Open battle: Nintendo, MS and Sony face new players in the console wars
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) This is how console development usually works: a major consumer technology corporation spends several years and millions of dollars in R&D, putting together a piece of hardware that's jammed with high-end proprietary components. The tech is launched region by region over a period of months, and it is then left unmodified until a smaller, cheaper-to-produce model is rolled out some years later. This happens every five years until the company runs out of money. That is the past.
This is the future. A small team of engineers at a pretty much unknown company based in London starts playing around with the Android OS. This company has been making games for pay TV networks since 1999 and is now working on casual titles for the emerging smart TV market. But they've got a new idea. A cheap portable console, built around smartphone components, running Android. Heck, they have the back-end technology to develop and run the device, they've been doing that stuff for years, so R&D is comparatively cheap. And now there's this thing called Kickstarter where offbeat tech projects can be funded by enthusiasts. 12 months later, Playjam Announces the GameStick, it hits Kickstarter and with 18 days to go has already made four times its initial $100,000 target.
And GameStick, of course, is not alone. The big gaming hardware story of 2012 might not have been the launch of Wii U and almost certainly wasn't the arrival of PlayStation Vita. It was Ouya, another Android-based console that hit Kickstarter in July, reached its goal in several hours and went on to attract more than $8m in donations. That machine is due out in April with a price tag of $99. GameStick should arrive in the same month at $79. Traditional games consoles usually debut at around $400-500. What is going on
"There's a multitude of reasons for Ouya and GameStick's success on KickStarter," says Patrick Goss, editor-in-chief at news site, Tech Radar. "First of all, gamers tend to be very invested in their hobby and KickStarter gives them a chance to feel ownership of a project from the very beginning and for not much money.
But, he adds: "I think it is the media's coverage of the projects that has really made the difference. Both of them have had the kind of publicity that would usually cost tens of thousands of pounds to garner. The real question is why the media have seized on the projects and I think that it comes down to a desire for something new and different and an awareness that the lines between casual and core gaming have blurred into insignificance."
Certainly, two important factors have co-aligned here. Sony and Microsoft have chosen to delay the usual five-year console cycle this time around, stretching out the lifespan of the PS3 and Xbox 360 with hardware extensions such as the Move and Kinect. They've done this because of the punishing cost of developing new machines, but it's meant that both tech fans and tech journalists have been denied that excitement of anticipating and gossiping about forthcoming platforms.
At the same time, we're now used to the hyper-accelerated smartphone pipeline which sees shiny new handsets going from exciting first glimpse to bargain bucket obsolescence in barely two years. The news churn is constant and there's always a new chipset or product line on the near horizon. It makes the five-yearly console cycle look positively geological.
What a lot of observers at CES noticed this year was the general industry shift away from big, sexy landmark products to services, software and solutions. Increasingly, what consumers care about is not the hardware itself, but what it's running and how it augments the stuff they already use such as social networks and content-on-demand services. The brands everyone cares about these days aren't Sony and Microsoft, goes the thinking, it's Facebook and Google. And this has opened the industry up.
At the same time, the availability of cheap, powerful components and the prominence of platform agnostic solutions like the ARM Cortex processors has emboldened industry stalwarts to strike out into hardware. At CES, we saw Nvidia announcing its Project Shield handheld device, featuring its new Tegra 4 chipset. And then modular PC maker Xi3 announced that it would be making a compact gaming PC designed to compete with the whole concept of the dedicated games console. It's called Piston and it looks cute, but the big news is that the project has support from Valve. For years the company teased that it would enter the console market with a "Steambox", a cheap PC-like unit dedicated to running high-end downloadable PC titles. Now that process has started.
What links all of these systems It's not really the hardware specs. Although the GameStick, Ouya and Project Shield are all Android-based, and are all offering essentially a smartphone gaming experience but with dedicated controllers and the ability to play on a large screen, they have very different implementations. "Ouya and GameStick have specifications akin to an Android tablet like the Nexus 10 in terms of RAM and onboard storage," says T3 writer Michael Sawh. "And while both have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity the GameStick does lack Ethernet support. PlayJam believes GameJam has satisfactory components to run the most demanding Android games and while that may be true, the overclocked Tegra 3 quadcore processor inside the Ouya console may crucially give developers greater scope to make more innovative, visually appealing games.
"The Nvidia Project Shield console hosts the new Tegra 4 quadcore chip which Nvidia claims is the world's fastest processor, but is also future proofed with 4K resolution support to display content in ultra high definition and has the capabilities of streaming games from a PC. This sounds like it has the kind of power that could definitely be compared or even surpass the capabilities of Nintendo and Sony's portable handheld devices."
But really this is about ideology. When I asked Anthony Johnson, CMO at PlayJam, why he thought GameStick and Ouya had been so successful on Kickstarter, his response was unequivocal. "I think, overwhelmingly, the feeling is that the traditional console market is running a closed shop in an increasingly open world. The advent of smart devices changed the face of the games world for ever. Affordable, high-quality games are here to stay and playing them on a big screen has got to be attractive. From the developer standpoint, many are fed up with the cost, red tape and publishing restrictions imposed upon them by the traditional console market. For the vast majority of developers, that road is not even an option. GameStick solves this."
