Why 2013 could be the year of the microconsole

The game console is a form factor that has been with us ever since Atari dreamed up the idea of a dumb machine whose sole job was to interpret game input through a controller and render the results. In one format or another, it has essentially remained that. It may have gone 3D, digital-connected, become able to play movies and recognise gestural input, but the console is still the same basic idea.

Most significantly, consoles have always been heavily controlled. Publishing a console game is not the same as publishing music, a DVD or a book, where there might be some licensing or rights issues to deal with, but the power otherwise rests with the content owner. In the console sector, the platform owner takes a hand in determining what gets published and when, mandating what kind of content it wants to see and entering into complex agreements with publishers to that end.

Sometimes that heavy-handedness makes sense. The research, production and distribution costs for a console are enormous, as is the effort to spread a marketing story for why customers should buy into the platform. There is also the perception that being heavy-handed on quality control leads to better games.

However, control has its drawbacks. Console manufacturers have largely misunderstood the App Store, for example, even though some were in the business of selling digital games years before Apple. The idea of allowing developers to do as they please is not one that makes sense for their business, and the prospect of unrestrained development leads them to fear a loss of power.

However, that makes no sense in a world where the rest of publishing is moving to digital-native, regardless of the chaos that it brings. Services such as Google Play, Steam, iTunes and Amazon have progressed far further in distributing games in ways that console makers just can’t match, and they seem out of step as a result.

For a while, the traditional approach looked archaic but unsolvable. Getting games onto TV was expensive and the expectations of consumers were what they were. For better or worse, the generational cycle was needed in order to make that business work at the mass market level, because that was the only route to profit.

However, something has shifted. The console industry has long considered itself to be at the forefront of technology, but the reality is customers notice that difference less and less. The most recent generational leap was justified through the adoption of HD television, but beyond that the power argument has broken down. Customers preferred Wiis to PS3s in droves, and on PC the need for power is a weak motivator these days.

Good-enough hardware has become much cheaper to build and distribute, and that’s opened up the possibility of a new kind of console. A small kind of console running on an open operating system with no disc drive. A console that connects to the Internet for all its games and sells them at developer-controlled prices. A console whose sales pitch isn’t necessarily mass market, because it doesn’t have all of the sunk costs that one of the big boys traditionally needed. I call it the microconsole, and I think its potential to disrupt the sector is enormous.

Microconsoles started with the weird story of the Ouya, which raised nearly $9m on Kickstarter. Subsequently, a number of other players have thrown their hats in the ring, such as PlayJam with the GameStick, Nvidia with the Shield, and Piston, which is backed by Valve. Most of them are promising to be low-powered, low-cost, online-native game machines. And that’s just the start (some folks expect the Apple TV to become a microconsole, or for Samsung to develop one).

The microconsole idea is so disruptive because it threatens to expose big consoles as being not-quite-precious. While Nintendo may be trying to recapture the gamer market with the world’s most complicated controller, and both Microsoft and Sony are lost in their webs of media and social ambitions, microconsoles seem to be about the simple delivery of games first.

Moreover, for developers it offers liberation. App platforms don’t take such a direct hand in publishing or mandating what is allowed to be published. Instead they curate and service, otherwise leaving the game maker to make the game it wants to make. If you still work in the console sector, the power of that simple idea is hard to convey. In addition, the fact that most of the microconsoles are based on Android makes this doubly attractive: it should be easy to build versions for every platform; no muss, no fuss.

It’s a big deal, but the microconsole also brings up an interesting question: for many journalists, the story of console has been a narrative of cyclic evolution and generational war. Journalists like the sense of ancient foes and traditions, heritage and saga.

What happens if all of that goes away? The gaming press has largely been expecting 2013 to be the Year Of The Console. But instead something new is happening. Something uncertain with no fixed narrative. 2013 is shaping up to be the Year Of The Microconsole.

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