I’ll be honest here: my faith in OUYA has long since faded away.
Wind back 3 years and you’d get a completely different story; the idea of a console freed from publishers and big money marketers appealed to the guy who wanted to see the indie renaissance turn into a full blown revolution. I wasn’t alone in thinking this and many of the backers saw the OUYA as the key to unlocking a console market for indie devs that, back then, wasn’t really available. The late release to backers and dated hardware meant that it wasn’t much of a platform indie devs wanted to find themselves on which meant that users really couldn’t find much to love about the console either. Couple that with the fact that the major consoles are now extremely friendly to indie devs and the OUYA has lost the mission it was the champion of. The result of this is that OUYA has been struggling and now it’s looking for someone to rescue it.
Over its life OUYA has taken in some $23 million in both Kickstarter funds as well as venture capital making it quite a well funded startup comparatively. A quick search around will reveal a lot of vanity metrics, like the fact they’ve got over 1000 games and 40,000 developers signed up but no where will you find number of units shipped nor any solid figures on how many titles developers are able to move on the system. Indeed even those metrics they tout paint a pretty grim picture of the OUYA as only 1 in 40 developers signed up to the program have actually released a title on it, a mere 2.5%. Mix in the conversion rate of users actually on the console and it’s really no wonder that they’re looking for a buyer as the revenue on their sales, both hardware and software, can’t be good.
Thinking back on it though there’s really no one defining problem that I can point to that really soured OUYA, more it was death by a myriad of little problems that just compounded the impending irrelevance it was facing. Not getting the console into the hands of the enthusiasts, I.E. the backers who were genuinely excited to see the product come to life, long before anyone could get their hands on it meant that when it did finally release there was no Kickstarter fuelled fanfare to go with it. Taking as long as it did to release meant the hardware was long since surpassed and whilst it was sufficient at the time it quickly started to show its age. The quality of the console, whilst decent for the price point, wasn’t great and only helped to compound the idea that it was a gimmick and not much more. All of this, and more, has meant that the OUYA has just faded from the greater gaming community’s conscious and I don’t think it’s likely to return.
I won’t pretend to have a solution for their woes as I don’t. As far as I’m concerned the ship has long since sailed on the OUYA idea and now, with the major console players coming onboard with better support for indie developers, there really isn’t any room for them to play in. Today most people would much rather just play Android games on their Android phone and, should they want it, pairing it up with the controller of their choice. If OUYA manages to find a willing buyer I’d be very surprised as I can’t really see a future for OUYA that ends with them becoming a successful niche console.
The OUYA and I have a complicated relationship. When I first saw it I loved the idea of a console that was free from any restrictions, one that would inevitably become a playground for the independent developers that I had come to love so much. However the reality fell short of my (and many others) lofty expectations but deep down I still really wanted it to take off. Whilst I’m not cheering for the downfall of the three kings of consoles having a viable alternative for developers who can’t afford to develop for traditional platforms is something that the industry needs and before you ask no, smartphones don’t count (at least not yet).
OUYA’s latest move has done nothing to improve this situation, however.
OUYA recently announced the Free the Games fund, an initiative whereby a game that’s funded through Kickstarter can have its contributions doubled, to the tune of $50,000. On the surface that sounds like a great thing as that kind of cash is kind of unheard of for many independent developers and studios however this isn’t free money exactly. First off your game must be an OUYA exclusive for the first 6 months of its life after which you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Secondly your Kickstarter goal must be at least $50,000 and you have to reach it to be eligible to get your funds doubled. These two aspects combined together have seen the Free the Games fund met with some harsh criticism and, frankly, I’m inclined to agree with them.
For starters being an OUYA exclusive drastically limits your market potential as even the most successful game on that platform has only managed to sell around 2,000 copies. Considering that cross platform development is now easier than ever thanks to tools like Unity indie developers are quite capable of releasing for multiple platforms even with the limited resources that they have to work with. Thus it makes sense to release on as many platforms as is feasible to maximise your market exposure unless you’ve got a compelling reason to go exclusive. $50,000 might be compelling enough for some, especially if that will allow you to develop a cross platform release during the exclusivity period, but the second caveat on that funding is what makes that particular scenario unlikely.
