I’ve been thinking about microconsoles. When the Ouya, Gamestick, etc were first announced I thought it was a really interesting phenomenon coinciding with the emergence of mobile gaming, mobile graphics, streaming, app stores, and the indie games boom. I’ve also insisted for a long time that there’s a ton of untapped potential for these sorts of devices in terms of local multiplayer using both the tv and everyone’s phones and tablets. I still do think that there’s some things inherently more interesting about this sort of platform.
All I’ve really wanted from the “big players” in consoles for a while is just for one of them to steal the app store model and allow a more democratic form of development on their platform. PC and mobile have been getting tons of interesting content using the app store model that the barriers to entry on consoles simply don’t allow. To top it off, in theory, the microconsoles themselves are lower cost devices to begin with, reducing barriers to entry for the mainstream gamers that mostly know gaming through their phone, to start gaming with a controller in front of their TV.
In practice however, it seems like there are several problems with this, stopping microconsoles from really taking off.
First people already seem plenty willing to pay for more expensive “real” consoles that play mainstream blockbuster games and double as a media hub. Console gaming is already a mainstream activity. As a result, it seems like the low price doesn’t really serve to draw in new consumers and that if there was a demand for a really cheap game console, the existing microconsoles would have been a breakthrough hit already. (The caveat to this is that I don’t know how popular these devices are in different markets, eg in foreign markets, or if they’ve even been marketed to those populations).
Further, since all these microconsoles are based around mobile grade hardware, the games people “actually want to play” that they heard of from other consoles are mostly out of the question. As a result, all the possible advantages having a real console with an app store might have disappear in lieu of the console just being a way to play android phone games on the TV.
I feel like the Amazon Fire TV is a step in the right direction in a number of ways. Not least of which, it’s a general purpose set top box first, and a game console second. Second, Amazon Game Studios seem to really be throwing their weight behind it in terms of signing deals with talented game developers and building exclusive games for the platform.
However, I don’t think this is necessarily enough. I feel like if there was a really good exclusive game on the Fire TV, Amazon could gain potential customers for their set top box and by extension Amazon Prime, since the cost is already so low, or that a great game might push someone over the edge who was already considering the Fire TV. That might be the point, but I don’t see anyone picking a system like this over a PS4 any time in the near future.
I think that mainstream adoption of these types of devices is still possible, but I think the missing link is streaming games services. Consider the TV and movie audience. They don’t purchase a Roku, an Apple TV, or a Fire TV because the device has exclusive content. They purchase one because it’s a low cost, convenient, all-in-one way to interact with the content and services they already own in one place. When a streaming service becomes good enough to have the success NetFlix does, it’ll be a big win for these kinds of devices over the locked-in, exclusive, less convenient models of the bigger consoles. Buying a PS4 and paying $60 for a game will be for the gaming equivalent of people who still buy a blu-ray player and build massive movie collections. I’m one of those people, so there’s nothing wrong with that and it won’t be going away any time soon, but lots of people opt to do most of their TV and movie watching entirely digital these days as a less expensive and more convenient alternative. To speak nothing of the many many people who happily do both.
Sony seems to already be moving in this direction with the Playstation TV. It will be very interesting to see how consumers respond to cloud-based streaming service from Playstation Now. Sony also has the ability to leverage famous IP’s in a way that might be harder for other companies like Amazon trying to enter the gaming market.
I feel like the wins of streaming services are even bigger in games than TV and movies. When you buy a movie on Blu-Ray you can play it in any player. In gaming, there is no standard format for games, and you can’t play a game on a different brand of console, and there’s no guarantee of even backwards compatibility. Further, you have hardware discrepancies between different PCs, different generations of mobile hardware, microconsoles vs. regular consoles, etc. which are much more pronounced for real-time 3D graphics than they ever could be for static video.
That’s not to say that microconsole hardware won’t catch up enough to be “there” at some point where people take it seriously enough to buy and download more “real” games on it too.
As a side note, another thing that seems very desirable to me is letting people play with a variety of different controllers, especially wireless controllers and USB controllers they already own rather than trying to force a proprietary controller.
It will be really interesting to see where this market goes; to me it seems likely that we enter an era of more convenience and more consumer choice.