Is 2013 The Year Of Android-Based Game Consoles?

Along with the Bluetooth forks, waterproof mobile phones, and massive TVs, one unexpected announcement for a product that might actually be useful was Nvidia’s out-of-the-blue Project Shield game console. Looking a bit like a Bluetooth controller accessories strapped to the bottom of a 5-inch touchscreen, it has impressive specs and is designed both as an Android gaming device and for streaming your PC games to an attached TV. Pundits have already started to weigh in on whether this will succeed and completely wreck the traditional game console market or just fizzle out; more interestingly, from a trending perspective, it adds to a number of other devices trying to bring Android gaming to console/portable console platforms. Four other notable examples are:

1)      The OUYO console. The OUYO is a very cute 10-c.m. cube. This $99 box was funded through Kickstarter in August 2012, and development kits are already in developers’ hands, with final units hitting the market in March 2013.

2)      The GameStick. Another Kickstarter project that has just hit its funding goal, this Android console takes a form similar to those “Android on a USB stick”-type devices seen here. It also slots away when not in use into its own retro-style controller — and it’s even cheaper than the OUYO at $79. The Kickstarter campaign doesn’t finish until the end of January, and first-run devices are promised in April 2013.

3)      The Archos GamePad. Surfing another trend — game-centric tablets — the Archos GamePad is a 7-inch Android tablet with additional controls for games. Coming in at $169.99 and available pretty much now, its spec is underwhelming and suffers from several of the usual Archos flaws — looks that only a mother could love and poor displays.

4)      The Wikipad. The Wikipad is a 10-inch Android tablet with gaming controls — like a bigger, less ugly Archos GamePad. Although it was due in October 2012, it was “slightly delayed” and still hasn’t seen the light of day. At $499, it is more similar in price to Project Shield or the even more expensive Razor Project Fiona rather than the cheap and cheerful Kickstarter consoles.

Of course, using an open source OS in a game console device isn’t new; the portable Pandora was announced back in 2009 and runs Linux. In those pre-Kickstater days, however, production was hampered by a bare bones “preorder” crowdsourcing model, which has led to ongoing issues with contract manufacturers. Some units (including a spruced up 1 Ghz model) have shipped, but it has been slow progress; mine has been on order since July 2010!

A more recently announced Linux game platform is the still-mysterious Valve Steam Box console, which is bound to attract a lot of attention as more details emerge.

Why Android?

Why is Android suddenly a go-to option for those looking to get into the (massively loss-generating) console hardware business?

  • It is free to use with a ready library of tools and functionality. Small startups don’t have the time, money, or expertise to build an OS from the ground up. Android is there for the taking and has already proven capable of simple smartphone games given adequate hardware.
  • It benefits from the Google Play and multidevice synergy. Similarly. Google Play offers a mature and varied marketplace for apps for Android devices (usually…see the downside below). If you are a game developer, the ability to target the OUYO, GameStick, GamePad, and Project Shield as well as all the non-game-focused Android tablets and phones via one store and one build is a big incentive. You also don’t need to jump through the fiscal and judgemental hoops that Apple, Sony, and Microsoft impose before getting on to their platforms — though this often leads to the Google store feeling more like the Wild West!
  • It’s optimized for ARM architectures. A key consideration for new hardware builders is how cheaply you can source decently performing components. The high volume of ARM CPUs shipping for tablets and phones — along with firms like Nvidia and Qualcomm continually pushing the price/performance envelope —means it is an obvious choice. Once you have ARM chips, what are you going to run on them? Well, it isn’t going to be Windows RT!
  • It has XBMC compatibility out of the box. XBMC is pretty much established as the media player solution across most platforms, particularly open source ones. It gives the user access to a host of media playback options along with network awareness — a nice extra to add to games on Android platforms.

There are downsides, too, of course. We already have a massively fragmented Android phone market; different OS versions, OEM tweaks, and varying hardware specs make development and deployment of game applications much more tricky than for the carefully controlled iOS ecosystem, for example. This could potentially undo all the synergy that being able to sell to multiple device owners can bring.

What does it mean for the wider videogaming market?

