The Android Microconsole Reference Guide for Game Developers

By Kris Graft

It’s easy to group all Android-based “microconsoles” into one big bucket, but if you look a little more closely, each one of them offers its own unique features, whether you’re talking about hardware, software, business models or developer support. Some of them might be a better fit for your game than others.

That’s why we’re kicking off our microconsole-themed week with a reference guide to the most notable offerings that are both announced and currently on the market. This guide will inform you about the background of these consoles, specifications, pros and cons, monetization, how to get started on development, and more.

This is meant to be a living document -– something that you can use as a continually-updated reference. We’ve collected a good amount of information here, but if you have anything else you’d like to add to our Android microconsole reference guide, just mention it in the comments below or email me, Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft, at kgraft@gamasutra.com.

Ouya

Official website: ouya.tv

Background: Ouya’s console is basically the microconsole as of now, and is the product that kicked off today’s interest in Android-based boxes that connect to a TV. If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that its 2012 Kickstarter campaign generated $8.6 million (the funding goal was $950,000), on top of millions of venture capital funding. It captured the attention of players and developers with promises of low-barrier development, publishing and distribution, a low retail price ($99) and a pick-up-and-play living room game experience. Ouya describes it as "A New Kind of Video Game Console."

Price: $99

Availability: Out now.

Pros

Ouya apparently has great, personal developer support. We polled a bunch of developers, and they had nothing but good things to say.

It's open. Mostly. It's not totally open -- there is still a basic review process -- but the walls of this garden are about shin-high.

The storefront's curation is pretty decent, with game picks from Ouya developers, journalists and Ouya staff, among other traditional categories.

It's leading Android microconsole mindshare. The console has received a lot of coverage, particularly in the tech and games press, and it's available at brick-and-mortar retail. Ouya's almost synonymous with the Android console movement.

Cons

The pack-in controller is cheaply-made, and it shows. This is something that came up when talking to Ouya developers. Fortunately, your players can connect a PlayStation 3 controller or a wired Xbox 360 controller.

The console itself needs polish. It’s a nice, small package, but there have been some reported wi-fi reception issues (I haven’t personally had any), stuttering menus, input delays (which seems controller-related) and other rough edges.

Discovery needs improvement. We mention that storefront curation is "pretty decent," but like virtually all digital storefronts, there is still work to be done to help highlight the best content. It’s still easy for a game to get lost.

Low software sales. Software sales and conversion rates are low on the Ouya. Full-game sales are reportedly sluggish, and the Ouya doesn't have the installed base to make the free-to-play, microtransaction-driven business model very effective.

High friction for buying games. Related to low software sales and conversion rates, you cannot buy games straight from the Ouya storefront. You have to download the free component of the game first, then purchase the game through the game's menu. That's not optimal for fast, impulse buys.

Getting started on Ouya

The Ouya website is turning out to be a great resource for developers, with Ouya's staff updating with blog posts and videos, as well as forums for developers to interact with one another.

The best place to get started is here: https://devs.ouya.tv/developers/docs

Review process

Ouya bills its console as "open," and while it's almost as open as a game console gets, there is still a basic review process for games. Developers must submit their games to be reviewed for inappropriate content, basic technical guidelines and payment methods.

Read all the details here: https://devs.ouya.tv/developers/docs/content-review-guidelines

Monetization

Ouya requires that every game has a "free component." You can implement free-to-play with microtransactions and in-app purchases, a demo with a full paid download, or even give the whole game away for free. It's up to you. As mentioned above, a drawback for full paid games is that they cannot be purchased straight from the storefront, but instead must be paid for from within the games themselves.

