As Microsoft and Sony gear up to release powerful next-gen gaming consoles that cost $500 and $400 respectively, a handful of companies are diving into the sub-$100 gaming space with Android-based "micro" game consoles.
Ouya and its hypersuccessful Kickstarter campaign, which raised $8.5 million, have gotten the most attention. But U.K.-based casual-gaming company PlayJam is getting set to ship its tiny, plug-and-play GameStick this July for $20 less than the $99 Ouya, which has been trickling out to customers who preordered it, but is still a little rough around the edges, particularly in terms of its interface. I recently got some hands-on time with the GameStick and wanted to pass on some first impressions.
Design and features
The package will include a game controller and an AC adapter to power the GameStick, which runs on an Amlogic 8726-MX processor (it's a dual-core, 1.5GHz Cortex A9 chip combined with a dual-core, 400MHz Mali 400 GPU). Other specs include 1GB of memory, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n for connectivity, 8GB of onboard flash storage, and a microSD expansion slot that accepts cards of up to 32GB. It runs Android Jelly Bean.
The GameStick looks like an enlarged thumbdrive and plugs directly into an open HDMI slot on your TV. If your TV supports MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link), then the GameStick will detect that automatically and draw power from the TV. If it doesn't, then you plug the power adapter into the Micro-USB port on the stick. Alternatively, if your TV has a USB port (and it's powered), you run the included cable to the Micro-USB port on the stick and power the unit that way.
The controller has a unique look and is flatter and more rectangular than most. It connects to the GameStick via Bluetooth. PlayJam Chief Marketing Officer Anthony Johnson says that any Bluetooth game controller should work with the system, so if you have an extra PS3 controller lying around, you can use it as a second controller, but I haven't tested that yet. PlayJam will also sell a controller as a separate accessory and the system currently supports four controllers connected at the same time. Another accessory, the $39.99 GameStick Dock, will serve as a charger for the game controller (as well as power the GameStick) and has an integrated Ethernet port and 3 USB ports.
The controller I used wasn't a final product and Johnson noted that the shipping controller would have a slot for storing the GameStick for transport. Ergonomically, the controller felt pretty good in hand and fairly solid, not cheap. It's not quite as good as a PS3 or Xbox 360 controller, but I'll reserve judgment until I get the final product.
I mainly looked at the gaming end of things, but Johnson said the GameStick would also have additional features, such as video playback through the XBMC media center (you could store files on a memory card), as well as a Netflix client, though it probably won't be available at launch. The company is open to having developers and hackers come up with custom software for the unit, and Johnson expects to see plenty of modded GameSticks in the future.
As far as the store goes, it's PlayJam's, not Google's, and will be populated with around 100 titles at launch, all of which offer game controller support (that seems obvious but just thought I'd make it clear). PlayJam is tiny compared with Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft, but it has built a large global platform for casual and social games for smart TVs, so it has the experience to build a well-designed store. The interface I saw looked pretty slick and inviting and PlayJam was still in the process of improving it. The question, of course, is whether the company can convince big game developers to tweak their Android games to support game controllers and make them part of the GameStick games roster.
I only played a few games -- Riptide, the FPS Shadowgun, and Expendable Rearmed, a 2D arcade shooter -- and all ran smoothly on a 1080p Panasonic TV. The water effects in Riptide looked as impressive as they do on a high-resolution tablet display. Johnson said the GameStick would ship with the aforementioned dual-core processor but PlayJam's engineers were looking at quad-core processors down the road. The larger Ouya uses a more powerful quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, but Johnson says the processor in the GameStick is capable of running all current Android games.
I had some fantasies about playing FIFA's soccer franchise using the GameStick controller (alas, FIFA is only available as FIFA 12 on Android), but as of now, the GameStick lineup doesn't seem incredibly exciting, though Johnson said that once the system is launched the company will be adding new games quickly. Also, two games are included for free with the system.
A world of potential
From the 30 minutes or so I spent with the GameStick, it appears to have a lot of potential. It's obviously very portable. And at $79, it's quite affordable. Just as importantly, games for it will be cheap, with prices mirroring those of Android smartphone and tablet games. Some of its success will hinge on whether the platform can avoid any glitches out of the gate and how fast it can add more premium games. It also doesn't hurt that GameStop is an investor, so it's got some retail presence here in the U.S.
That said, Ouya will soon become more widely available and other companies, such as Mad Catz, are entering the market with their own Android micro consoles (Mad Catz's system is called M.O.J.O.). Gamepop is taking preorders for its subscription-based Android mini gaming system and let's not forget the portable Android game consoles with built-in displays -- Wikipad and Nvidia's Shield.
All these upstarts talk a good game about making "open" platforms and wanting to appeal to indie developers. But what remains to be determined is which platform -- or platforms -- will break out and achieve critical mass. There's probably only room for a couple, though PlayJam's Johnson says the company would be perfectly happy to license its GameStick Gaming Network to any hardware manufacturer who wants it.
We'll have a full review of the GameStick once we receive the final product later this summer.