Google Stadia: Phil Harrison Talks Data Caps, Pricing, And Exclusive Games

At GDC 2019, we sat down with Google VP Phil Harrison to talk about Stadia, his company's new cloud-based streaming service for video games. The platform will allow you to play all types of games, both triple-A and indie, from a variety of devices.

During its GDC 2019 keynote presentation, Google announced Stadia will release within 2019, and come to the US, Canada, UK, and "most of" Europe. The only games confirmed for the service as of this time are Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Doom Eternal. Harrison offered further details during our interview, including what exclusives will look like and what type of pricing model players can expect. He also confirmed Stadia will never support offline downloads.

We have more information on how cloud gaming works, and have outlined the top companies investing in gaming's possible cloud-based future. Read on for our full chat with Harrison.

I assume you've been monitoring all of the chatter, the reaction so far. What do you think?

Very happy with the way that our message was received and I think that there's a lot of very thoughtful follow up which is starting to happen. It's exactly what I wanted.

There's obviously a lot more to talk about in the months to come, but I wanted to start off with asking about latency and input lag. Are you confident that by the time the service is out, you'll be able to satisfy most of those concerns around input lag and latency?

Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. And we believe that it's not just for when the server starts, it's actually, we've demonstrated it today. Having a studio with a very, very high threshold of quality and functionality from [id Software] and having id on our stage yesterday was very purposeful, because the way [Marty Stratton] tells the story is spot on. They were skeptical when we first started talking to them. They were skeptical that a streaming platform could support the level of quality and responsiveness that they needed to deliver on their game experience. What they have delivered with Doom Eternal, I don't know if you've had the chance to?

I haven't personally, no.

[Well it absolutely] demonstrates that. And it's because of the investments that we are making in the hardware, in the fundamental networking fabric, in the compression and encoder and the way that we transport the bits from our data center to your home. There's probably a hundred innovations there that each mean that we can deliver that quality of experience. There's a very thoughtful editorial on Digital Foundry, I don't know if you've had the chance to read?

The Eurogamer article from this morning?

Yeah, Eurogamer. It's a very deep technical analysis. And in summary, they're saying that it's indistinguishable from a local Xbox One X, which I think is a very good way to frame this.

And then in more kind of serious but kind of jokey ways, we get the data, the video from our data center to your eyeball, quicker than your eyeball to brain to nervous system to finger. The human operating system is the slowest part of the operating system, and some humans are slower than others!

Have you got a fix for that, then?

I think that being about 12 is probably the best fix.

One of the other big questions people have is about bandwidth and the requirements for that. I've read some of the stuff you've already talked about, and I think you've said between 25 and 30 Mbps? Is that right?

Yes. [Happy] to clarify any questions on that. [For Project Stream], we asked gamers to have 25 megabits per second, although, in fact, we only use about 20 megabits per second on average in order to get a 1080p, 60 frames per second stream. Because of innovations that we've made on our compressor and encoder, we will deliver up to 4K, or deliver 4K at around 30 megabits per second. And then if you are still streaming at 1080p because of bandwidth or device, then we will use much less bandwidth.

So how do you message that to the end user then? Like how do you tell them that, depending on infrastructure and bandwidth, this is the quality of experience you're going to get with Stadia?

So there will be some objective and subjective ways that we do it. One, there will be some bandwidth tests that players will be able to perform in order to inform them about what the performance characteristics of their network are. There will be just information that we'll make available on our website and other places that will hopefully educate. And then there's a crucial bit in the middle which is, helping players optimize [in case] there are some environmental reasons inside their home that are restricting their experience. [We] will give them a knowledge base that will allow them to then--in some cases--move their wireless router or [maybe] upgrade their router. But we'll help the gamers as much as we can every step of the way.

So how does that work in a practical sense? Will there be a tutorial or something that you're going to offer?

I don't know how we'll do it practically but we're committed to doing it.

Okay. So, I guess the next big question is data caps. A lot of people out there are throttled by how much data that they're able to get every month. Are you working with ISPs to come up with some sort of solution around that?

The ISPs in the US where this issue is more prevalent, but not everywhere, so I think it's actually important to remember that this is not a national, nationwide concern. But historically, ISPs have demonstrated that they are very responsive to [consumers' needs]. When music streaming became popular, they lifted the bandwidth limit. When music streaming migrated to YouTube and Netflix streaming, once again the limits went up, and we expect that the limits will continue to rise over time. Partly driven by consumer demand, but also frankly, ISPs are in competition. There is a market dynamic, you know, that we believe will help continue to deliver a great service for gamers. [There are] trials going on with 5G streaming; [bandwidth in homes] that have no caps at all. So I think that we'll continue to see innovation with that.

Is there something specifically that you, as Google, is doing to push ISPs along this path?