The average game project on Kickstarter gets no where near the amount of funding that OUYA is asking for in order to receive the grant. According to Kickstarter’s own numbers the average funding level of a games project is on the order of $22,000 which includes outliers which have nabbed millions of dollars worth of funding. In truth the average indie studio would probably be lucky to get anywhere near the average with 63% of them raising less than $20,000. OUYA’s logic is likely then that any game below that amount would be too risky for them to invest in but its far more likely that they’re pricing out the vast majority of the indies they were hoping to attract and those who meet the requirements will likely not want to trade exclusivity for the additional funding.
In theory I think it’s a great idea however it’s implementation is sorely lacking. I think a lot more people would be on their side if they reduced the amount of funding required by a factor of ten and changed the exclusivity deal to guaranteeing that the game would be available on the OUYA platform. That way the developers aren’t constrained to the OUYA platform, allowing them to develop the game however they want, and the OUYA would get an order of magnitude more titles developed for the platform. Of course that also means the risk of getting shovelware increases somewhat however after my decidedly average experience with OUYA exclusive titles I can’t say that they’d be diluting the pool too much.
I’m still hoping that OUYA manages to turn this around as their core idea of an unchained console is still something I think should be applauded but the realisation of a viable, alternative console platform seems to keep drifting further away. Their latest move has only served to alienate much of the community it set out to serve however with a few tweaks I think it could be quite workable, allowing OUYA to achieve its goals whilst furthering the indie game dev scene. It doesn’t look like they’re intent on doing that however so this will likely end up being yet another mark against them.
Like 64,000+ others I bought into the OUYA dream, both figuratively and literally. Its initial announcement had me skeptical as I really couldn’t foresee any reason as to why I’d want one, but it quickly grew on me and I thought, at worst, I’ve bought myself a media extender that I can use pretty much anywhere. I dropped a decent amount of coin on it, enough to net me a console and 2 controllers, and then patiently waited for that box to show up on my doorstep. I was excited to review it, since it was a new piece of hardware that I helped to create, and I was told I’d get my hands on it long before it hit retail shelves.
I got mine the same day it hit retail shelves in the USA and that was only the beginnings of my frustration with it.
The device itself was well packaged however the additional controller was just kind of dumped in the shipping box along with the additional batteries to power it. After peeling over the various protective covers that seemed to coat every single part of it I wired it up to my television and turned it on. It emphatically shouted “OUYA” at me and then asked for my wireless credentials to hook itself up to the Internet. This was all fine however it seemed to randomly drop the connection every so often, requiring me to sift through the menus to make it rediscover the connection again. This is with the router being only 3m away from it with nothing but air between it and none of my other wireless devices seemed to share the same problems.
Singing up for an account was pretty standard and after that I greeted with a few menu options. I hit play figuring there’d be a couple titles installed just to get you going (there aren’t) and after that I hit up the Discover section (which I guess counts as the shop) where I perused around for some titles. All of the lists that adorned the front page contained a similar mix of games which made them rather useless for discovery so I ended up looking for some titles that I remember being advertised as coming to the platform. After getting a couple recommended titles and all the emulators I could find I sat down to play through a couple of the games and I can’t say I was terribly impressed.
There’s clearly 2 classes of games on the OUYA store currently. The first is the truly free software which if its a utility seems to work great (all the emulators function as expected, but more on them in a bit) and the second is the essentially the free trial version of the game. Now I knew that there would be paid titles on there however I figured they’d be like the Android store, I.E. I’d have to pay to get them. That’s not the case for the titles that I got my hands on as pretty much all of them have the upsell as part of the game or hide behind tricky mechanics like “coins” or other kinds of micro-transactiony malarkey. I can’t say that this endeared any of the games to me but then again if I was a developer I’d probably do the same thing to get more eyeballs on my product.
Probably the saving grace of the OUYA is that the emulators do work since the OUYA has enough grunt to power them however the process to get them working could not be more of a pain in the ass. If you follow any of the guides that come up when you Google “get ROMs on OUYA” you’ll likely end up having to trounce through the settings menu looking for downloaded files so you can side load file manager onto it. If you’re really unlucky (like I was) the APK files will refuse to install which means you’ve got no way to manage the files. Thankfully the USB driver seems to work well enough to recognize thumb drives and read the files directly off them. This is where integration with the Play store would really come in handy as I could just skirt that whole process and use the web interface to deploy files to it. I do understand why they’re not doing that, however.
