As to be expected, there are many stories and trends emerging from CES. One that intrigues me is the emergence, and albeit slow, maturation of mid-sized PC gaming consoles. By mid-sized I am referring to something larger than a handheld gaming device (i.e. the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo DS) but smaller than an Xbox 370 or PlayStation 3. They are meant to be portable, and used either as a handheld or tabletop device, but provide the kind of robust gaming experience more associated with consoles than small handhelds. By maturation think growing from a tween to a teen, but not yet entering the real world of adulthood (or significant retail presence).
All of these solutions are essentially an extension of PC-gaming into handheld territory, except for the Wii U GamePad. The success of the segment would do a lot for the PC platform, which has seen sales of games ticking constantly upwards even as sales of games for consoles have flattened out.
The dominant storylines in this space have been that consoles are morphing into home entertainment hubs, meant as much for streaming films as playing video games, while PCs have outpaced consoles in delivering performance. And even though it is harder and harder to find PC titles in retail stores, e-commerce and the migration to downloaded content and the success of Steam has more than made up for the declining retail footprint. These storylines are accurate, but I can’t help feeling that a lot of PC sales data, which includes downloads of Temple Run, online subscriptions and revenue from freemium ad sales hopelessly skews the PC vs. console comparison.
But are these mid-range-PC console hybrids being developed for Angry Birds? Probably not, and I don’t envision the new owners of a Razer Edge spending their time playing Bejewled. I don’t think you can claim console gaming is dying, as many have tried to, any more than you can claim that the upward trajectory for PC game title sales will guarantee the success of the emerging mid-size PC gaming console. Will avid FPS and RPG gamers be willing to trade screen-size and performance for the convenience of play-anywhere portability?
What I am seeing, both as an avid gamer and someone who is interested in the industry, is that gamers move from device to device based upon their situation and will tailor their game play to the device they are using. My personal experience is probably fairly common. I will play a first-person shooter like Call of Duty on a PC or console, but find them unplayable on a tablet. I will play FIFA Soccer on a console, but never on a PC. I will simulate FIFA Soccer games in manager-mode on a tablet when commuting, but rarely play actual games because I find the controls so awkward on a tablet. I play Angry Birds on my phone and tablet, but the Xbox 360 copy of Angry Birds my son received as a holiday present is sitting, still shrink-wrapped on a shelf.
The latest research suggests my nomadic gaming existence is common among gamers. There is no doubt that smartphones and tablets are used for gaming, with a number of studies suggesting that gaming is ranked in the top-three most frequent uses of mobile devices. Data from a NewZoo study indicates that 22% of all American gamers play on all four screens (console, tablet, smartphone, and PC). What none of these studies will tell you is what people are playing on each of those screens. For a new category of handheld PC game devices to succeed they must find a sweet spot that matches features and titles that people will play on the new devices.
The two devices that are generating the most coverage from CES are the Nvidia Shield and the Razer Edge.
Shield from Nvidia
The Shield is a handheld Android device that Wired writer Chris Kohler described as a smartphone glued to an Xbox controller. Will people choose to play more complex games like Battlefield 3 or Assassins Creed on a 5-inch 1280x720p screen, even if the new 72-core NVIDIA GeForce® GPU Quad-core A15 CPU can deliver the performance needed to do so (and I am not saying it can? )But the Shield features an HDMI out port that allows you to connect it to a TV, which can give you the large screen you want for a complex game. It remains to be seen if gamers will want the portability that the form factor offers. Perhaps they will, but not if big titles like Skyrim, Call of Duty, Mass Effect, and any of the EA Sports titles don’t perform well on the device.
From what I have read you aren’t going to find many of the big titles in the Android storefront, which is going to be a challenge for Android platforms like the Ouya. Your option for such titles then comes from PC streaming. If you have a pretty solid gaming PC in your house that as a GeForce 600 Series video card in it you can stream games from your PC to the handheld console. But that restricts game-play to your house, and I would think taking the console on the road would be its biggest selling point.
