How Google's Grand Plan to Make Stadia Games Fell Apart thumbnail

How Google’s Grand Plan to Make Stadia Games Fell Apart

In March 2019, Google CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to tell gamers what he owed them. He wasn’t a big gamer, he admitted. Google, though, was indebted to games. Games were the entry point for countless Googlers into computer science. Games like chess and Go helped train Google’s DeepMind AI. Gaming-like simulations let Waymo test safe transit systems for its self-driving cars. Now, Pichai said, Google would launch Stadia, a gaming platform built on the company’s cloud infrastructure. Not only that, but Google announced that it would produce its own exclusive titles for the service. It was officially in the business not just of distributing video games but creating them.

There was just one problem. Google is a tech company, not a content company. And while Stadia launched in November 2019 with third-party games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Destiny 2—and would eventually add dozens to its roster—Google’s own Stadia games never materialized. Earlier this month, Google announced it was closing Stadia Games and Entertainment, and laying off the 150 game developers it hired to make first-party games for Stadia just a year or two after hiring them. Many of those who lost their jobs still don’t have clarity on why. But sources familiar with Stadia’s operations believe that after pouring tens of millions of dollars into two game studios, Google couldn’t stomach the expensive and complicated creative process necessary to build high-caliber video games—especially considering Stadia’s unremarkable subscription numbers.

“I question how much the execs above Stadia leadership understand what they got into—the commitments made and overcommitments and the inability to keep those commitments,” says one current Stadia employee.

Stadia itself lives on as a cloud gaming platform, one of many: Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and other tech giants are similarly leveraging their massive data centers for cloud gaming. But Google’s failure with Stadia Games and Entertainment reflects tech giants’ broad inability to foster game development processes in environments optimized for optimization. After throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at Jeff Bezos’ mandate to “win at games,” Amazon’s Amazon Game Studios suffered repeated embarrassment with canceled, even unreleased first-party titles. Behemoth organizations that have found success producing games did so through acquisitions rather than building from scratch; Microsoft, for example, has snapped up over a dozen studios, including Mojang (Minecraft) and Bethesda (Fallout, Doom). Google thought it was different.

Four current and former Stadia employees speaking with WIRED say that despite Google’s substantial investment and hiring spree, it never could wrap its head around game development. The tech company, so good at making services, simply wasn’t set up to nourish the chaotic, multidisciplinary circus that is making games.

In 2018, Google hired Phil Harrison, a former executive at both Sony and Microsoft, to lead its Stadia division. “Definitely someone who knows the difference between RPGs and NPCs,” joked Pichai, introducing Harrison on stage at GDC a year later. Harrison’s aspirations were enormous: super-powerful data centers delivering blockbuster games at lightning-fast speed to devices everywhere, particularly to people who traditionally didn’t have access to gaming PCs and consoles. For $10 a month, gamers could stream select video games to phones and tablets connected to Wi-Fi. Infrastructure. Performance. Design. Scale. 4K, 1080p. Google was built for this.

From the GDC stage, Harrison enthused that Google had already shipped Stadia hardware to over 100 studios and over 1,000 “creatives.” He would go on to announce the formation of Stadia Games and Entertainment, “which will build experiences specifically designed for Stadia.” It would be months until Google would actually hire the bulk of its game devs.

Three sources working for Stadia Games and Entertainment say they were drawn to the promise of Stadia’s egalitarian technology, pitched as a revolution in game delivery. They believed that Google could provide the employment and lifestyle stability that traditional gaming companies could not. In an industry rife with layoffs, project cancellations, and “crunch”—the practice of working 60- or 80-hour weeks ahead of a game release—veteran game developers were looking for somewhere to nest. They wanted to make fantastic, polished games for a company not contaminated by the labor and culture issues endemic to gaming.

Prior to the GDC announcement, Google had already made a splashy hire in Jade Raymond, the founder of Ubisoft Toronto. Harrison would later scoop up senior developers, designers, and producers from Ubisoft and Electronic Arts. And in December 2019, Google acquired the Montreal-based game studio Typhoon Studios, known for Journey to the Savage Planet, and absorbed dozens of its employees onto Stadia. Stadia Games and Entertainment would exist across two studios, one in Montreal and one in Los Angeles. Raymond would oversee both.

In an October 2019 blog post announcing the Montreal studio, Raymond enthused that Stadia Games and Entertainment would develop “exclusive, original content across a diverse portfolio of games all in your favorite genres.” Stadia wouldn’t just revolutionize game platforms; it would revolutionize game development, she wrote. Raymond announced the Los Angeles studio the following March, hiring Sony vet Shannon Studstill to run it. (Raymond did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.)

