GDC 09: Qualcomm-backed device for emerging markets uses 3G digital distribution

Games industry’s ‘fourth console’ unveiled

Mobile giant Qualcomm has unveiled what it describes as the games industry ‘fourth console’ at GDC today.

The device, called Zeebo, is a digital distribution set top box designed for emerging markets such as China, Brazil, Mexico and India, and targets "the next billion consumers", according to Qualcomm boss Mike Yuen.

Using the firm’s cellular technology "we can achieve that scale and leverage seen by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in a different way in different markets" he said.

The Zeebo uses wireless 3G connections and is an antidote to piracy, said Yuen: "We’ll use digital distribution to allow developers and publishers to make money in those territories."

Yuen pointed to Goldman Sachs statistics which claim that "in the next decade more that 800m people in China, India Brazil and Russia will be ‘middle class’ – more than the combined population of the US, Western Europe and Japan".

"If we just target 1 in 10 of that figure we’ll have a 100m installed base," Yuen added

Run from a venture company in San Diego also called Zeebo the device "takes advantage of the huge scale of the cell phone service" and Qualcomm’s BREW platform, concluded Yuen.

Zeebo boss John Rizzo told GDC attendees that "it’s important for the games industry to bend its mind and think not how people live in North America, but how they live in emerging markets."

That means lower priced hardware (to acknowledge the minimal amount of disposable income), localised software, culturally relevant content ("It’s not likely a family in Mumbai will want to buy GTA for their child" said Rizzo), and easy to buy software.

Rizzo described the device as being an antidote to problems encountered by the current hardware in finding traction in these markets, saying that PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii are for ‘the wealthy’ in those territories – the Wii itself costs $1000 if you want to buy it legally in Argentina.

And historically, publishers don’t like emerging markets due to piracy, despite the access to new consumers, cheaper marketing and cheaper development, he added – Zeebo addresses all that with a ‘no bloat’ strategy he added.

Physically, Zeebo is about the size of a Wii, "built from the ground up to be cool looking but meet the requirements of the emerging market". It features a Qualcomm chipset, with a 1GB of Flash memory, and includes a 3G data modem for over the air updates and downloads via its in-built UI. Titles are embedded in the system as well as downloaded, and all the content is distributed ‘digitally, wirelessly and securely’.

Said Rizzo: "It’s a complete copy protected, piracy-protected environment."

In terms of content, Rizzo pointed to innovative games from the past as the kind of titles that can be sold into emerging markets – a specific example was Quake from 1996. It might seem old to those in established games markets, but at the time was described as one of the biggest 3D games – something Zeebo can recapture, said Rizzo.

A live demo showed Quake running in the device, plus the online store front where content is paid for using a point system fueled with prepaid cards. Developers and publishers can even run their own storefronts for their content

Other games on the device already include Crash Kart, Tekken 2 and Double Dragon. Huge names in games are already backing the device, including EA, PopCap, Namco, Activision and many others. The device will predominantly draw on those firm’s back catalogues, and it will cost just $100,000 to port a back catalogue PC game over the platform, Rizzo added.

On launch, there will be over 30 games made available within the console’s first 90 days on the market.

Plus, the device arrives as soon as next week via a ‘VIP roll out’ in Brazil – but a planned roll out will follow in Mexico later tin the year, India and Eastern Europe in 2010, and China in 2011.

It’s also designed to use a minimal amount of electricity – something taken for granted when its comes to 360 and PS3 in established markets. The device uses just 1 watt of power to run.

The device can also be connected to a Netbook which can access the 3G modem and use it for internet access.

While Zeebo is currently working with major publishers to get their big brands on the digital store – but also wants to work with developers, both those familiar with Qualcomm’s mobile BREW platform, and those looking towards low-cost games developers. Games are expected to be around 50MB in size, meaning plenty can fit on the device’s 1GB storage.

"The business model is much like the Amazon Kindle," added Rizzo. "In terms of the development process it’s almost identical to BREW," he added.

But doesn’t the iPhone do the same things? Rizzo said the two can coexist, and target different users. Like the consoles, iPhone in a country like Brazil are only for the wealthy. Zeebo will cost just $199 in Brazil – $50 less than a PS2.

"We are going after an entirely different customer – none of our customers would be able to afford an iPhone," he said. That also means more modest plans for the Zeebo marketplace – around 300 games is a target, added Rizzo.

"We want to make a small amount of developers very popular in emerging market places," he concluded.

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