We are all witnesses to a really interesting time in gaming. As smartphones grew in popularity and power, they also grew into a viable gaming platform. Going from silly puzzle games into FPS or RPG games was a quick transition. It would have been easy for developers to treat the mobile platform as less-than, but they didn’t. Instead, developers treated mobile seriously, and we saw some seriously good games as a result.
In the move to mobile, we moved away from our living rooms. The XBox is popular, but console gaming in general is in serious decline. Just as gaming is on the brink of going all-in with mobile, a few devices are trying to straddle the line between mobile and stationary gaming. Are we ready to go back to the living room, or are we happy where we’re at? We’ll take a look at three upcoming players in the gaming arena to find out who has the best concept, and who has the best chance.
Although it recently ran into a (temporary) little Kickstarter snafu, GameStick is a very interesting concept. Priced well below its competitors, this one may just be the little engine that could. In a nutshell, it’s a controller with a HDMI dongle that nestles in the bottom of the controller so you can take it anywhere.
The $79 price point may just be GameStick’s strongest hand. As OUYA proved, we can’t get enough of the reasonably priced gaming console. Where GameStick potentially trumps competitors is the tandem of gaming and mobility. GameStick will come with Android support, but how much is not clear. Nothing on the GameStick website commits to how it will all work, exactly, so we’re left to wonder a bit.
You get a controller, an HDMI dongle, and a carrying case (for $10 extra). About the size of a normal smartphone, the GameStick will fit comfortably in a pocket or stow away nicely in a bag. Nothing obtrusive or bulky, no set-top box to worry about, and no cables to fuss with. You get the ability to take mobile gaming to the big screen, wherever you go.
GameStick is also rumored to give you access to about 200 games at launch, so if you’ve ever wondered what that racing game you love so much will translate to on the big screen at your friend’s house, you may get to find out. The little powerhouse is also noting it will have support for an Android device-based controller. If it hits the Kickstarter goals, you may even be able to get it in a variety of colors!
On the GameStick Kickstarter website, the company has a very detailed timeline of activity and fulfillment promises. PlayJam is basically showing you the business model, and I find that commendable. Whether or not it can arrange development of games and product is something only time will tell, but at least it’s being transparent about the operation. It’s really easy for a Kickstarter project to be vague about its intent, only to find itself unable to fulfill an end product. PlayJam seems to have its act together, which makes it pretty easy to get excited about this whole thing.
PlayJam is working hard to build a product that makes good on its promises, but it may be in over its head. If we examine things from a development standpoint, the genre is getting a little crowded. Aside from the iOS and Android issue developers have to deal with, now there are an increasing number of micro-platforms to develop for. While we as users may not realize it, building in support for controllers may not be as simple as we think. I have about 45 games on my Nexus 7, and only 4 of them have support for my MOGA controller.
The ability to play mobile games on a big screen is a great idea, but it also tethers you. This is really the Achilles’ heel of this new genre of gaming platforms; do we want to be tied down to the couch anymore? I like the concept of the GameStick. If it has a nice library of games, it will be a huge hit. If developers don’t get involved, nothing else matters.
OUYA is the big dog in the race. First to market with the concept, it set the gaming world on fire. Its Kickstarter campaign was through the roof, making the company enough capital to deliver a fantastic product. It’s well thought out, well conceived, and terribly exciting. Developers have their OUYA boxes, so the time for users is closing in.
At $99, the price was too good not to be interested. You get a snappy little box and console-style controller, plus an HDMI cable and power cord. The controller is maybe a design for the ages. It already looks to be iconic, so if it delivers on performance as equally as it has on style, OUYA will be a major hit. Keeping the cords minimal was a smart move, also.
Well, you get all the goodies we just mentioned, but you get a little bit more than that. As OUYA was the first to market, they were also the first to get support. Not monetary support, but support from developers. What OUYA delivered on was a completely open source platform. Everyone who has an OUYA is encouraged to hack it and develop for it.
So aside from goodies, what you really get is a ton of really bright people developing for OUYA. Sure, you’ll get the occasional crap game, but those get weeded out quickly. Really awesome games go viral, and big studios create a lot of hype about their stuff. OUYA already has a ton of momentum behind it, so expect a huge library of titles.
Speaking of games, another great aspect to OUYA is that all games will be free to try. What that means is not totally clear, as it’s probably left up to developers. The platform does a marvelous job of supporting developers as much as gamers, so look for developers to repay that favor in kind.
