Google is removing the $130 entry fee for its Stadia cloud gaming service indefinitely, the company said Wednesday, making free high-end video games available to just about anyone with a computer during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move gives millions of people in 14 countries access to big-budget video games without spending hundreds of dollars on a gaming console or a powerful PC. With much of the world urged to stay at home during the virus outbreak, interest in playing video games has surged. The World Health Organization has been supporting a game industry initiative called #PlayApartTogether to encourage social distancing and gaming.

By making Stadia free now, Google is not only seizing a market opportunity but also trying to extend its lead in cloud gaming over rivals like Amazon, Microsoft and Nvidia, which are building their own platforms.

Muted launch for Google’s game-streaming service Stadia (2019)

“Keeping social distance is vital, but staying home for long periods can be difficult and feel isolating,” Phil Harrison, Google’s vice president for Stadia, said in a blog post announcing the change. “Video games can be a valuable way to socialize with friends and family when you’re stuck at home.”

Traditionally, the complex calculations required to power a video game have been performed on the computer, game machine or mobile device used by the player. But with cloud gaming, those calculations are performed on corporate servers far away.

That means complex games can be played on even inexpensive laptops that don’t have powerful processors, just as long as the player has sufficient internet bandwidth. (Google, which released Stadia in November, recommends at least 10 megabits per second, though more speed is always useful.)

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Cloud gaming is a very small segment of the $160 billion video game industry but is expected to grow quickly.

Until Google’s announcement, using Stadia required spending $129.99 for a special game controller, a Chromecast streaming device and access to the service. Now the service will be available at Stadia.com to almost anyone with a Chrome browser and a Gmail account.

Both Mac and Windows users can play games with their mouse and keyboard or use a controller. The service also works on many Android devices. Stadia does not replace a dedicated machine for serious gamers but has seemed robust enough for casual players.

Once on Stadia, people generally have to buy individual games. In its announcement, Google also said it was making the Stadia Pro tier, which includes full access to a rotating selection of roughly 10 games and costs $9.99 a month, free for two months. After that, basic access to Stadia will remain free, the company said.

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