The launch of Ouya is behind us, but Playjam's GameStick, Mad Catz's Mojo, and others are still to come -- and that's just year one. The era of microconsoles has barely gotten started, but they already inspire strong feelings in many developers.
Gamasutra recently interviewed a number them -- some working on microconsole games, and some avowedly not -- to find out what they think of the present and future of these platforms.
When it comes to the Ouya, "I'm a big supporter," says Pietro Righi Riva, of small independent studio Santa Ragione, developer of the IGF-nominated MirrorMoon. He's bringing the game, due out this autumn, to the Ouya -- because he likes the ethos it represents.
"It looks homemade, it looks put together quickly, and some people really do not like that because it feels cheap, but I really love it because it doesn't make me feel like I'm not good enough," says Righi Riva. "I'll always be playing on cooler and more expensive consoles like the big guys, but I'm really enjoying that experience right now."
Double Fine's Kickstarter success Broken Age is also coming to the Ouya, and according to lead programmer Oliver Franzke, that's as much about the culture surrounding this new microconsole as business or technical reasons. "I think there is a really nice overlap between who our backers our and the backers of Ouya, because I think it's a very similar group of people. So that works."
Microconsoles could very well grow into a new kind of console culture -- one built on handcrafted, atypical, or quirky games; one more open to developers, creatively and from a business perspective, too. But will they have the chance?
The Open-Ended Business Model
If there's a key promise of the microconsole model that appeals to developers, it's the appeal of delivering a console-style experience without the expense and red tape of publishing your game on a traditional console.
"I like the openness of it," says Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey. The team is bringing its upcoming tablet game, Luxuria Superbia, to Ouya. "It's the first time there's a console where it's like zero bullshit."
"Traditionally, bringing games onto the major consoles was not only really expensive, but also you had to be a publisher," says Franzke. Of Double Fine's first Ouya game, the recently released Dropchord, he says, "It's been really good and really easy to get the game on there."
So far, microconsoles rely on Android, which also has its appeal, as Franzke explains: "If you're already spending a lot of work on getting the game running on this kind of platform, then it's only a logical choice to go one step further and go on there," he says. "Obviously, we want to bring the game to as many people as possible, so, again, it's just the logical choice to make it work on there too."
And Righi Riva even sees the platform's couch multiplayer and ease of distribution opening up avenues PCs and traditional consoles do not: "Like if I do a cool prototype of a multiplayer thing, now I can take it somewhere -- where before it was just a jam game, it was impossible to market, it was impossible to distribute, because on phones and tablets you have to do splitscreen where everybody uses a quarter of the screen, or on PC it's just impossible -- you just have to do online games. And now it's possible, and that's really cool."
Harvey even hopes that if they get big enough, these consoles can put pressure on the big three manufacturers to further loosen their publishing policies. "If this sort of idea -- plus mobile, plus everything -- is pressuring Sony, and Microsoft, and Nintendo to think about their ways of publishing, then I think that's extremely valuable and I'm very happy, because somebody needed to do something."
But not all developers are optimistic. Ilari Kuittinen, co-founder of Housemarque -- developers of Resogun, a PlayStation 4 launch exclusive -- can see the good and the bad in microconsoles.
"I think that it's great to have these kind of open-ended platforms to begin with, but as a business, I think it's going to be tough for any developer to do much there," Kuittinen says. "For somebody it will be a good springboard for the future, I'm sure, and if you're a lone developer, you might get your living out of that, sure. Sure, it's a great opportunity for a certain type of people. But if you want to have a long-term business, I think it might be pretty tough."
Machine Zone's Gabriel Leydon (Game of War) agrees. He sees the audience of microconsoles as far too small in comparison to their cousins, mobile phones and tablets: "I think mobile has 2 billion users at the end of the year. We're strictly free-to-play. We only want to do free-to-play, and volume matters in free-to-play, so I'm not particularly interested in the microconsoles -- but I do think they have a future."
The Allure of Consoles
But these devices have another major appeal -- one that's less business-focused. They are consoles -- not PCs, not tablets. They are hooked to TVs, and use familiar game controllers as their default interface. Many developers have long wanted to make console games, and the microconsoles can make this process much easier and more direct.
Though Tale of Tales has primarily released its games on PCs, Harvey and Samyn founded the studio in hopes of releasing games on a PlayStation platform. With Ouya, for the first time, Harvey can make a game for a console.
"I sort of feel like that's still the ultimate experience of a game, and the most meaningful games I have played have been in that sort of situation, and we've always wanted to create for that situation, and hopefully now we'll have a chance to do so," she tells Gamasutra.
Righi Riva is even more blunt. "I've played on consoles my whole life. So going back from controllers to a keyboard and mouse was terrible -- a terrible experience," he says. "Being on Ouya brings back the possibility of doing something with controllers, and with that space."