As you can guess I’m pretty underwhelmed with the whole experience and I’m going to level most of the blame squarely at the OUYA itself. We didn’t get off to a great start when I, someone who was an early backer, got mine when it went generally available. The whole experience after that point was just marred with little issues that just cemented that feeling of displeasure. Sure there are some redeemable things about the platform but honestly it’s nothing more than what I could get with a $6 app and hooking up my PlayStation 3 controllers to my Android phone.
Whilst its easy to argue to the contrary Microsoft really is a company that listens to its customers. Many of the improvements I wrote about during my time at TechEd North America were the direct result of them consulting with their users and integrating their requests into their updated product lines. Of course this doesn’t make them immune to blundering down the wrong path as they have done with the XboxOne (and a lot would argue Windows 8 as well, something which I’m finding hard to ignore these days) something which Sony gleefully capitalized on. Their initial attempts at damage control did little to help their image and it was looking like they were just going to wear it until launch day.
And then they did this:
Essentially it’s a backtrack to the way things are done today with the removal of the need for the console to check in every day in order for you to be able to play installed/disc based games. This comes hand in hand with Microsoft now allowing you to trade/sell/gift your disc based games to anyone, just like you can do now. They’re keeping the ability to download games directly from Xbox Live although it seems the somewhat convoluted sharing program has also been nixed, meaning you can no longer share games with your family members nor can you share downloaded titles with friends. Considering that not many people found that particular feature attractive I’m not sure it will be missed but it does look like Microsoft wanted to put the boot in a little to show us what we could have had.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this as Microsoft had been pretty adamant that it was going to stick around regardless of what the consumers thought. Indeed actions taken by other companies like EA seemed to indicate that this move was going to be permanent, hence them abandoning things that would now be part of the platform. There’s been a bit of speculation that this was somehow planned all along; that Microsoft was gauging the Market’s reaction and would react based on that but if that was the case this policy would have been reversed a lot sooner, long before the backlash reached its crescendo during E3. The fact that they’ve made these changes shows that they’re listening now but there’s not to suggest that this was their plan all along.
Of course this doesn’t address some of the other issues that gamers have taken with the XboxOne, most notably the higher cost (even if its semi-justified by the included Kinect) and the rather US centric nature of many of the media features. Personally the higher price doesn’t factor into my decision too much, although I do know that’s a big deal for some, but since the XboxOne’s big selling points was around it’s media features it feels like a lot of the value I could derive from it is simply unavailable to me. Even those in the USA get a little bit of a rough ride with Netflix being behind the Xbox Live Gold wall (when it’s always available on the PS4) but since both of them are requiring the subscription for online play it’s not really something I can really fault/praise either of them for.
For what it’s worth this move might be enough to bring those who were on the fence back into the fold but as the polls and preorders showed there’s a lot of consumers who have already voted with their wallets. If this console generation has the same longevity as the current one then there’s every chance for Microsoft to make up the gap over the course of the next 8 years and considering that the majority of the console sales happen after the launch year it’s quite possible that all this outrage could turn out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Still the first battle in this generation of console wars has been unequivocally won by Sony and it’s Microsoft’s job to make up that lost ground.
If the deafening outcrying from nearly every one of my favourite games news sites and social media brethren is anything to go by the console war has already been won and the new king is Sony. Whilst the fanboy in me would love to take this opportunity to stick it to all the Xboxers out there I honestly believe that Sony really didn’t do much to deserve the praise that’s currently being heaped on it. More I feel like the news coming out of E3 just shows how many missteps Microsoft took with the XboxOne with Sony simply sitting on the sidelines, not really changing anything from what they’re currently doing today.
The one, and really only, point that this all hinged on was the yet unknown stance that Sony would take for DRM on the PlayStation4. It was rumoured that they were watching social media closely and that spurred many grassroots campaigns aimed at influencing them. The announcement came at E3 that they’d pretty much be continuing along the same lines as they are now, allowing you to trade/sell/keep disc based games without any restrictions built into the platform. This also means that developers were free to include online passes in their games, something which has thankfully not become too common but could go on the rise (especially with cross platform titles).
