Google's Video Game Streaming Service Passes the Starbucks Test
There were some hiccups, but playing the latest ‘Assassin’s Creed’ on an old Chromebook worked way better than I expected.
Playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on Google’s Project Stream worked way better than I expected. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t the way I’d prefer to play the game, but it does make me hopeful that, in the future, I’ll just be able to play the games I want on a wide range of devices over a high speed internet connection. But we aren’t there yet.
Project Stream is a new experiment Google is running in streaming video games to a Chrome browser. Currently there’s only one game on the service: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The experiment is in the beta stages right now, so it’s possible that more games will come or that Google will abandon the project altogether, as it often does. I’m in the beta and to push the tech to its limit, I did the responsible thing: I took an old Chromebook to a Starbucks to see if I could play Assassin's Creed: Odyssey over public Wi-Fi.
Before I did that, I wanted to get a baseline so I streamed the game on my home desktop first. The setup was as simple as the premise. I followed a link in an email Google sent me, launched a chrome browser, and was exploring ancient Greece in just a few minutes. There was no noticeable input lag, the game ran at a solid 60 frames per second and looked gorgeous. It didn’t look or run as well as it would have on the GTX 1080 video card I have in my PC, but it wasn’t far off.
It impressed me, but I was also running the stream on a wired ethernet connection and a decent machine. I wanted to know if the game would run as well and look as good on an old machine over public Wi-Fi. I had to give Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey the Starbucks test.
I hate laptops so I’ve been exclusively using Chromebooks for the past five years or so. I purchased my most recent Chromebook, a Pixel LS, in 2015. I figured if a three year old Chromebook could run Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey over Starbucks Wi-Fi in semi-rural South Carolina, Google may have something special here.
It ran shockingly well.
I wasn't comparing the streaming version to the desktop version side-by-side, but I didn't notice a drop in the quality of the graphics or frames per second. I did have some issues though—twice during my time playing the game the graphical fidelity tanked and everything looked like a YouTube video where the buffering hasn’t quite caught up and everything becomes pixelated. The game stalled in these moments too, and I couldn’t move or do anything. Each incident lasted a few seconds before the game clicked back into smooth focus.
This wouldn’t be my preferred way to play Assassin’s Creed, but it is a good test case for the technology. Assassin’s Creed is a big, beautiful game that players can take at their own pace, and no single action the player takes in it relies too heavily on perfect timing. There's a deep combat system and the ability to sneak around and murder enemies stealthily, but you can miss a button press by a second and not break the fantasy. At this point, I don't know if Google's Project Stream could work for any multiplayer game, or any game that requires down to the frame precision, and those are huge categories that include some of the most successful video games in the world. For a game like Assassin's Creed, it seems to work, so Google was wise to use it as a first test case.
The other nice thing about Project Stream is that it just worked. I could rebind keys and adjust the brightness, but I couldn’t mess with any other graphics settings. It was something of a relief as I usually spend my first hour or so with any new PC game testing settings and running benchmarks.
Various companies have tried to make video game streaming work. Even Sony’s PlayStation Now service lets users play PS4 games on the PS3 by streaming them, with mixed results. This is the first time I’ve played one of these services where I can actually see it being viable. And, honestly, I’m all for it. Keeping up with a gaming PC is an expensive and exhausting pain in the ass.