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GDC: Zeebo Announces Console Launch, 'Gaming for the Next Billion'
GDC: Zeebo Announces Console Launch, 'Gaming for the Next Billion' Exclusive
March 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, GDC, Exclusive

Early Monday morning, Zeebo CEO John Rizzo and Qualcomm games and services senior director Mike Yuen today announced the launch of the Zeebo console, intended for emerging markets worldwide, specifically BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which represents 800 million people.

"In 2000 Bill Gates introduced the original Microsoft Xbox at GDC," said Mike Yuen. "We're honored here to release what we believe will be the fourth big console."

Zeebo is based on Qualcomm mobile technology, from the graphics chipset to the 3G wireless network, and has positioned itself as a piracy-free alternative to the larger, more expensive consoles.

In Brazil, for instance, where the console is launching first, a PS3 costs the equivalent of US$1,100 new, and the Wii costs US$1,000, because neither console has officially launched there -- the only alternative for those consoles is piracy.

The Zeebo is launching at the equivalent of $199 USD, with games costing in the range of $5 to $15. Games are download-only across a 3G wireless network, which can also be used as a connectivity point for laptops in those homes without internet.

Yuen compared the video game market to the Matterhorn, in that many have died trying to climb it. "Lots of companies have tried to conquer the big three, and died doing it. So, within Qualcomm we've been thinking about how we can do this differently, and with cellular technology."

Qualcomm and Zeebo did a number of market tests and research in various regions, and found that most middle class families had not been exposed to much marketing about games, but had used cell phones to download ringtones or simple games.

Yuen then showed a picture of a pirated goods district in Sao Paolo, noting that in this environment, you simply point to a piece of software, and then a runner goes off and brings you back a disc. You have no guarantee what's on it, and you have to go to a potentially dangerous region to get it. This is where Zeebo feels the console has an advantage, given its price point and download-only, supposedly piracy-free structure.

Meeting the Needs of Consumers and Publishers

John Rizzo took the stage next, highlighting the ways in which he feels Zeebo will meet both consumer and publisher needs in a new way.

Rizzo says a consumer's key requirements are affordability, local language, culturally relevant content, and ease of purchase and play.

"Our focus is frankly not at the top of the pyramid," says Rizzo. "The richest people in those regions frankly can afford to buy the biggest consoles. We’re aimed solidly at that middle class."

Publishers' key requirements, according to Rizzo, are piracy prevention, less expensive title development, low cost, efficient marketing, and access to new markets.

So, how does Zeebo connect the needs of publishers and consumers? Rizzo says it's by way of the console having zero marketing waste, minimal development cost, nearly no cost of goods due to the download format, and no piracy.

Rizzo says the mobile architecture, aside from being cheap to manufacture and buy in bulk, is useful from both distribution and updating standpoints as well.

"If you want to think about how you maintain something like this in a field, there's no way to update a console in Brazil or India right now," he says, because of the lack of broadband penetration. "But we can push updates by waking up the console and updating it."

Rizzo then brought up the example of Quake, saying that at the time of its release, it was one of the biggest experiences available. "Most people in these emerging markets haven’t played Quake, much less a game in 3D," says Rizzo.

"Maybe it doesn’t hold up against the newest games, and it might be a bit slow...but imagine these people in emerging markets who haven’t been exposed to the marketing of these titles, playing Quake for the first time." Quake is one of five titles that comes embedded on the Zeebo flash drive at launch.

Console Details

Zeebo Inc. founder Reynaldo Norman stepped up to the plate to demonstrate the console live from the conference room. He was using a Brazilian launch unit with a U.S. SIM card, and it worked quite well.

The console sports a game-by-game single screen UI with games rotating on a wheel in 3D space. In the top left corner, you see signal strength, and in the top right your number of Z-credits, similar to Xbox Live points.

It took about 30 seconds to connect to the shop, but Norman indicated this was not the norm, and depended on signal strength. From there, browsing was actually quite brisk, as Norman flicked through genre categories (though only Quake was actually displayed).

He downloaded Quake live, and it took under 20 seconds for the full game to be downloaded and ready to play. As with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the Zeebo allows players to purchase additional credits via the UI.

Games shown to be eventually playable included Quake, Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart Racing, Tekken 2, Double Dragon, and Zeebo Racing.

The console sports 1 GB of flash memory, and the games will be "between five and 50 megabytes," says Norman. He deleted a game to demonstrate the process, and a notification window popped up indicating that if you delete any software, you will have to buy it again should you want to replace it.

The development process, Rizzo says, is "almost identical to BREW development but a little better in some ways." Companies become a BREW developer, get Zeebo approval, develop with the BREW SDK, go through approval by testing firm NSTL, and then reach the console.

"There's a question, the big elephant in the room, which is the iPhone," says Rizzo. "There's a big sucking sound with all the resources going to iPhone from the other platforms."

But in Brazil, an iPhone plus a rate plan is $2,400. The Zeebo, which has no rate plan, and works on a normal TV, is $199. From a publisher position, there are 6,000 games on the iPhone app store, so new products are a drop in the bucket.

With Zeebo, there will be about 300 games, Rizzo estimates: "We want to have a smaller number of developers, focusing on quality." Current publishers and developers include Com2Us, Digital Chocolate, Glu, id, THQ, Namco, Capcom, Pop Cap, EA, Activision, and others.

Zeebo plans to have 15 titles available at launch and 30 within 90 days, claiming to have the largest launch selection of any home console.

"We have low expectations but high hopes and high dreams for the future," Rizzo summed up, saying that the console is entering retail in Rio de Janeiro first in May, in Mexico later in 2009, in India in 2010, in Eastern Europe in mid-2010, and then in China in 2011. No date has yet been announced for North America.

Additional information can be found in Gamasutra's interview with John Rizzo.

