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Stadia interview: the director of games who can't talk about games yet

Stadia was revealed at GDC last week as Google's long-rumoured game streaming service, technology that promises to deliver the most high-end video games to the most basic of devices. In theory, if you have a semi-decent internet connection and a four year old Chromebook, you can still stream Doom Eternal, or Assassin's Creed Odyssey without any lag or latency issues.

The idea is sound, and the GDC reveal laid out the vision. But there are a lot of questions still unanswered; from price and services, to safety, privacy and honestly, is it going to work for you, wherever you are in the world? And games. Just exactly what games are we going to be playing when it launches this year?

After Google's announcement we got the opportunity to sit down with Jack Buser, director of games and business development for Stadia, to follow up on the reveal. We knew that a lot of questions would be batted away - "we're not talking about that right now" became a bit of a mantra. And this is Google so expectations of corporate BS were high in my allotted 20 minutes - which was never going to be enough time to drill down on just a couple of interesting points. But it was never going to be an opportunity we'd turn down. So here's our interview verbatim, and we'd recommend you take it as cautiously as everything else to do with Stadia - a fairly convincing vision, but still lacking anything solid to make it more than just nice ideas wrapped up in billion dollar presentation.

VG247: What's your philosophy behind your first-party studio? I understand you can't talk specifically about titles yet, but what's the plan with that studio?

Jack Buser: Generally, you see platforms with first-party studios because having a first-party studio allows a developer to really fully lean into the technology to create experiences that simply wouldn't be possible anywhere else. When you think about what Stadia represents, it really represents the best of Google all coming together to create a game platform that isn't just next generation - it's new generation. This is a revolution in game experiences. So we showed all kinds of stuff from being able to jump through YouTube video seamlessly to the game, to extremely large scale multiplayer and many, many other experiences. To have a first-party really allows us to have that beacon to really inspire the development community with what's possible.

What is it you think you can do differently from a creative and entertainment perspective?

I can't wait to talk to you about this specific game line-up and give you specific examples - I can't do that now. But I can certainly give you some general examples to paint a picture. One of the first type of ground breaking experiences that we'll see is that YouTube integration with games. Right now, there are these two totally separate worlds - there's people watching games and then there's people playing games. Our ability to fully integrate that experience... think of Stadia and YouTube as two sides of the same coin. To be able to seamlessly jump through a YouTube video into a game is just the beginning because I as the developer can decide what I want that experience to be. For instance, if I am watching a multiplayer match, maybe I'll choose to replace one of the non-playable characters with a real person who has jumped in through YouTube. Maybe the multiplayer match can't have another person and the person jumping in from YouTube just wants to be a camera and show what's going on in the match and maybe send out their own stream. Perhaps the person jumping through is watching a sports game and just becomes part of the audience just watching and can applaud. The creative possibilities are endless and this is just using one example of YouTube - there's many, many more examples I could give you with multiplayer or Google Assistant integration. It's pretty amazing to see what the development community is doing with this technology. Peoples' minds are going to be blown.

How far along is the first-party studio and the projects they're working on? Because Jade Raymond has only just joined.

So, more on that coming in 2019. I should be able to talk about specific content. In general, we have been working on Stadia for many years and we have been engaging with the development community at large all over the world. That's been the last few years of my life. We're launching in 2019 and you know how long it takes to make a game.

This is my point - it takes at least three years to make a big triple-A blockbuster game.

I think the world will be very impressed when we're able to talk about content at our launch.

So are you going to be launching with first-party exclusives?

I can't talk about that right now.

Are you prepared for the long-haul? You can't be successful in games in a year - it's a really long-term game. Have you got a five-year plan or a ten-year plan for this?

My position on the team is heading up business development. One of my core responsibilities is to make sure we have the best developers in the world on our platform. My world is thinking years from now. The content that the world will see here in 2019 is stuff that we started quite some time ago because of the development time that games take. I like to say to my team that we're all living in the future.

Will third-parties be involved with the launch?

