What does Stadia’s shutdown say about the future of Alphabet in gaming?

Stadia’s death might be the most exciting thing about the platform, honestly.

Much like Bruno, we don’t talk about Stadia. Unlike Bruno, Stadia has at no point been secretly living in my house. And with its shutdown, it’s unlikely it ever will be.

MAXIMUM GRAPHIC DESIGN EFFORT.

I know a fair number of folks with gaming PC’s. I know folks with both brands of mainstream VR headsets. I know people who make board games, video games, write for games, do art for games.

I don’t know a single person in real life who actually used or tried Stadia. Not one. So let’s start with a recap of what Stadia was.

The Life and Death of Stadia

Stadia was Google’s attempt at a game streaming platform. It released in 2019 with little fanfare, and as of today, it’s officially dead. It had a fairly decent number of games, including things like Destiny 2, Assassins’ Creed, and Far Cry. It also had quite a few smaller games like Celeste, Enter the Gungeon, Killer Queen Black, and Golf with your Friends.

The statement about Stadia’s shutdown is brief, and you can read it here. I’ll also summarize it it quickly.

Paragraph 1 & 2 – Our technology worked, but we didn’t build a userbase that met our expectations.

Paragraph 3 – We’ll be refunding hardware and games purchased through us. (But notably, not subscription fees).

Paragraph 4 – Our technology was so great, and we can totally use it in other parts of our business. We absolutely did not just burn several hundred million dollars for nothing on this project, and we’ll totally still be invested in gaming. Trust us guys.

Paragraph 5 – We’re not going to fire everyone on the Stadia team. But y’know. We are shutting down Stadia, so uh… we’re not not firing people.

Okay, so I may have taken some artistic license onparagraphs 4 and 5. But in my mind, the most important and interesting paragraph here is number 3.

The Opposite of Graceful Product Failure

Alphabet/Google does not have a good track record of maintaining services or devices that don’t make them money. The biggest example I can think of is Google Glass, a product you had to beg to get, pay $1400 or something for, and that was then shutdown. But the same is true of smaller things, like Hangouts. I would also note that they have “bad” customer service, except even that is giving them too much credit.

“Bad” customer service is 3 hours on hold to try to get something resolved. Google doesn’t have any customer service. If something goes wrong on one of their platforms, and you’re a general consumer, you are hosed. Game over. There is no human, there is no phone number.

And I think that these two things may have come back to bite them with Stadia. Nobody loves Google or Alphabet. They’re just another Microsoft. Folks like me and you use their products because they’re the market leader, but not because we love them, or trust them. So when they launched Stadia, the general opinion of “Why would I ever touch a service run by a company that shuts down projects out of the blue, has no customer service, and isn’t actually a gaming company?” was a pretty common sentiment.

There’s zero reason to be an early adopter of Google projects at the moment as a consumer. And paragraph 3 feels like someone realized that, and went “Hold up.”

So why refund consumers?

I can personally think of at least two reasons for them choosing to refund hardware and game costs. The first is simple. Google’s reputation is actively harming them at this point when it comes to hardware launches, and is a cause for concern when it comes software. They’ve already burnt millions on Stadia, choosing to burn a few million more to try to wind the program down without alienating the few fucking idiots who are early adopters for Google hardware individuals who are willing to engage with their products at early stages is probably worth it.

The other possibility is that their whole spiel about planning to remain in the video game space isn’t complete bullshit, and they actually do intend to try to make a future play on this industry.

Regardless of whether it’s an optics move, or a legitimate business choice, I think it’s probably the right one. Stadia may have failed, but giving consumers the impression that they can safely buy into Google/Alphabet projects without fear of getting the rug pulled and losing everything is a smart idea (but remember, they didn’t refund subscription fees).

Even if it’s the only one that came out of Stadia.

PS. I mean, c’mon. As one of my friends pointed out, they launched this product at a time of forced isolation, graphic cards shortage, and supply chain issues (PS5 where?). Conditions couldn’t have possibly been better for success. It still flopped.

V Rising

V Rising is a solid survival/crafting game with a vampire theme and mechanics. I can’t think of a good vampire pun to put here.

