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PlayJam Sticks It To The Video Game Giants

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Backed or Whacked logoEditor’s note: Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research and blogs at Techspressive. Follow him on Twitter @rossrubin.

It’s been six months since PlayJam’s GameStick started its off-again, on-again Kickstarter campaign that netted it nearly $650,000 — well beyond its $100,000 goal. While it attracted less than a tenth of the funds that its predecessor OUYA nabbed for its Android-based home game console, things have moved apace with the two-piece, controller-hosted console that plugs directly into the HDMI connector of a TV that should be shipping to backers next month.

“Thirty days felt like thirty months. We were so unprepared for it,” said PlayJam CMO Anthony Johnson, who notes that stretch goals such as a charging dock were conceived out of thin air in a matter of hours before they even knew if they were feasible.

The GameStick straddles worlds with different rules. Traditional consoles fix a platform essentially in stone typically for five or more years. The stability of the platform itself is a response to PC gaming where configurations are all over the map. This has been the inspiration for NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience addressing the issue from the PC side and Valve’s Steam Box(es) on the console side. On the other hand, its ARM processor and Android operating system hail from the world of smartphones where updates are an annual occurrence in a state of constant leapfrogging.

PlayJam plans to take advantage of the rapid progress in chip architectures. The company wryly notes that one of the few advantages of being based in the UK helps enable it to have a close working relationship with ARM. In this respect, the GameStick is kind of a no-frills vanilla equivalent to NVIDIA’s pricey Shield handheld, which costs $349 and which PlayJam characterizes as “a reference platform for Tegra 4,” a laudable but niche attempt by a chip company to get into the consumer device business.

GameStick, on the other hand, will be profitable at $79 while yielding a palatable retailer margin. And since the primary electronics are in the stick and not the controller, the former can be updated independently, and the company plans to keep offering new sticks to enable richer game experiences.

Which, in some cases, it could use. PlayJam’s 12-year history is in super-casual TV-based games distributed through cable operators and moving into smart TVs. That understanding of the power of distribution has helped lead to an agreement with GameStop, although GameStick, of course, lacks any way for physical distribution. The scaling up of smartphone-quality games to the bigger-than-tablet screen results in games that may be fun to play but don’t necessarily impress graphically. And like so many Android apps, the quality varies widely.

That said, GameStick, OUYA and another similarly inexpensive entrant from BlueStacks have some opportunity to capitalize on the pick-up-and-play home gaming market that the Wii resurrected only to stray from with the more complex and disorienting Wii U. In fact, the company is hoping to stand on OUYA’s shoulders; unsurprisingly, developers have found it a relatively easy port from that Android-based game console to PlayJam’s CMO Anthony Johnson. “It’s a new category. You need to validate the market.” Compared to the platform variation in designing for smart TVs and pay TV operators, Android’s level of fragmentation is pure bliss to PlayJam.

GameStick may be cheap. But its success will depend on if they are willing to come back to the TV for gaming experiences that may not be significantly more engrossing than what they can already get on their mobile phones or tablets. This will be particularly true if TV manufacturers and handset companies can better communicate the ability to project phone displays onto televisions via standards such as Miracast (which GameStick supports) in order to play the games that they’ve already downloaded or purchased. In that case, PlayJam will be happy to move its store to other platforms.

GameStick will launch with 100 titles and the company promises it will ramp quickly from there. For consumers who value the tactile controls or may not want to drain down their phone battery as they play on the big screen as well as for the company’s equally embryonic competitors, it’s game on.