Revenue share

70/30 (Game dev/Ouya)

Specs:

Console

Tegra 3 quad-core processor

1 GB LPDDR2 RAM

8 GB on-board flash

HDMI connection to the TV at 1080p HD

WiFi 802.11bgn

Bluetooth LE 4.0

Enclosure opens with standard screws

Controller

Wireless controller with 2.4Ghz RF

Standard game controls (two analog sticks, d-pad, eight action buttons, a system button)

Touchpad, for porting mobile games more easily

2x AA batteries

Enclosure opens with standard screws

OS/Software

Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)

Custom TV UI

Integrated custom game store — find and download games (and other apps)

Includes SDK for game development

Ability to root device without voiding warranty


GameStick

Official website: gamestick.tv

Background: Like the Ouya, the GameStick came into view thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The funding wasn't as explosive as Ouya's, but Playjam, the company behind GameStick, still handily blew past the device's $100,000 funding goal to hit nearly $650,000. GameStick differentiates itself with a controller-based shove-in-your-pocket form factor. Players take the "stick" out of the controller, plug it into their TV's HDMI slot, and start playing. Playjam has been working in the Smart TV category for a few years, and Android tech has given them a promising new business. Playjam deems GameStick "The Big Screen Micro Games Console."

Price: $79

Availability: Releasing this month to early Kickstarter backers, then retail orders become the focus.

Pros

The low price. At $79, GameStick is $20 less than the already-cheap Ouya. GameStick is a console priced for disruption, and could be poised for strong uptake from consumers. Of course, that means -- theoretically -- a broader customer base to sell your game to.

Unique form factor. The GameStick is a controller and a stick that you plug into your HDMI slot. The mobility of this is a great marketing bulletpoint to have, alongside the $79 sticker. Again, it's potentially appealing for the mass market.

Customers can buy games from the storefront. A nice feature for impulse buys, this is an advantage GameStick currently has over Ouya, which requires players to download a game, then buy it through the game itself.

It's open-ish. Like Ouya, there is a basic, straightforward submission process for GameStick, so it's not a complete free-for-all.

Mobile touchscreen support. One of the neat things about GameStick is that Playjam will release an app that allows players to use a touchscreen iOS or Android mobile device as a controller. That opens up possibilities for game designers who want to implement touch and accelerometers.

Mature distribution network. Playjam has been working in the Smart TV sector and has pocketed millions in venture capital over the last few years. Its experience in game distribution could equate to a low-hassle experience for game developers.

The "Dock": Playjam will release a peripheral called the "Dock" that will have three USB ports for more possible game design possibilities (microphone or dancepad, anyone?) and expandable memory for storing more content. (Notably, the GameStick itself also has an expandable SD slot.)

Cons

It's not out yet. It was supposed to launch in April this year, but GameStick was hit with delays. However, early backers should be receiving units this month, with those orders expected to be fulfilled through September. Playjam plans on focusing on retail orders after that -- GameStop and Amazon will carry GameStick, so the device should have decent reach. (GameStop actually has a stake in the company.)

Getting started on GameStick

The developer just gives the MAC address of his or her retail GameStick to developer support. The address is then used to send the development version of the firmware, "within 15 minutes," GameStick tells us. This firmware update provides a suite of tools that lets developers upload, test and submit games to the company's internal QA team before the game heads to the storefront.

The GameStick developer site is still ramping up, but you can get started here: http://gamestick.tv/dev/

Review process

GameStick is Android-based, but it is not the publish-and-go Wild West of the Google Play store. There are basic requirements that games need to follow in order for them to be approved by Playjam, such as aspect ratios, graphical standards (e.g., games must maintain 25 frames per second), and menu and controller guidelines.

See the specifics here: http://gamestick.tv/documentation/ui_guidelines.htm

Monetization

GameStick does not require (but does allow, if you like) a free component to your games, and all business models are welcome (premium, freemium, advertising, subscription, etc). Customers can also buy games directly from GameStick's custom storefront, which helps to make buying games faster and simpler.

Revenue share

70/30 (Game dev/GameStick)

Specs

Console

Processor - Amlogic 8726-MX

Memory - 1GB DDR3 / 8GB FLASH

Content Download Manager w/ cloud storage for games.

WiFi - 802.11 b/g/n

Bluetooth - LE 4.0

Full 1080p HD video decoding

Support for XBMC & DLNA from Sept via optional firmware update.

