With Ouya, GameStick, Steam Box and more, will 2013 be the year of the ‘microconsole’?

Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The year is barely a week old, and yet already something momentous has happened. While many of us are expecting it to be the year when Microsoft and Sony bring out new machines and try to get their platform stories moving toward perihelion, it seems that other companies were thinking differently. We already knew about the Ouya, of course, and the rumours about Valve making a dedicated machine for Steam have been circulating for a while.

That’s been confirmed this week at CES, but while Valve’s own box remains some way off a Steam-optimised, Valve-backed mini PC, codenamed Piston, will be with us a little sooner. In additon Nvidia has announced a clamshell PS Vita-alike named Shield, which may be both a peripheral and a game machine in its own right. And we should not forget Gamestick, a USB-sized console from Playjam that has already been fully funded on Kickstarter.

2013 may not turn out to be the year of the console after all. It might be the year of the microconsole.

Ouya raised over 8.5 million on Kickstarter. Its striking brushed-metal look is the work of designer Yves Behar

What’s a Microconsole?

‘Microconsole’ is a term that I’m using to describe a new breed of low-cost, accessible and physically small game consoles, derived from the term ‘microcomputer’. In case you’re too young to remember them, microcomputers were cheap, easy to develop for computers on which inexpensive games were made and sold. They had names like the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64, the Sinclair Spectrum and the Amiga (sort of) and were largely the reason why the ‘bedroom coder’ came into being. They were also particularly popular in Britain, which is why so many old-school game development legends come from these tiny islands.

Microconsoles are very similar to microcomputers in many respects. For one thing, they are trying to make console gaming cheap and fun by being quite bare-bones in nature. Ouya is not a high-powered media box but a games machine selling games at app prices that work on your TV. Microconsoles are connected, and will be cheap and easy to develop games for. While the main console makers pursue expensive, complicated and largely failing strategies to win the living room, microconsoles seem to want to get a hold of enthusiasts first and just give them what they want.

Why Now?

Many indie gamers and developers just want to make games and not have to deal with all of the expense and cruft of working with a Microsoft. They look at what’s happened on mobile and PC in the last five years and ask why joypad-plus-TV needs to be treated as a special case. It shouldn’t, really: a console is merely a simplified computer whose job is to interpret joypad input and render results on a screen. Yet it has been, largely because consoles have been sold on tribal stories (otherwise known as fanboyism), in the hope of one single format attaining hegemony.

Many new gaming machines have been launched by companies before on the basis of trying to storm the console fortress. There was the CD-i, the CD32, the 3DO, the Dreamcast and many many more. What makes this new brace of machines worthy of a new name and a “year of” declaration?

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