We think that the ISPs understand the opportunity and will make the innovation.

Right now, you've pegged Stadia as something to expect later this year. When you do launch, is it going to be staggered by region or city, or will a switch be turned on and it's just available?

So we are already live in 12 data centers, from Project Stream from last year. We need to build out our infrastructure. And we will make detailed launch plans on [an exact] date in the summer.

Do you have any figures or a percentage of the market that you are looking at, that shows you, this is the percentage of the US population that can get the service in its full capacity, when you launch? Is there a number that you're looking at there?

We have a number of data points that show us, both from our internal data from use of YouTube to other publicly available information. Across the launch markets that we are focused on for 2019, it's measured in the hundreds of millions.

In the US, is there like a number you can share?

I don't have it broken down in my head, I'm sorry.

But you're comfortable that you're hitting a significant part of the available market with the infrastructure that you're requiring?

Absolutely.

A big question mark is around pricing. I know you guys aren't talking about that specifically right now. But can I ask, is the pricing model, is that something that's already been decided and you've still got to?

Yes.

Okay, so it's already been decided and you're just going to reveal it at a later date?

Correct.

Can I ask what some of the factors were that led you to deciding on the specific model that you have, without obviously giving it all away?

A lot of very deep conversations with our developer and publisher partners over many, many months and years in some cases. And a lot of deep consumer research. We have had a fantastic user research team as a core part of the Stadia team for two years now. And so, we have [our] point of view, [which we] then test [against various] hypotheses with consumers and with publishing partners, and then get to the right result.

A lot of this is uncharted waters, though. How difficult was it to come to whatever this model is?

Ask me that question in the summer.

Okay, I will. So, whatever the pricing model ends up being, will resolution be respective of price? For example, are you able to offer me, for the same price, a 8K service versus a 4K service versus a 1080p service?

We're not gonna get into those details today. I will confirm however that 8K is not in our launch window or scenario. And we'll talk about exactly how we're going to be bringing this to market in the summer.

I totally respect [latency concerns], and that is why, one of the reasons why we allow and enable gamers with the devices they already own, to be able to try Stadia. So using a laptop they may have that runs Chrome with a USB connected controller that they already have. They have everything they need in order to try and prove to themselves that Stadia works great for them. And then they will be able to feel great about that and hopefully deepen their experience with us.

Yeah. As we mentioned, this is somewhat uncharted territory for games and you know, one of the other key things that the audience keeps bringing up is the issue of ownership, right? So in a streaming platform, what do they actually own? How difficult do you think it will be for you to get traditional core gamers on board with the idea of streaming and not having that physical disc in their hand or a download that they have on their console?

There is no denying, there is no download. There is no physical box for them to put on a shelf, and actually I can speak from some kind of personal experience on this, because I'm a music fan and I'm a film fan. And somewhere in crates, I actually don't know where anymore, I have thousands of CDs. And I can't remember the last time I bought a CD. I used to buy Blu-ray discs because I wanted that physical ownership. I can't remember the last time I bought a Blu-ray disc. All of the media that I consume has gone to streaming.

But it took me a while to get to that point. It wasn't something, it wasn't a decision that I made overnight. It was because I recognized the value of being able to enjoy that music or those shows on all of the devices in my life seamlessly. It was like, well actually this is better because it's easier. This is better because it's more immediate.

And so, I'm not gonna tell your readers how to think for themselves about how they will go on that journey. And I respect that some will be earlier, and some will be later. But that's the same with every innovation that happens in technology.

Do you think there's something specific within the gamer experience and the gamer DNA that would make letting go of that a bit more difficult than with other media?

I think our job as a platform is to demonstrate [value] to the gamer of, what it really means when they [login to your] platform. The game experiences that the gamers get are adding value to the experience in a way that is clear as day that you could never get this from a downloaded or packaged product. And that's the challenge that we have to be up for.

And that's why we're building a first-party studio. That's why we are bringing the best of Google technologies in support of the game development process, so that we bring ML and AI and conversational understanding and things that are only possible when the entire data center is running the game.

Now, I know you said no downloads, but we have seen in the past few years, places like Spotify and Netflix, eventually offer offline downloads. Is that something you'd ever consider?

No. Not technically possible.

Yeah, I was gonna ask, with the way Stadia is built, if you even could.

It would be a compromise of our vision if we were to do that.

What about the data collection and privacy side of things? What are you able to say now to people about how Stadia will collect or use the information you gather from player usage?

Well we absolutely respect players' privacy and will hold very high standards, as you would expect from Google, around privacy. So I don't know that I have anything to add other than our account system will be built on top of the Google account system. You will absolutely have a different persona in a game than you have on your Gmail, so people don't need to worry about how they show up in the real world versus the virtual world. We will separate and make that distinct. And what we offer to game developers is I think a scale of reaching more gamers across more devices and so hopefully that is a win-win for the gamer, because they get better games, and it's a win-win for the developer.