Oh absolutely. In fact, we wanted to signal that on-stage in our keynote. We showed some content. One of the things that we purposefully did is that we showed content from very large development studios as well as very small development studios. We wanted to show the development community here at GDC that Stadia is a platform for everybody. You are going to see a great diversity of content.

It felt very much that you had Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Doom Eternal as your big triple-A games. Is there space on Stadia for free-to-play games for shorter experiences, for a smaller indie project from five people to projects from 5,000 people?

One of the things we purposefully did in the keynote was put Dylan Cuthbert from Q Games on stage, Tequila Works on-stage - we wanted to send a very strong signal that Stadia was a platform for the largest of game development teams as well as the smallest. That's very important to us because we know that some of the greatest creativity in the games industry can sometimes come from a single-person development studio and some of the most mindblowing experiences come from the largest games studio. We wanted to make sure that Stadia could support studios of any size.

From the practical sense, does the cloud know exactly what DLC and outfits I own in a game like Assassin's Creed Odyssey? Is everything I own in every game tied to my account and instantly recognisable?

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the business model, I can tell you that the core experience is that you can access your games with just a click. You saw this with Project Stream - last year we ran a technical test of Stadia, we rolled out Assassin's Creed Odyssey to gamers to all over the US for two reasons: we wanted to prove the technology worked for ourselves. Good news, the results are in and it exceeded our expectations.

But we also we knew that gamers had varying degrees of experiences with streaming platforms in the past and we just want to say once and for all, definitively to gamers: we have cracked the code, it works. And we saw a tremendous amount of activity from gamers posting to social media saying: 'I can't believe this; I'm playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey on a three-year-old laptop in Starbucks and it feels I'm at home with my PC gaming rig'. Again, we feel like we truly accomplished our goals with Project Stream. In that experience was the ability for the people who participated to just click on a link in their email and instantly jump into the game, which is pretty amazing. I spent a lot of time in Project Stream and that's the platform I was playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey. One of the things that I started to take for granted was that I wasn't stuck on my couch. I would be at work and I'd have a few minutes waiting for the next meeting and I'd want to do a quest really quick and I'd just pull open a tab on my work laptop and continue my game from the night before. At first, it's magical, you're like: 'This is so cool'. But then you get into the game and you start to take it for granted. It's like: 'I'm over at my buddy's house, I can just log in to my Google account and off I go, right? When we stopped the Project Stream test and I went back to working on traditional consoles again - because I play a lot of games - and I'm glued to my couch...

You felt restricted?

It was the weirdest feeling. It was like I had lived in the future for a brief moment in Project Stream and I had to be teleported back to the present. Just this notion that you'll be able to get to your game experiences with just a click on just a modest computing device is pretty revolutionary.

You're talking to third-party publishers; would you be interested in talking to platform holders?

So I can't talk specifically about partnerships. Stadia is a platform and we are speaking to third-party developers about this kind of stuff that we announced at our first-party but I can't go any further than that.

I'm asking because platforms are becoming more fluid at the moment.

We do have this hardware - our controller.

But you're getting rid of the box under the TV; other platform holders are being much more open about having their content on other devices as well.

One thing we did announce in the keynote is that we are absolutely open to cross-platform play experiences. We wanted to make that definitive statement right there at our initial announcement. So we are quite open to that sort of paradigm.

That said - it's funny, we've talked about this a lot in the office - there will be some multiplayer games that could only be created on Stadia just because it's leveraging our infrastructure in creating large-scale multiplayer experiences that would be impossible on a network appliance in your living room like a console or PC. Those consoles are busy trying to figure out the multiplayer state of each player and trying to co-ordinate that. We've all played multiplayer games where that paradigm falls apart. But with Stadia you are on Google's backbone, everything is synchronised and you can now create these large-scale experiences. We're like: 'Well gosh, what about cross-platform for a game like that?' and then you think: 'Well, wait a minute, there's nothing you need to buy in terms of device to do it' - we'll have our controller but you don't need our controller. You can take any compliant controller and plug it into your laptop - we demonstrated this with Project Stream - and off you go. It's this new way of thinking about things where it's like: 'You can get Project Stream wherever you are on even modest devices; it's just knocking down the barriers to getting to experiences'. The way we have traditionally thought about platforms and access is fundamentally changing.

