Consoles: TNG

TNG

If the future of computing is mobile, and the future of mobile is better and better Soc-based devices, are devices like Apple TV and OUYA the future of gaming?

An awful lot of geeky folks out there are fans of the OUYA console, a Kickstarter project to build an open-source, Android-based console that would sell games in a Play store style, but allowing for all games to be free-to-play in one way or another.  OUYA already has a dev kit released, and a lot of folks are developing for OUYA, including some big names like Square-Enix.  It will be a completely digital store with no physical media at all.

Another interesting tidbit is the hardware itself – Nvidia Tegra 3 Soc with 1GB of RAM and 8 GB of onboard storage (expandable with USB).  While this is quite anemic compared to a traditional console, keep in mind that development in the ARM and SoC space has been very rapid, and in the next few years we should expect the performance gap between PC architecture CPU’s and the SoC world to close.

This is not lost on other big companies like Apple, who a couple of years ago made the wise decision to make their Apple TV device run on iOS and have an app framework virtually identical to that found on iPhone and iPad.  It’s private right now, and there’s no app store as of yet, but that could change very easily.

In addition, Apple has added standardized controller frameworks to iOS 7, so this fall you will see standalone and wrap-around controllers for iPhones and iPads from Logitech and others.  Apple is literally a hardware refresh away from making Apple TV do the same trick.  Many of games in the massive library currently available on iOS would be very portable (as long as the game doesn’t need gyro support, touch controls can be remapped to button controls most of the time).  So Apple could just push a $100 gadget to the world and put their foot in the door with a deluge of titles from their existing catalogue.

We are all familiar with how this particular market works, at least at present.  Games are typically small, and relatively inexpensive.  The hardware limits the size of the game you can store, and the graphics processing you can do.  Today, these devices are only about as good as say, a PS2 in capability.  But in 2 years or so, we’re expected to see 4GB of RAM possible on ARM, with GPU’s comparable to PC’s from last year.  If ARM continues its march forward, we might be seeing ‘mobile’ SoC’s that might compare well with a PS4/XBox One in 8 years time, well inside the 10-year window that we expect PS4 and XBox One to last.

One of the benefits of this arrangement has been backwards compatibility – virtually all iOS apps still run on all the newer hardware.  This makes iOS/Android similar to regular PC’s in this aspect – better hardware enables better performing apps, and older apps usually run fine or get better on the new devices.  We’ve seen many older apps get updates to support the best hardware features on the newer devices – better resolution art for higher-res displays, for example.

This ecosystem has been tested for years and it works.  It makes TONS of money.  It has a lot to offer the big game companies that they aren’t getting from the Triumvirate of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in the console space – that being an army of existing paying customers.  It also has a lot of benefit for indie developers who can self-publish on a huge installed base of fans.  In addition, the iOS and Android platforms have added developer features annually and better hardware annually.

So as a gamer on an Apple TV gaming console, you’d probably be buying a $100 or $200 piece of hardware every year or two, whenever new games you wanted to play began to outpace your existing setup.  You’d have access to any game you’d ever purchased, but likely only have a dozen or so loaded at a time.  OUYA would be similar, but with that free-to-play stuff as a requirement (and that’s a pretty flexible requirement – apparently it can mean a free demo, free levels followed by purchasable levels, a free game with freemium purchases, or completely free).

There’s definitely downsides to this – what if Apple/OUYA/Play Store goes away?  What about legacy games if they get old enough (say 10 years or so?)  While I can’t think of any iOS/Play titles right now that would warrant being called a ‘classic’ – that seems to be a matter of when and not if.

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