Google Stadia – An Exercise in Inaccessibility

Google Stadia, the virtual console/game service/whatever you want to call it, launched to very mixed reactions on November 19, 2019. At launch, there were 22 games available with only one of them, Gylt, being a Stadia exclusive title. As curious as I was about how well the service would work, the fact that I already had all the games it launched with that I wanted on other consoles, there was no reason for me to shell out $130 for something I’d use even less than my Switch. But last week, after accumulating Google credit from various things for it to cost me only $20, I decided to go for it. I got the Premiere Edition, which comes with the Stadia Controller and a Chromecast Ultra. Now with three exclusive games available, I was eager to finally give Stadia a try.

Reader, it has not gone well so far.

The Unboxing

White Stadia controller in the box with the box lid next to it.

I’ll be honest here and tell you I never felt good about the design of the controller. It looked even more awkward to hold than the Switch controller and I hate the Switch controller and not even just because the buttons on it are wrong. I like the look of the Stadia controller but looks are certainly not the most important feature of a video game controller. The DualShock 4 isn’t the bastion for attractive, modern design by any stretch but it remains my favorite controller due to it being small enough for my hands and light-weight enough for my pained lupus hands. But here it is, the Stadia controller.

The Stadia controller on the floor beside Tali, who appears very worried.

And here it is on the floor, next to a now-very-worried Tali, because I accidentally threw it at her when I took it out of the box and it slipped right out of my hand. No, my hands aren’t just that dry, I moisturize properly and often, the Stadia controller is just that slippery and awkward to hold.

Hands-On with the Stadia Controller

My hand holding the Stadia controller.

It’s hard to describe precisely what my issue with the controller is aside from simply saying it’s just weird and explaining as best I can why it feels so very weird and awkward. First of all, it’s so much heavier than it looks. It’s about as heavy as the Xbox Elite Controller, which works out OK for me because at least it’s grippy with some textured rubber. It’s heavy enough that on bad lupus days, I can’t use it for more than a few minutes without causing myself significant joint pain. 

On top of the heaviness, it’s not ergonomically reasonable. That’s a new phrase I made up just to describe the Stadia controller. The little nubs that should fit comfortably in the palm of most hands aren’t big enough to grip with as much of your hand as you need to to keep hold of it, which, when paired with how heavy—specifically top heavy—it is, left me dropping it about a dozen times before I found a solution (which I’ll get to in a minute).

The back of the Stadia controller.

The back of the controller, while slightly textured, does absolutely nothing to help with the grippy-ness, as the texturing is so minimal I can’t tell you what purpose it even serves other than to feel very mildly different than the smooth top of the thing. Also with this back view, you can see that there’s essentially nothing to grip aside from the too-short nubs, unlike the Xbox controller and the DualShock 4.

Me holding the Stadia controller in an unnatural manner so that I don't drop it again.

In order to hold it without dropping it while also being able to reach the buttons (which are spaced too far apart), I have to hold it in this very uncomfortable manner, just begging for hand cramps.

For comparison, here’s how I comfortably hold the Xbox controller:

My Xbox controller in my hand.

And here’s the back, with something for my hand to actually grab hold of:

Tha back of my Xbox controller.

System Issues

The Stadia system itself is very bare bones. Perhaps by design or perhaps because Google launched long before they should have without a complete product. As someone used to the highly customizable experiences of Xbox and Playstation, the fact that the Stadia system settings contain maybe five options with one (ONE!) being an accessibility option makes me wonder if Google forgot to finish their settings menus before launch. 

While disabled Xbox and Playstation users can customize everything under the sun, disabled Stadia users, at the system level, can turn on a built-in screen reader. That’s it. Everything else is left up to individual games.

To Google’s credit, on the store listing for each game is a list of accessibility features for every game, which is something Xbox and Playstation both have yet to provide players. This is brilliant. This is something every digital game store needs to implement.

Game info on the Stadia store including "accessibility features" at the end.

Not-So-Inclusive Design Choices

As I mentioned, most accessibility customization is left to studios to implement themselves, with no help from Stadia or Google. So far, with the three Stadia exclusive games, this practice is definitely not going well. I don’t blame Google for this at all, as it is absolutely on developers to create accessible games and console makers to give players accessible experiences with their system, but it is important for players to know that the exclusives leave a lot to be desired.

First though, the positive point:

All three of the Stadia exclusives, Crayta, Gylt, and Orcs Must Die 3, feature fully remappable controls.

Now the not great points:

Crayta

The Crayta level editor UI.

Crayta is a game creation game, similar to Dreams and Roblox. Given my day job, I know a lot about game design so I was excited by the prospect of this one. I gave up though, after a few minutes, solely due to the eye strain the UI caused me, even though I have perfectly fine vision. I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to see which box I’d selected in the level editor UI, as the highlighted box is  a thin slightly brighter brown outline against a brown box. 

For those who aren’t living, breathing game dev dictionaries like me, unlike Dreams on PS4, Crayta doesn’t seem to offer any introduction to game creation or gamified tutorials. Players are more or less left to their own devices to figure out what scripts, pivot points, voxels, and primitives are.

Orcs Must Die 3

Illustrating the tiny, illegible subtitles in Orcs Must Die 3.

Orcs Must Die 3 offers players an option to turn on subtitles AND closed captions. That’s fantastic, right? No. Not when those subtitles and captions are microscopic, as shown above. Who among us is supposed to be able to read that?

Illustrating the legible tutorial tooltips text.

The developers know how to make legible text, as illustrated here in the tutorial, they just didn’t seem to bother with subtitles and captions. 

Problem Solved?

There are many more games coming to Stadia, which is fantastic, I really want Stadia to succeed, but I also want to be able to play them without throwing my controller at my poor dog, so I had to get creative.

Behold my solution to the impossible-to-hold Stadia controller:

Me holding the Stadia controller wearing a purple latex glove.

Latex gloves. Because I refuse to buy gamer goo or whatever horrible thing it’s called and I have the gall to expect controllers to actually ship with the ability to be held on to. Maybe this is for the best though. We are living through a global pandemic, maybe Google just wanted me to stay sanitary while gaming? Somehow I doubt that but until they design a Stadia controller that is ergonomically reasonable, this will have to suffice.

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