For well over a year, gamers and the games press, both specialist and mainstream, have pondered, speculated and soothsayed about when the next generation of consoles will appear over the horizon and what clothes it will be wearing. Nintendo has its cards on the table already, choosing to stick to its strategy of innovation over brute force - however wise you think that may be - but the decisions of Microsoft and Sony are still pretty mysterious.
With those decisions coming at a point of such great inflection, potentially informing the path the industry's core gaming heavyweights are choosing for the next ten years, they're undoubtedly very important. However, whilst the 'Durango' and 'Orbis' wait coquettishly in the wings, a whole troupe of fresh talent has been taking centre stage - looking very much like they might well steal the show.
Currently, the biggest and brightest looking of those is perhaps the Ouya - already in the hands of developers after a riotously successful Kickstarter campaign. This week at CES, though, we've seen a number of new challengers emerge, all occupying various spots on the likelihood spectrum: The Razer Edge gaming tablet, Project Shield - Nvidia's handheld console-cum-streaming device with built in screen, and the Piston, which is widely regarded as the first public outing for what was long known as the 'Steam Box'.
But are they real contenders for the future of living room gaming, or opportunistic scavengers waiting for the big beasts to die? Is the future based around the PC, mobile OS or virtual/augmented reality? Does the disc-based console have one last trick left up its sleeve? The staff of GamesIndustry International shares their views.
Call me short-sighted, but I just don't get this wave of non-consoles. PC gaming is resurgent in recent years, mobile devices are getting bigger financially as they get smaller physically, and the dedicated gaming hardware market has been withering. So these companies look at the situation and decided that the trick is to bring PC and mobile gaming to the masses in a novel form, like through the TV or a handheld system. Unfortunately, I think they're going to lose many of those platform's advantages in the process.
"I think the masses will always appreciate a streamlined, hassle-free experience that PC gaming--even with Steam--can't yet provide"
The same things that keep the PC from being a console (flexibility, open platform, uses beyond entertainment, a billion hardware configurations) are the same things that keep it from being friendly for the masses. The advantages of consoles are that they (historically, anyway) were designed to do one thing and do it well: play games. You put the cartridge in, turn the power on, and you're playing. That's been changing a bit in recent years with the mutation of the PS3 and Xbox 360 into all-in-one entertainment and firmware update boxes (a trend that has coincided with the console market's post-2007 decline), but I think the masses will always appreciate a streamlined, hassle-free experience that PC gaming--even with Steam--can't yet provide.
Another problem with the PC-based products is that they still cost as much as PCs. Razer's Edge might play a fine game of Starcraft II, but the $1,000 price tag and turducken tablet-controller design raise questions and would seem to limit its appeal to a niche market. And Xi3's Piston looks like a sleek, stylish Steam Box PC that would be a nice bit of Roku-like kit to hide away behind the TV, but the price (likely in the Razer's Edge and up neighborhood) makes it a luxury item few could afford. I suppose it's portable enough that people could make it their primary PC as well and just ferry it back and forth between the living room and the work desk, but I'd be surprised if the logistics of it were simple enough for many people to bother.
It's a similar situation for the mobile-based devices. Gaming has exploded on smartphones because people already have the hardware, the touchscreen interfaces are elegantly approachable, and the games are dirt cheap. But what we're seeing so far in the new console-like mobile market has abandoned two of those advantages. The Ouya is priced right at $99, but the Android OS and lack of touchscreen will limit the selection of games without jumping through streaming hoops. Nvidia's Project Shield has a touchscreen, but the system design is pretty ugly for something you're expected to be staring at, and its limited PC capabilities (you can stream games from a GeForce GTX PC if you happen to own one) limit its capabilities for a huge chunk of its potential audience. And as for those touchscreen games, will anyone want to play them with a controller in the way when they can just as easily whip out their smartphone and enjoy them as originally intended?
More choice is better, right? We need these game changers, these fresh ideas, to shake up the system and disrupt the status quo. Just like the Gizmondo, the Ngage and the Panasonic Jungle did. The Virtual Boy is dead, long live the Oculus Rift!
