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From the Editor: Gamasutra's Microconsole Week kicks off
From the Editor: Gamasutra's Microconsole Week kicks off
August 26, 2013 | By Kris Graft




Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft on why we're dedicating an entire week to microconsoles.

Microconsoles might be small in stature, but they're garnering big interest and curiosity from game developers and players.

Game developers expressed as much in a recent GDC survey, that showed 37 percent of those polled were very interested in Android-based console game development. That’s part of the reason why we’re highlighting microconsoles all this week.

Beyond Ouya

Right now, all eyes are on Ouya, and rightly so. It’s the first to market, and has the large majority of mindshare when it comes to Android-based consoles. But there are more in the pipeline, and they all offer something a little bit different in terms of openness, developer support and business models.

You can read about all of the major entrants in this extensive microconsole reference guide that I put together. I encourage you to take some time to read through it -- there are important differences that you should know about before supporting every single Android console.

The fact that not all Android consoles are the same is kind of the beauty of this space. Assuming these platforms create a viable business over the course of their first years, you can also expect hardware makers to ape the mobile space with annual hardware revisions, which will make for a very fast-changing, dynamic segment of the console industry.

Defining a "microconsole"

For the purposes of discussion, I define a “microconsole” as having these traits:

  • A compact form factor
  • Sold as a ready-to-go, plug-in-and-play game console
  • An interface that gives users a "10-foot" couch- and TV-friendly experience
  • Connects to an app store

Some other common traits of the microconsole class might include a low price tag, and an OS that’s typically found in mobile devices or PCs. But we’re flexible on those characteristics as we take closer looks at some of these emerging products that operate outside of the traditional console race.

There are even controllers like Green Throttle and MOGA that work with the premise that you already own a microconsole, in the form of your smartphone or tablet. Along with an accompanying app that provides a console-like experience, these products create a new play experience, and perhaps a new market, for your games.

Disruption

"Disruption" is a term that you might hear about this week, and for good reason. A lot of what we’re seeing within the mobile console space is by-the-books disruption similar to what Clayton Christensen (the guy who literally wrote the book on disruption) describes in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

While not a single microconsole platform holder will tell you that it's trying to steal marketshare from Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo, that may not always be the case. What history has shown (as described in Christensen's book) is that disruptive innovations are:

  • cheaper (serving a lower-end -- i.e. lower-margin -- customer at first);
  • simpler in design;
  • and more convenient than products that serve high-end customers.

Sound familiar? When Christensen goes on to talk about how established companies (in the game industry’s case, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) tend to be "held captive" by their core customers, I can’t help but think how Microsoft has so bent to the will of its audience’s demands. (That’s not to say the same thing isn’t happening at PlayStation – Microsoft’s recent policy changes were just done in a very open forum. And I'm also not saying that's an incorrect course of action for right now.)

Also striking is the way that constant sustaining innovation (bigger hard drives, faster processors, better networks) are so plainly outstripping the needs of so many potential consumers. With this sustaining innovation comes a big price tag for game consoles. This constant improvement that is meant to serve high-margin customers eventually leaves a vacuum – a vacuum that the nascent mobile-based console class is trying to fill with cheap, simple products.

If the game console industry were to follow through with disruptive innovation patterns, we’d see mobile game consoles gain traction with a different kind of customer – the kind that’s more concerned with inexpensive hardware and games, and a simple, convenient game experience. The companies in this market would continue their own trajectory for improvement in their tech and processes (you can expect frequent hardware updates to these Android consoles).

Eventually, perhaps years from now, we could see these consoles start to invade the "Big Three’s" market. Meanwhile, traditional console makers (who were aware of these innovations down-market but had absolutely no reason to try to serve the mobile console customer up until this point) would need to use their resources to defend their share of the market, and jump into the competitive business that entrant companies established.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen -- I'm not even sure if there is a market for microconsoles. I don't think that anyone knows for sure -- that's the nature of disruptive innovations. Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation aren’t inevitably "doomed," and those companies know best how to deliver the living room game experience. How they respond to mobile game consoles – if they need to at all – will be interesting to watch, especially if Amazon and Google get in on the action.

If you’d like to participate in microconsole week, you can do so by submitting a Gamasutra blog. You can follow our daily updates on microconsoles on the official event page. And don't worry, we'll be providing our normal non-microconsole coverage all week as well.

Thanks for reading!

Kris Graft
EIC, Gamastra


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