Google’s ‘Stadia’ Is a Massive Data Windfall. Who Will Benefit?
For the first time, Google is positioning itself as a competitor to the likes of PlayStation and Xbox with its new offering, Stadia, a cloud-based gaming service – with both free and paid tiers – that allows gamers to play computationally demanding games on a variety of low-power devices (budget laptops, phones and Chromecasts) by rendering the gameplay in Google data centers, rather than on local hardware.
Google Stadia chief Phil Harrison puts it bluntly: "With Stadia, the data center is your platform."
This offers a number of benefits to gamers, particularly new ones, who'd prefer to avoid purchasing often-expensive hardware, such as consoles and gaming PCs. But the shift from locally owned hardware and locally stored software to an entirely cloud-based model puts gaming squarely in Google’s wheelhouse: data collection.
Stadia’s tech backbone is perhaps most similar to YouTube’s. IEEE laid out the case in a recent article: Stadia, after all, is in effect streaming video – even using the same compression codecs as YouTube – with a higher upload data need to account for user input. But Stadia, IEEE writes, also leverages “purpose-built custom hardware accelerators” (to accelerate video compression), specialized data transport protocols like WebRTC and QUIC (rather than default protocols, such as TCP and UDP) and a custom congestion control algorithm.
Google’s sixteen enormous data centers will be equipped with Stadia-focused hardware, says IEEE – including a custom, high-performance AMD GPU. The new GPU is capable of 10.7 teraflops of computing power, which is more than the GPUs in the Xbox One X and the PlayStation 4 combined. Moreover, multiple Stadia machines can be used to simultaneously accelerate one client, allowing for Stadia to run more intensive applications. Stadia servers were also deployed, per IEEE, at more than 7,500 edge locations within ISP networks. This massive server deployment will be connected by Google’s fiber investments, which include nearly 9% of transoceanic fiber.
Stadia’s Data Access
Data collection from gaming is by tech standards an ancient enterprise. Since the launch of Valve Software’s Steam, one of the first software hubs for purchasing and downloading games, in the early 2000s, gamers have by and large reconciled themselves to the fact that some of their data (such as game purchases, playtime and achievements) is collected by the services that provide the downloads and online functionality. Developers may also collect certain statistics about gameplay on a limited basis, helping diagnose gameplay issues and guide future game design.
Stadia’s data access is much more granular. For Stadia to provide a cloud-based gaming experience, it needs to record and transmit a variety of data to the cloud: mouse movements, keystrokes, device type, settings and so on. Stadia will almost certainly need to collect performance data, such as delivered framerate over the course of gameplay. This differs substantially from many local gaming software services – Steam, for instance, only collects general hardware and software data through an anonymized, opt-in monthly survey, and does not note any mouse or keyboard data collection on its GDPR compliance page.
The vast data potential
So what could it mean for Google to have access to such granular data in a software industry that has – for the most part – leveraged local hardware and engaged in relatively limited data collection?
If Google stores – and is willing to share – the data, the implications could be enormous for game developers. That data could be used to generate a heatmap of where players click during different stages of a game, a list of the areas in which they are most likely to be stuck, the points at which players are most likely to quit, and so forth. The data could also help developers to pinpoint pain points for performance – identifying stages of games where more resources are needed to deliver high-quality graphics. Crucially, all of this could be accomplished without the need for wholly in-house analytics conducted by the developers.
The data could have similar implications for gaming market analysis – both for developers and for Google itself. Developers would be able to understand, at a microscopic level, which game design decisions are more or less engaging, which games inspire more or less activity on which devices at which time of day, and so on. Google, meanwhile, would be able to understand the same things – and might leverage that data to inform how it approaches its developer partnerships for Stadia support and exclusive offerings.
All of this data, of course, could be amplified by Google’s vast – perhaps unparalleled – knowledge of customer demographics – something to which the game industry has not, for the most part, had direct access. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a future in which Google is able to automatically deliver analytics for developers regarding how different demographics engage differently with a given gameplay experience – a function that could yield meaningful results both for marketing and for accessibility.
There are clear machine learning tie-ins as well: diagnosing performance slowdowns and notifying developers in advance if their games exhibit characteristics that lead to performance issues; alerting developers if a substantial percent of players become stuck in a certain area; rewarding or promoting games with high levels of specific types of engagement. Much like it does with YouTube or its music services, Google could specifically tailor recommendations a user by comparing their gameplay behavior to that of other users.
An unknown – for now
Google, for its part, has been relatively tight-lipped about what data it will be collecting, storing or using from Stadia. “We're absolutely committed to everything being at the user's control,” Harrison said in an interview with Eurogamer. “And the same level of control and functionality that you would expect from Google will apply to us as well.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Google hasn’t thought about the implications of the data at its fingertips – especially with the formation of Stadia Games & Entertainment, Google’s first-party game development studio. In an interview with Variety, Harrison described Stadia as a “fundamental shift in the way that games are designed, made and played” – and surely, in Google’s data-driven world, any fundamental shift will put data to work.