I like V Rising. I don’t think it’s a perfect game. But it cost $20, and I’ve played 60 hours of it. If that’s not an easy recommendation, I don’t know what is.

V Rising is a multiplayer survival/crafting game in the vein Valheim or Rust. Instead of following their lead and being in a first person or over the shoulder camera, V Rising has a top down camera much closer to something like Diablo.

And instead of being a human unlucky enough to wash up on some random island, you’re a vampire.

The vampire thing isn’t just a theme. Sure, there’s a blood meter that replaces your hunger bar. But who you drink blood from also heavily impacts gameplay. Drink blood from a worker, and you’ll harvest more resources. Drink blood from a nun, and you’ll restore health when casting spells. Drink blood from a warrior, and you can parry some incoming attacks.

Also, you burn real hard during the daytime.

The general gameplay loop of V Rising is straight forward. After you get through the game’s equivalent of tutorial, and have a simple base set up, you’ll venture out to farm materials to craft better gear. Once your gear is good enough, you can go fight stronger bosses or “V Blood Carriers.” Defeating a boss and harvesting V Blood unlocks additional spells, powers, and crafting recipes. Then you can craft better gear! But that might require expanding your base, which requires more resources. So you rinse and repeat.

Of course, when I say “harvest resources” I mean less in a “harvest crops” sort of way, and more in a “humans in the Matrix” sort of vibe. V-Rising’s combat is probably closest to Battlerite (not surprisingly, given that Stunlock made both games). If you’re not familiar with Battlerite, I’d say it feels like a slower-paced version of League of Legends. Also, damage, health and “level” is all completely dependent on the level of gear you have equipped.

I never really had that “Power Fantasy” moment that I get from games like Path of Exile. Instead, you’re limited to 3 skills from your weapon, 2 spells, and an ultimate skill. Even when you outlevel an enemy, unless the difference is absolutely massive, you can still get put into the dirt. The combat is at its best in the game’s boss fights against V-Blood Carriers. It’s at its most annoying against packs or random mobs.

I don’t have too much to say on the multiplayer, mostly because I feel like you can play the game however you want. My first 50 hours were with a few friends on a publicly-hosted PVE server. The next 10 where those same friends on a privately hosted PVP server, and now we’re not friends anymore. Jokes aside, the multiplayer works well, and many of the factors like resource scaling are configurable. If you want a comfy base building setup with some friends, you can just join or host a PVE server with 5x resources, and the ability to teleport. And if you’re masochistic, you can join a 0.5 resource PVP server. Changing the pace and flow is pretty much just a server config setting.

I don’t think the game’s perfect. There’s a whole system for binding and turning humans into vampire servants, but their utility is limited outside of equipping them with a bit of gear, and sending them out on timed missions to gather resources. While the weapons are fairly diverse, the clothing options are a completely linear path, with no build diversity other than “big number good.”

Arise reborn, my servant! Now go get me copper.

Still though, there’s a lot more thought than often goes into games like this. It’s not possible to build a base in such a way that blocks off other players from a critical resource. The number of bosses is fairly high, and despite many of them just being random humans, the actual fights feel meaningfully diverse.

I think V Rising’s greatest strength compared to a lot of the other crafting/survival games is how complete the game loop feels. In 60 hours, I think I only looked at a wiki or guide 2-3 times, and I never encountered any jank.

V Rising is $20 on Steam. It’s a pretty good time. If you’re looking for a solid survival game, or a base builder, I feel comfortable recommending it.

Ed Note: Screenshots are blatantly ripped from the Steam Store page, at time of publishing. The game’s UI doesn’t look like this anymore, though. I still think these are decent representations of what V Rising looks like, even if the lighting in the screenshots is a bit nicer.

Knockout City

Knockout City is an interesting dodgeball brawler that feels hobbled by it’s secondary systems and menus.

The core gameplay of Knockout City is pretty good. I’m not an expert, or even anywhere past the bronze silver rank, but at least for me it feels straightforward and easy to enjoy. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the non-gameplay elements.

Knockout City is an action-brawler, themed around dodgeball. The game itself is free, but it contains microtransactions. I’ll talk more about those later. The short version is they’re all cosmetic. There are no gameplay advantages you can buy. Anyway, back to the actual game.

