One answer is connectivity. While consoles have had a digital distribution wing since 2002, they’ve struggled to own it in the way that apps and games-as-a-service have. There are few free-to-play console games, and their indie channels are less about enabling developers and more about having a couple of show-horses like Journey to prove that they have street cred. In an age when other platforms are open to anyone to make games, and the world has gone app-happy, consoles remain stuffy, overly managed and laden down with heavy certification processes that make them uneconomical.
All of the microconsoles, on the other hand, promise to be open, available, connected and easy to work with. All will try to make distribution a cinch. Whether we’re talking Valve through Steam or Ouya through some form of Android store, all are attempting to make it as seamless as possible both for developer and user. So you could easily see a day when a fourteen-year-old kid has his Gamestick hooked up to his cheap laptop and is using it as a dev unit with Android and Unity to make and sell games. The bedroom coder reborn.
A second answer is that the technology barriers are dropping. While a high-end PC or console is still where cutting edge graphics are to be found, smarter indies have been chasing them for a while. Titles like The Walking Dead, Dear Esther, Bastion, Hotline Miami or Journey all show distinctive style (and in some cases great polish), and this sense of [a game’s] look is increasingly more important than power. While it’s unlikely that Far Cry 3 would ever appear on a microconsole, the larger question is whether that really matters.
The third is cost, both on hardware and distribution. When the Ouya was first announced there was a lot of debate about the cost-per-unit of the machine and how well it could fulfil its promise to be cheap. It seems that others have concluded that producing a low-to-medium power microconsole is doable though, which is why there is more than one such project in the works. We’re living in an age where the perceptible differences of performance hardware have largely given way to lower costs (and this is why Raspberry Pis can exist), so it’s not a great stretch to suggest that that trend can continue.
Questions over retail partnerships for microconsoles also hang in the air, and whether they can achieve mass traction quickly. My feeling is that this is the wrong question though. Mass traction is a factor that consoles need because of the cost of running the whole business, developing games, producing disks and research on new hardware. Microconsoles are more likely to follow similar paths to microcomputers or mini hardware like the Roku, appealing to passionate enthusiasts first and then trying to cross the chasm later.
Microconsoles are also much more likely to have regular hardware updates (possibly annually) like mobile phones rather than the five to seven year cycles of consoles. This gives them much greater ability to iterate and innovate, and then sell new machines through Amazon etc. Much as Kindle, Samsung and Apple have done, microconsoles could potentially be sold and resold to the same customers every year or two, and at prices low enough to avoid making those purchases seem odious.
A fourth answer is focus. While it seems to make sense to Microsoft and Sony – and to a lesser extent Nintendo – to transform their game machines into multimedia powerhouses, their reasoning is based on magical thinking. They continue to believe that there’s a greater market out there for an entertainment box (yet sales of both Xbox 360 and PS3 would indicate that there isn’t). And while Microsoft is fond of touting a statistic that the Xbox 360 is used more for video than games, I personally think that that number is soft (much as the PS2 being used to play DVDs was).
The big console platform stories are a mess. The story they need to be telling is “getting back to games” but neither Microsoft nor Sony are ready to believe that yet. Meanwhile Nintendo is busy being Nintendo, which is in itself a double-edged sword. This means the microconsoles have a golden opportunity to occupy a space which the big consoles have forgotten (it’s about the games, stupid), and by making small lean machines that promise to do just that, they have a shot.