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

Ouya-top

The Piston is the first of many ‘Steam Boxes’ that could drive a mass PC migration from the office to the living room.

But Will It Work?

For big budget game makers used to high-cost/high-return, microconsoles are likely to prove a wild and uncertain place. However for indies used to doing everything themselves, they should be very attractive.

Historically speaking, a passionate development community is essential to a console’s success. As each grows, and tools like Unity catch up to make cross-compiling easy, it’s very likely that we’ll see vibrant development scenes emerge around one or more microconsole. At first this might look somewhat like the Yaroze scene of old, but in time more professional works will arise.

What’s super-interesting about three of the four microconsoles announced thus far is that they are all using Android as their base operating system (Valve being Valve and Steam being Steam, they’re going the Linux route). There are also many other companies, most notably Samsung, who have deep experience in working with Android already. This brings up the possibility of a universal game format, a kind of DVD of games – only not tied to physical disks.

If the Ouya is able to run Shield games, and the Gamestick is able to run Ouya games, that kind of thing changes the nature of consoles and makes it more basic. Rather than a fancy platform story selling a premium brand, consoles become more like the Apple TV: small boxes with controllers that serve game and app experiences without too much fuss. Cheaply. For some that’s nirvana. For others, Armageddon.

The ugly prototype may scream also-ran, but Nvidia’s Shield handheld has real potential if the company can effectively communicate its power.

Early Impressions

I doubt that all of the contenders in the emerging microconsole race will survive. I have high hopes for Ouya on the basis that it’s had the most momentum to date, the fan loyalty and the money. The fact that the company recently got its dev kits out on time and in good order is also a great sign. I also feel that Valve will make the Steam Box a success, although it may take two or three tries to get there. Unlike the other microconsoles, Valve already has a massive asset with Steam, has some of its own very highly valued brands (Portal, Half-Life, etc) and also has a great reputation among indie developers.

I am less positive about the Gamestick. While Playjam has long experience in making games, and a good team behind it, I’m not sure that the market needs its consoles to be two inches in size. To pack good-enough hardware into a space that small is an unnecessary challenge, and if I’m being honest I think the ergonomics of the joypad need work. I also suspect that the Nvidia Shield will need a form factor overhaul. While the unit unveiled at CES is just a prototype, it looks incredibly gimmicky (essentially an Xbox 360 joypad stuck to a screen), and is also pitched more at the handheld market. In the wake of the mobile revolution that market may not meaningfully exist for anyone other than Nintendo.

But beyond that, who else could get in on the race? How about Samsung? What about Amazon? Both have strong familiarity with Android after all, and Samsung in particular has great experience with TV based hardware. Then there’s Apple, and the mysterious lack of apps on Apple TV. To some it seems as though Apple could convert that machine to a microconsole overnight, and who knows how that will turn out?

At a time when it seemed like the console industry was heading toward terminal boredom, things have suddenly started to get a whole lot more interesting.

This is an edited version of Kelly’s recent blog post, reprinted here with his permission.