There wasn’t much else announced at E3 that got gamers excited about the PlayStation4 apart from seeing the actual hardware for the first time. One curious bit of information that didn’t receive a whole lot of attention though was the change to Sony’s stance on free multiplayer through the PlayStation Network. You’ll still be able to get a whole bunch of services for free (like NetFlix/Hulu) but if you want to get multiplayer you’re going to have to shell out $5/month for the privilege. However this is PlayStation Plus which means it comes with a whole bunch of other benefits like free full version games so it’s not as bad as it sounds. Still it looks like Sony might have been capitalizing on the notion that there will be quite a few platform switchers for this generation and thus took the opportunity to make the service mandatory for multi.
It could also be partly to offset the extremely low (relative) price of the PlayStation4 with it clocking in at $399. Considering its specs it’s hard to believe that they’re not using the console as a loss leader yet again, something which I thought they were going to avoid for this generation. If the life of these consoles remains relatively the same that means they’ll at least get the console’s price back again in subscription fees, plus any additional revenue they get from the games sales. At least part of it will have to go to the massive amount of online services they’re planning to release however, but overall it seems that at least part of that subscription cash will be going to offset the cheaper hardware.
The thing to note here is that the differences between Sony’s current and next generation console are far smaller than those for Microsoft. This is the same Sony who were ridiculed for releasing the PSN long after Xbox Live, pricing their console way above the competition and, even if it wasn’t for games specifically, had some of the most insane DRM known to man. The fact that not much has changed (they have, in fact, got objectively worse) and they’re being welcomed with open arms shows just how much Microsoft has dropped the ball.
Whether or not this will translate into lost sales though will have to remain to be seen. The consumer market has an incredibly short memory and we’ve got a good 5 months between now and when the XboxOne goes on sale. It’s entirely possible that the current conversation is being dominated by the vocal minority and the number of platform loyalists will be enough to overcome that initial adoption hump (something which the Wii-U hasn’t been able to do). I’m sure that anyone who was on the fence about which one to get has probably made their mind up now based on these announcements but in all honesty those people are few and far between. I feel the majority of console gamers will get one, and only one, console and will likely not change platforms easily.
The proof will come this holiday season, however.
[UPDATE]: It has come to my attention that Sony has stated that they will not be allowing online passes from anyone. Chalk that up to yet another win for them.
It was a late night in March 2007 where deep in the bowels of the Belconnen shopping mall dozens of consoles gamers gathered. I sat there, my extremely patient and soon to be wife by my side, alongside them eagerly awaiting what was to come, adrenaline surging despite the hour rapidly approaching midnight. We were all there for one thing, the release of the PlayStation 3, and just under an hour later all of us would walk out of there with one of them tucked under our arms. I stayed up far too long setting the whole system up only to crash out before I was able to play any games on it. That same PlayStation, the one I paid a ridiculous price for in both cash and sleep, still sits next to my TV today alongside every other current console.
Well, apart from one, the Wii U.
The reason behind me regaling you with tales of my more insane gamer years is not to humblebrag my way into some kind of gamer cred, no it’s more to highlight the fact that between then and now 6 years have passed. I’ve seen console games rapidly evolve from the first tentative titles, which barely stressed the hardware, to today’s AAA titles which are exploiting every single aspect of the system that they run on. Back in their day both the PlayStation3 and Xbox360 were computational beasts that could beat most other platforms in raw calculative potential without breaking a sweat. Today however that’s no longer the case with the PC having long retaken that crown and people are starting to notice.
Of course console makers are keenly aware of this and whilst the time between generations is increasing they still see the need to furnish a replacement once the current generation starts getting long in the tooth. Indeed if current rumours are anything to go by we’ll likely see both the PlayStation4 and Xbox-something this year. However the rather lackluster sales of the first installment in next generation consoles (the Nintendo WiiU) has led at least one industry critic to be rather pessimistic about whether the next generation is really needed:
Whatever the case, what lessons can Sony and Microsoft take on board from how their rival has fared, as they prepare to make their moves into the next console generation? Well, there’s one immediately apparent lesson: Don’t start a new fucking console generation, because it’s a bad climate and triple-A gaming is becoming too fat and toxic to support its own weight. If you make triple-A games even more expensive and troublesome to develop – not to mention forcing them to adhere to online and hardware gimmicks that shrink and alienate the potential audience even further – then you will be driving the Titanic smack into another iceberg in the hope that it’ll somehow freeze shut the hole the first one made.
