Android Consoles: The Beginning of a New Era for Game Development
Android's openness and affordability may have a significant impact on console gaming as we know it.
Time flies. With the Ouya's June launch date steadily approaching, it's easy to forget that its Kickstarter campaign began in July 2012, a mere eight months ago. Its unofficial rival, PlayJam's GameStick, which is also shipping in June, took to crowd-funding in January of this year after prototypes were developed in 2012. Console manufacturers typically spend years and huge amounts of capital developing the next best thing, and when their systems launch with triple-digit price tags amid fever-pitch hype, early adopters expect to be wowed and wooed by the "future" of gaming.
This approach has mostly worked up until now and will likely persist into the future in some form, but lofty budgets and expectations have created an increasingly volatile environment for those on the business side of the equation. Publishers try to one-up each other with big-budget blockbusters, and manufacturers attempt to push the limits of their hardware while hitting a price point that will attract customers, often at cost or below, hoping to recoup costs through software sales and licensing. What happens then when games fail to hit sales quotas, studios close, and first parties like Nintendo no longer warrant the attention and asking price they're accustomed to? Unfortunately, this is the current state of the industry, not a hypothetical scenario.
After sitting down with Julie Uhrman, CEO and founder of Ouya Inc., it became clear that the diminutive, inexpensive, and open console concept is a firm step in the right direction for an industry that's in dire need of reform. It's safe to say that the first "generation" of Android consoles will be lucky to find modest success. However, there's no question that "big video gaming" has a thing or two to learn from these early experiments in service and agility. Touting relatively modest hardware and a low asking price, Android consoles are a completely different beast.
For a $99 Ouya or a $79.99 GameStick, you get a capable gaming device on an open platform with a highly functional wireless controller. Additionally, both devices allow streaming video from Netflix and Hulu. Consumers of Boxee-like streaming devices spend close to the cost of an Ouya or GameStick to acquire, in part, said functionality, sans the ability to play games. Generally, feature sets from products in the same market will converge over time, but these open gaming platforms have a greater chance of adopting additional functionality in their current iteration, today, than your average dedicated streaming device. But I digress: most people will probably buy the Ouya or GameStick for its gaming capabilities and simply appreciate that they don't need to change inputs on their TVs to stream video content.
When I say these are "capable" gaming devices, I realize that statement can be interpreted in a number of ways. I am not referring to the lowest common denominator of digital interactivity, but rather, a reasonable approximation of modern expectations and tastes--that is, wireless controllers, Internet connectivity, HD video output, and support for any game type, be it 2D or 3D. Based on the demos I saw, the Ouya and GameStick are capable of rendering games with PlayStation 2-like fidelity at 1080p/30fps. No doubt Android gaming consoles are underpowered compared to any modern alternatives, but unless you're the sort of gamer who sees the value of a game only in polygon counts or frame rates, that's not necessarily an issue for a device priced so far below the competition.
Today, the majority of games available for the Ouya and GameStick are ports of mobile games. However, as Android matures outside of the mobile space, so too will the content designed for it. Take the eagerly anticipated game from Double Fine's Tim Schafer, The Broken Age. Though it's likely that the Ouya won't be the only console to receive a port of the game, it has been confirmed as a timed console exclusive. This is the sort of content that will legitimize, and ultimately attract customers to, affordable if underpowered consoles.
Granted, that's presently an exceptional and uncommon example, but when you consider the hoops most indie developers must jump through to publish games on existing console platforms, such as PSN and Xbox Live, it's easy to see why Android is an attractive prospect for developers with experimental ideas and an aversion to risk. After all, Android consoles aren't just cheap for the consumer (a fact that developers should pay attention to); because of their Unity 3D support and open platform, anyone with the time and inclination can develop games for free, and according to Uhrman, the approval process for the Ouya usually takes about an hour, sans publishing fees.
Assuming that the Ouya does appeal to content creators and their customers, one mystery remains: who makes the first move? Without original games, Android's chances at making strides in the gaming space shrink considerably. Without the right install base, developers might not see the benefit of focusing on an unpopular device. It might take time for the average consumer to embrace this new approach to console gaming, but the sub-$100 price point certainly doesn't hurt.
Give it a year. If the Ouya or GameStick fails to attract new and exciting developments by this time next year, then maybe it wasn't meant to be. Hopefully, the lure of an open platform and modest development costs will attract developers, and the industry at large will embrace the notion of modesty. Android's inception won't abolish AAA development, which, despite causing many of gaming's financial headaches, has produced some of the finest games of all time. If anything, it will foster a low-risk environment of experimentation for console developers and become an affordable alternative to high-end consoles for consumers. Who knows? if this new breed finds success, it may not be long before the likes of Nintendo join the lo-fi fray.