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Microconsoles: Back for Round Two

Microconsoles: Back for Round Two

Fri 11 Apr 2014 7:01am GMT / 3:01am EDT / 12:01am PDT
Hardware

Tiny devices from Amazon, Google and Apple will infiltrate countless living rooms this year - but will gaming really be on the menu?

With Amazon's Fire TV device the first out the door, the second wave of microconsoles has just kicked off. Amazon's device will be joined in reasonably short order by one from Google, with an app-capable update of the Apple TV device also likely in the works. Who else will join the party is unclear; Sony's Vita TV, quietly soft-launched in Japan last year, remains a potentially fascinating contender if it had the right messaging and services behind it, but for now it's out of the race. One thing seems certain, though; at least this time we're actually going to have a party.

"Second wave", you see, rather implies the existence of a first wave of microconsoles, but last time out the party was disappointing, to say the least. In fact, if you missed the first wave, don't feel too bad; you're in good company. Despite enthusiasm, Kickstarter dollars and lofty predictions, the first wave of microconsole devices tanked. Ouya, Gamestick and their ilk just turned out to be something few people actually wanted or needed. Somewhat dodgy controllers and weak selections of a sub-set of Android's game library merely compounded the basic problem - they weren't sufficiently cheap or appealing compared to the consoles reaching their end-of-life and armed with a vast back catalogue of excellent, cheap AAA software.

"The second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They'll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail"

That was always the reality which deflated the most puffed-up "microconsoles will kill consoles" argument; the last wave of microconsoles sucked compared to consoles, not just for the core AAA gamer but for just about everyone else as well. Their hardware was poor, their controllers uncomfortable, their software libraries anaemic and their much-vaunted cost savings resulting from mobile game pricing rather than console game pricing tended to ignore the actual behaviour of non-core console gamers - who rarely buy day-one software and as a result get remarkably good value for money from their console gaming experiences. Comparing mobile game pricing or F2P models to $60 console games is a pretty dishonest exercise if you know perfectly well that most of the consumers you're targeting wouldn't dream of spending $60 on a console game, and never have to.

Why is the second wave of microconsoles going to be different? Three words: Amazon, Google, Apple. Perhaps Sony; perhaps even Samsung or Microsoft, if the wind blows the right direction for those firms (a Samsung microconsole, sold separately and also bundled into the firm's TVs, as Sony will probably do with Vita TV in future Bravia televisions, would make particular sense). Every major player in the tech industry has a keen interest in controlling the channel through which media is consumed in the living room. Just as Sony and Microsoft originally entered the games business with a "trojan horse" strategy for controlling living rooms, Amazon and Google now recognise games as being a useful way to pursue the same objective. Thus, unlike the plucky but poorly conceived efforts of the small companies who launched the first wave of microconsoles, the second wave is backed by the most powerful tech giants in the world, whose titanic struggle with each other for control of the means of media distribution means their devices will have enormous backing.

1

To that end, Amazon has created its own game studios, focusing their efforts on the elusive mid-range between casual mobile games and core console games. Other microconsole vendors may take a different approach, creating schemes to appeal to third-party developers rather than building in-house studios (Apple, at least, is almost guaranteed to go down this path; Google could yet surprise us by pursuing in-house development for key exclusive titles). Either way, the investment in software will come. The second wave of microconsoles will not be "boxes that let you play phone games on your TV"; at least not entirely. Rather, they will enjoy dedicated software support from companies who understand that a hit exclusive game would be a powerful way to drive installed base and usage.

Moreover, this wave of microconsoles will enjoy significant retail support. Fire TV's edge is obvious; Amazon is the world's largest and most successful online retailer, and it will give Fire TV prime billing on its various sites. The power of being promoted strongly by Amazon is not to be underestimated. Kindle Fire devices may still be eclipsed by the astonishing strength of the iPad in the tablet market, but they're effectively the only non-iPad devices in the running, in sales terms, largely because Amazon has thrown its weight as a retailer behind them. Apple, meanwhile, is no laggard at retail, operating a network of the world's most profitable stores to sell its own goods, while Google, although the runt of the litter in this regard, has done a solid job of balancing direct sales of its Nexus handsets with carrier and retail sales, work which it could bring to bear effectively on a microconsole offering.