The thing is the problems that are affecting the WiiU don’t really translate to Sony or Microsoft. The WiiU was Nintendo’s half-hearted attempt to recapture the more “hardcore” gaming crowd which, let’s be honest here, was a small minority of their customer based. The Wii was so successful because it appealed to the largest demographic that had yet to be tapped: those who traditionally did not play video games. The WiiU, whilst being comparable to current gen consoles, doesn’t provide enough value to end users in order for them to fork out the cash for an upgrade. That then translates into developers not wanting to touch the platform which starts a vicious downward spiral that’ll be incredibly hard to break from.
However the biggest mistake Yahtzee makes is in assuming the next generation of consoles will be harder to develop for, and this is simply not the case.
Both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation3 are incredibly complicated beasts to program for with the former running on a custom variant of PowerPC and the latter running on Sony’s attempt to develop a supercomputer, the Cell. Both of these had their own quirks, nuances and tricks developers used in order to squeeze more performance out of them, none of which were translatable to any other platform. The next generation however comes to us with a very familiar architecture backing it (x86-64) which has decades, yes decades, of programming optimizations, frameworks and development behind it. Indeed all the investment that game developers have made in PC titles (which they’ve thankfully continued to do despite its diminutive market share) will directly translate to the next generation platforms from Microsoft and Sony. Any work on either platform will also directly translate to the other which is going to make cross-platform releases far cheaper, easier and of much higher quality than they have been previously.
In principle I agree with the idea, we don’t need another generation of consoles like we have in the past where developers are forced to retool and spend the next 2 years catching up to the technology. However the next generation we’re getting is nothing like the past and is shaping up to be a major boon to both developers and consumers. As far as we can tell the PlayStation4 and Durango are going to be nothing like the WiiU with many major developers already on board for both platforms and nary a crazy peripheral has been sighted for either of them. To cite the WiiU as the reason why the next generation isn’t needed is incredibly short sighted as Nintendo has shown it’s no longer in the same market as Sony and Microsoft are.
The current generation of consoles have run their course and its time for their replacements to take the stage. The convergence of technology between the two major platforms will only mean good things for developers and consumers alike. There are issues that are plaguing the wider industry, there’s no doubt about that, and whilst I won’t say that the next generation will be the panacea to their ills it’s good step in the first direction as there’s an incredible amount of savings to be made in developer time from the switch to a more common architecture. Whether that translates into better games or whatever Yahtzee is ultimately lusting after will have to remain to be seen but the next generation is bright light on the horizon, not an iceberg threatening to sink the industry.
There’s no doubt that the kings of the video game industry are still the consoles. Us long time gamers might lament the last decade which saw our crown taken from those console upstarts there’s no denying that they’re the current driving force behind the explosive growth the industry has enjoyed of late. Many of us have been stalwart in our support of our chosen platform however, so much so in fact that the release of Diablo III this year marked the first time since 2010 that a PC only game was the top selling title during its release. Indeed the PC platform has been making something of a come back for a while now and the past year is just a confirmation of that.
A good chunk of that resurgence can be attributed to the wild success of the Steam platform. At any one point there are up to 5 million users using Steam and the total people signed up for it, some 50 million or so, eclipses that of Xbox Live (the most popular online console network) by a wide margin. Of course Valve’s presence in the home entertainment space, a place where the consoles have found a secondary niche, is practically 0. Valve has been aware of this and the recent release of their Big Picture mode was obviously aimed at turning any home media PC into a beach front for Valve’s wide catalogue of games. With many of them being cross platform titles that were built for controllers in the first place it was an extremely smart move by Valve and whilst it won’t have developers jumping ship from consoles any time soon it does signal the beginning of a shift back towards PC gaming, even if it’s with a console like façade.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a curated hardware platform that could function as the next step in Valve’s grab for the home entertainment space. It had long been rumoured that Valve was working on something called a Steam Box which would essentially be a console like device, complete with its own custom controller, that would run some part of Valve’s catalogue of games. When I wrote about it at the time details were scant and I had partly assumed that it’d be some kind of walled garden type device (I.E. constrained to Source engine titles or some other limitation) which had me on the fence as to whether I’d want one or not. Additionally if all the titles on the Steam Box were on the PC I’d have little incentive to play them anywhere else as I’m quite accustomed to the mouse/keyboard as my primary input device.
