The year is barely a week old, and yet already something momentous has happened. While many of us are expecting it to be the year when Microsoft and Sony bring out new machines and try to get their platform stories moving toward perihelion, it seems that other companies were thinking differently. We already knew about the Ouya, of course, and the rumours about Valve making a dedicated machine for Steam have been circling for a while.
However this week it has surfaced, under the codename Piston. In additon Nvidia announced a clamshell PS Vita-alike named Shield, which may be both a peripheral and a game machine in its own right. And we should not forget about Gamestick, a USB-sized console from Playjam that has already been funded on Kickstarter.
2013 may not turn out to be the year of the console after all. It might be the year of the microconsole.
What’s a Microconsole?
“Microconsole” is a term that I'm using to describe a new brace of low-cost, accessible and physically small game console. It's derived from the term "microcomputer". In case you're too young to remember them, microcomputers were cheap, easy-to-develop-for computers on which inexpensive games were sold. They had names like the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64, the Sinclair Spectrum and the Amiga (sort of) and were largely the reason why the “bedroom coder” came into being. They were also particularly popular in Britain, which is why so many old school legends of game development come from these tiny islands.
Microconsoles are very similar to microcomputers in many respects. For one thing, they are trying to make console gaming cheap and fun by being quite bare-bones in their offering. An Ouya is not really promising to be a high-powered media box, just a games machine selling games at app-prices that work on your TV. Microconsoles are also promising to be connected, and to be cheap and easy for developing games. While the main console providers pursue expensive and complicated (and largely failing) strategies to win the living room, microconsoles seem to want to get ahold of enthusiasts first and just give them what they want.
Many indie gamers and developers just want to make games and not have to deal with all of the expense and cruft of working with a Microsoft. They look at what’s happened on mobile and PC in the last five years and ask why must joypad-plus-TV be treated as a special case? It shouldn't really, as all a console is is a simplified computer whose job is to interpret joypad input and render results on a screen. However it has been, largely because consoles have been sold on tribal stories (a.k.a. fanboyism), with the intent of one format to attain the status of hegemony.
Many new gaming machines have been launched by companies before on the basis of trying to storm the console fortress. There was the CD-i, the CD32, the 3DO, the Dreamcast and many many more. What makes this new brace of machines worthy of a new name and a “year of” declaration?
One answer is connectivity. While consoles have had a digital distribution wing since 2002, they’ve struggled to own it in the way that apps and games-as-a-service have. There are few free-to-play console games, and their indie channels are less about enabling developers and more about having a couple of show-horses like Journey to prove that they have street cred. In an age when other platforms are open to anyone to make games, and the world has gone app-happy, consoles remain stuffy, overly managed and laden down with heavy cert processes that make them uneconomical.
All of the microconsoles, on the other hand, promise to be open, available, connected and easy to work with. All will try to make distribution a cinch. Whether we’re talking Valve through Steam or Ouya through some form of Android store, all are attempting to make it as seamless as possible both for developer and user. So you could easily see a day when a fourteen year old kid has his Gamestick hooked up to his cheap laptop and is using it as a dev unit with Android and Unity to make and sell games. The bedroom coder reborn.
A second answer is that the technology barriers are dropping. While a high-end PC or console is still where cutting edge graphics are to be found, smarter indies have been chasing them for a while. Titles like The Walking Dead, Dear Esther, Bastion, Hotline Miami or Journey all show distinctive style (and in some cases great polish), and this sense of look is increasingly more important than power. While it’s unlikely that Far Cry 3 would ever appear on a microconsole, the larger question is whether that really matters.
The third is cost, both on hardware and distribution. When the Ouya was first announced there was a lot of debate about the cost-per-unit of the machine and how well it could fulfil its promise to be cheap. It seems that others have concluded that producing a low-to-medium power microconsole is doable though, which is why there is more than one such project in the works. We’re living in an age where the perceptible differences of performance hardware have largely given way to lower costs (and this is why Raspberry Pis can exist), so it’s not a great stretch to suggest that that trend can continue.
