The opening day of 2013 saw three original hardware platforms emerge, as Valve, Nvidia and PlayJam all revealed new consoles.
Nvidia’s Project Shield, Valve’s Xi3-manufacturered Piston and PlayJam’s Android-powered GameStick are all looking to compete with established platforms from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. And they follow on from 2012’s boom in new hardware offerings, such as Oculus Rift and Ouya.
Nvidia’s new platform, announced at CES in Las Vegas, combines a traditional console controller and screen in the form of a portable currently carrying the concept name Project Shield.
Allowing for the streaming of games from a PC, Shield is powered by the new Nvidia Tegra 4, custom 72-core GeForce GPU and the first quad-core application of ARM’s CPU core, the Cortex-A15.
“We were inspired by a vision that the rise of mobile and cloud technologies will free us from our boxes, letting us game anywhere, on any screen,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia co-founder and CEO of deciding to enter the gaming portable space.
“We imagined a device that would do for games what the iPod and Kindle have done for music and books, letting us play in a cool new way.”
Shield has already attracted support from a number of high-profile industry figures including Epic vice president Mark Rein and Ubisoft co-founder Yves Guillemot.
Valve’s long-touted ‘Steam Box’ also debuted at CES, under the concept name Piston. The version on display consisted of a modular computer developed by hardware maker Xi3, and is based on its X7A line of diminutive systems. Xi3 has stated it had received investment from Valve to build the PC.
The Piston is designed to be used with Steam's Big Picture mode, which allows Steam and its titles to be played on a large TV screen. It is understood Valve will also develop its own version of the platform.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era for Xi3,” said the company’s founder, president and CEO Jason Sullivan on unveiling the system.
“This new development stage product will allow users to take full advantage of their large high-definition TV displays for an amazing computer game experience. As a result, this new system could provide access to thousands of gaming titles through an integrated system that exceeds the capabilities of leading game consoles.”
The final console revealed in January, the GameStick, comes from casual games outfit PlayJam, and takes the approximate form of a USB stick that can be slotted into a TV’s HDMI port. The new device will run Android games and comes with a Bluetooth controller. The console also slots into the controller for easier portability.
Funded on Kickstarter, the GameStick met its $100,000 pledge level within 30 hours of its launch on the crowdfunding website, and recently closed at an impressive $647,658.
“The mobile games industry has spawned a revolution in affordable gaming and Android is set to be the widest distributed platform for games,” Anthony Johnson, CMO of Playjam confirmed to Develop, suggesting mobile platforms have done much to inspire the new generation of consoles.
“The team behind GameStick have been passionate about bringing affordable gaming to TV for years and Android delivers a stable, viable route to achieve this.”
But can these consoles thrive in a competitive market increasingly challenging the long-established manufacturers?
Phil Harrison, corporate vice president at Microsoft EMEA, and former president of Sony Worldwide Studios, suggests it won’t be easy.
“CES is always very interesting," said Harrison, speaking at a London press conference. "But entering the hardware business is a hard thing to do. You need to have deep pockets. Hardware can be successful but it’s rare to get new hardware to scale. I’m talking tens or hundreds of millions.
“It’s about having a supply chain and a distribution model, it takes thousands of people to make a reality.”
Similarly, Frontier boss and key figure in the development of the Raspberry Pi coding-focused platform David Braben warned of challenges ahead for those building entirely new platforms.
“The increasing diversity of platforms complicates the market somewhat – though each present major different opportunities going forwards,” Braben told Develop.
“The real challenge will be getting enough customers to reach a critical mass with so many new machines coming through, and ensuring piracy is at a low enough level to sustain sales – as each machine will require a port to get games onto each platform.”
Braben went on to warn that – while Raspberry Pi illustrated how succesful establishing a new platform can be – maintaining performance, tools support, distribution and a software range is difficult.
But Braben did state that the new platforms do offer games developers a significant opportunity. And he’s not alone,
“The launch of a new hardware platform should be good news for developers and the industry,” Eidos life president and campaigner for games development education Ian Livingstone stated to Develop.
“Most software developers are platform agnostic and usually welcome new devices through which to leverage their content. And software sells hardware, so the feeling is mutual.
“However, there is no guarantee of success, and sometimes it can prove costly for developers to launch content on platforms that ultimately fail in the marketplace.”
OPEN FOR ALL
Indies are also optimistic – if pragmatic – about the arrival of so many new hardware options.
“These new platforms are super exciting,” said Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell, speaking with Develop.
“The most important element, as far as I'm concerned, is the business behind the console. These upcoming platforms look to be very open to indies as much as players, and that can only be a good thing.
“While the specific form factors of this hardware will likely go through a fair few iterations in the coming years – the Shield in particular seems pretty ridiculous to me – they are very interesting as an indication of a larger trend, where players are falling out of love with closed platforms.”
From an indie perspective, says Bithell, that simply means studios will to have to jump through fewer hoops.
The middleware sector also appears to view these new machines positively as Dr Chris Doran, founder and COO at lighting tools specialist Geomerics confirmed.
“For middleware companies like ourselves this is a big opportunity,” he explained to Develop.
“Cross-platform development is hard, particularly if there is a large range in target performance. Well-designed middleware can take some of the pain away from making your game cross-platform. With Enlighten, for example, we already support all of the new platforms, including those based on Linux.”
Doran admitted that the challenge for middleware providers is to develop technology in a way that supports the widest possible base of platforms, but pointed out that such pressures have long been ordinary operating practice for any middleware providers.
How the trio of newly announced consoles will fare remains to be seen, but there already seems to be a wealth of support for GameStick, Piston and Project Shield.