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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love The Microconsole

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love The Microconsole

Tue 21 May 2013 6:45am GMT / 2:45am EDT / 11:45pm PDT
HardwareDevelopment

Will Luton laughed at the Android microconsoles. Now he's loved-up

The day Ouya's Kickstarter was announced I was sat in a backstreet Brighton pub with some UK indie scene luminaries. "This is bullshit," said one noted writer, "they can't build a console on that little money." To this group the Ouya was at least na´ve over ambitious or at most a scam of bluster - the next Phantom. "Do they know how much a console controller costs to R&D?" I didn't. "Millions," he said.

"The notion that some upstart could come along and crowdsource cash on nothing but a video and a promise has gone from absurd to mundane"

Up to only twelve months ago, creating consoles was seemingly the preserve of the richest of the mega corporations. The notion that some upstart could come along and crowdsource cash on nothing but a video and a promise has gone from absurd to laughably mundane.

Yet, what to me was incongruous was never the ambition of Ouya, but its aim: to create a console in an age when the idea of a dedicated machine seemed backwards, the antithesis of progress. I'd like to share with you how I changed my mind, but first why I thought the microconsoles were doomed to falter and fail.

What has happened in the last 10 years in games is a huge cultural and business shift: games have become a part of mainstream culture as TV and music, by no longer being just for gamers. Until around 2007, games were only for those so certain that they wanted to play that they went out and dropped hundreds of pounds on the required accoutrement.

Yet smart phones and the social web are platforms that most people had acquired not for games, but found games once they were there. These are stealth platforms and the revenue and mindshare they are generating is enormous, even pulling developers and players away from consoles.

This lead many to compare consoles to high-end hifi equipment - something for the aficionado minority, willing to spend high sums to get the fullest experience. Whilst I don't know if that fits with the business model, it's a great analogy.

"Consoles simply don't give your average independent newcomer - the next Mojang or Rovio - fair access"

The microconsoles meanwhile, straddle a strange gap: underpowered mobile hardware, running ports of mobile games but on a platform that requires a consumer to say "I want spend money on something to play games on". This is unlikely to be your fair weather Bejeweled player nor your Call of Duty enthusiast.

Microconsoles, I reasoned, would appeal to almost nobody and be nothing but a curio of gaming history alongside the Virtual Boy or Tiger Game.com. I found myself struggling to understand its market position or seeing any purpose for it to exist. That, however, has now changed.

Travelling up one of the long escalators in Moscone West at this year's GDC, stinking of hangover and battling heavy eyes after a night of free booze and snide derision at the Ouya party, I saw a man playing a mobile game I like a lot: Super Hexagon. This is rather unremarkable had it not of been that he was playing it with an Xbox controller on a TV. "Wow," I thought, "I want to play that" - pulsing hexagons and pumping chip tunes on the big screen through proper speakers.

But I was disappointed to find that Super Hexagon isn't on Xbox or PS3. Despite both Sony and Microsoft's flirtation with the indie scene in recent years, both still place draconian limits on their platforms, requiring either expensive dev hardware and certification or limited tools and ghettoisation to a small corner of their stores.

Consoles simply don't give your average independent newcomer - the next Mojang or Rovio - fair access. This forces them to more egalitarian platforms, such as PC or mobile (Super Hexagon is on both), where they can and do thrive. But this limits the kind of experiences that they may create, tailoring games to the control mechanisms and modes of play. Perhaps limiting the vision.

"The Ouya is for those who want the cutting edge, experimental or du jour content that wouldn't find its way to the console"

Platforms, of course, live and die on the quality of the content they provide and my great epiphany on those traveling stairs was that the microconsole could be the perfect home for the burgeoning indie scene. The Ouya is for those who want the cutting edge, experimental or du jour content that wouldn't find its way to the console. Catering for the infinite niches of gaming, whilst offering a quality living room experience. Everything from the pixel art platformer to the truck sim - the microconsoles can do it.

Predicting the future is tough, especially in an industry as tumultuous and complex as video games, where the corpses of platforms litter its past. Doing so publically is almost certainly setting yourself up for failure.

The potential for success of Ouya, Steambox, GameStick or any other microconsoles will come down largely to the strength of the content they offer. Especially content which is exclusive and unique, setting them apart from other platforms. To my mind the most exciting content today is coming out of the indie scene, which is already ostensibly nervous but optimistic about the platform. Yet, I believe that they both need each other.

Will Luton is a free-to-play designer and consultant. This is part of a regular series of features for GamesIndustry International looking at the future of the video game business. You can follow him on Twitter and visit his personal site here.

13 Comments

Steve Nicholls
Programmer

66 29 0.4
Popular Comment
"Especially content which is exclusive and unique, setting them apart from other platforms."

I can get all of these throw away games on my phone already, the Ouya is a complete disappointment to almost everyone I have seen who had received one... I mean I don't know what they actually expected as its just an android powered system and not even a great one.

There is no need for such a thing when we have powerful smartphones already that we can pair with controllers and link to our TVs if needed... and if its aimed at people who wouldn't normally buy a console... why would they buy this no-name cube that does what their phone already does.