In short, the second wave microconsoles will enjoy all the advantages their predecessors did not. They'll be backed by significant money, marketing and development effort, and will have a major presence at retail. Moreover, they'll be "trojan horse" devices in more ways than one, since their primary purpose will be as media devices, streaming content from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix and so on, while also serving as solid gaming devices in their own right. Here, then, is the convergence that microconsole advocates (and the rather less credible advocates of Smart TV) have been predicting all along; a tiny box that will stream all your media off the network and also build in enough gaming capability to satisfy the mainstream of consumers. Between the microconsole under the TV and the phone in your pocket, that's gaming all sewn up, they reckon; just as a smartphone camera is good enough for almost everyone, leaving digital SLRs and their ilk to the devoted hobbyist, the professional and the poseur, a microconsole and a smartphone will be more than enough gaming for almost everyone, leaving dedicated consoles and gaming PCs to a commercially irrelevant hardcore fringe.

There are, I think, two problems with that assessment. The first is the notion that the "hardcore fringe" who will use dedicated gaming hardware is small enough to be commercially irrelevant; I've pointed out before that the strong growth of a new casual gaming market does not have to come at the cost of growth in the core market, and may even support it by providing a new stream of interested consumers. This is not a zero-sum game, and will not be a zero-sum game until we reach a point where there are no more non-gaming consumers out there to introduce to our medium. Microconsoles might do very well and still cause not the slightest headache to PlayStation, Xbox or Steam.

The second problem with the assessment is a problem with the microconsoles themselves - a problem which the Fire TV suffers from very seriously, and which will likely be replicated by subsequent devices. The problem is control.

Games are an interactive experience. Having a box which can run graphically intensive games is only one side of the equation - it is, arguably, the less important side of the equation. The other side is the controller, the device through which the player interacts with the game world. The most powerful graphics hardware in the world would be meaningless without some enjoyable, comfortable, well-designed method of interaction for players; and out of the box, Fire TV doesn't have that.

"This is the Achilles' Heel of the second generation of micro consoles... the giant unsolved question remains; how will these games be controlled?"

Sure, you can control games (some of them, anyway) with the default remote control, but that's going to be a terrible experience. I'm reminded of terribly earnest people ten years ago trying to convince me that you could have fun controlling complex games on pre-smartphone phones, or on TV remote controls linked up to cable boxes; valiant efforts ultimately doomed not only by a non-existent business ecosystem but by a terrible, terrible user experience. Smartphones heralded a gaming revolution not just because of the App Store ecosystem, but because it turned out that a sensitive multi-touch screen isn't a bad way of controlling quite a lot of games. It still doesn't work for many types of game; a lot of traditional game genres are designed around control mechanisms that simply can't be shoehorned onto a smartphone. By and large, though, developers have come to grips with the possibilities and limitations of the touchscreen as a controller, and are making some solid, fun experiences with it.

With Fire TV, and I expect with whatever offering Google and Apple end up making, the controller is an afterthought - both figuratively and literally. You have to buy it separately, which keeps down the cost of the basic box but makes it highly unlikely that the average purchaser will be able to have a good game experience on the device. The controller itself doesn't look great, which doesn't help much, but simply being bundled with the box would make a bold statement about Fire TV's gaming ambitions. As it is, this is not a gaming device. It's a device that can play games if you buy an add-on; the notion that a box is a "gaming device" just because its internal chips can process game software, even if it doesn't have the external hardware required to adequately control the experience, is the kind of notion only held by people who don't play or understand games.

This is the Achilles' Heel of the second generation of microconsoles. They offer a great deal - the backing of the tech giants, potentially huge investment and enormous retail presence. They could, with the right wind in their sales, help to bring "sofa gaming" to the same immense, casual audience that presently enjoys "pocket gaming". Yet the giant unsolved question remains; how will these games be controlled? A Fire TV owner, a potential casual gamer, who tries to play a game using his remote control and finds the experience frustrating and unpleasant won't go off and buy a controller to make things better; he'll shrug and return to the Hulu app, dismissing the Games panel of the device as being a pointless irrelevance.

The answer doesn't have to be "bundle a joypad". Perhaps it'll be "tether to a smartphone", a decision which would demand a whole new approach to interaction design (which would be rather exciting, actually). Perhaps a simple Wiimote style wand could double as a remote control and a great motion controller or pointer. Perhaps (though I acknowledge this as deeply unlikely) a motion sensor like a "Kinect Lite" could be the solution. Many compelling approaches exist which deserve to be tried out; but one thing is absolutely certain. While the second generation of microconsoles are going to do very well in sales terms, they will primarily be bought as media streaming boxes - and will never be an important games platform until the question of control gets a good answer.