Controller

Bluetooth, 3 mode controller: gamepad, mouse and keyboard with support for up to 4 controllers.

Support for iOS and Android mobile devices to be used as controllers 

OS

Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean)


GamePop

Official website: gamepop.tv

Background: GamePop comes from startup BlueStacks. The company first entered the mobile scene with its BlueStacks app player, which allows Android users to run Android apps on their computers. BlueStacks is evolving that cross-screen know-how to the GamePop, a microconsole that requires a monthly subscription for access to its large, constantly growing library of games. BlueStacks happily embraces the description "Netflix for Games," and is promising over 500 games available at launch.

Price: Console + controller: $129 + $6.99/month over required 12 month period

GamePop "Mini" + controller: Free + $6.99/month over required 12 month period

Availability: This winter

Pros

You keep all in-app purchase revenue. GamePop is already making monthly subscription revenue, so it doesn’t see a need to dip into your in-app purchase revenue. You keep it all.

Yeah, it's Android -- but it will also run iOS games. Using BlueStacks' virtualization software, Looking Glass, the GamePop will be able to run apps designed for iOS devices, all without use of Apple's code. That's good news for iOS developers who want to put their games in front of as many people as possible. It does "take some development work" to get iOS games running, however, according to a BlueStacks rep.

Use mobile devices as controllers. GamePop will have a dedicated controller, but players will be able to use their smartphones as controllers as well, utilizing touch and accelerometer capabilities.

Cons

Your game could be buried right off the bat. Getting a lot of games signed for launch is important to make GamePop attractive to consumers, but it also means your game has a greater chance of being buried. GamePop plans on having 500 games at launch, and the company promises a simple, straightforward UI.

An unproven business model (at least in this space). This is more of an "unknown" than a "con." GamePop is subscription-based, and the company plans on paying developers according to how much time players play their games (plus in-app purchase revenue, if that applies). We wonder how this model will pan out for developers.

Getting started on GamePop

GamePop says to simply drop them a line. You can email john (at) bluestacks (dot) com -– that’s John Gargiulo, VP of marketing and business development. You can also contact the company here: http://www.gamepop.tv/gamepopDev.html

Review process

GamePop does all the development work to get the game to work on television. The GamePop engineering team takes care of the controls for the GamePop controller and for games that use Androids or iPhones as controllers. The game's developer reviews all GamePop-designed aspects before the game launches on the console. If a game company has a catalog of games it wants to bring to GamePop, GamePop will determine which games will work best on the platform.

Monetization

Full downloads, in-app payments and other common game business models are supported, but GamePop is unique in that its business model is based on a monthly subscription. So the way developers make money is a bit different, compared to other platforms (see below). 

Revenue share

GamePop compensates developers according to how much time players spend in the developer’s games. Developers who implement in-app payments keep all of the revenues generated, a rep tells us. The company shares half of all of its subscription revenue with its developer community.

Specs             

Specs for GamePop are yet to be finalized, but here's what has been stated publicly by the company:

Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) 

HDMI-equipped

Will have a dedicated controller

Will support smartphones for use as controllers

Looking Glass virtualization software will allow for iOS games to play on GamePop

Note: There will be two versions of GamePop -- GamePop and the GamePop Mini, the latter of which will have lower specs. A company rep says to “stay tuned” about concerns that games will be limited by the capabilities of the lower-spec model.


Mojo

Official website: madcatz.com/m-o-j-o-android-micro-console/

Background: Mojo is also a small Android box, but there's an important difference between it and other microconsoles: It actually is totally open. Mad Catz says its entry into the sector will be high-spec (possibly Tegra 4-powered), and users will be able to connect directly to Google Play and the Amazon Appstore to purchase games. That means releasing a game on Mojo is as easy releasing a game on an Android mobile app store -- because that's exactly what you're be doing.

Price: TBA

Availability: This holiday

Pros

It's open. Totally open. Unlike the other microconsoles, there really is no gatekeeper.