You mentioned you'll be separating profiles from Gmail. But with the integration of YouTube being so central to this, is it going to be off your YouTube ID as well then?

No, it's off your, it's, without going into the kind of intricacies about how Google's account works, it's built on top of your Google account.

What's the reaction been from the developers so far?

Great, I mean I'm happily spending a lot of time with media since I came offstage, but… it's been fed back to me from other colleagues, you know, the meetings that they're having with developers who are seeing the platform for the first time. Obviously we have been sharing under NDA and [privately kept] plans with many developers. But we're able to make much more public what we're doing now and it's been great. Really exciting.

One of the big confirmations from the Google keynote was the creation of Stadia Games and Entertainment. How long before we hear news about what that studio is working on? Is it a single project, multiple projects? What can you say?

Multiple games. We're building our own in-house studios from scratch. That inevitably takes time but we're also working with independent external developers to publish and bring games to Stadia in very unique ways. So I think you'll hear from us more quickly about those games.

The partner games?

The partner games, and then [Jade Raymond] actually builds out her team and she has a--I actually don't even know if anybody knows what a Rolodex is anymore--but you know, she has a very powerful link to everybody. I've dated myself using Rolodex.

How long has work been going on in the background with Stadia Games and Entertainment? I mean, GDC obviously wasn't the first time you guys started work. How long has behind the scenes stuff been going on?

It was a conversation that I had with Google leadership before I joined the company. [My] point of view was [that in order] to really deliver on the promise of this platform, we had to build our own games. We had to build our own experiences, and that was a very fundamental, strategic direction that we needed to move in.

This leads to my next question. I don't wanna put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you think exclusives are still a very important part of the platform?

I understand that [for a gamer] the word 'exclusive' can sometimes be a challenging terminology. [I would] rather we moved the narrative towards [games] that are built specifically for a data center. And if those games also show up on other streaming platforms, that's okay, because what that means is that the developers are starting to innovate and think about the future and [build] a 21st century game, rather than a 20th century game.

So you're not excluding the possibility that some things that Stadia Games and Entertainment create might appear on another streaming platform?

No, the games that we make, that we invest in ourselves, will obviously only be on our platform.

You're obviously going up against some very well established competition. And the way I see it, you guys have the infrastructure and the community when it comes to YouTube. But well established players like Sony and Microsoft have the edge in their respective game libraries. Assuming you get up to speed on the game library side of things, how important is the community side to the success of this?

I think it's vital that we give game developers the tools and technology to allow them to create those new experiences that are both playable and viewable. And that this is a whole new game design language, that I reckon [will be in GDCs] two, three, four years from now. [It will] be a very clear talk track inside of GDC.

I'm already having these conversations with teammates in some studios. Historically, you [had] a game producer [build] the game. But now, some studios are very thoughtfully thinking about, well I need to augment that with somebody who understands the viewership experience. The language, the rules, the meta--[the meta way] of doing this hasn't been defined yet. We're just starting to define that in [this industry], but that's a really fascinating transition.

So you're saying that how a game is viewed on a platform, like YouTube, will become as important as to how it actually plays?

Correct.

Okay, that's super interesting.

And this idea that the memorable moments that become the shareable stories on YouTube, which then become the click and play jumping off points for other people to enjoy or engage with that game, are really super valuable.

So that'll be part of the DNA of any games that your own studio will be making, is that right?

I hope so.

Okay. One last question. Who's the audience? Like in your head, are you going for like, core audience--people who have traditionally played console--or are you going for a much broader group?

Both. And I think we are building the platform with the highest level of technical capability so that you and people like your readers are excited by the technical capabilities. That's why we're going for 4K, 60 frames per second, HDR, which all those are almost like buzzwords or checkpoints. They're validations of intent of how important we respect both the developer and the gamer. And then there is another audience who is just super excited about the idea of being able to take those triple-A game experiences and not have to pay a huge upfront cost for a console or a high end PC. And those two worlds are maybe different, they speak different languages, but they get excited about the platform as well.

Thank you so much, Phil. When will we hear from you guys next?

In the summer.

Can you outline what the next thing you'll wanna talk about is?

So if you think about GDC as being our statement of intent and vision for [game developers], [then, we'll be spending] the coming weeks and months [with] the community of YouTube creators. And then in the summer, we will be focused on the gamer, on the player. What they can play, exactly when they can play it, pricing, business model. It's not really something that players think about but, you know, just the way in which they will have a commercial relationship with the platform and with the games and the launch date, etc. So we've got a busy few months ahead.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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