By that point Google had already spent years developing Stadia’s underlying service, which launched on November 19, 2019. Two sources say that Google’s first mistake was syncopating Stadia’s development and Stadia Games and Entertainment’s existence. Hiring game developers significantly later signaled Google’s priorities early on, which, two sources say, contributed to a breakdown in trust between Google’s technologists, located in Mountain View, and its two game studios.

“Google is really an engineering and technology business,” says one source currently with Stadia. “Making content—it requires types of roles that don’t typically exist at Google.”

From the start, the high-level game devs Google had brought on board hit barrier after barrier trying to flesh out their teams. Google’s famously long and involved hiring process can take six to nine months. And it took time for Google to broaden its hiring standards to accommodate skill sets necessary for game development rather than its traditional fields. The goal was to bring in 2,000 people over five years to work on developing games for Stadia, two sources say.

Google is a highly structured company, dependent on highly structured processes. Game development, on the other hand, is organic. It’s messy, and it happens simultaneously across a multitude of disciplines using countless different software. Three sources said Google created roadblocks on the very fundamentals of game-making, like withholding permission to use certain game development software (security issues, apparently).

Making hyper-polished games worthy of Google’s revolutionary Stadia would take three to five years, two sources say, making it impossible for the service to launch with first-party titles. Instead, Stadia debuted with a handful of established AAA games including Final Fantasy XV, NBA 2K20, Wolfenstein: YoungBlood. The response was tepid, both externally and internally. WIRED’s six-out-of-10 review of Stadia found that the streaming service’s latency hindered Mortal Kombat 11, a fighting game dependent on twitch reflexes and lightning-fast inputs. Accessibility to a broad range of devices came at the cost of quality, even with a fiber connection directly plugged into a router. Stadia employees shared the concern that the technology felt like a beta at launch. It could have used more testing in different conditions and on different devices, one source says. Stadia has not revealed subscription numbers, but two sources say they did not meet internal expectations in 2020.

The lack of first-party games at launch was a missed promotional opportunity as well; studios associated with Sony or Microsoft often debut anticipated titles alongside next-generation consoles to create a virtuous circle of hype. But four sources say Stadia’s game development process felt stapled on, an awkward appendage to the core streaming technology effort. Developers were told to design prototypes that showcased Stadia technology like Google’s cloud computing capacity or State Share, which lets players replay or share sections of games crystallized in video clips and screenshots. “For a long time, the mandate for games included requirements to espouse the Stadia-specific mentality, so, like, taking advantage of features meant specifically for Stadia,” says one current Stadia employee. They add that long-term projects were designed to highlight Stadia tech as well. They felt Google wasn’t funding games to sell games; it was funding games to sell Stadia.

Eventually, Stadia Games and Entertainment teams got the software and people it needed to gain momentum prototyping Stadia games. The allure of a Google-sized paycheck and an exit ramp from the crunch-fueled hamster wheel was enough to draw a critical mass of developers to Stadia Games and Entertainment. Artists, producers, audio experts, programmers had been brought on with the promise of making one-of-a-kind games for a revolutionary software—and, many believed, without the threat of layoffs hanging like the sword of Damocles, as is too often the case at traditional game companies. Teams were exploring what Google games could look like, how to best to tap into the power of Google’s massive data centers and showcase cloud gaming. Then, Covid-19 struck.

In April 2020—a month after the Los Angeles studio was announced—Google implemented a hiring freeze. “Now is the time to significantly slow down the pace of hiring,” Pichai said in an internal message, “while maintaining momentum in a small number of strategic areas where users and businesses rely on Google for ongoing support, and where our growth is critical to their success.” Gaming, according to four sources, was not one of those “strategic areas.”

“If the company was OK putting us on a hiring freeze, they were also OK with damaging our ability to build content,” says one source. “The studio was not yet fully formed and ready to produce games. That put on the brakes, and was a statement. We interpreted it as a lack of commitment from Google to make content.”

Google is not the first tech giant to run into these difficulties. Amazon followed a similar arc. In 2020, WIRED investigated the enormous challenges Jeff Bezos’s empire has faced producing first-party games in its Amazon Game Studios. Like Google, Amazon hired the best of the best: trusted developers like Far Cry 2’s Clint Hocking, System Shock 2’s Ian Vogel, EverQuest’s John Smedley, and Portal’s Kim Swift, many of whom were excited about the stability and relatively higher paychecks associated with the tech giant. Amazon’s goal, according to several sources, was to make a billion-dollar franchise that would help advertise the company’s cloud technology, proprietary game engine, and Twitch streaming service.