It feels like never, we’re so excited, but it’s coming very soon. An expected delivery of April 2013 puts it on track with the other two platforms we’re discussing today. That’s important when considering the market, as OUYA was first to it. GameStick will launch at about the same time, and Project Shield will launch in Q2 2013. What this tells us is that OUYA’s hype is palpable, and nobody wants to lose ground to them. With what we can only assume (considering the Kickstarter campaign as well as orders from their website) to be a ton of pre-orders, and very promising competition, OUYA must meet that timeframe.
As much as OUYA will give us, it seems like perfection. Be careful, though, as this may not be all it seems. OUYA has many partners, including radio and streaming music. That leaves me wondering if OUYA is concentrating on gaming as it should, or are simply offering as many services as it can. If we look back to the Nexus Q, the only “Q” it gave us was questions. What, exactly, is it for? Why does it do all this stuff? We’re not quite comfortable with the concept of a set-top box that does a variety of things. Streaming boxes like Roku or Google TVs are very popular, but still strange to many people.
There is also the set-top box issue. OUYA is powerful, promising, and popular. It’s also stationary. This is where the fork in the road exists with OUYA. I’ll go out on a short limb and say most people would use such a console box at their own home anyway, so this may not be a huge issue. If, however, you are mobile more than static, this may present a problem for you.
Project Shield came out of left field. It was NVIDIA’s “one last thing” moment of CES 2013, and it was a doozy. Nobody heard rumors, and nobody had this on their radar. The company could have easily called it “Project Stealth” and it would have made sense, this thing was so hidden.
What Project Shield is, though, is a very impressive handheld gaming system that takes from the big screen rather than contributes to it. Supporting the popular Steam gaming service, it can play those games on its 5-inch attached screen. The screen looks great, too: a 720p OLED display that is built into the clamshell device, creating a little gaming hub for you.
As it has just been announced, details are still a bit opaque. We know you’ll get a very familiar style of controller with a screen attached. Nobody has heard the final pricing of this device, but speculation of about $399 is floating around. What we’re sure of is that you’ll get a powerful device, as NVIDIA is touting its Tegra 4 processor inside.
As mentioned, you’ll also get Steam on top of Android games and apps. Steam, the very popular PC gaming service, will be fully supported by Project Shield. This brings platform gaming to the small screen, not the other way around. That’s done via a WiFi connection, so it keeps the platform truly mobile. Running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, and acting as a bit of a standalone device, Project Shield is very promising.
We know next to nothing right now, so we’ll have to exercise speculative judgement. We know it will be more expensive that the other devices or consoles mentioned, simply due to the screen being included. If it comes in at $399, or even $299, don’t look for it to be wildly popular. At that price, you could get a very nice tablet with a much bigger screen. You’d also get a device that those Android games were built for, giving you true access to the entire library of games. While those NVIDIA games built for the Tegra processor will be awesome on this device, we don’t know how much outside support this will have yet.
Let’s also be presumptuous and say it launches around the same time as the other two… the same day, even. What would make you want this? If you’re already into Steam, this may appeal to you. On the other hand, it streams that service via WiFi, and you have to be on the same WiFi network as your computer. This gives you limited mobility, unfortunately. Sure you can play those Steam games anywhere you have a WiFi signal, but you can’t take it with you.
In questioning the mobility aspect of it, we don’t know if it’s going to be a WiFi device, or if we’ll be able to get some sort of rate plan from a carrier. If it’s a WiFi only device, you can count me out. If I am buying into a mobile gaming platform, I want mobile gaming. The handheld gaming genre has hit rock bottom, so NVIDIA will have to absolutely nail this one, and i’m not talking about specs.
What really needs to be considered is mobility. Android gives the developers access to a ton of games, and a large user base. We use Android as a mobile platform, so this concept of stationary gaming is still new and weird for us. The fact that both GameStick’s and OUYA’s respective websites are “.tv” rather than “.com” or another variant also shows how serious they are about their niche.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m terribly excited for all three of these platforms, but to what end? I try to imagine scenarios in which these platforms are best used. If I had kids, I’d get a GameStick. They could take their game system anywhere, so it would make entertaining them on the go a bit easier. An OUYA is best suited for me, as I’d be playing my games at home mostly. If I want to play a game on the go, I have my Nexus devices. If, however, GameStick had an equally impressive library of games as OUYA, it would be a push.
Project Shield is a juxtaposition to the other two, but is that a smart bet? Times are a bit tough for everyone, and Project Shield seems a bit of a luxury item at this point. It also brings the games to a small screen, and may not be as portable as we want. Is this how you want to game, or is your current device better suited for that? Time is always the great equalizer, and April should be an awesome month.