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Microconsoles: The Little Game Consoles That Could

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With E3 looming, my non-games industry friends and family are asking which of the new consoles I find most exciting. Am I ready for the Xbox One with its wild ambitions of being a media center and gaming deck combined? Or do I find the PlayStation 4 with its social sharing and cloud support cool? A few even ask if I think the Nintendo Wii U will pull itself out of the flames and go on to greatness.

But, I say that I don't find any of them nearly as interesting as microconsoles.

The term "microconsole" usually earns me some blank stares, which is fair as it's a word that I made up. Invoking something of the spirit of the microcomputer, "microconsole" groups a certain kind of emerging games machine. You might have heard of some examples, like OUYA, GamePop, Gamestick and some others. Microconsoles are little game consoles promising to deliver a new kind of gaming relationship between you and your TV.

Some of my more gamer-ish friends have complex feelings about microconsoles. They worry that they just won't have enough games, or enough power to really justify a purchase. They worry that the big-console competition will stamp out these pipsqueak efforts, and don't really want to buy into a format only to watch it die. They worry, in short, that microconsoles are the MiniDisc of gaming: Neat but not good enough.

Personally, I think that this is because a lot of people are used to the how-life-is of the big console industry. Big consoles have been around in one form or another for a long time. They've played host to many of the biggest games, and they're usually the first sector of the games industry that people think of when the idea that games are bigger than movies comes up. Big consoles blow up conferences like E3 with awesome trailers for shiny games. And then they add lots of features on top.

How, my gamer friends ask, are tiny Android boxes supposed to stand up to that competition? The answer is simple: by not buying into its premise.

Big consoles used to be great at delivering a lot of different games, so their relationship with customers was great. Lately, however, that relationship has become high-maintenance. Fewer companies can afford to make games for big consoles, and even when they sell millions of copies they often fail to break even (as with the new Tomb Raider). This means that big consoles are facing a future of fewer games and decreased diversity. While the original PlayStation may have had lots of weird and wonderful games, the Xbox One is offering a monotone vision of just sports and shooting.

Then there's the question of cost. With all the new features that manufacturers are trying to cram into their consoles, they're moving from the fun bracket to the serious-purchase bracket while also taking steps to shut down cheap sources of games (like buying them second hand). They want you to lock into their ecosystem for a long time and always pay a premium. But does that really sound anything like how you play games these days?

I bet you play everywhere but your TV. If you're deeply into your games you probably play on your PC. Or if you prefer an easier experience, you're playing on your phone, iPad or Kindle. You're used to getting lots of games digitally at cheap prices (or even for free) and having a very wide selection. You prefer to play Dots or Dear Esther and find the prospect of a heavy Call of Duty kind of a turn-off.

And giving you what you like is what microconsoles are about. The future, I tell my friends, is a choice between heavy/expensive/monotone and lightweight/cheap/diverse. And I think the latter will win because a console that costs a hundred bucks with thousands of great games is just fundamentally a better idea. It makes the idea of playing games on your TV actually fun and not such a drag.

I also think my gamer-ish friends will see a lot of their concerns allayed.

The microconsoles of today are first-generation: early products trying to figure out the market that they are in. However they're not locked-in in the way that the big consoles are. OUYA can turn around and make OUYA2, OUYA3 and OUYA4 over the next couple of years and get it right. GamePop likewise.

The idea that consoles might upgrade on an annual basis like iPads and phones do is one that has been a long time coming. Look at how far smartphones and tablets have come in the last five years and some of the games that they now run, and ask yourself how long before they catch today's high end PCs? 2-3 years? And how long before annualized microconsoles make today's big consoles look old, about the same time?

The last reason that I'm hot-to-trot for microconsoles is the future that they promise for independent game makers like me. Over the last few years we've seen a glimpse of what it's like to work outside of the choke-grip of heavy-handed platforms and bureaucratic publishers dictating everything. Primarily through Apple's App Store (but also through Steam) liberated creativity has reigned in gaming in a way not seen since the days of the microcomputer. Microconsoles offer the promise of being able to apply that thinking to TV gaming, and that means that all the most interesting games are inevitably going to go to them.

Who, after all, really wants to work with a giant corporation that can squash you like a bug if your game doesn't sit well with its overall ambition? Wouldn't you want the freedom to be able to do what you want to do, as you would if you made music or wrote books? Games deserve a chance to grow as a medium, but right now I don't see big console makers doing much to change their thinking in that regard.

Time to go micro.

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