Connects directly to the biggest app stores. The Mojo connects directly to Google Play and the Amazon Appstore, so in order to develop and release an Android game on Mojo, you just… develop and release an Android game. (Also, if a player buys a game on an Android mobile device, he or she doesn't have to buy it again to play it on Mojo.) Just make sure to add controller support for the best Mojo experience.

It's going to be powerful. Mad Catz has yet to release the specs on the Mojo, but the company has said its line of "GameSmart" products will incorporate Nvidia chips, and that the hardware will be "high-spec." A Tegra 4 would have your most demanding games looking pretty.

Games that are non-controller-compatible are still playable. Even if your game was not made for a traditional game controller, players can plug in a standard mouse, and use that as an input device. (When the Mojo launches, players will be able to control a mouse cursor with the game controller.)

Cons

It's open. Totally open. While wide-open platforms have their benefits, they also inherit all of the problems of an open platform. This is still a Wild West of sorts. Your games can also easily be pirated by people who want that big screen pirated experience out of their mobile games.

Connects directly to the biggest app stores. There are hundreds of thousands of apps on Android. This is a red ocean, and discovery of your game is in large part at the mercy of the storefronts. (As this is open, you will however have the ability to connect to portals like Nvidia’s TegraZone, which curates the games that work best on Tegra-powered devices.)

It's going to be powerful -- and expensive. Mad Catz has yet to release specs for Mojo, but all signs point to an expensive, high-spec piece of hardware. With no revenue split with developers, and no subscription fee for access, there's no way for Mad Catz to subsidize the cost. A high price means the audience might be relatively small. A small install base shouldn't affect developers so much, though, because Google Play and Amazon Appstore reach across all kinds of other Android devices.

Not all games are compatible with the controller. You’ll be able to use the Mojo’s controller to manipulate a cursor that mimics single-touch input, but that’s still not optimal for the majority of Android games.

Getting started on Mojo

Unlike other Android-based consoles, making a game for Mojo isn't similar to making and releasing an Android game -- you will be making and releasing an Android game. Of course, there are already tons of resources for Android developers. You can get started here: http://developer.android.com/sdk/index.html

We're waiting on Mad Catz to give us more information about an SDK for the Mojo's controller, the "CTRL^R".

Review process

As this is open Android, you conduct your own QA and review process. You're the one to click publish. After that, your app shows up on storefronts that are accessible straight from the Mojo. Google does have some (very) basic guidelines that it tries to enforce when releasing on Google Play (see them here), as well as best practices (seem them here).

Monetization

Give it away for free, go the advertising route, make it subscription-based do free-to-play with in-app purchases. This is Android, so the choice is yours.

Revenue share

70/30 (Developer/Google Play or Amazon Appstore). Mad Catz doesn’t take a cut.

Specs

The specs are still in flux right now, but Mad Catz has hinted at (subject to change):

(Likely) Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)-based

At least 16GB of onboard storage

2x USB 2.0 ports

HDMI port

Controller (the "CTRL^R") that supports Bluetooth classic and Smart (4.0)

Mojo will allow for third-party Bluetooth-compatible peripherals


Nvidia Shield

Official website: shield.nvidia.com

Background: The Shield is Nvidia's entry into the high-end Android games market. Meant to attract niche core players, the mobile handheld has a high-powered Tegra 4 processor for the most demanding Android games, and it also has the ability to stream games from your PC, if you have the right setup. Players can also output to an HDTV for a big-screen experience.

Price: $299

Availability: Out now

Pros

It's totally open. Like Mad Catz' Mojo console, the Shield is a truly open Android console that is accessible to anyone who wants to make an Android game.

It connects directly to the biggest app stores. This is pure Android, so creating, reviewing and publishing on major storefronts like Google Play and Amazon Appstore is all done on your terms. Nvidia's TegraZone is additional curation of top games that leverage Tegra's power.

It's a powerful device. This has an Nvidia Tegra 4 processor and a 5-inch 720p multi-touch display. Your games will look plenty pretty.

