Harrison told Ars that “in actual fact, we only use an average of 20mbps; it obviously bounces up and down depending on the scene.” Since that beta, Harrison said infrastructure and codec improvements “now allow us to get up to 4K resolution [at 60 frames per second] within about 30mbps. So we saw a dramatic increase in quality between then and now without a significant increase in bandwidth.”
Even at that threshold, Harrison acknowledges that “I know [Stadia] won’t reach everybody [and] I respect that some people will be frustrated by that. But I suspect that some of those people don’t get a great YouTube experience, they might get a good Netflix experience today. The good news is the Internet continues to grow in quality and reach. So there is a bit of a rising tide that lifts all boats, with 5G potentially helping that equation in the future. That’s a little bit over the horizon today, but it’s I think going to come into view pretty quickly.”
The latency issue
With streaming gaming, the bandwidth to provide a smooth, high-resolution video is only part of the equation. Added latency between player inputs and reactions on the screen can be a killer problem for all sorts of games.
In our interview, Harrison wouldn’t go into details on Google’s latency mitigation efforts or talk about a threshold for additional latency that the company would consider acceptable. “Different games have different sensitivities,” Harrison offered.
But there were a few points in our chat where he did allude to some proprietary secret sauce that would lessen the round-trip time for player input.
That includes “innovations that we have put in our data centers at the hardware level which are not visible to the outside world,” and “a lot of work in the encode end of the equation in the data center, a lot of which is not disclosed publicly.” Harrison also cited “the partnerships we have with the ISPs, the fact that all the data sits on Google’s backbone for as much of the experience as possible” as really improving the experience.
Outside the data center, Harrison said Google would be providing “insights to players on how to tune their experience and get the right hardware in their homes.” That might mean buying “a different type of router” or steering people toward Google’s own Wi-Fi mesh network hardware (which, to be clear, will not be the only supported router).
Using a Stadia controller connected via Wi-Fi also helps with the latency issue, Harrison said. “Bluetooth is slow, Bluetooth would add additional hops that are not necessary; it would add unnecessary latency to the equation. [A Wi-Fi controller] also allows us to integrate things like the Google Assistant technology at a really native level. It’s the best architecture, it gives us the best flexibility, and it also allows you as a player this seamless movement between screens.”
Harrison expressed confidence that the levels of lag involved in a standard Stadia experience were compatible with even the twitchiest, most reflex-heavy kinds of games. He also let slip that “we have a couple of leading fighting games in development on our platform.”
Even with all the company’s efforts to reduce latency, though, Harrison allowed that there is a certain level of player that won’t accept any additional lag. “I fully respect that there is a top of that [esports player] pyramid, who are typically players wearing logo t-shirts in a comfy gamer chair, and they’re investing in lowest possible latency mouse pads. Maybe we’re not going to reach those players day one. But I think that aspirational pyramid beneath the pinnacle pro players is absolutely for Stadia.”
Who is this for?
Since long before Stadia’s announcement, some critics have considered streaming gaming as a solution in search of a problem—a service that gamers at large aren’t really asking for. But Harrison says Google’s market research has identified two broad categories of player that “we believe will be excited by Stadia.”
The first is “leading-edge players that understand the technology of 4K, 60 frames per second. They know what HDMI means to quality. They will love the ability to take a game they love across any screen time.”
The second, Harrison said, is a more budget-conscious gamer “that frankly cannot afford to keep up with the rate of change in the hardware generations, whether it’s on a PC or console. My observation is console cycles are starting to speed up again, not slow down, and that’s an expensive capital expenditure to keep up with… There is a player that loves to play, wants to play, but can’t play on the latest, greatest machines.”
Harrison wouldn’t go into details on the type of expenses a Stadia customer might be facing instead of hardware costs or even the potential types of monetization structures the service would use. He did promise more information on that score in the summer, though.
Harrison said he respected previous game streaming efforts that “were all pioneers and should be applauded for taking those bold steps.” That said, he suggested that “it takes a fairly unique set of capabilities to really get this to scale. Google is one of the very, very small group of companies that has the technology, the reach, and the long view to pull this off.”
“If you were to approach this as a startup, you would be reliant on somebody else’s infrastructure,” he said. “And you’re automatically introducing a latency and performance hit, even before you get to the economic hit.”
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