15 Comments

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital

208 1,137 5.5
Popular Comment
The answer is no. The devices may be successful, but gaming on them will never be huge. We needed an install base somewhere between hundreds of millions to billions to make mobile a huge gaming market and these boxes simply cannot get to those numbers.

Also, why should I play a game on my TV, with half-functioning mobile device controls, when I probably have exactly the same game on my tablet, where it plays infinitely better and where I don't occupy the TV for other people who want to use the TV for... you know... watching stuff.

Posted:8 months ago

#1

Nick Parker Consultant

306 186 0.6
Many thanks again Rob for your end of the week analysis which we all look forward to. As usual you anticipated our own thoughts on the interface at the end of the article - touch screen phones tethering as a possible solution. I'm still not convinced playing mobile games, that most of us do to kill time, on a TV is going to be attractive - they are two very different screens offering two very gaming experiences to two different audiences. The cheaper price with a frictionless experience is a positive step to trial the market and we shall all be interested with the early launch period sales and user feedback but I don't see these micro consoles for apps as a major disruptive influence in the industry. There may be a business for a certain casual gamer such as the demographic who play TV channel games but then the finance officers writing the business plans for such an experience need to be cautious in their expectations and build a business around sensible numbers.

Posted:8 months ago

#2

Craig Page Programmer

390 230 0.6
It's been a while, but I remember playing games with this.
http://media.engadget.com/img/product/23/hzt/nes-controller-1vc9-460.jpg

And the Fire TV remote has a few more buttons to work with.
http://www.computerworld.com/common/images/site/features/2014/04/Amazon%20Fire%20remote.jpg

Posted:8 months ago

#3

Brian Lewis Operations Manager, Aeria Games Europe

141 93 0.7
I have never understood why consoles can not be given drivers for legacy controllers, if they support the i/o required. The new Fire TV has a USB plug. Why cant someone just provide drivers for Xbox/PS controllers. This would encourage those with existing consoles to get this new device. It would also provide a plethora of cheap controllers that would work for the new device.

Posted:8 months ago

#4

Neow Shau Jin Studying Bachelor in Computer Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia

52 81 1.6
nearly half a year has passed since Japan's Vita TV launch, wonder what's holding Sony from releasing it in the US market

Posted:8 months ago

#5

Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz

76 190 2.5
On Vita TV - I think the Japan launch was a bit of a red herring. It's been a "soft launch" at very best; no advertising and very little presence in retail. Most retailers here stock Vita TV on the bottom shelf of their standard Vita offerings, making it look like an accessory for the console, not a console in its own right.

I'm not sure why Sony put it on the market so early in Japan (possibly as a semi-apology to the Japanese market for the late launch of PS4; "hey, you're getting something nobody else is!"), but it seems pretty clear that Vita TV is a box that's really designed to come into its own when PlayStation Now is up and running. I expect that it will launch in the USA, repositioned as an all-singing all-dancing PlayStation Now streaming device, once the PS Now service is launched there.

Posted:8 months ago

#6

Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz

76 190 2.5
Also, Craig, with regard to the NES controller; as you know doubt know, the quality of a controller is hardly determined by the number of buttons it has. The Fire TV remote doesn't have a comfortable button layout for playing games, and those rubberised buttons are hard-wearing but provide poor tactile feedback for gameplay purposes. There's also a question of input lag; I assume that it's a bluetooth device of some variety so it won't be as bad as IR, but unless their engineers have prioritised input speed, it's not going to be a good game controller.

Posted:8 months ago

#7

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing

405 247 0.6
I'll yell you exactly why they put it on the bottom shelf. The streaming TV market is a non- factor in Japan. It literally is so bad that Hulu just cut and run their only international service, selling off the pieces to one of the TV networks. Home broadband has poor penetration compared to the west, and most people just do the internet on their phone because they're not home that much. The people who want Vita already have one they take with them, and they don't see why they should drop the price of 3-4 games to play on their TV.

The VitaTV is a non-factor, and launching it as a media box in the west is still several years from being price-competitive in the west. Sony knows that no matter how much the fanboys squeal for it, the likely sales aren't going to make up for the costs involved in producing and marketing it. Building it into some midrange TVs as was stated is probably the best option. The biggest hook people seem to like is that it can be a sling catcher for PS4, and that's the angle they should stick to.