As it turns out those rumours appear to be true as Gabe Newell said in a recent interview that they’re working on their own hardware platform. Gabe says it will be tightly controlled which I take to mean that the specifications will be fixed like a console, ruling out the idea that it’d simply be a small form factor PC with the Valve logo on the front. Interestingly though he has also stated that others are free to make their own version as well which would indicate that, whilst they’ll be controlling the hardware specs of their devices, you will get the same experience if you simply build your own PC and run big picture mode on the top of it. This also opens up the opportunity for OEMs to make their own Steam Box-esque PCs that are purposed designed to live next to your TV and play high end games. You could draw parallels to the ultrabook segment of the laptop market as they were born out of pressures to make smaller form factors more powerful (and I’ll hazard a guess they’ll be strikingly similar under the hood as well).
I’m still not entirely sure if a Steam Box would be appropriate for me as whilst Big Picture mode is great on my media PC there aren’t that many games that I’d prefer to play on there if they’re available on the PC. That being said I know there’s many people out there who prefer the console experience and making these kinds of bridge devices could well be the catalyst that pushes PC gaming back to the top of the pile. I’m very interested to see what Valve will be bringing to the table with their own curated hardware platform as their Big Picture mode is pretty fantastic and anything built by them around that concept will, hopefully, be just as awesome.
My first interaction with Steam wasn’t a pleasant one. I remember the day clearly, I was still living out in Wamboin when Valve released Half Life 2 and had made sure to grab myself a copy before heading home. After going through the lengthy install process requiring multiple CD swaps I was greeted by a login box asking me to create an account. Frustratingly all my usual gamer tags: PYROMANT|C, SuperDave, Nalafang, etc. were already taken leaving me to choose a random name. That wasn’t the real annoyance though, no what got me was the required update that needed to be applied before I could play it which, on the end of a 56k connection, was going to take me the better part of an hour to apply.
This soured me on the idea of Steam for quite a few years, at least until I got myself a stable form of broadband that let me update without having to wait hours at a time. Still it wasn’t until probably 3 years or so ago that I started buying most of my games through Steam as buying the physical media and then integrating with Steam later was still a much better experience. Today though it’s my platform of choice when purchasing games and it seems that I’m not alone in this regard with up to 70% of all digital sales passing through the platform. We’ve also seen Steam add many more features like SteamCloud and SteamWorks which have provided a platform for developers to add features that would have otherwise been too costly to develop themselves.
With all the success that Steam has enjoyed (in the process making Valve one of the most profitable companies per employee) it makes you wonder what the end game for Steam will end up being. Whilst they’d undoubtedly be able to coast along quite easily on the recurring sales and the giant community they’ve built around the platform history has shown that Valve isn’t that kind of company. Indeed the recent press release from Valve saying that traditional applications will soon be available through the Steam platform seems to indicate that they have ambitions that extend past their roots of gaming and digital distribution.
And its at this point that I start speculating wildly.
Valve has shown that it is dedicated to gamers regardless of the platform with Steam already on OSX and will soon be finding its way onto Linux alongside a native port of Left 4 Dead 2. With such a deep knowledge of games and an engine that runs on nearly any platform it would make sense that Valve might take a stab at cutting out the middle man entirely, choosing to create their own custom operating system that’s solely dedicated to the purpose of gaming. If such an idea was to come to fruition it would most likely be some kind of Linux derivative with a whole bunch of optimizations in it to make Source titles run better. I’ll be honest with you when this idea was suggested to me I thought it was pretty far out but there are some threads within this idea that have some merit.
Whilst the idea of SteamOS as a standalone operating system might be a bit far fetched I could see something akin to media centre software that transforms a traditional Windows/Linux/OSX PC into a dedicated gaming machine. Steam’s strength arguably comes from the giant catalogue of third party titles that they have on there and keeping the underlying OS (with its APIs in tact) means that all these games would still be available. This also seems to line up with the rumoured SteamBox idea that was floating around at the start of the year and would mean that the console was in fact just a re-badged Windows PC with some custom hardware underneath. The console itself might not catch on (although the success of the OUYA seems to indicate otherwise) but I could very well see people installing SteamOS beside their XBMC installation turning their Media PC into a dual use machine.
