What Games Are: Fire TV And The “Casual Console”

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Sometimes I have to walk a fine line between my weekday job and my writing. Not because I’m enjoined from writing (actually Julie actively encourages it) but to rather to avoid the perception of conflict-of-interest. It’s easy to write about a game design issue, for example, or talk about the fate of VR because they’re not likely to be perceived as influenced by my work situation. On the other hand writing about topics like microconsoles is a lot trickier.

But then sometimes a long comes a piece of news that comes close. This is one such time, because of course Amazon can’t be ignored. Fire TV is sitting on the front page of Amazon.com, featured by one of those Bezos letters that launched the Kindle. It’s loud, it’s proud, it’s Androidy and it’s very exciting. So I ask that you trust that what I’m writing here is said sans my OUYA hat, even though there are clear crossovers.

Okay? Okay.

Media Streamer Meets Microconsole

Fire TV is basically doing what everybody’s been saying Apple TV should be doing by now. It’s a sexy little black box that sits under your television, and from such humble beginnings you can access all of your entertainment. 80% of its pitch is about having video and music from many of the usual sources. You have your Netflix, your Pandora, your Hulu and your Amazon Instant Video. Of course you don’t have your iTunes, but similarly on Apple TV there’s no Amazon Instant Video. Fire TV also has the neat addition of voice search (and the bold claim that it actually works) and this apparently makes Gary Busey very happy.

The other 20% is that Fire TV is a microconsole. With the addition of a joypad (which comes with some free credits to buy games), suddenly you’re playing Minecraft and The Walking Dead and Sonic 2 right on your television at pretty cheap prices. Many of those games come from well known sources such as Double Fine, app developers like Future Games of London and a few indies like Golden Tricycle. In addition Amazon is making games of its own, with launch title Sev Zero gaining reviews of the “okay for a first outing” variety. And the company has also hired famous game designers Kim Swift and Clint Hocking. Interesting.

Fire TV also appears at a time when the streaming market seems to be heating up. Not 24 hours after its launch the news was going around that Google is readying a second crack at that space with Android TV, although the prospects for that product seem a little more muted out of the gate. Roku is determined to maintain its leadership position with its very own streaming stick. And everybody’s waiting on Apple to show its hand, with rumors indicating that it’ll happen soon. Most of the above will include games.

Overall it’s an exciting time, one which poses a lot of questions. Some of the biggest questions are:

  1. Whether the tv streamer market will effectively eat the nascent microconsole market in a classic case of small companies defining a space that big companies then consume, or
  2. Does the media streamer entrance into the microconsole gaming space actually validate it, resulting in uplift across the board?

There are lots of possible scenarios in which either could prove true. But perhaps the most interesting question is whether the kind of casual gaming that media streamers seem to envision is a real market. Or is it just a broken idea?

Casual Meets Console

A frustrating but persistent perception that floats around the microconsole is the idea that because it’s based on Android that must mean that its games are just mobile games appearing on TV. That somehow their Android-ness actually represents a use case rather than just an operating system, and that that use case is wrong for television. In essence the logic of that argument goes as follows:

  • Mobile and tablet games are “casual”
  • Casual games are primarily second-screen activities, played when you’re watching TV
  • Therefore casual games are best tailored to be short and undemanding, and to work with TV
  • Therefore “casual games on TV” does not work

It’s easy to think of platforms in these sorts of narratives, but the reality is operating systems are just technical layers that translate input and output. The fact that Linux first appeared on PC, for example, doesn’t bring PC-ness to all the other uses of Linux. Furthermore the narrative is one only known to developers, journalists and folks in or around the technology scene. The average Joe or Jane has no idea that their Kindles and Samsung Galaxies share similar operating systems. Nor do they care. Why should they, as long as their devices do what their supposed to?

Moreover the idea that casual games are purely second screen and always short is wrong. The casual PC games scene has thrived for a decade (through publishers like Big Fish) and it’s single screen. Games like Candy Crush Saga may use short sessions, but Plants vs Zombies is relatively long and yet played by casual gamers in their droves. Hidden object games typically take a half hour per map and people play those games for hours on end.

“Casual” doesn’t describe a paradigm of play. It describes a cultural grouping (others include “core”, “indie”, “casino”) which could be better described as “muggle“. By this I mean a relatively disengaged customer type that likes to play games but does not seek them out. Muggles are often unaware of the wider gaming world except in passing. Muggles are hard to reach through non-traditional marketing because they aren’t paying attention. Muggles tend to prefer games that conform to aesthetic archetypes that they already hold, and they tend to judge games in a binary fashion (is it fun or not?). Muggles also tend to be cheap, preferring to play games for free where possible.

