At CES this year, Nvidia announced something a bit unexpected – a handheld Android gaming console. Rather than just a phone, the Shield is reminiscent of an Xbox 360 controller, but with a clamshell-style screen that folds out on top. It’s an actual handheld unit, rather than some controller attachment.
Out of all the recent dedicated Android gaming devices – such as the Ouya or the GameStick – the Shield is not only backed by the developer with the most prestigious reputation out of the bunch, but it’s the only handheld device. However, it’s still just another Android gaming console that plays the same games as the other ones, and that is the biggest reason why the Shield will most likely fail.
First off, it’s worth noting that the Shield is actually a decent piece of hardware. It sports a Tegra 4 SoC (with its 72-core GPU), an integrated 5in, 720p display that flips up off the controls, reportedly strong speakers, HDMI out so you can plug it into a bigger display, around five to ten hours of gaming battery life, and a standard amount of buttons found on modern dedicated gaming handheld devices. The unit also features a USB port, audio out, and a microSD slot. It will have access to the Android Play store, which is where you will be able to download games from.
In short, the Shield has all the hardware punch we’d ask for in a modern-day handheld – but really, we’ve come a long, long way since the Game Boy Advance, and a decent hardware spec is usually a given nowadays. The hardware seems legit, but as we’ve learnt from eight generations of video game consoles, hardware isn’t the sole decider of a console’s success. The fate of the Shield seems to lie with its intent.
The reason why Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Valve (with Steam), and Apple (with iOS) have carved out their own large portions of the gaming market is because they all offer something competent you can’t get anywhere else. Sony and (to a lesser extent, considering the ports to PC) Microsoft have their own exclusives, Nintendo is practically built on exclusives (whether it be franchises or wacky hardware), and iOS not only offers exclusives, but is the platform on which the most popular games initially release.
Though Android is fragmented in terms of both the spread of its operating systems and hardware on which they’re installed, it’s not like the OS can’t run games – for instance, there have been multiple Humble Bundles loaded with Android games, and top-tier games at that.
Nvidia’s Shield has a rough road ahead because it already has too much competition. The Ouya, which already shipped its dev kits and is well on its way to a consumer release, only costs £99 (as we heard yesterday – it’s even cheaper in the US, effectively, at $99). The GameStick is pitched at $20 less than the Ouya (there’s no word on UK pricing yet), and the console fits right inside its own controller. Both units offer a controller, though neither offer portable gaming.
How big are your pockets?
Android phones are portable, and can run the same games the Shield can – but your smartphone obviously doesn’t provide a standard gamepad layout that games can target. However, because the Shield can’t make calls, you’ll still have to carry around your phone – a device on which you can already (most likely) play the same games. Users will be forced to make the choice between a unit with more comprehensive features, or one that lets you use a controller to play games that weren’t designed with a controller in mind. We don’t even know if the Shield will fit in your pocket: It looks rather chunky to me.
Sure, considering the Ouya (pictured right) and GameStick are on the horizon as well, game developers could begin creating worthwhile Android games with a controller in mind, but they would only do that if they knew it would be profitable – and that leads us to the catch-22 of trying to open up a new market. Developers generally won’t develop something if it won’t return any profit, so they need a large enough install base of gamers to buy their products. However, a large enough install base of gamers generally won’t adopt a console if there aren’t guaranteed products they want.
If you’re wondering why the Ouya and GameStick aren’t being judged the same way, that’s because they shouldn’t be judged the same way. They’re two crowdfunded, fairly simple (and thus cheap) indie projects. Though we haven’t heard mention of a price for the Shield yet, considering the hardware packed under (and above!) the hood, Nvidia will most likely have to eat a significant sum of money to price it competitively.
The dedicated Android gaming console is an awesome product in theory, but its success will ultimately boil down to what the success of all gaming consoles boils down to, and that’s the games. With Android games – so far, at least – you can get them across multiple devices, and some of those devices offer more functionality than a dedicated gaming unit would. If the Shield is to succeed, Nvidia needs to get some very juicy exclusives pretty sharpish, or else people will most likely continue playing Game Dev Story on their phone as they’ve been doing all along.
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