Posted:8 months ago

#8

Eyal Teler Programmer

93 99 1.1
I think that up to this point NVIDIA is the only company which gave the controller the attention it deserves. If it can release the next gen Tegra in a microconsole, that could end up a well rounded console. With Google in the game, that could be enough to get moderate success (if NVIDIA prices it reasonably).

Posted:8 months ago

#9

Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz

76 190 2.5
Jeff: I agree with your assessment of the streaming market in Japan, but my question wasn't so much "why is it being poorly promoted in Japan" (which you've got largely right) and more "why was it launched here at all". It seems to me that it would have made much more sense to hold on to Vita TV for a year or so and then launch it in North America alongside the rollout of PlayStation Now, spreading to other territories as PS Now continues a global rollout. That would also make for good timing for its inclusion in Bravia TVs etc.

Launching in Japan last Autumn really just felt like a not-terribly-effective sop to the Japanese fans upset about PS4 appearing in the West so long before its Japanese launch. The device still has a lot of interesting potential once PS Now is up and running, I think; it's still very much the dark horse of the microconsole race to me.

Posted:8 months ago

#10

Nick Burcombe CEO & Co Founder, Playrise Digital Ltd.

53 16 0.3
For us [Playrise Digital] there is another potential upside. If there is a more curated approach to the games/apps stores on these microconsoles, it might be possible for a decent Indie Developer to remain visible for longer and not get lost in the noise. We're already bringing Table Top Racing to FireTV and it's a good game for it too - our console background etc...it just feels at home on a big TV. I just hope there is a more considered approach to the approvals system, so it cuts down on the dross - making it a more attractive place for gamers too. It was very telling for us that in the aftermath of Flappy Birds, when all those clones arrived, hopping around categories to find a stable slot, our most successful game, Table Top Racing (which had been in the top 30 of racing games on most stores for over a year now) got pushed down and down. I wouldn't mind if we'd been pushed down by racing titles, but Flappy Bird clones?! Bah! Nothing to do with Racing at all. This is one of the least attractive features of the mobile app stores and an opportunity for the micro-consoles to improve things. Still, not offering a joypad in the box does risk it becoming a fringe activity for these boxes, which is a shame. I wish Amazon had offering a "Gamers Edition" of the console which did exactly that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nick Burcombe on 14th April 2014 12:02pm

Posted:8 months ago

#11

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments

312 412 1.3
Not making the remote more like a simple gamepad does seem a missed opportunity - the only thing I can think of is they didn't want to put off streaming video customers by making it look like a console.

The tethered phone approach might work, but we'll have to see how it's implemented and used. Will need to be very accessible.

One trick amazon do have to balance lack of controller bundling is them being an online retailer - they could put a "one click" purchase controller button on relevant parts of the UI. Don't have a controller for this game? We'll send you one.

Posted:8 months ago

#12

Paul Shirley Programmers

178 150 0.8
Still clinging desperately to the conceit that this class of devices are about games. Games are the roadkill on their journey, Amazon etc. hope it will be profitable deer sized road kill but will shed no tears if that doesn't happen. In the same way mobile gaming is nearly dominant yet no-one buys a phone just to play games, games can be a massive part of these devices without being the main purpose.

If or when Google or Amazon (or even Apple) get serious about games they'll get AMD to build them a PS4/XB1 beating device, right now they don't have the capability to create the software. Give it a couple of years to make contacts and learn the trade and that will change.

Posted:8 months ago

#13

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing

405 247 0.6
Rob, I agree with you on the band-aid factor. Sony thinks they can crack the streaming market in Japan with the thing.....once they have a streaming market.

I think more than anything it was a move to try to get Vita out of the red by making people buy it twice. They'd probably do way better with a Fhromecast style dongle that uses people's existing. vita.

I know that Tautaya has launched a streaming stick, combined with a very expensive service. If anyone is going to be able to make it happen, they're the ones with the power. I'm really looking forward to seeing how much Microsoft is really committed to giving a Japan one last try. An X1 with a TB hard drive, tuner and burner might actually move the needle.

Posted:8 months ago

#14

Adam Campbell Associate Producer, Miniclip Ltd

1,216 1,049 0.9
Gaming will very much be on the menu - strong development efforts and acquisitions in the background will help push this.

However, it won't take any special priority over general multi-media playback and services, and it doesn't really need to. A console is a multi-purpose device as we can see in other platforms just as cheap or more expensive.

Amazon has great trust and reputation with consumers, along with proven success in selling hardware and content to a broad market.

Posted:8 months ago

#15

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