How do you convince an audience that's already built up a games library, friendships online, to shift over to your platform as opposed to ones they have spent ten or more years growing up with?

Look, you're talking to a hardcore gamer - I collect game consoles, I have almost every one that has ever been made and a huge game library, so I get it. Gamers love games, so you have to be able to demonstrate a game experience that is something that is groundbreaking, that is something that they've never seen before, that's leveraging the best of Google to create an experience that was truly next generation, but new generation. So first and foremost, we have to nail that, making sure that we have these groundbreaking experiences and then combine that with just the ease of access. You can use your old laptop and the controller you already have. So we're not asking you to invest hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars into a new next-generation box; you already have the thing you need to try the experience. That really is the second part of this. There's a third thing that'll become more evident over time, which is the fact that Stadia is an evolving platform, so Stadia has been designed at its core not to be static. So as new technology comes to fruition and things get faster and better and we have new ideas, Stadia is built to evolve and we evolve by providing all of the new technology on the backend so that you the gamers don't need to go out and buy a new device. The same device you are using certainly has better and more rich game experiences - that will take time to play out, because gamers will have to realise: 'Oh my gosh, Stadia has improved so much from years ago - I can't believe I'm still using the same screen. But that's that third piece there.

Do you think there's an opportunity to bring a new audience to games and who is that audience?

Absolutely. That's really what this is all about. If you think about the games industry, you think about the success of a platform, you're talking about 100 million devices, hundreds of millions of devices in the best cases - but there are billions of people on planet Earth that want to play games. The thing that motivates me and motivates so many people at Google to work on Stadia is to be able to bring the experiences that we love so much, that we enjoy every day and set them free and allow these experiences to get to people who otherwise wouldn't have access to them. That is really why Google is so invested in this; it just ladders right up into the core mission of Google proper to make the world's information universally accessible and useful. We want to do that for triple-A high-fidelity games; to set them free and unlock them from behind the wall of a $400 box.

Do you see a future where you have your own established franchises like Assassin's Creed or Halo?

I can't wait to talk about content; that's my life, that's my passion. I can't go into too much detail now because we are really focused on the vision, so ask me that again once we are able to start talking about content and we can have a deeper discussion around that.

Stadia goes hand-in-hand with YouTube. What are you doing to protect players from the negative aspects that exist on the YouTube platform?

I'm a dad and my daughter is a gamer. I'm not alone on the team - there's many of us that are parents. One of the things we are passionate about is creating great parental controls for Stadia to make sure the right content is served to the right people. We talked about it a bit in the keynote but expect us to really take that quite seriously so that I as a parent can make sure my daughter is given the types of games that I feel are suitable for her and not getting access to the types of games that aren't.

It's not just about being a child though. Adults get grief from toxic communities too. Do you feel a social responsibility to build protection into Stadia?

So from a Stadia perspective, which is my life, we take those controls very seriously because we want to make sure that people are enjoying content that's appropriate for them and that families have the ability to understand those controls because often on some platforms they're just very difficult to understand.

Okay, just one last question: Share State looked cool, and Dylan said he was creating a game specifically to take advantage of that. For games that aren't built with that in mind, is there a possibility that a game could be misrepresented?

So Share State, like all of our tools, is quite flexible. The idea is that we provide developers with a flexible set of tools. We might have some reference designs of concepts for how those tools might be used, but it really is up to the developer for how they want to manifest the creative possibility of that tool in the vision for their game. The developers that lean into the Save State technology have created some visions that are pretty amazing and they have a high degree of control over how that's used. You're going to start to see game designs that would be impossible without it. I'll let your imagination run wild until we are able to talk specifics.

Can developers opt out of Share State?

Oh sure. You don't have to use it. In fact, if a developer wants to just port a game to Stadia, that's possible, too, but that's not nearly as fun as leaning into the technologies, right?

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