  • It puts price/functionality pressure on next-generation consoles. Sony and Microsoft are expected to announce their new home consoles this year, probably at E3 in June. These will doubtless offer more power and additional network capabilities, but what else — and at what price? Traditional console launch prices have been going up since the original PlayStation landed in 1994 for $299. Increased functionality, networking, and hard disk storage have created bloated devices more akin to a PC, with only Nintendo sometimes bucking this trend (see this great analysis by Gamasutra). It’s reasonable to assume that new consoles will be at least $400 to $500. Does that still stack up compared with an $80 Android console?
  • It furthers the cause of the free-to-play (F2P) market. Game developers have learnt from the Apple App Store and Facebook game development that giving your game away and charging for add-ons can be a great strategy when gamers are looking for entertainment for $0.99 or less. However, this can also go staggeringly wrong: see Punch Quest) as an example. Android consoles and Google Play will form a natural console home for F2P and casual games. Will Sony and Microsoft aim to compete in this space? We’ll see.
  • Sony has a stealth “in” here but doesn’t seem to care yet. Interestingly, Sony already has half a foot in this camp. Its PlayStation Mobile Android app supports a range of simple twitch and puzzle games, and it even used to have older original PlayStation games like Crash Bandicoot until Sony inexplicably dropped these last August. While graphically rudimentary, it may still offer better game play than Google Play shovel-ware clones. Better ARM processing power may also mean that PlayStation2 classics could appear on the platform — but only if Sony gets its act together and increases its support for more complex PlayStation mobile games. Surely these aren’t seen as being in competition with the (failing) Vita?

E3 2012: A Quiet Year For Videogaming

E3 took place in LA last week, perhaps for the last time, but it failed to really hit the headlines in the way it usually does. Why? Well, as expected, it was a very quiet year for announcements, with most firms recognizing that now is not a great time to heavily invest in the industry (see the recent game retail crisis, etc.). It was common knowledge that Sony and Microsoft were unlikely to announce new consoles, but even Nintendo failed to excite, despite the Wii U coming out later this year. However, there was some interesting news aside from the inevitable announcements of game title sequels.

  • Microsoft focused on the “home entertainment” angle. The Xbox has always been a potential Trojan horse to get Microsoft into consumers’ living rooms — and it demonstrated this strategy at this year’s E3: new music services, deals on video streaming, and, most interestingly, SmartGlass technology to link various Microsoft-based platforms.
  • Sony played it straight. Along with some new game announcements (mainly sequels, of course), it announced a revamp of PlayStation Plus — adding more free full games to make the service even better value. Sony’s interesting new product was Wonderbook: Book of Spells, an augmented reality (AR) book tied to the Harry Potter franchise that works with the Move peripherals. Sadly, while Sony has years of interesting AR/video products (dating all the way back to EyeToy in 2003 and EyeToy:Chat in 2005), these never seem to draw in consumers in sufficient numbers.
  • Nintendo snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It should have walked away with the conference, but instead it failed to impress — failing to confirm pricing or launch details for the Wii U. Still, we got Pikmin 3 — finally! Luckily for Nintendo, at least some of the third-party publishers announced some interesting Wii U titles.

Elsewhere, the show highlighted a slew of sequels from the major publishers and the continuing resurgence of the indie developer sector. Most interestingly, Peter Molyneux’s new firm 22Cans announced Curiosity; it’s not really a game but more of a social media experiment. Elder Scrolls Online also got its first real showing. Whether the franchise can reverse the ongoing trend toward free-to-play (F2P) MMOs remains to be seen; it’s a strong brand but, arguably, not Star Wars strong and The Old Republic is losing subscribers.

What is E3 good for?

Slow years like this inevitably lead to questions about whether E3 is as relevant as it once was. After all, many of the new game announcements were trailed or leaked prior to the show; with so many online sources (Eurogamer, Joystiq, Kontaku, Spong) covering gaming every day of the year, E3’s no longer a great way of getting that big-hit mainstream press coverage. However, E3 is:

  • Great for doing proper business. While the gaming media (and gamers) bemoaned the move to a much smaller show in Santa Monica in 2007 as lacking in glamour, you can bet just as much useful business was done between distributors, retailers, developers, and publishers.
  •  A useful date in the diary for an industry temperature check. E3’s June date puts it right at the point when vital Q4 titles and hardware have been finalized — meaning distributors, developers, and the media get hands-on with near-final game builds or hardware. Admittedly, given that some titles have already slipped to 2013, the usefulness of the timing has been somewhat diminished this year.
  • A great venue for the whole gaming ecosystem to have a meeting of minds (hopefully). E3 was born in the PC gaming age, just as consoles were enjoying their second coming (e.g., original PlayStation, Sega Saturn). It has continued to be dominated by these platforms — mostly the consoles and their portable stable mates. While recent years have seen some embracing of mobile gaming, the booming casual/social game market hasn’t been particularly well represented. This is changing: Zynga was at the show this year for the first time — albeit on more of a recruitment drive rather than to demonstrate its wares — and the pace of change should accelerate, turning E3 into a truly platform-agnostic forum for the industry.