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Maurício Gomes
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First, that thing is improperly aimed....

He said that he is aiming at the middle class people (like me), he only do not tough that middle class people buy PS2 (that is 199 USD too here...) and that games that get pirated are the expensive ones, noone buys Quake pirated, you can get it for much less than 30 on the PC, and not pirated.

Also, fourth big console? Are you kidding right? The specs are par with the dreamcast, and you think that the console is on any nearer generation?

And lieing to people about the dangers of the place with piracy does not work, specially when that place is THE DOWNTOWN WHERE THOUSANDS OF BUSINESS MAN AND WHERE THE MAJOR BANKS ARE AND WHERE YOU CAN SEE HUNDREDS OF COPS ON THE STREETS...

If that is dangerous, then my aparment (that is in one of the major streets and has skyrocketing land price, but not much cops around) is a slum.

Now into the Zeebo itself...

First, it is a cellphone crammed in a box, the specs are nowhere good, and it rely on the 3G network to work at all, and here the 3G network is really defective, I know several people with 3G modem, and they keep complaining on how they do not work even on major centres...

Second, as I already stated, it is mistargeted and mismarketed, it is 199 USD, but the PS2 is 199 USD, and Sony will manufacture it here in Brazil (and games too), thus making your argument that Zeebo defeats piracy from non-official consoles invalid. Also, as you stated, rich people buy PS3 and Wii right away. And poor people do not have 199 USD even to eat and buy clothes.

Third, the specs, starting from the 1gb flash memory, that is obvious that the reason for that is to force users pay for the re-download (for those wondering, if you fill your Zeebo flash memory, you need to delete some games, and if you want them agian, you need to pay for a re-download tax), and games like you stated on marketing that you think that console supports, are way bigger than that (ie: someone stated to a newspaper that in one years the technical level of the developers would allow something like Resident Evil 4... If he said Shenmue I would be more convinced, since Shenmue seemly IS possible on Zeebo, based on the specs, but Resident Evil 4? In one year? And how do you fit RE4 on 1Gb?)

Fourth, you are building too much hype and making people get annoyed at that, you should not make website that begs you to buy it and has overhyped marketing (like the phrase: "... the best game system of all time..." or "(games) ... with the most awesome graphics ever made..."), also the site already offer even cards (like a pre-paid phone card), and the console is not even released yet!

Fifth and last, the people that know the Zeebo manufacturer and would love to buy it, are currently mad at it, not evne the fans of TecToy would buy Zeebo... Why? Well, like they keep stating and saying to you, they want decent products with decent price, like a MegaDrive (yes, they still sell that here) with a cartridge port (yes, Tectoy removed the cart port, you can only play the included games, 180, altough 170 suck, and the game that would make most people want a Megadrive, Sonic 3, is not included, also obviously since it lacks a cart port, you can not attach Mega CD to it, thus no Sonic CD too...)

And yes, I am being caustic, I am caustic to any company that thinks that they costumers are idiots.

Gonzalo Daniel
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I totally agree with my previous poster.

The problem here is that they are underestimating users and piracy. I live in Colombia and even though we may not have the same picture as buyers from Brazil or China, you cannot expect that middle class people haven´t played a 3D game yet. Low classes here cant afford food or clothes and even they know how a 3d game looks. They can even play it by going to a store with a couple of high end consoles and play for a certain time for a very low price (a hour play for less than half a dollar, $1.000 pesos).

Middle class people on these countries would go easily for high end consoles with piracy against a low end console without it. In the long run it would end being cheaper even with the high prices of the console itself, games go for the price of the blank cd, and they arent hard nor dangerous to get, and there are places where they have the console running and you can try out the games you buy before you take them.

In my opinion this is NOT the way to get to these markets but a move made by people that haven´t taken the time to go to the places and look at the real deal, its as if they just looked at a picture of a market of this kind and made decisions around it. Its a total fail recipe.

Eric Gilbert
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"He deleted a game to demonstrate the process, and a notification window popped up indicating that if you delete any software, you will have to buy it again should you want to replace it."

I can't believe no one picked up on the "you will have to buy it again" part...With only 1GB of memory, I would expect to have to delete lots of games. With game sizes "between five and 50 megabytes," worst case is that I could own at max 20 games, even though "there will be about 300 games." And we've already seen what happened with XBox's size limits...they are only going to go up as time goes on.

Maurício Gomes
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Hello Eric, I see that you do not read my post, on it I mentioned that (they "corrected" saying that you do not buy it again anymore, you only pay download fee... Anyway this still suck)

Fabrizio Elias
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Living in Brazil, being a computer engineering student end video game fan, i must totaly agree with Hélder.

Zeebo is a failure even before launch. Their website give me the creeps, i feel like i'm visiting one of those sites that sell junk like it was the best thing man has ever made...

And piracy? C'mon, there's piracy everywhere in the world and with every system, why theirs would be different? Some "cellphone-in-a-box" can't be so strong in terms of security so no one can hack.

They totally misplaced the marketing. They should be selling it has a "take-it-everywhere-you-go" console to play casual games on any tv... But hey, PSP does this, and PSTwo too, at the same price AND with God of War and Metal Gear Solid! =D

But that is just my opinion, quite extreme... or realistic...

Raymond Grier
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I'm teaching English in Nanjing while working on my own game demo and I know first hand about piracy in China. There is no danger, I just walk down the street to a little openly advertised shop that makes it's profit off the consoles while selling the pressed copies of the games for 5 yuan which is about half a dollar in Canada or the US. there's no danger and no hope of competing with a price like that. The consoles are no more expensive than in western countries and it seems that when talking about entertainment that even the poorest people will make sacrifices to buy the things they want. Zeebos best hope is to find a place where the other consoles don;t exist at all... but do such places have electricity?