07 April 2013

Why Alternative Consoles Don't Really Stand a Chance

Over the last week several reviews for the Kickstarter backed Ouya appeared online. Both Engadget and The Verge determined the device to be decidedly mediocre.

Critiquing the console's controllers Engadet noted what it called "sticky buttons and gummy analogue sticks" while The Verge noted the system's lack of exclusive titles at this point. $8.5 million was raised on Kickstarter for the console, keep in mind the PlayStation 3 reportedly cost $500 million to develop.

There are core differences of course, the Ouya, as an Android powered device, already has an operating system and development tools in place meaning they didn't have to construct the system from scratch.

But to realistically expect a $100 to compete with the $300 Xbox 360 and PS3 (not to mention their original, much higher price) seems somewhat naive. If that was their intention there had better be a significant boost in outside interest. At present, developers betting their futures on Ouya may find things do not go exactly according to plan.

It's perfectly normal for a kid to say 'I want a 3DS!' 'I want an Xbox!' 'I want a PlayStation!' These are devices with broad reach within the public consciousness, even non-gamers will likely have at least heard of them due to the extensive advertising campaigns which accompany these major console launches. Not so with Ouya.

The average household may have a Android phone lying around but how likely is it that means the average house will want an Android console? Especially one, which on the surface at least, lacks compelling exclusive titles?

Ouya is a free-to-play orientated console, all games on the system are required to use this model and certainly there's significant success to be found it given the right gameplay model and circumstances but it seems to be an unnecessary restriction on developers and attracting developer interest ought to prove especially difficult with new consoles on the horizon.

$8.5 million is a lot of money. But it can't match the resources of Microsoft or Sony, even cash strapped as the latter has been in recent years. The PlayStation maker has been doing its utmost to appeal to developers, including them in the console design process and signing exclusive deals for a range of indie titles, hopefully Microsoft will follow suite.

So what does the Ouya have to offer in competition? That remains to be seen.

The company is quick to point out the devices are those sent out to Kickstarter backers, not review units. Yet if that is the case than it can hardly be realistic to expect a radical overhaul by the time the system is fully launched, and if there is one then backers may well have found themselves cheated.

Yet Ouya is far from alone.

Yesterday PlayJam announced shipping of its GameStick consoles -another Android system - to backers would be delayed until June.  Apparently due to high demand. Described as the world's smallest console the system is entirely contained on a USB. Its portability may make it an appealing prospect to some, while its limited size may entice others - especially those with small living room - yet again it remains a device which will likely struggle to make headway in the public domain.

Remembers E3 occurs in June. Microsoft will likely unveil the next Xbox near or at the annual industry event. PlayJam will want the GameStick to be something very special indeed to make a splash among the announcements and wave of publicity and hype Sony and Microsoft will be building around the release of their consoles later in the year.

The Oculus Rift, a fascinating concept, and one that stands ready to potentially revolutionise virtual reality, will likely come with its own problems. One would assume the risk of headaches and disorientation is a very definite possibility when using the device, at least for some users, while those who wear glasses will likely struggle to come to terms with system's headgear - as anyone who wears glasses and goes to a 3D movie can no doubt attest.

For all the name dropping of the Oculus Rift at this year's Game Developers Conference it really will be a matter of seeing if developers match with games the enthusiasm they expressed. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect we're not quite ready for the era of virtual reality yet.

Then there's Nvidia's Project Shield. As a major chip maker it may perhaps be interesting to see what they can do with the system but again it comes down to developer backing and realistically, at this stage, there's little reason to suspect a mass exodus to the device.

The often overwhelming success of these systems on Kickstarter suggests a hunger for new consoles certainly exists - undoubtedly perpetuated by the length of this console cycle - yet if these devices fail to make a deep impact in the market this interest may well ultimately benefit Microsoft and Sony more than anyone else (barring a remarkable reversal of fortune for the Wii U of course).

Perhaps one, or all, of these alternative consoles will steal the limelight from traditional gaming platforms, only time will answer that.

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