The approach, sources say, was hubristic. Amazon wanted to “win at games,” developing several AAA games simultaneously despite its nonexistent track record in the industry. Amazon Game Studios head Mike Frazzini has no prior professional experience in games. High expectations combined with Amazon idiosyncrasies—an obsession with in-house software, for example, and a fixation on measuring success with data—has led to failure after failure. Amazon has cancelled at least three of its games: Project Nova, Breakaway, and Crucible, the last of which was canceled just five months after release.

AAA game development can cost between $100 million and $200 million. Successes like Blizzard’s Overwatch come from the ashes of failures, like the company’s scrapped massively multiplayer online role-playing game Titan. Product design at big tech companies may not always be straightforward, but game design is a resource- and money-intensive labyrinth.

“I think it’s a lack of understanding of the process,” says one source who works at Stadia. “It seemed there were executive-level people not fully grasping how to navigate through a space that is highly creative, cross-disciplinary.”

Throughout Google’s hiring freeze, game developers felt thwarted in accomplishing their goals. Prototypes were being developed without full resources; the studios weren’t working at full capacity. When performance review time came, three sources say, Google judged game developers against benchmarks created for UX or visual designers. There isn’t a number associated with “fun-to-play,” or a process-based workflow for generating creativity. Veteran game developers lobbied for their work culture as much as they could. Over time, Google seemed to soften. Developers got the tools they needed, the appropriate reviews processes. But not the headcount. Frustration persisted.

On January 27, 2021, Harrison emailed Stadia employees sharing the year’s “high-level platform budget and investment envelope.” In a rallying cry, Harrison maintained that Google has the best game-streaming technology. Also, he said, Stadia Games and Entertainment had made “great progress building a diverse and talented team and establishing a strong line up of Stadia exclusive games.” He didn’t confirm the division’s budget at the time, but said it would come soon, as it would “inform the SG&E strategy and 2021 OKRs,” or “objectives and key results,” a goal framework used by Google.

Five days later, Harrison would gather Stadia Games and Entertainment employees into a short stream to let them know Stadia Games and Entertainment was shutting down. Google was ending its efforts to create games before it had gotten one out the door. Google would help them through it, he said; people with relevant skill sets might find new employment at the tech giant.

Sources say they weren’t shocked, but it was a jarring twist so soon after Harrison praised the “great progress” Stadia Games and Entertainment had made. (Jade Raymond retweeted an article by Kotaku breaking the news of that email, but later un-retweeted.) Publicly, Harrison emphasized Stadia’s focus on helping outside game developers and publishers use Stadia. “We’ve decided that we will not be investing further in bringing exclusive content from our internal development team SG&E, beyond any near-term planned games,” wrote Harrison in a blog post. Raymond, whom two sources described as a brilliant visionary, was leaving Google for greener pastures.

Sources say they felt Harrison was, at best, not transparent throughout their employment with Google. They didn’t know how Stadia was landing with gamers. They didn’t understand why Google was shutting down first-party game development. And finally, they weren’t sure whether Google was ever really invested in making AAA games, or knew what it took. At worst, they think, Harrison misled them. Several Stadia Games and Entertainment employees, disillusioned with the games industry, are staying on with Google. Others are doing some soul-searching.

“I saw that the only way this could work is if Google accepts that we take it step-by-step,” says one source. “If Google is really interested in carving its place in this market, then it would be fine with losing money at the beginning to establish their presence.” Two sources say Google should have followed in Microsoft’s path and focused on acquiring studios rather than trying to start from scratch.

It is miraculous that successful large-scale games get made at all, anywhere. A big-budget game can be beautiful, but does the “jump” feel good? It can piece into a popular genre, but is it too same-y? Does the plot make sense? Are the characters balanced? And, most of all, is it fun? There is no potion to drizzle into the fizzing cauldron of game development to produce a hit; it takes all kinds of people channeling their personal inspiration into one multitudinous commodity. It’s crazed and human. That’s the alchemy that tech giants still can’t solve for.

Correction Friday 2/26/2021 2:57 pm ET: This story initially said that Microsoft had acquired the game studio 343 Industries; it instead established it after separating with Bungie, the original developer of the Halo franchise.


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