So yeah, flippancy aside - I'm a bit of a cynic. Potentially a shortsighted one, but like Brendan says - I just don't see many of these devices going anywhere.
Project Shield is, for me, a melange of too many ideas and gimmicks, a dirty-windowed showcase for the Tegra 4. When I first read about Nvidia's multi-cross-hybrid-stream-player-controller-screen-device, I honestly thought it might be a joke, dreamed up by some scamp at CES to make sure that the tech writers were doing due diligence before blindly rewriting someone else's stories. Let's be honest: it's mental.
"This Cambrian explosion of gaming tech is a good thing, no matter how each individual fares - building a new evolutionary branch is bound to involve a few failures"
It does too much, is spread too thin and does nothing truly new. If I want to play phone games, I can already - at home or on the go. If I want to play PC games, even through a TV, I can already. It doesn't fit in your pocket, it's unlikely to have any decent exclusives, and anything that looks good on a 5" screen probably won't on a 40" TV. A mad hybrid born of trying to jump too many bandwagons at once.
The Razer Edge is another odd one. Being billed as a 'gaming competitor to Microsoft's Surface' is a bit like being touted as a naval power to rival Luxembourg - it damns heavily with faint praise. Tablet gaming is, for a start, largely about the iPad. Whilst Android has its share, Windows RT hasn't made a dent. A high-powered tablet running Windows 8 could be a great way to play some games, but not many. It's not a market in and of itself, and it's not going to create one. Whilst the range of options and accessories are a brave attempt to make it all things to all men, I can't think of anything I'd rather use this for than the alternatives.
Piston is more plausible, but that's perhaps because it's not really trying to do too much too differently. This is essentially just a benchmark spec for a Steam-focused media server PC, another outlet for the already proven Big Picture. Clearly a toe in the water for something more adventurous, Valve is sticking to its slow and steady business development here, and nobody in their right mind would argue that it's not proven successful for it so far.
Ouya is one I'm really uncertain about. The development aspect has me the most intrigued, because like nearly all people involved in the games industry in a tertiary manner, I have a secret belief that I would be an incredible game designer if I could just get around to pulling my finger out and buckling down to it. That said, the Raspberry Pi has yet to live up to the expectations placed upon it of becoming the starter pistol for a new wave of bedroom coding, so perhaps Ouya will suffer the same fate. It is, however, cheap, slick and user friendly, with a pre-existing install base thanks to Kickstarter. Android has the potential to become much more than just a mobile and tablet OS and this could be the device to make that happen.
As for the rest, the goggles and the controllers that plug into our phones and TVs - good luck to them. This Cambrian explosion of gaming tech is a good thing, no matter how each individual fares - building a new evolutionary branch is bound to involve a few failures. Here's hoping my cynicism is proven wrong - every one of these devices was made by teams of people much smarter than I, after all. Shame I've just ordered a new high-end PC...
To herald this wave of new machines as something akin to a revolution is to completely misjudge the mind of the average consumer. While in the games industry we're so desperate for new tech that we'll throw our underwear on stage at the merest hint of shiny metal, the average gamer is still getting to grips with their iPad. They haven't charged the shops for the Wii U, they're not desperately interested in the PlayStation Vita, and those are from established companies that they've heard of without spending some serious time on TechCrunch.
Of course there's a market for something like the Piston or Project Shield, but with the Piston's suggested retail price of $1100, it's not going to be your everyday gamer. And even early adopters are going to think twice about a machine that currently costs more than the rest of the console line up put together.
If I were a betting woman, or indeed a hot lady investor with money on her mind and a black American Express card in her wallet, I'd be putting my money on the lower end of the market - tablets designed to be cheap and cheerful, simple gaming PCs for people who think a video card is what you use when you try and rent a DVD from Blockbuster. The biggest audience for games out there is the one that sees it as a delightful trifle after a day of wholesome work and family type fun, not as a serious investment of time and money. And for those people, a Piston is going to stay something that belongs on the inside of an engine.