The developers also seem to have gotten a little too big headed thinking its the next holy grail of console gaming when in fact I am sure it will die soon enough once people come to realise its a bit of a joke.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Adam Campbell
Associate Producer

1,154 939 0.8
Popular Comment
There is no need for such a thing when we have powerful smartphones already that we can pair with controllers and link to our TVs if needed... and if its aimed at people who wouldn't normally buy a console... why would they buy this no-name cube that does what their phone already does.
There must be a reason why I never liked hooking my Motorola Xoom to the TV and never considered it with my Nexus 7. I didn't really like doing so with previous Android phones either. Yet, I want to do that with the Ouya and with largely independent games running the Android platform. It is not a phone, it shares the architecture. Some of the technical, practical and performance limitations are modified for a start with this being a console. Secondly, the platform is a lot cheaper overall.

I don't think its fair to call the Ouya a joke at all and when it comes to expectations, yes, maybe people are expecting far too much too early. I'm not sure why people thought they would get a revolution in 8 months (if we're to see one at all). The aim and purpose of Ouya hasn't changed and neither have its technical capabilities or form factor. Over time we'll see what becomes of it, but good support is required from developers and consumers who believe in the long term vision.

Anyone who bought in and changed their minds, well, its too bad they gave up so easy and they should have known a lot of work would be required.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Chris Payne
Associate Lead Programmer

40 129 3.2
@Steve - I have a smartphone, which I love, but I rarely use it for games. I'd much rather play Sword and Sworcery on my TV, for example, if I could. I want to sit comfortably on a sofa, look at a plasma screen, and listen to my surround sound while playing, not crick my neck looking at a postcard-size screen in my lap with earbuds uncomfortably wedged in my ears. I can't wait for my Ouya.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,246 2,233 1.0
I have a smartphone, which I love, but I rarely use it for games. I'd much rather play Sword and Sworcery on my TV, for example, if I could. I want to sit comfortably on a sofa, look at a plasma screen, and listen to my surround sound while playing, not crick my neck looking at a postcard-size screen in my lap with earbuds uncomfortably wedged in my ears. I can't wait for my Ouya.
So why don't you hook up your phone to your TV?

Posted:A year ago

#4

Adam Campbell
Associate Producer

1,154 939 0.8
Popular Comment
So why don't you hook up your phone to your TV?
I can think of a few potential issues.

- Mirroring hits performance dramatically, especially at HD resolutions.

- OS baggage.

- Disables use of your phone as phone (or at least one activity interrupts the other).

- Extra controller required, which may not have standard support, poor response times or even poor non standard design.

- Extra cables required.

Hooking phones up to TVs isn't for everyone, yet there are many games that would be great to play on TVs if they had support for a console format.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 21st May 2013 2:36pm

Posted:A year ago

#5
Mobile games are so successful because they reach new demographics enabling millions of non-console players to play video-games.

Ouya, GameStick etc. offer the same demographics the types of games they enjoy playing at a reasonable entry price. There are a few potential issues though:

- These devices would have to succeed in an area where set-top boxes failed, the improved UI of Android will play a big part in this
- The price point needs to be higher, in the average family with kids over 10 there will be a smartphone per person - so a popular game such as Angry Birds may have been paid for multiple times, on the TV the sale will only happen once
- Over 50% of smart TVs are never connected to the internet

These devices are very exciting and have potential, but business models will need to be created and consumers educated.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Alex Podverbny
CTO & co-founder

9 6 0.7

Posted:A year ago

#7

Umikado Ki
Studying Business School

2 1 0.5
Totally agree

Posted:A year ago

#8

Adam Campbell
Associate Producer

1,154 939 0.8
That's just silly.

Its clearly not a 'phone' looking at the form factor and it has a specific gaming function. So where are they getting the console definition wrong? Personal perceptions of a product don't change what the product actually is.
Not that expensive for who exactly?

I think Ouya is cheap, I don't think a Playstation or Xbox dev kit is cheap, even if they have come down in price considerably compared to the past. Their claim isn't exactly wrong if you consider the target audience.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Anthony Gowland
Lead Designer

176 561 3.2
I've never been very clear on how Ouya is different from all the other "mini PC" android devices (here's an example but there are dozens of them on the market).

Is it the controller & custom storefront, or is there more to it?

Posted:A year ago

#10

Edward Buffery
Pre-production Manager

148 96 0.6
As an example of the target market, I've been a gamer all my life, but have no desire to own a mobile device or tablet to play games on (so I don't have one). I'm a PC gamer and play a small minority of high budget titles plus a huge variety of browswer baser games and cheap indie games off Steam. I don't own any of the current generation of consoles and am not interested in the next either, as I simply would never get my money's worth considering that 75% of my gaming will continue to be on PC. In the OUYA I get a very cheap, TV-optimised console with multiple controllers supported. It can remain permanently connected to the TV in the living room, and will be used mostly when friends come over, by my non-gaming housemates, whenever I get tired of using a mouse and keyboard or someone else wants to use my PC, and maybe for non-gaming uses too since we have no TV channels connected. Maybe I'll even play around with content creation if I need another hobby, or check out things my friends are writing.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Eoin Moran
Studying Bachelor of Engineering

35 32 0.9
I can see OUYA working if it is marketed as a XBMC centric media device, which also plays games. A cheaper xbox one per se with niche games

Posted:A year ago

#12

Murray Lorden
Game Designer & Developer

199 72 0.4
I'm still excited about it. And I think it's strength will lie in multiplayer games that people can enjoy with friends in the lounge room, using a proper controller. Mobile games don't offer that experience.

Posted:A year ago

#13

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