With all this in mind you have to then ask yourself what Valve would get out of something like this. They are already making headway into getting Steam in one form or another onto already existing consoles (see Steam for the PS3) and they’ve arguably already captured the lion’s share of PC gamers, the ones who’d be most likely to use something like SteamOS. The SteamBox would arguably be targeted at people who are not traditionally PC gamers and SteamOS then would simply be an also ran, something that would provide extra value to its already dedicated PC community. Essentially it would be further cementing Steam as the preferred digital distribution network for games whilst also attempting to capture a market that they’ve had little to do with up until this point.
All of this though is based on the current direction Valve seems to be going but realistically I could just be reading way too far into it. Their recent moves with the Steam platform are arguably just Valve trying to grow their platform organically and could very easily not be part of some grander scheme for greater platform dominance. The idea though is intriguing and whilst I have nothing more than speculation to go on I don’t think it would be a bad move by Valve at all.
I’ve seen so many consoles come and during my years as a gamer. I remember the old rivalries back in the day between the stalwart Nintendo fans and the just as dedicated Sega followers. As time went on Nintendo’s dominance became hard to push back against and Sega struggled to face up to the competition. Sony however made quite a splash with their original Playstation and was arguably the reason behind the transition away from game cartridges to the disc based systems we have today. For the last 5 years or so though there really hasn’t been much of a shake up in the console market, save for the rise of the motion controllers (which didn’t really shake anything up other than causing a giant fit of mee-tooism from all the major players).
I think the reasons for this are quite simple: consoles became powerful enough to be somewhat comparable to PCs, the old school king of gaming. The old business models of having to release a new console every 3 years or so didn’t make sense when your current generation was more than capable of modern games at a generally acceptable level. There was also the fact that Microsoft got burned slightly by releasing the Xbox360 so soon after the original Xbox and I’m sure Sony and Nintendo weren’t keen on making the same mistake. All we’ve got now are rumours about the next generation of consoles but by and large they’re not shaping up to be anything revolutionary like their current gen brethren were when they were released.
What’s really been shaking up the gaming market recently though is the mobile/tablet gaming sector. Whilst I’ll hesitate to put these in the same category as consoles (they are, by and large, not a platform with a primary purpose of gaming in mind) they have definitely had an impact in the portable sector. At the same time though the quality of games available on the mobile platform has increased significantly and developers now look to develop titles on the mobile platform wouldn’t have been reasonable or feasible only a few short years ago. This is arguably due to the marked increase in computing power that has been made available to even the most rudimentary of smart phones which spurred developers on to be far more ambitious with the kinds of titles they develop for the platform.
What I never considered though was a crossover between the traditional console market and the now flourishing mobile sector. That’s were OUYA, an Android based game console, comes into play.
OUYA is at its heart a smartphone without a screen or a cellular chipset in it. At its core it boasts a NVIDIA Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, Bluetooth and a USB 2 port for connectivity. For a console the specifications aren’t particularly amazing, in fact they’re down right pitiful, but it’s clear that their idea for a system isn’t something that can play the latest Call of Duty. Instead the OUYA’s aim is to lurethat same core of developers, the ones who have been developing games for mobile platforms, over to their platform by making the console cheap, license free and entirely open. They’ve also got the potential to get a lot of momentum from current Android developers who will just need a few code modifications to support the controller, giving them access to potentially thousands of launch titles.
I’ll be honest at the start I was somewhat sceptical about what the OUYA’s rapid funding success meant. When I first looked at the console specifications and intended market I got the feeling that the majority of people ordering it weren’t doing it for the OUYA as a console, no the were more looking at it as a cracking piece of hardware for a bargain basement price. Much like the Raspberry Pi the OUYA gives you some bits of tech that are incredibly expensive to acquire otherwise like a Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB RAM and a Bluetooth controller. However that was back when there were only 8,000 backers but as of this morning there’s almost 30,000 orders in for this unreleased console. Additionally the hype surrounding around the console doesn’t appear to be centred on the juicy bits of hardware underneath it, people seem to be genuinely excited by the possibilities that could be unlocked by such a console.
I have to admit that I am too. Whilst I don’t expect the OUYA to become the dominant platform or see big name developers rushing towards releasing torrents of titles on it the OUYA represents something that the console market has been lacking: a cheap, low cost player that’s open to anyone. It’s much like the presence of an extremely cut-rate airline (think Tiger Airlines in Australia) sure you might not catch them all the time because of the ridiculous conditions attached to the ticket but their mere presence keeps the other players on their best behaviour. The OUYA represents a free, no holds barred arena where big and small companies alike can duke it out and whilst there might not be many multi-million dollar titles made for the platform you can bet that the big developers won’t be able to ignore it for long.