There are multiple game modes, including 1v1 and 3v3. I’m going to focus on the 3v3 mode for this writeup, since it’s the gamemode played in ranked.

A game of Knockout City consists of two teams playing to best of 3 rounds. Each round is first to 10 points. You get a point whenever an opposing player is knocked out. This can be from them falling off a ledge, being hit by an obstacle, or running out of health from being smacked with dodgeballs.

Dodgeballs are the heart of Knockout City. It is, after all, a dodgeball game. They’re scattered around the arena. You can run over them to pick them up, and tossing them requires you to charge. They’re not really physics projectiles. Instead, they lock onto the target you’re focused at, and will head toward that target. There are three throw patterns, a straight shot, a lob, and shot that can be curved around walls. These throws are executed by tapping the input keys as part of a double jump.

On the flip side, if you’re having a dodgeball thrown at you, all you need to do is hit right click right before it impacts you while facing the ball to catch it. You can then throw it back immediately if you want.

While it might seem like this would lead to an infinite Zelda boss fight situation of launching projectiles back and fourth forever, let me introduce the intensity mechanic. Intensity is built on a ball by readying a throw, and also when balls are caught. Higher intensity balls travel faster. The ball will move quicker and quicker with each toss and catch, preventing you from getting stuck n a loop.

There are a bunch of other clever mechanics as well. You and your teammate can’t find a dodgeball? You can roll up and get passed the ball by your teammate. The inputs for choosing throw type also function as a double jump. KO City keeps things fresh by randomly selecting a special dodgeball each map. These range from balls like the moonball, which lets you jump extra high while carrying it, to the pinball style multi-ball, which lets you carry three balls at once. You can also fake throw, pass to teammates with a single button, and just generally the movement feels very good.

I think that gives a decent overview of the game’s general vibe, but really the best way to understand Knockout City is to play it.

While we’re here, let’s talk about monetization. There’s a lot of stuff for sale in Knockout City, but none of it impacts actual gameplay so I don’t care. Yes, there’s a battle-pass. Yes, there are multiple forms of currency. Yes, there’s daily quests, and normal quests, and I guess there’s a difference?

Frankly, while Knockout City does have an interesting sort of holographic projection 1920’s art design, I don’t like the art. There’s character customization. I ended up making my character look like this. I think it accurately conveys how much I care about the game’s aesthetics.

None of this relates to my primary issues with Knockout City though. My primary issue with Knockout City is… the menus and the clutter. That probably sounds stupid, but let me explain.

Knockout City just feels like it has a massive amount of downtime. Lots of your time is spent not playing Knockout City. After launching the game after an update, the game has to boot, update again (no, I don’t know why), close, and be relaunched. I decided to time how long it would take me to get into a game, and it takes just under a minute for the game to start up, click through the in-game announcements, and finally get into the hub.

Except you can’t play from the hub, instead you need to open the menu back up, select the “Play” option, pick your match type, and actually queue. After queuing, the match actually starting can take about 30 seconds. You want to quit the game? The menu option sort of shows up greyed out, but you can still click it.

There’s a lot of dead space, and dead time that splits up all the actual action, and makes it feel like a bit of a chore to keep playing. Even the matches have a one minute timer before they even start looking for another match, and this can’t be skipped. I’d understand if this was a COD style game with loadouts or a continual lobby, but neither of those exist here.

Overall I like Knockout City, but the game doesn’t do itself any favors with any of the small features. I feel like it’s best enjoyed as a game where you get a stack of friends, and all just goof off. That way you have folks to talk to or chat with during the downtime.

Knockout City is free on Steam, and also probably Epic, but I’m not going to check.

Mobile Game Double Feature

I spend a lot of time on this blog tearing into things that are probably a work of passion and love. As such, it seems only fair that occasionally go the other direction, and spend some time tearing into things that were a work of “How much fucking money can we make selling lottery tickets to children?”

Maybe this approach won’t be great for optics. But if I can analyze indie games that have interesting mechanics buried under crude art or lackluster technical implementations, it seems only fair to look mobile games that have mechanics locked in Skinner boxes.