Combine the looming demise of the current console generation with a broad array of inexpensive, powerful components (driven by the exploding mobile market) and it's no surprise there are many new gaming hardware concepts coming to market. Success is going to be difficult to achieve, no matter the size of the company behind the new hardware.
"The majority of the population in major countries has a pretty good game playing device already in their smartphone or tablet; getting them to buy a new device dedicated just for gaming is going to be a tough sell"
The next generation of dedicated gaming hardware will certainly have one key characteristic: It will not be the primary source of gaming revenue anymore, the way previous gaming consoles have been. Games on smartphones, tablets, and PCs are now a huge, worldwide phenomenon, and will never give up their leads to a dedicated device. Still, there's plenty of money to be made even with a mildly successful piece of gaming hardware. The trick is to find the right price for a compelling set of features, and it doesn't look like any of these devices will have what it takes to sell millions of units.
Unless the hardware offers some completely new functionality (Oculus, perhaps?), the price is going to be the key thing to look at in predicting how big it will be. A $1000 price tag puts the Razer Edge in the luxury gamer category. Similarly, Steam boxes are not going to have sexy hardware specs and low prices in the same unit. Nvidia's Shield is essentially a tablet focused on a single use case (gaming), hardly useful for any other purpose. (The ability to stream PC games is limited to computers with the right graphics card, and only games that don't need a keyboard and mouse; the combination severely limits the market potential.) Unless it's going to be priced at $150 or less, I don't see how Shield competes with far more useful Android tablets priced at $200, except among a few dedicated gamers. Ouya has a nice price, at least, which may give it the edge in this race, and perhaps a way to compete against new consoles from the Big Three.
The majority of the population in major countries has a pretty good game playing device already in their smartphone or tablet; getting them to buy a new device dedicated just for gaming is going to be a tough sell, even for the likes of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.
I have a media PC hooked up to my television. Last week I tried to play The Walking Dead, but the game wouldn't start. After 30 minutes on the internet troubleshooting, I found out that the issue was related to my plugged-in Xbox 360 controller. Then there was the period when Sleeping Dogs would load up in a sickly orange color that I could only fix by changing the resolution and changing it back. It's a rough experience, even with Steam's impressive Big Picture mode.
The magic of the PC is the openness of the platform, but that openness leads to the occasional quirk that turns off mainstream consumers. To make the PC really work for the mainstream is to turn it into a console, when the reality of console evolution has those systems becoming more like PCs. I'm certain we all enjoy turning on the PlayStation 3 to play a game and being greeted with a sizable system or title update.
The magic middle ground between PCs, consoles, and mobile platforms is the app store-driven set-top box. A small number of standardized models, a single, trusted source for apps, and enough power to make consoles a bit scared. Be the box consumers use to easily watch Downton Abbey, check their Twitter, view family pictures, and play Call of Duty or Angry Birds.
Apple has the cachet to launch such a device as a revamped Apple TV or an actual Apple television, but the company seems uninterested in gaming. Microsoft is the next choice, as the Xbox 360 has ended up close to the prize. Unfortunately, the 360's app offerings are minuscule in comparison to mobile platforms, and Windows 8/RT has had a rough going so far. Played right, Durango could be the magic box.
When it comes to the best of the rest, the Ouya fragments the Android ecosystem further with its own storefront and the Tegra 3-powered system will be surpassed by devices featuring Nvidia's recently-announced Tegra 4 or other Cortex A15-based processors. The Razer Edge and Nvidia Shield will be expensive niche products. Even all the Steam Box prototypes will stumble when it comes to mainstream consumers unless Valve tightens up the ship when it comes to PC compatibility issues. And that's assuming Valve is looking to subsidize the price of its set-top PC, because good computer hardware isn't cheap.
There's no clear winner coming out of all this, but the convergence of the last few years of business models and technology is going to make for a real interesting 2013.