"We just found that we were enjoying sitting down and playing games together the way we did with the Nintendo 64," he continues. "And it's exciting to be able to make games for this thing that other people can experience in the same lighthearted way."
But not every transition is natural. Jaako Maaniemi blogged about how his team created a bug in the transition from touch control to pad control, and Double Fine's Franzke notes that Broken Age's traditional PC adventure game controls are not a perfect fit for the Ouya. "Obviously, the controller is not the most natural way to play the game, so that will be interesting -- to make it work on there," he says.
Leydon, meanwhile, doesn't even see a place for Game of War on a microconsole, as it's an always-online MMO that relies on the persistent connection of a smartphone. "It would be really painful to play a persistently online game on a TV," he says. These platforms are not for all developers.
Bertil Hörberg, creator of Gunman Clive -- available on smartphone and Nintendo 3DS -- doesn't have any technological qualms. He's worried about the "small audience" microconsoles will attract.
"My point on the Ouya and other consoles, is that they just seem like another Android platform to me. I don't see the point of doing a specific version for those," he says.
The Ouya has quickly gained a reputation for being a playground for indies -- but as Hörberg says, that reputation carries with it talk of a small audience. A small audience means low sales and low profitability for developers. Can Ouya or other microconsoles attract enough players to be worth developers' time?
"I think they are going to have a very tough run. It's hard just for the big consoles to make a big impact, but I think that the smaller ones will have a big issue with fragmentation, and getting the right content to them," says Mojang's Daniel Kaplan.
Double Fine's Franzke thinks that it's quite likely that core console consumers -- the ones who buy a handful of games a year, and drive the big sales of those consoles -- will completely ignore microconsoles.
"Because if you're a casual gamer, and you really like your Madden -- that's just an example -- then you might not be interested in an Android console because EA is probably not going to bring out Madden on there anytime soon. It's really for tech enthusiasts," he says.
Without tent pole games, microconsoles could have an uphill battle for mindshare.
"I'm not sure what they're trying to achieve," says Kaplan. "Because consoles are a niche product, and they're making a niche product and a niche user group that are indie developers or indie gamers -- people who like indie games. They're making a really niche product for an even nicher group, so I think it's going to be very tough for them in the long run."
"That's something that Sony and Microsoft don't really have to worry about, because they're going to get their Last of Us kind of games, and they're going to get their Mass Effects and their big titles, and that's what's driving the sales for those consoles," says Franzke. "It's going to be critical for the microconsoles to do the same thing. At the end of the day I feel like that's a biz dev challenge."
Hoping to shore up the Ouya is one reason motivating Tale of Tales to lend its support -- "such as it is," in the words of Harvey -- in the form of Luxuria Superbia. "We hope to support that platform and make it more successful, hopefully, by showing that there are more kinds of things," she says.
She does worry, however, that the Ouya -- which she describes as a "weak tablet," technologically -- could quickly be outclassed. "Because tablets are always moving. Quite quickly, people are going to go, 'Well, the games on this suck compared to this other thing,' and then that becomes the standard -- this other thing."
Of course, technology will keep marching forward. This is a good thing for microconsoles, argues Matt Plyohar, president of the PC Gaming Alliance and senior graphics planner at Intel. "What we’re seeing is a huge tectonic shift occurring with game engine companies like Unity and Epic optimizing for lower-powered devices, and delivering DX9/GL3+ like gaming experiences. What this does is disrupt the conventional notions of what PC gaming really is or isn't for most of us."
The Future of Microconsoles
But as technology moves forward, and more companies jump into the space, fragmentation becomes a bigger problem. Franzke is concerned about a proliferation of incompatible devices. "I'm really worried if there are a lot of them, there's a lot of fragmentation in the market going on, and I feel like it's going to be very difficult to sustain that, to make that successful."
"It's really hard to project into the future what's going to happen. Because they're so new," he admits. Still, he does have hope for a big future for microconsoles, if they can get through this difficult period. "In the next few years, it will be very interesting to see which one of those is going to crystallize themselves, become a major competitor to Microsoft and Sony."
"I do think they need time, because it's a strange new concept, and I hope that [Ouya's] funders are not breathing down their neck because they needed more money than their Kickstarter," says Michaël Samyn, the other half of Tale of Tales. "I hope that they have enough time to allow it to grow."
Plyohar thinks that if microconsoles are given that time, they will have a chance. "We're already seeing the tablet form factor (largely powered by Android, and or iOS) cannibalize mindshare game time from consoles and traditional PC form factors," he says. "I also fully expect to see Google increase the capabilities of Android in the future to be able to play more feature-rich and compelling games. We're likely to see this occur across the board."
But Franzke brings it back to the question of games: "It's not so much technology anymore, because in the past it's shown that, even if you have superior technology, it doesn't really mean that this will be successful." If that's true, then Ouya or its rivals may have a very sweet future, indeed.