April 4, 2014

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Microconsole

Back in 2009, a little start-up company called OnLive introduced their vision of a "MicroConsole".  This new type of device was a dedicated gaming machine that plugged into a TV, very much like traditional gaming consoles like those made my Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, and others in the past.  Like those consoles, the MicroConsole had a controller designed specifically for gaming.

However, unlike traditional gaming consoles, it did not have any means of using disc or cartridge based games, it was all done through the cloud.  In fact, the games didn't actually run on the device itself, instead the device was merely a way to connect your television to the Internet so you could play the games that were stored on OnLive's servers. The games offered by OnLive ran the gamut from casual games to AAA titles.

Also, the device was small - hence the name.  Gaming consoles have been as big as VCRs, desktop computers, and sometimes bigger.  Many times throughout the lifespan of a gaming console, new iterations of the hardware will come out as technology progresses, and the newer versions having nicknames like "Slim" and "Thin" and "Lite".  But the MicroConsole started out small.  Smaller than a pocket novel.  In fact, the controller was bigger than the MicroConsole itself.

Another way it was different, it was cheap.  The OnLive MicroConsole cost only $99, and it came with a wireless controller and an HDMI cable.  Later on, the company would even have special offers where they would give the console away with the purchase of certain games through their service.  (The games costing $59 or less.)  Other consoles cost many times that amount.

The games offered by OnLive ran the gamut from casual games to AAA titles.  They were all PC games (Windows games) running on OnLive's servers and streamed to the MicroConsole over the Internet.

Ultimately, the company went bankrupt, and was purchased by another company who is trying to make it work, but their focus is not on the MicroConsole (although it is still available - just no longer called a MicroConsole, but instead a "game system").  Their games have always been available to play through software on a PC or Mac, and some even through Android.  They also have other non-game related services.

Three years later, in 2012, another start up, called OUYA, threw their hat into the microconsole ring.  Instead of going for a streaming game service, they offered mobile games on the big screen.  OUYA's microconsole runs a specialized version of Android, and the games on it are, for the most part, Android games that have been adapted to play on an HDTV with a gaming controller.  (Although there are OUYA-exclusive titles.)  Again, the OUYA was smaller than most consoles, although a big bigger than the OnLive.  And again it was inexpensive - just $99, with the wireless controller included.

OUYA, however was success, due in large part to the way it was launched.  Instead of relying on venture capital from investors - OnLive went straight to the gamers through the new concept of crowd-funding.  OUYA was one of the early success stories from the website Kickstarter, raising millions of dollars, straight from gamers and developers (the OUYA microconsole doubles as both a gaming console and a developer's kit) through basically offering pre-orders.

After OUYA raising many times what it was looking for in crowd-funding capital, a slew of other microconsole start-ups soon joined the frey, although few yet having as much success as the novel OUYA.  GameStick ($79), GamePop (not yet released - $129/free with subscription), MOJO ($199), just to name a few.

What is really interesting now is, big name companies are now joining in as well.  In Japan (Japanese link), Sony released the PS Vita TV, which is a microconsole that plays PS Vita games (downloaded, not from a cartridge) on a TV with a remote.  And Google recently announced their purchase of a manufacturer of game controllers - Green Throttle Games, spurring rumors that they may be joining in as well.  Nvidia, known for their gaming-level graphics cards for computers, also entered the gaming device world with their Shield.  The Shield is more of a portable gaming console than a microconsole, but it is still an entry into the gaming system world from a new player who was already known in another field.  "Steam Machines" which are upcoming customized PCs running Valve's SteamOS, will also be an interesting addition to the space, although they seem to be far more like traditional gaming PCs than consoles.

Also, around the same time that microconsoles just started, 2009 - 2012, another trend was taking place, SmartTVs and set-top box streamers.  These are two ways to connect your television to the Internet for streaming video and audio services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and YouTube.  Later on, we would see some of these boxes evolve into something like a microconsole as well, specifically the Roku, whose higher-end versions included a motion-sensing remote, somewhat akin to the Wii Remote, which allowed for owners to play some games on the device, notably, Angry Birds.

Which brings us to the most recent development - Amazon's $99 "Fire TV".  The Fire TV seems to bridge the gap between microconsoles and TV streamers.  While not primarily focused on games, with the addition of Amazon's $39 Fire Game Controller, (or possibly your own BlueTooth controller), the box will play Android games that have gamepad support, as well as Fire TV exclusive games, like (the one and only at this point) "Sev Zero" - which was developed in-house by Amazon's own Game Studios.

Something that really stood out to me about the Fire TV is how similar it is the OnLive MicroConsole. Especially the controller, it just swaps one of the analog sticks with the D-Pad.  From the flattened surface of the controller, to the inclusion and placement of the media buttons (rewind, play/pause, fast forward).  The media buttons were (and still are) largely unused on the OnLive - basically they were only used for "Brag Clips" (which predated Sony's PS4 "Share" button by half a decade).  Even though it required an Internet connect to use, the OnLive never offered any streaming video or audio services - just games. But on the Fire TV is primarily a video streamer, those buttons will be used a lot, I'm sure.

Comparison of the Amazon Fire TV Game Controller to the OnLive MicroConsole Controller


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4 comments:

Chad W Smith said...

For the record, I own an OnLive MicroConsole (I got it when it first came out) and an OUYA (I was a Kickstarter backer). I also own the big-name gaming consoles (not the latest gen, the last ones, the ones with actual games to play). And I have several no-name import handhelds, some Android based and some not.

Chad W Smith said...

Also -according to at least one owner of the Fire TV the OUYA controller pairs with the Fire TV.

https://twitter.com/HTML5Tyler/status/452532851410735104

James said...

Great article Chad! Do you think the Fire TV will be successful and will you get one?

Chad W Smith said...

Thanks, James.

I absolutely think the Fire TV will be a commercial success. It has been the top seller on Amazon since they released the thing, and they sold out of the game controller in something like 48 hours.

Will I be getting one? I was very tempted at first. I actually have some Amazon promo credit I could use, so my out of pocket expenses would be a lot less than $99. But - I already own an OUYA, an Xbox 360, and a PS3. I'm not sure it would give me much - if anything - that I don't already have. The hardware is certainly better than the OUYA, but since they both run basically mobile games, I don't know if it is worth it. (Also, if I *do* buy the Fire TV - I will *not* be buying the game controller. I already have enough game controllers.)