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.
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.