It’s also hard to sell gaming hardware to muggles. Only Nintendo has managed to do this over the years, such as the Wii and Wii Fit. Most of the rest of the time muggles tend to find their way into games via devices whose primary use is something else, like a mobile phone, a tablet or a PC. Gaming is what muggles do in their off hours with machines intended for other things. The bet that media streamers such as Fire TV make is that there’s a trojan horse opportunity for gaming on TV, that by primarily selling video but then also offering gaming they will turn on millions of casual gamers.

Are they right?

Red Button 2.0

There is precedent here. I used to work as the senior game development manager for an interactive TV gaming portal six years ago. There were several such portals across services such as DirectTV and BSkyB, and they were located deep in what was colloquially called the “red button” menu of set top boxes.

The entire red button business essentially worked on the basis of the spare 1MB of RAM than happened to be left over on cable set top boxes. The boxes also had pretty terrible processor power, no local storage and their payment mechanisms used to work through dial-up connections over phone lines. They were also a pretty heavily regulated form of game (in the UK at least) because they were perceived to fall under the purview of the rules that covered broadcasting. Oh and the primary control mechanism for red button games were TV remotes.

Nonetheless at its height the red button business thrived. Many of its games were essentially basic kids platformers stuff based on Saturday morning cartoons, clones of Bejeweled and Zuma, word games and games based on game shows. Red button served a small but vital, and very decidedly casual, marketplace with a pay-to-play offering that in many ways foresaw the free-to-play model common in casual game markets today. Its overall addressable market was balkanized and small (essentially dependent on the whims of national television providers), but it worked better than most people know.

Though eventually superseded by the app economy, the red button business proves that, yes, casual gamers can be coaxed into playing games on television if the conditions are right. Much as the tablet or the PC act as casual game vectors when not being used for other purposes, red button games often attracted customers every bit as loyal as those we think of when we describe “whales” (or other ignominious terms) in today’s free-to-play world.

In many ways I see media streamer gaming as a kind of red button 2.0. The host technology has advanced immeasurably, meaning that the games on offer can be much more powerful, but the proposition is surprisingly familiar. This time it’s games secondarily offered to Netflix, but more visible than in the old days of red button (on the Fire TV it’s a top-line menu item for example). And given that the streamers are cheap, there’s every possibility that lots of muggles will buy them just to check them out. And that then leads them to explore what games might be on offer.

The But

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Well, almost.

I think the one mistake that Amazon has made with Fire TV is its joypad. Selling a gaming pad separate to the main unit constitutes a peripheral barrier, and peripheral barriers can be pretty limiting. After the early adopter phase (that’s you, me and everyone else reading this blog) it could be that pad adoption drops to as low as 20%, in effect chopping the addressable gaming audience to 1/5th of Fire TV customers. If it were up to me, I’d bundle them together as standard.

Furthermore I worry that the joypad is too complicated for the muggle player. Successful casual gaming platforms are always accessible. Tablet and smartphone games have a very low cognitive gap because learning how to play them boils down to touch it with your finger and drag. After that all the rest of the learning is about the game rather than the interface. Similarly successful casual games on PC stay away from WASD and use only the mouse and its left button. Anything beyond that risks being seen as too complicated.

Fire TV’s joypad, on the other hand, is the typical twin stick, D-pad, face buttons, bumpers and triggers as seen on PlayStation, Xbox, OUYA and other gaming consoles. Historically that kind of joypad has always put off casual gamers because it’s seen as complicated and techie. Muggles just want to play a game, not to feel like that they need to earn a gaming driving license before they can start to have fun.

The great lesson that Nintendo taught (and then forgot) with Wii was that casual gamers prefer simplicity. Not in the slightly-mad vein of Kinect but in the ordinary sense. Give a muggle a wand or a simple pad with only a couple of buttons and he gets it straight away. He’s immediately having fun. Give him something more than that and he’s always asking “what does this button do?”, feeling hesitant and inclined to give up, saying “i’m not a gamer” before returning to Words With Friends on his iPad.

Ideally what the “casual console” idea needs is a game controller that’s no more complicated than the old SNES joypad or the Wii Mote, and then included with every system. A controller that’s good enough to handle a wide variety of games but which doesn’t look like some sort of fearsome engine. A controller that is perhaps extensible (again, like Wii Mote) to serve core game interests, but whose root use case is easy peasy. Once that problem is solved then I think the casual console will really take off.