Questions over retail partnerships for microconsoles also hang in the air, and whether they can achieve mass traction quickly. My feeling is that this is the wrong question though. Mass traction is a factor that consoles need because of the cost of running the whole business, developing games, producing disks and research on new hardware. Microconsoles are more likely to follow similar paths to microcomputers or mini hardware like the Roku, appealing to passionate enthusiasts first and then trying to cross the chasm later.
Microconsoles are also much more likely to have regular hardware updates (possibly annually) like mobile phones rather than the 5-7 year cycles of consoles. This gives them much greater ability to iterate and innovate, and then sell new machine through Amazon etc. Much as Kindle, Samsung and Apple have done, microconsoles could potentially be sold and resold to the same customers every year or two, and at prices low enough to avoid making those purchases seem odious.
A fourth answer is focus. While it seems to make sense to Microsoft and Sony, and to a lesser extent Nintendo, to transform their game machines into multimedia powerhouses, their reasoning is based on magical thinking. They continue to believe that there’s a greater market out there for an entertainment box (yet sales of both Xbox 360 and PS3 would indicate that there isn’t). And while Microsoft is fond of touting a statistic that the Xbox 360 is used more for video than games, I personally think that that number is soft (much as the PS2 being used to play DVDs was).
The big console platform stories are a mess. The story they need to be telling is “getting back to games” but neither M nor S are ready to believe that yet. Meanwhile Nintendo is busy being Nintendo, which is in itself a double-edged sword. This means the microconsoles have a golden opportunity to occupy a space which the big consoles have forgotten (it’s about the games, stupid), and by making small lean machines that promise to do just that, they have a shot.
But Will It Work?
For big budget game makers used to high-cost/high-return, microconsoles are likely to prove a wild and uncertain place. However for indies used to doing everything themselves, they should be very attractive.
Historically speaking, a passionate development community is essential to a console’s success. As each grows, and tools like Unity catch up to make cross-compiling easy, it’s very likely that we’ll see vibrant development scenes emerge around one or more microconsole. At first this might look somewhat like the Yaroze scene of old, but in time more professional works will arise.
What’s super-interesting about three of the four microconsoles announced thus far is that they are all using Android as their base operating system (Valve being Valve and Steam being Steam, they’re going the Linux route). There are also many other companies, most notably Samsung, who have deep experience in working with Android already too. This brings up the possibility of a universal game format, a kind of DVD of games – only not tied to physical disks.
If the Ouya is able to run Shield games, and the Gamestick is able to run Ouya games, that kind of thing changes the nature of consoles and makes it more basic. Rather than a fancy platform story selling a premium brand, consoles become more like the Apple TV: small boxes with controllers that serve game and app experiences without too much fuss. Cheaply.
For some that’s nirvana. For others, Armageddon.
I doubt that all of the contenders in the emerging microconsole race will survive. I have high hopes for Ouya on the basis that it’s had the most momentum to date, the fan loyalty and the money. The fact that the company recently got its dev kits out on time and in good order is also a great sign. I also feel that Valve will make the Steam Box a success, although it may take two or three tries to get there. Unlike the other microconsoles, Valve already has a massive asset with Steam, already has some of its own very highly valued brands (Portal, Half Life, etc) and also has a great reputation among indie developers.
I am less positive about the Gamestick. While Playjam has long experience in making games, and a good team behind it, I’m not sure that the market needs its consoles to be two inches in size. To pack good-enough hardware into a space that small is an unnecessary challenge, and if I’m being honest I think the ergonomics of the joypad need work. I also suspect that the Nvidia Shield will need a form factor overhaul. While the unit unveiled at CES is just a prototype, it looks incredibly gimmicky (essentially an Xbox 360 joypad stuck to a screen), and is also pitched more at the handheld market. In the wake of the mobile revolution that market may not meaningfully exist for anyone other than Nintendo.
But beyond that, who else could get in on the race? How about Samsung? What about Amazon? Both have strong familiarity with Android after all, and Samsung in particular has great experience with TV based hardware. Then there's Apple, and the mysterious lack of apps on Apple TV. To some it seems as though Apple could convert that machine to a microconsole overnight, and who knows how that will turn out?
At a time when it seemed like the console industry was heading toward terminal boredom, things have suddenly started to get a whole lot more interesting.