What Google Stadia’s Demise Means for Indie Developers

By: Jay Rooney

Google’s shocking-but-not-really-that-shocking decision to pull the plug on Google Stadia is like bankruptcy, or societal collapse, in that it happened two ways: gradually, and then all at once. Since the ill-fated cloud gaming service’s announcement, Google had clobbered Stadia with one self-inflicted would after another, from its baffling choice to use three of gaming’s most spectacular failures (one of which actually had potential) to its equally-baffling choice to shutter its in-house development studios barely a year into Stadia’s life.

So, was anybody really surprised when Google announced what everyone had been predicting since day one?

I don’t want to dunk on Stadia while it’s down. At least not too much. The technology powering it was genuinely impressive. It offered developers one of the most equitable payment models the industry has ever seen. The promise of cloud gaming was one of democratizing gaming, of bringing the joy of our hobby to people who couldn’t afford or couldn’t justify purchasing expensive gaming consoles, even more expensive gaming PCs, and comparatively expensive (compared to other media) $60-70 AAA games. And Google Stadia, despite a famously rocky launch, appeared poised to actually deliver on this promise. Stadia’s demise is a tragedy that will set this promise back many years.

But I will dunk on Google. And not just because of how it mismanaged such a promising product to an early and entirely avoidable grave.

No, I will dunk on Google for screwing over the developers—particularly indie developers—who had the audacity to take a chance on its ill-fated gaming foray. And at Google’s insistence, no less.

Game developers learned about Stadia’s impending death at the same time consumers did.

But unlike consumers, some of these developers had poured months (or even years) of time, effort, and resources into releasing or porting games onto Stadia—some of which were set to become Stadia exclusives, thanks to very attractive incentives on the part of Google.

And to add insult to injury, Google insisted, time and time again, that it was committed to Stadia “for the long run,” and that it had no plans to kill it. The most recent such communication went out a mere three days before Google did, in fact, kill Stadia.

Now, Google’s being (rightly) lauded for refunding consumers who purchased games that’ll soon no longer exist and hardware that’ll soon become useless. But this surprisingly (for a major tech company) consumer-friendly decision from Google makes its blindsiding of its developer partners all the more baffling and egregious.

Even as I write this, several developers are still waiting to hear from Google. Still waiting to hear what (if any) recourse they’ll get for hitching their fate to Stadia’s wagon. Still waiting to know if their contracts are going to be honored. Still waiting to hear just what the hell is going on, and what their next steps should be.

And considering Google’s chronic mishandling of Stadia so far, I doubt they’ll be getting answers anytime soon.

Which brings us to the big question…

The next time some new, shiny, flashy, but unproven platform comes along… would indie developers be as willing to take a risk (and for indie devs, it is a BIG risk) on making games for it?

I think we all know the answer. And after this whole Stadia fiasco, could you blame them?

Make no mistake, Google’s bungling LARP as a gaming company will set cloud gaming (and all its aforementioned promises), viable challengers to the Valve/Epic or Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft hegemonies (for PC and console gaming, respectively), and the industry writ large back many years.

And although indie developers are by definition risk tolerant, they still have to eat, and still want people to play their games (otherwise, what’s the point?). So after OnLive, OUYA, and now Google Stadia have come and gone… will it be worth the risk when the next would-be disruptor courts them?

And make no mistake, there will be a next time. Cloud gaming holds too much promise for even Google to kill. The entrenched mega-AAA-publishers, hardware manufacturers, and digital distributors could use a little disruption. And the industry is simply too big, too irresistible, for would-be usurpers to pass on.

So… when the day comes, should indie developers stick to what’s tried and true, or take a risk on something that could be much better… but also fail spectacularly?

I’ll be transparent here. I don’t have the answer. Nobody does—at least, nobody who’s honest with themselves. I’d imagine it’ll come down to each individual studio and developer, and how much they’d be willing to put on the line.

As with everything else in life… only time will tell.

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