I’m genuinely excited about what the OUYA represents for the console games industry. With innovation seemingly at a stand still for the next year or two it will be very interesting to see how the OUYA fairs, especially considering its release date for the first production run in slated for early next year. I’m also very keen to see what kinds of titles will be available for it at launch and, hacker community willing, what kinds of crazy, non-standard uses for the device come out. I gladly plonked down $149 for the privilege of getting 1 with 2 controllers and even if you have only a casual interest in game consoles I’d urge you to do much the same.
Today the platform of choice for the vast majority of gamers is the console, there’s really no question about it. Whilst video games may have found their feet with PCs consoles took them to the next level offering a consistent user experience that expanded the potential market greatly. PC gaming however is far from dead and has even been growing despite the heavy competition that it faces in consoles. However the idea of providing a consistent user experience whilst maintaining the flexibility is an enticing one and there are several companies that are attempting to fuse the best elements of both platforms in the hopes of capturing both markets.
OnLive is one of these such companies. Their product is, in essence, PC gaming as a service (PCGAAS?) and seeks to alleviate the troubles some gamers used to face with the constant upgrade cycle. I was sceptical of the idea initially as their target demographic seemed quite small but here we are 2 years later and they’re still around, even expanding their operations beyond the USA. Still the limitations on the service (high bandwidth requirement being chief amongst them) mean that whilst OnLive might provide a consistent experience on par of that of consoles the service will likely never see the mainstream success that the 3 major consoles do.
Rumours have been circulating recently that Valve may take a stab at this problem; taking the best parts of the PC experience and distilling them down into a console creating new platform called the Steam Box:
According to sources, the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a “Steam Box.” The actual devices may be made by a variety of partners, and the software would be readily available to any company that wants to get in the game.
Adding fuel to that fire is a rumor that the Alienware X51 may have been designed with an early spec of the system in mind, and will be retroactively upgradable to the software.
Indeed there’s enough circumstantial evidence to give some credence to these rumours. Valve applied for a patent on a controller back in 2009, one that had a pretty interesting twist to it. The controller would be modular allowing the user to modify it and those modifications would be detected by the controller. Such an idea fits pretty well with a PC/console type hybrid that the Steam Box is likely to be. It would also enable a wider selection of titles to be available on the Steam Box as not all games lend themselves well to the traditional 2 joystick console controller standard.
At the same time one of Valve’s employees, Greg Coomer, has been tweeting about a project that he’s working on that looks suspiciously like some kind of set top box. Now Valve doesn’t sell hardware, they’re a games company at heart, so why someone at Valve would be working on such a project does raise some questions. Further the screenshot of the potential Steam Box shows what looks to be a Xbox360 controller in the background. It’s entirely possible that such a rig was being used as a lightweight demo box for Valve to use at trade shows, but it does seem awfully coincidental.
For what its worth the idea of a Steam box could have some legs to it. Gone are the days when a constant upgrade cycle was required to play the latest games, mostly thanks to the consolization of the games market. What this means though is that a modern day gaming PC has the longevity rivalling that of most consoles. Hell even my last full upgrade lasted almost 3 years before I replaced it and even then I didn’t actually need to replace it; I just wanted to. A small, well designed PC then could function much like a console in that regard and you could even make optimized compliers for it to further increase it’s longevity.
The Steam Box could also leverage off the fact that many PC titles, apart from things like RTS, lend themselves quite well to the controller format. In fact much of Steam’s current catalog would be only a short modification away from being controller ready and some are even set up for their use already. The Steam Box then would come out of the box with thousands of titles ready for it, something that few platforms can lay claim to. It may not draw the current Steam crowd away from their PCs but it would be an awfully attractive option to someone who was looking to upgrade but didn’t want to go through the hassle of building/researching their own box.
Of course this is all hearsay at the moment but I think there could be something to this idea. It might not reach the same market penetration as any of the major consoles but there’s a definite niche in there that would be well served by something like this. What remains to be seen now is a) whether or not this thing is actually real and b) how the market reacts should Valve actually announce said device. If the rumours are anything to go by we may not have to wait too long to find both of those things out.