Mobile games are kinda like indie games, but there’s an entry fee of how much your kidneys would currently go for on the black market.

Starting with…

Knight’s Edge

There’s a GDC talk somewhere in Knight’s Edge. It might be about how they managed to add in a cash shop, battlepass, and a billion other pieces of bullshit. Maybe it’s art direction-related. They could make a “How To” guide on ripping off that Clash of Clans smooth minimalistic art style that somehow has less personality than a furry OC that’s just a Sonic recolor.

Or maybe they could do one about how their cool little 3v3 battle brawler ended up tied to all the bullshit above. Actually, I can do it for them.

Anyway, now that I’ve done their presentation for them, they can spend some time talking about their actual mechanics. Knight’s Edge is effectively a combo of micro-brawler and roguelike. Your team of 3 is pitted against another player’s team, and you’re thrown into a tiny little dungeon. Whichever team makes it to the end of the dungeon and kills the final boss first wins!

It’s a simple little idea, and there’s really only two other things to mention about it. First up is that at certain points, you can invade the enemy, and attempt to kill them or mess with them to slow them down. But at the same time, it’s risky because your team won’t have your DPS during the invasion. The second one is that whenever you destroy enemies, you get EXP. Get enough, and you’ll level up, which gives generic stats. More importantly, leveling up also lets you pick between various buffs, which are determined by the weapon you’re using. This gives the whole thing a sort of micro-roguelike vibe.

Before you say “That’s kind of a lousy screenshot,” know that I took it from their app store page. This isn’t on me.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Knight’s Edge. Is there a cool idea here? Yes. But it can’t make it out from under the monetization. Also the controls sort of suck. Your actual agency to influence a given round often feels like playing a slot machine with the upgrade system.

But anyway, enough about Knight’s Edge. Let’s talk about…

Cross Duel

I’ve written about Yu-Gi-Oh mobile games before on this site. There are a surprising number of them. Their monetization ranges from “Something resembling reasonable” with Duel Links to “Its own category in a list of shitty business models” for Master Duel.

Anyway, Cross Duel manages to sit somewhere in the middle of trashy pricing, which is to say “Typical Gacha.” But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Cross Duel itself.

If you’re going “Wow, seems dynamic!” that’s because I stole this one from their app page, and Konami is better at marketing then whoever makes Knight’s Edge.

I think one of the most interesting things about Cross Duel is that it shares very little with Yu-Gi-Oh mechanically. While ideas like like Monster Cards and Trap Cards are present, it’s easy to see how Cross Duel could stand as a separate game, or even potentially as a legacy board game. The deckbuilding only allows 20 cards, and only 1 copy of any single card.

Cross Duel is a four player lane based game. Everyone draws a hand of cards, and simultaneously places them. At the end of the starting “Main Phase,” monsters move down their rows if they were in attack position, or stay put if they were in defense position.

While many of the terms sound similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, there are a lot of mechanical differences. For starters, while the game can end if one player manages to knock out 3 others, it also just ends after 8 rounds are played or if even a single player ends a round with zero life points remaining. In addition, everyone starts with a single “Special” card in their hand serves the role of a panic button or can be used to apply heavy pressure.

Those aren’t the only differences. Players gain life points when their monsters inflict damage to enemy players. Unlike normal Yu-Gi-Oh, this only happens when a monster hits an opponent directly, not when they just attack another attack position monster and win. Damage is also maintained between rounds, meaning that a powerful bomb card can quickly be chipped down by multiple weaker cards.

Anyway, the result of all these mechanical changes is that you can actually do decently in some games of Cross Duel without selling your kidneys. Often, the players with more powerful cards are forced to fight each other, instead of wasting resources to knock you out.

The game also has what seems like a fairly interesting system for playing around with card skills and abilities. Unfortunately, it’s locked behind the usual grind and bullshit, so I don’t have much to say about it other than it seems neat.

In Conclusion

I was going to close with “There’s no moral to today’s writeup.” But that’s wrong. There is a pretty clear moral: interesting game mechanics can be found everywhere. In every terrible prototype, or miserable whalebait app store installation, it’s possible to find something interesting or clever. Is worth going to try to find those mechanics? I mean, for most people? Probably not.

