I am notoriously hard to shop for when it comes to presents. I tend to buy things for myself and others regardless of the time of year and just stock them away for whenever they’re needed. Well, Google has really outdone themselves by letting me into the test group for their newest endeavor, Project Stream. But are things all fun and games when it comes to Google’s… fun and games?
Project Stream (which has a name suspiciously close to Steam) is Google’s serious step into the world of PC and console gaming. In a seriously innovative move, there’s no console and barely a PC. The way it works is that you log into your Google account on the Project Stream site and the game plays in-browser. The game runs off hardware on Google’s side and simply streams the controls, video, and audio. If that seems insanely simply, it is. There’s nothing to buy, nothing to plug in, and nothing new to install.The specifics of the process are just as simple as the concept. There’s a button to test your setup to make sure it’s capable of running Stream. It really only tests your connection for speed and data loss. As long as those specs meet the basic requirements you get a Launch button and you’re good to go.A mouse and keyboard will work, though they recommend a USB controller. The compatible controllers they list fro Windows, macOS X, and Linux are Playstation DualShock® 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360 Controller. ChromeOS only lists the Playstation DualShock® 4 and Xbox 360 controllers.As far as offerings, at the moment they are only testing it with a single game: Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
It works. In fact, it works surprisingly well. I’ve logged nearly 13 hours with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on Project Steam and for the most par it’s been a solid gaming experience. The graphics are good, and when they drop it’s artifacting and not because elements and textures are lowered.
For the most part, the game looks lovely. The graphic settings are superb, and they stream incredibly well. In fact, my system of choice has been a 5 year old Surface Pro 1, on wifi, with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. Everything works without any special configurations, which is great. Oddly enough, the one system I have had the worst experience with is my gaming PC with a wired network connection. I had to completely uninstall and re-install Chrome for the test to even complete, and once I start the game it becomes unplayable because of lag within 5 minutes, with slow network warnings popping up. It’s the strangest thing, as the system will handle the Uplay version once the Stream beta ends and Ubisoft sends me a downloadable edition.
I’ve been noticing some issues coming up that didn’t seem as prevalent when I first started with Project Stream, and that’s hanging controls. They won’t lag so much as simply carry my last controller action longer than it should be. Most commonly this will result in a camera panning around a full 360 degree spin rather than a small angle adjustment. Sometimes it will make my character actually run in a circle while I’m trying to walk or, worse yet, sneak. A few times this has made me bump into enemies as I’m approaching for a stealth kill, leading to full brawls rather than silent attacks. And while I’d love to say that this is a small problem, it has ruined some fort and assassination missions, and has become a lot more common the longer I’ve been using the service.
But beyond the technical, there are bigger issues at play. Gaming has been shifting from physical media to digital for a while. Systems play games off hard drives that use discs only to install them. But with all the major systems now offering online stores, along with Steam, GOG, Itch.io, and more for PC gaming, the sources of games are even dropping a physical component. But ask anyone who’s been locked out of a gaming account and they’ll let you know how nerve-wracking it can be. Be it due to hacking or a forgotten password, entire collections of games can be lost. With some services that provide DRM-free install files (GOG and Itch.io), there’s the chance that you may have backups somewhere, though in practice it’s not very likely. With Steam, Xbox, or Playstation accounts you may be able to appeal to support. But with Google’s Project Stream if you lose your account then you have absolutely nothing. Though this is probably the direction things will end up, it’s still a terrifying prospect. The utter lack of control or ownership over “purchases” is disturbing. Beyond hacking or piracy, beyond the right to modify games, there’s simply no ownership to this system. It puts the consumer at the whim of a data-hungry company with very little recourse in the case of conflict, and I kind of hate that.
There are also a few oddities to the system they’ve set up that seems like either missed opportunities, or terrible project management. I understand that the system is still in a limited beta but there were a few missing features that just seem bizarre in their absence.
1) There’s no casting. Or rather, there is, but it’s unusable. I couldn’t get the system to work on my gaming machine but it did work on my tablet. Well, normally if I’m streaming something in a Chrome browser on my tablet I just cast it to my Chromecast and that’s how I put it up on my TV. Since Project Stream works in Chrome it will let you cast to a television. However, while watching that may be fine in a group setting, for the player it cannot act as a main screen. The casting delay makes it frustratingly close to being able to shoot a AAA game from the cloud to a TV with not much more than a streaming dongle, but the delay makes it torture. One would think that this sort of functionality would be a top priority; can you imagine competing with console and PC gaming with a piece of hardware that runs between $35 and $70? But that doesn’t seem to be part of the initial plan.
2) There’s no Youtube integration. Twitch is now positioning itself as both a content source for streams as well as a source for buying or subscribing to games. Google has been trying to get a presence in this market with things like Youtube streaming built into Android devices. It would seem like a no-brainer to split the stream from just the Chrome browser to the browser and the Youtube page of the account holder. But there’s no sign of that.
3) In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of recording feature whatsoever. There’s no video saves, and no stand alone photo capture. Beyond that, the photo mode that is built into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey isn’t properly implemented. Any shots of the game you see are from screencaps and the game-recording mode built into Windows 10 on my tablet. I tried taking a handful of photos in the game with the built-in photo mode, but when I log into the website I’m greeted with the text “We weren’t able to find any photos matching your configuration. Try a different platform, or broaden your search results.” Again, this seems like something that should be there from day one but doesn’t appear to be set up.
Would I use this service? 13+ hours so far says that I’m at least somewhat eager to. So I like this service? In practice it’s hit-or-miss, leaning into the hit side for the most part. But with the amount of trust you have to put into Google with your gaming collection, I cannot comfortably recommend it.
There is a way in which I think it’s perfect, and that’s if it followed one of two models. The first would be getting access to Stream editions of games in addition to purchasing a game. I think it’s a great extension to owning a game, as long as it’s not the method of owning the game. The other is if it were a subscription service so there was no confusion about not owning a game, but instead leasing access. This seems like the more likely scenario of the two, as having the streaming service be an add-on rather than a first-choice wouldn’t give them as much of a strong hand in the gaming scene they’re about to step into.
There have been a bunch of glowing reviews of Project Stream, but I’m not sold yet. There are technical issues to work out before it’s feasible as a console/PC replacement. There are missing features that give me pause over the direction of the project altogether. And then there’s the trivial issue of ownership and access that makes me nervous for the gaming industry in general.