Google has developed something of a reputation for launching a product or service, investing billions of dollars, and then dropping it completely. There is even an entire website called the Google Graveyard, dedicated to projects Google has abandoned.
YouTube Originals, Google+, Google Goggles, and the Nexus smartphone all found their final resting place in the Google Graveyard, along with hundreds of other products and services. Many of these weren’t without an audience entirely. Take the latest product to land in the graveyard, Stadia–Google’s cloud streaming video game service.
“A few years ago, we also launched a consumer gaming service, Stadia,” Google’s VP of Stadia, Phil Harrison, wrote in a blog post. “And while Stadia’s approach to streaming games for consumers was built on a strong technology foundation, it hasn’t gained the traction with users that we expected so we’ve made the difficult decision to begin winding down our Stadia streaming service.”
There is so much to unpack in that paragraph. On the one hand, I can’t think of a more cut-throat market today than video games. What Google was trying might have been impressive technically-speaking, but just wasn’t that great of a business.
I heard Ben Thompson say on the Dithering podcast (paid subscription but well worth it), that companies who primarily make money on ad-supported services are basically incapable of selling. I think that’s probably true.
Google just isn’t very good at selling anything. It makes a decent flagship smartphone, but almost no one buys those either. It sells some number of its Nest smart home devices, but that’s mostly an effort to keep Amazon from completely owning that market.
Mostly, Google is great at building products and offering them for free to users in exchange for the opportunity to show advertising. It just can’t seem to wrap its mind around what it takes to build something it expects people to actually pay for. And so, after a little less than three years, Google is getting out of video game streaming.
Stadia never really had a chance. That’s not to say it didn’t have an audience, or that it didn’t have some interesting tech behind it. Obviously, Google had plenty of money to pour into it. The problem was, at some point, it just wasn’t worth it anymore. The truth is, it was never going to be worth it.
I think you can make the case that, at some point, if you’re known as the tech company that builds things and then kills them, you sort of doom any ambitious project you might want to try.
On the one hand, Stadia suffered from a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind. Whenever Google launches a service, there’s the risk that people will assume the company’s heart isn’t really in it. They’ll assume Google might decide to cancel it at any moment.
That means developers aren’t going to invest the time or resources to make games for the platform. As a result, customers aren’t going to pay money when they can get gaming from a lot of other places.
On the other hand, there’s an important lesson here: Sometimes you’re going to try things and be really bad at them.
Google wasn’t just trying to offer a video game service, it was trying to disrupt video games by offering them in a very different way. It just didn’t work. At some point, even a company the size of Google–with all of its resources–has to figure out when to let go.
You only have so much bandwidth. You only have so many resources you can devote to trying different ideas. At some point, you have to decide where to focus your attention, your money, and your people.
The other important lesson here is that Google seems to be killing Stadia in the least terrible way. The company told customers it would refund them all of the money they spent on Stadia hardware and game purchases.
That’s certainly a noble gesture, and I think it’s worth noting that it’s more than I’d expect from most companies. At the same time, it seems pretty clear that there were never that many people who gave Google money for Stadia in the first place.
The point is that you can get out of a losing bet while still honoring the people who believed in what you were trying to do. Obviously, the people who used Stadia are disappointed. That’s unavoidable. But, if every business responded to failure the way Google did–at least in this case–we’d all be better off.
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