Ouya, GameStick and Piston are all based around this idea of the open system, a machine that can be modified and manipulated by the user to run whatever they want. While PlayStation and Xbox run "walled garden" online services and heavily protected software, these newcomers will let users download and run whatever's compatible with their machines. "We are of the opinion that if someone buys a piece of hardware, they should be free to do with it as they please," says Johnson. "GameStick will ship with a purpose built UI designed to support games that have been mapped to our controllers and certified by us. However, if they want to root the device, they can. We hope they do and see what they are able to do with it!"
This all fits with the ethos of the growing indie games community. "These platforms are ideal for concept-driven indie gaming," says Richard Leadbetter of Digital Foundary. "Also, the fact that they're open and that the hardware can be used for whatever the end-user wants is highly appealing for amateur coders, hackers and of course end-users. Open up a platform and it encourages creativity from a vast range of developers. I've no doubt we'll see plenty of Ouyas ending up as retro emulation platforms or Smart TV extenders. Part of the fun of these devices is seeing them subverted into performing tasks they were never designed for."
But, of course, the open system movement isn't one giant utopia – there are drawbacks. Without the region locks and DRM of traditional consoles, piracy can run rife – and has done so on Android smartphones: some developers are reporting piracy rates of up to 90% on their games. The problem is also there on iOS, where hardware hacks have intermittently made the distribution of pirated games more straightforward.
There's also a question of content aggregation and management. Closed consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 ensure all games will actually run without crashing and that each title is age-rated – these factors are harder on open platforms. As Sawh points out: "In the case of Ouya, games will still be screened for appropriateness to make the platform safer, more secure and more family-friendly, so there is still some element of a closed platform."
But while piracy must be a concern, it's been interesting to see the developer community line up behind the consoles. Ouya has attracted vocal support from Square Enix and indie stars such as ex-Infinity Ward staffer Robert Bowling, while Johnson claims 200 studios have registered on the GameStick site: "The larger players are also interested and we are in the midst of some great conversations, which unfortunately we cannot yet reveal but we fully expect to have some very well-known titles available at launch."
With support from hardware fanatics and developers, it could be that all of these platforms prosper, to a modest extent, in their own micro niches. With its lower price point and reasonable Amlogic CPU and Mali 400 GPU, the GameStick could well be the perfect solution for families who want a cheap console they can cart around to keep the kids happy at granny's house. It'll do online multiplayer gaming and allows the connection of up to four controllers to one device. From September there will also be a firmware update to support XBMC and DLNA allowing video playback.
Ouya and Project Shield could well be more aimed at hardcore gamers, the latter the most powerful, but also likely to be the most expensive. "Graphics chip giant Nvidia is a familiar name with gamers and that could well suggest more stability," says Goss. "But Ouya's openness and attitude has resonated with gamers and Android fans and has a whiff of the fresh and non-establishment about it."
So should Sony and Microsoft be concerned Both are announcing new consoles this year - and although they're likely to be based on off-the-shelf PC hardware rather than proprietary tech, they'll still be comparatively expensive closed systems in the traditional mould. What they have however, is an established market, huge distribution networks and massive brand awareness. The next Xbox and PS4 machines will be packed with state-of-the-art hardware, they'll have deals with the world's biggest developers and content providers; they'll get masses of mainstream coverage. This is the sort of war they haven't fought before, against a rabble of upstarts. But it is unlikely to end in their demise.
Johnson, certainly, is realistic in his ambitions: "We're not trying to compete with hardcore gaming solutions today. We simply cannot support the highest end games and people that play them will want to continue using those products. We are targeting causal to mid-core gamers and there are plenty of them out there - thanks in large part to the mobile games scene."
Rich Leadbetter, however, sees Valve has holding the ace in this emerging sector. The developer that revolutionised PC gaming with its Steam service has the ambition, ability and credentials to make a dramatic impact on the console industry. Piston is only an opening gambit, essentially a Mac mini-like project; there will be other iterations.
"In addressing the more hardcore games market, I'd imagine that Valve's offering stands the best chance of competing," Leadbetter says. "I see this as a long-term strategy, establishing Steam as a cross-platform brand that will work on PCs and then move on to other devices. The Steambox itself is a Linux PC, but there were Linux smartphone prototypes at CES too – it's a platform that's bound to evolve, and it won't be constrained by Microsoft, as Windows is.
He adds: "Another element of Steambox worth mentioning is that entry-level sub-$100 devices will be out there that will stream gameplay over the internet in the way that OnLive does either from remote servers or the user's own PC, and I'd expect Valve to be targeting Android phones and tablets with that. This is Valve effectively divorcing itself from Windows and defining its own destiny – it's really exciting stuff.
And with Apple, Google and countless TV manufacturers also circling the living room, looking to put their own hardware into the corner, the battle is only going to get more complex and more intriguing. Ouya, GameStick and Project Shield are perhaps niche solutions for a fragmented market, but they are also at the vanguard of something much bigger and more disruptive. The future is about software services supported by modular technology. The five-year cycle, artificially extended in this console generation, is about to be crushed – the big question is, by whom
We approached Ouya and Nvidia for comment while writing this article but they are yet to respond. We'll update accordingly.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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