People who play games casually would rather just play good games. People who work on games would probably rather be making games than playing other designers’ terrible ones.

But I guess for me, someone I view as sitting in the middle, it can be interesting. Hell, at least it’s something to write about.

Space Lion

I like Space Lion. I liked it when I played it PAX East last year. I’ve liked it as I’ve played the various head to head and 3 player modes. I think it’s a really cool semi-asymmetric bluffing/placement board game. There’s one catch though: Space Lion doesn’t actually exist yet.

Space Lion is currently running its Kickstarter, and with 70 hours left, they are incredibly close to hitting their funding goal. They’re just under $15,000 of the $16,000 they need. So if anything about what I’m describing sounds cool, check out the Kickstarter here. And if you’re the sort of person who would never back a board game without playing it first, there’s a Tabletop Simulator version here, and a Tabletopia version here.

So yeah. I think it’s cool, and if you stop reading this article right now to just go play the game, or look at the Kickstarter, I’d consider that a win. But if you want to stick around, let me talk about why I like Space Lion.

Or just click this image to go straight to the Kickstarter.

I’m not gonna cover the full rules of the game, but I do want to go over them in brief, so I can explain why I like it. You start by picking an army, and then choosing a commander. Each army has 7 unit cards, with strength values of 0-6, and one of those units can be swapped out for an upgraded version. While it won’t have a higher strength value, it will have stronger abilities.

On the left, the default version. On the right, the upgraded commander.

At the start of each round, you fight across three battlefields. Each player takes a turn where they deploy up to four units, placing them face down onto one of the battlefields. Each battlefield starts with a base for each player on it. Once everyone has deployed their units, you flip up your cards and the first player to deploy chooses the order in which battle are fought. If you have less total strength than your opponents in any battlefield, your base on that battlefield takes a point of damage. Take two points total and that base is destroyed, meaning that any future losses you take there deal damage straight to your home base. Run out of health, and you lose. (And for anyone going “Wait wouldn’t the first player have an advantage?” don’t worry, the first player token switches between rounds.)

There’s one big thing here, though, that I haven’t covered, and that’s how your army actually works. You actually start the game with all 7 of your cards in your hand. There’s no randomness, or drawing from a deck. You have all the tools.

Instead, you’re limited by your deployment choices. If you deploy one card to a battlefield, even if you lose the fight, you’ll get that card back in hand. But if you deploy two or more, those cards are exhausted for the next round of placement. Trying to force a push with your 6 strength and 5 strength units in one lane means that next round your opponents know that there’s simply no way for a single facedown card you’ve played to be stronger than 5.

There’s a lot of I’ve left out here, but this tension of “Where do I commit to putting pressure?” and “What can I afford to give up for the future?” is why I like Space Lion. It’s not super rules dense either, which means you can focus on those choices, instead of trying to keep a million different systems in your head.

Also, like I mentioned above, this is a semi-asymmetric game. While each army has the same strength values, their actual playstyles and abilities vary quite heavily. The Leon Army can upgrade all of their units to the more powerful commander versions, and also has a nuke. The Castell Army can place degrees on various battlefields, giving them permanent bonus or adjustments in those arenas. The Enerhiya builds a pool of energy and other resources they can spend to trigger effects, but also to power up their giant mecha. And my personal favorite, the Vacuus function as a sort of twilight zone version of the other armies, with many of their units being warped or twisted versions of units from the other armies.

The normal marine moves itself around, but the corrupted marine moves your opponents’ units!

I think this is a decent, if brief, overview of Space Lion, and why I like it and want to see it as a fully physical game. Hopefully this article got you interested enough to check it out. If you’re looking for folks to play with, Solis Games has a Discord server here where you’d be able to find a play group. Maybe I’ll even see you there.

Disclaimer: I’m not not associated with Solis Game studios in any way. Kickstarter is a pledge platform, not a pre-order platform. Crowdfunding can be risky. I’ve backed the Kickstarter because I think it’s a cool game, and I want to see it be a full thing. Also hoping they’re not annoyed at me for ripping images from their game for this article.