Reflections On Microconsoles

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Tis the season for reflection and I’d like to reflect on what happened to microconsoles. (Disclosure: I worked at OUYA a little while earlier this year)

At the start of 2013 I wrote that it could be the year of the “microconsole”, a term that gained traction for a while. Tech folks were interested in what OUYA, GamePop, GameStick, MOJO and a variety of other Android-powered open game machines at cheap prices meant. Maybe they represented something fundamentally new, with their promise of app store economics in the TV space and liberation of game developers. Unfortunately a mere two years later the microconsole is largely forgotten. What happened?

One reason was that the machines leading the charge were severely underpowered. Often headed by folks with a software rather than a hardware mentality, microconsole companies pushed to get to market fast and iterate. In the software world this is typical: you get your minimum viable product out the door in order to see what will work, and then follow-up with versions that quickly improve.

The technology press accepts this in areas such as laptop PCs and mobile phones. There are some beautiful swans (Apple stuff mostly) but also many products that are understood to be intended as placeholders while they improve. But the gaming press is less forgiving. It thinks of hardware as the seed of generational sagas and tends to damn failures for all time.

The right way to handle that is to tease. The Oculus Rift folks, for example, came from similar Kickstarter routes as microconsoles, but the big difference is how they’ve kept the product in a “coming soon” state rather than releasing it. This has built a constant sense of anticipation, for the future that might be, even after the big sale to Facebook. Though I personally am a VR skeptic, the way that Oculus has held attention is admirable, and it stands in stark contrast to microconsoles. Microconsole providers rushed to get to market and find out whether their business was real rather than creating it. In hindsight this was a crucial mistake which soured much of what followed.

Nobody expected $99 machines to compete chip-for-chip with $399 rivals. That was never the problem. The problem was that microconsoles were always perceived as shoddy knockoffs rather than neat devices with a vision. They were made cheap, felt cheap and behaved cheap. They had woeful basic technical issues with WiFi or joypad responsiveness. And so for many commentators “microconsole” quickly equated with “piece of crap”. The business press message may have been  “interesting device category to watch” but in the consumer press the microconsole quickly became a big LOL to be stacked alongside such misadventures as 3DO, CDi, the Phantom and Gizmondo. It’s almost impossible to come back from that place.

Moreover the key attraction on the developer side quickly faded. At the start the microconsoles’ Android operating system and engine compatibility were seen as a major boon. It meant that microconsoles could sell a story of easy porting and open access, which the Xbox 360 certainly couldn’t manage. These were perceived as important values to the indie community. But there were issues. Many microconsoles used a Tegra 3 processor for example, which turned out not to work with shader technology. More significantly many indies valued something more than openness: funding.

When OUYA and GameStick ran their Kickstarters they did so against a backdrop of indie game developers feeling squeezed out of TV. Indies were doing well on Steam and the evolving mobile space, but formerly welcoming platforms like Xbox 360 slowly de-prioritized them in favor of platform projects like Kinect or TV integration. Sony’s PS3 was seen as a dead zone for all but the chosen few, and Nintendo was perceived to be a closed shop. All three had business practices that dis-incentivized indies (expensive dev kits, custom hardware, high cost of implementing TRCs, unfriendly revenue share etc) and felt out of step in an App Store world.

Microconsoles tapped into that story – but then the story changed. Where it had previously only selectively funded titles like Journey as show-ponies, Sony became much more active in the indie space. It got out its checkbook and started signing indies by the brace in advance of the PlayStation 4 while simultaneously revising many uncool policies and technology constraints. Engines like Unity worked so well that porting ceased to be a major concern, and Sony successfully courted the press’s favor. Microsoft initially misread the importance of this but eventually responded, as has Nintendo.

The result was a bonanza for indies, one that will likely last to at least the end of 2015. But it also blew one of the primary selling points of microconsoles away. They’d hoped to appeal to indies on the basis of providing them a home, but when they suddenly did have a home the conversation became much more “What can you (microconsole) do for me (indie)? I already have a deal on the table.” So most content on microconsoles was B- or C-grade while the A-graders were dismissive, even disdainful.

Then there was the hope that smart TV or media streamers would provide the missing link, but they haven’t. Apple doesn’t seem interested in turning Apple TV into anything more than it already is. Roku is focused on providing the best video box. Amazon’s Fire TV dipped its toe into the waters of gaming with a controller and such, but it was sold separately. Overall the media streamer market seems to be going a different way, into $39 HDMI sticks that do Netflix and YouTube rather than $150 miniature game systems. Smart TV might be coming, but if so it seems shallow.

All things considered the microconsole was squeezed out by heavyweight competitors stealing key talent, a poor reputation for hardware and an apparently uninterested casual market. Many early entrants have long since washed out after selling minuscule numbers. It’s tough out there in the gaming hardware world.

But given all that, I don’t think the microconsole is completely dead. Bruised, sure. Battered, even. In need of a rethink, certainly. But OUYA survives. It recently crossed the 1000-game threshold, for example, and launched a game streaming pack from Playcast featuring games such as Lego Lord of the Rings and GRID. Older games to be sure but not so old or tatty. They’re still trying. I still think there’s something to the little game box that could.

I’d say it has the enduring appeal of the hacker box. There may not be a casual console market in any meaningful sense and the media-streamer Smart TV stuff might be far off. But is there a market for noodly devices that do cool stuff? I think so. It may seem an odd analogy, but we forget that many of the folks who Kickstarted microconsoles did so for reasons akin to supporting Raspberry Pi. They didn’t necessarily want a professional platform, just somewhere to be able to make games, to futz about and mod. In roughly the same timeframe as the life of the microconsole the Raspberry Pi sold nearly 4 million units on this promise and has been put to all sorts of quirky uses by people who were just interested to see what they could do with them.

I think there’s still a potential market for microconsoles there, as a kind of “my first dev kit” combined with a venue for fringe and artsy content that family-friendly platforms would shy away from. I see it having a role in education, in teaching the skills of making games and providing a social network of developers. Does that mean I think microconsoles are going to roar back and overtake premium consoles? No, alas. I did for a time, perhaps more as an expression of my own frustrations with the idiocies of the console business. But it is what it is.

Though I was one of their biggest supporters the reality is that the conditions that could have potentially given microconsoles life have since evaporated. Maybe they will shift again. Then again, maybe not. We can only wait and see.

Happy New Year all!