There are also some big questions with streaming. One is latency. While Nvidia describes it as ‘low-latency,’ and goes as far as to claim the platform has ‘no lag,’ no competitive multiplayer is going to spend a lot of time on a platform with latency, it will ruin their gaming experience. Only time will tell if the Shield can really deliver a lag-free experience over dual-band WiFi. This GameSport review suggests that perhaps the streaming performance is good enough. The biggest question for me, is that if you have already spent $1,000 to $2,500 on a sweet PC gaming rig, with a big, crisp screen with a $250+ graphics card, why in the world would you want to stream games from it to a 5-inch screen? It strikes me as a bit of a leap of faith. And I am not going to stream it just so I can play using my TV, because odds are I have traditional console in the house already hooked up to the TV.
Edge from Razer
The Edge from Razer is really a 10.1-inch Windows 8 tablet that has an optional, detachable two-handed gamepad controller. The Edge Pro model delivers the best performance specifications, with a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and up to a 256GB SSD. The Edge Pro is going to cost $1,300 and the controller adds $250, so this is an investment for avid gamers, not a tablet you might buy on a whim for the kids. For $1,550 you are only getting 1366 x 768 resolution. But while PC gamers will covet a nice 21-inch or larger screen running 1900 x 1200, 1366 x 768 is probably serviceable for a 10-inch screen. And nothing is stopping Razer from matching the 2048 x 1536 resolution of the iPad 3 except perhaps a limit on what people are willing to pay for such a device.
The benefit of the Edge for a serious gamer is that you can actually load full-blown PC games onto the device. You don’t have to rely on streaming like you do on the Shield, which means you can play the games you like anywhere, not just in your home. The challenge is that you need to find consumers who are willing to pay $1,500 to play their favorite games on a 10-inch screen. If I am home I probably want the large screen, so the portability is of marginal benefit, and do I really want to play Borderlands 2 on the subway? And if I do want to play Borderlands 2 on the subway, am I willing to spend $1,500 to make it happen?
Wii U GamePad
The Wii U GamePad from Nintendo is an interesting development that needs to be considered in a discussion of mid-sized portable game consoles. It is available only as part of the larger Wii U console package, but operates as a standalone device. The GamePad touchscreen is small, only 6.2 inches, and it only delivers 854 x4 80 resolution even though the Wii U console kicks out 1920 × 1080.
I have always thought of the Wii as a social gaming console, it is something you are more likely to use with two or more people rather than on your own. The Wii U GamePad challenges this a bit. You can only use two Wii U GamePads at the same time, and most software development, for now, is focused on single GamePad use or use in combination with a traditional controller. Then there is the nature of titles available for the Wii, which tend to be arcade-style games geared towards younger gamers. Would I play Super Mario Kart or LEGO Indiana Jones on the Wii U GamePad? Sure. Will I play the version of Mass Effect 3 that was ported over to the Wii U platform? It would not be my first choice for a game like that. Sales of the Wii U haven’t been over-the-top, and I doubt Nintendo’s Q4 2012 and Q1 2013 financials are going to be awe inspiring.
Xi3 Piston from Valve
Valve, the company behind the Steam online game storefront, which delivers PC-games via download, has announced that they are developing a simplified PC code named Piston that will connect to your TV and be driven with a console-like controller. This isn’t a portable PC console, but it does bridge the PC and the TV and it strikes me as having a better chance of succeeding than the PC-to-console streaming approach taken by Nvidia. With just a $99 dollar box (like an Apple TV) I can play Steam titles I already have purchased for the PC on my television. That sounds promising.
By this time next year we should have a better understanding of how these mid-size portable gaming consoles will perform. By then the next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles should on the market, we will have Shield and Edge will have some sales numbers, and we will know if developers are successfully (and enthusiastically) porting key titles to the Wii U and Android platforms.