Nvidia's developer resources. There's a lot of documentation and details from Nvidia about developing for Tegra and Android already, and that's helpful for game developers.

It streams PC games. This is more of a "pro" for players who buy the Shield, but it does have the ability to stream a select number of PC games to the device, locally via wi-fi.

Cons

It's totally open. This is Android game development, and it can be a Wild West. Because it's open, there's a very large community of people who can help you with issues, but in a way, you're kind of on your own to figure things out. Also, piracy.

Connects directly to common app stores. There are hundreds of thousands of apps on Android. This is a pretty red ocean, and discovery of your game is in large part at the mercy of the storefront.

It's pricey for players. Don't expect loads of sales from this device, at least right off the bat. As Nvidia doesn't take a cut from a proprietary storefront, the Shield is stuck at a $299 pricetag, and caters to a small niche of core players. But your Android game will be on plenty of other platforms, so Shield's install base won't necessarily dictate your game's success. It's just a matter of whether you want to add compatibility.

Limited PC game streaming compatibility. Developers need to make their games compatible with the PC streaming features of Shield, and players need to have a GeForce GTX GPU. To be fair, this feature is still in beta.

Getting started on Shield

Because Nvidia has been so active in the mobile space already as a chip provider, there's a lot of information out there to help developers get started on the Tegra- and Android-based Shield. The latest Tegra Android Development Pack launched alongside Shield, and gives developers the right tools for Shield development.

There's documentation, downloads, blogs and other support right here: https://developer.nvidia.com/develop4shield

Review process

As this is open Android, you conduct your own QA and review process. You're the one to click publish. After that, your app shows up on storefronts that are accessible straight from the Shield. Google does have some (very) basic guidelines that it tries to enforce when releasing on Google Play (see them here), as well as best practices (seem them here).

Monetization

Give it away for free, go the advertising route, make it subscription-based, do free-to-play with in-app purchases. This is pure Android, so the choice is yours.

Revenue share

70/30 (Developer/Google Play or Amazon Appstore). Nvidia doesn’t take a cut.

Specs

Console

Processor: Nvidia Tegra 4 Quad Core Mobile Processor with 2GB RAM

Display: 5 inch 1280x720 (294 ppi) Multi-Touch Retinal Quality Display

Audio: Integrated Stereo Speakers with Built-in Microphone

Storage: 16GB Flash Memory

Wireless: 802.11n 2x2 Mimo Wi-Fi, Bluetooth: 3.0, GPS

Connectivity: Mini-HDMI output, Micro-USB 2.0, MicroSD storage slot, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack with microphone support

Motion Sensors: 3 Axis Gyro, 3 Axis Accelerometer

Controller

3-axis gyro, 3-axis accelerometer, Dual analog joysticks, D-pad, Left/right analog triggers, Left/right bumpers, A/B/X/Y buttons, Volume control, Android Home and Back buttons, Start button, Nvidia power/multi-function button

You can see a few more specs here: http://shield.nvidia.com/portable-features/

OS

Android Jelly Bean


The Android controllers

There are a variety of controllers and accompanying apps that essentially turn your tablet or smarthphone into a console that connects to your TV. These controllers blur the definition of “microconsole,” and are a viable option for developers who want to add a “10-foot experience” to their games.

A couple of the most prominent Android controllers are the Green Throttle and PowerA’s MOGA line (MOGA also supports Windows Phone 8).

The premise behind controllers like these is that people already own their “microconsoles” -- their mobile device -- and really only need an HDTV adapter, decent console-style controller and couch-friendly UI to complete the experience.

Green Throttle and MOGA’s SDKs are available on their websites, which explain how to get started.

Green Throttle's developer page

MOGA's developer page

Anything else?

To state again: This is meant to be a living document -- something that you can use as a continually updated reference. We’ve collected a good amount of information here, but if you have anything else you’d like to add to our Android microconsole reference guide that would be helpful for game developers, just mention it in the comments below or email me, Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft, at kgraft@gamasutra.com.

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