Thursday, January 31, 2013

Console Wars: What is the Future of Crowdfunded Video Game Consoles?

Last week, Game Consoles Worldwide (GCW) successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign for their open source handheld video game system, the GCW Zero.  The campaign is over, but that's fine, because it isn't really what I want to talk about.  While the campaign was good, with some nice backer rewards - t-shirts, the device itself, a special developer level - the story isn't really that it got funded, but that it's only the latest in a series of open consoles taking the video game (and, specifically, crowdfunding) scene by storm.  OUYA was the darling of Kickstarter last year, earning 904% of its stated goal; GameStick, a portable USB console, is 590% funded with a little over a day left in its campaign; and the Zero finished 183% funded.  These consoles might not be the next big thing - from the looks of it, they're the current big thing.

For years we've seen entertainment become more and more of a grassroots effort.  Music can be recorded with increasingly professional equipment and programs and distributed through iTunes or Basecamp.  YouTube has become a platform for an entire generation of filmmakers and actors - and not just homemade videos, but animation and CGI as well.  Crowdfunding sites have made it easier than ever to make money.  Video games, then, have seemed to be the black sheep here.  Indie games have been around forever, but have mostly been relegated to programs playable on computers and have rarely penetrated the home console market, even as models like the Humble Bundle have taken off.  That's changed a little in recent years with things like the Xbox Live Arcade and mobile gaming, but this is the first time that we're seeing actual consoles spring up.

So what does this mean for the industry as a whole?  Right now, probably not too much.  You won't see OUYAs bumping Xboxes for shelf space, and I don't think Zeroes are on the verge of replacing Nintendo's latest handheld offering.  There are a few reasons for this.  First is simply scope, both physical and cultural.  Established systems dominate the market, and people will flock to known properties like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.  That's not to say that won't change - it almost certainly will as new competition enters the market - but not quite yet.  It's also a matter of if these two camps are even trying to reach the same audience.  None of these Kickstarted systems will meet the technical specs of what's already available, and they don't have the benefit of known series like Zelda or Halo.  It might be like trying to market an indie film to someone who only likes summer blockbuster movies: there may be some overlap but it could largely be two separate camps.  We might not ever see an OUYA on the same stage as a Playstation.  As the old saying goes, it's not bad, just different.

The biggest shift could be in the games that are made.  There will still be those triple-A titles, sure, but the success of games like Angry Birds has highlighted the real focus of games that can't be ignored: they should be fun, and they should be good.  No amount of fancy graphics and celebrity endorsement can cover up a bad game for long.  And while there are a lot of bad indie games - just like there are a lot of bad mainstream games - you also have your Angry Birds and Minecrafts and Cave Storys and Canabalts that get to the root of fun, addictive gameplay, engaging stories, clever hooks, and, yes, good graphics (that being as subjective as it is).  Many have crossed into the mainstream and are available to a wider audience.  As they become more readily available on consoles like the OUYA and Zero, for a fraction of the $60 cost of regular console games, the landscape of the video game industry could change drastically.

This, of course, is still some time away.  The crowdfunded systems aren't even available yet, and their impact will take even longer to show.  Still, it's something to think about.  The music and movie industries have gone through their own turmoil in the past thanks to similar scenarios, and they still live comfortably - if not as comfortably - with a burgeoning indie scene that's seeing itself lose many of the stigmas of amateurism and low-quality of the past.  At the very least something will happen, and it's fun to see it paly out from the very beginning.

Game on.

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