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When Will Mobile Devices Replace Gaming Consoles?

Gamers are typically divided into categories – the hardcore PC and console gamers, and the “casual” mobile gamers. Then we’re further divided into PC versus Console, Xbox versus PlayStation brand loyalty. That’s not to say that one can’t defy categorization and be a multi-platform gamer, but it’s how the gaming community is typically seen. What if we could scrap it all though? What if we could get our hands on a singular, mobile, universal platform with an open-source operating system, where the only developer limitation was hardware? This article will dive into exploring the deep end of this “what if” scenario.

 

PC and console gaming have had their lines drawn in the sand for years – PCs offer hardware upgradeability and the latest in cutting-edge graphics, whereas consoles offer plug-and-play simplicity. Hardcore PC gamers running overclocked I7 processors and dual GTX 1080s in SLI mode sneer down at console gamers. Strict console gamers, in their own defense, don’t have to muck around with hardware drivers and troubleshooting. There’s trade-offs between the two platforms, most rational people can agree.

 

Developing videogames for either platform can be a hassle though. Console game developers need to pay licensing fees to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo – though Microsoft has taken steps to make the Xbox One more development friendly, and Sony has reportedly been giving away SDKs like candy. PC game developers face a similar hurdle, needing to share revenue with Steam if they want to be published there. This isn’t a criticism of the industry, and PC game developers can always choose to self-publish – but the point remains that certain hurdles exist between developers and their audience.

 

Amidst all this, mobile gaming is seen as a casual thing – good for Google Play titles and browser games developed in Java and HTML5, but smartphones are certainly no match for PCs or dedicated consoles in terms of hardware power. The landscape is slowly beginning to change, however. Chinese smartphone developer Huawei released the Huawei P10 in March 2017, which touts a 2.4 GHz Cortex-A73 octa-core processor and 4GB of RAM. Furthermore it packs the 850MHz-frequency Mali-G71 MP8 GPU, touted as “ARM’s most powerful, scalable, and efficient GPU to date” – it’s even capable of handling 16x MSAA. Smartphone developers have realized that the race to VR gaming has begun.

 

So when we take into consideration that a slew of smartphones packing up to 8GB of RAM are set for release in 2017, it’s hard not to imagine what the standard hardware specs for smartphones will be by the year 2020. In fact, ARM reported that they will build mobile GPUs that will outperform the PS4 and Xbox One by the end of 2017 – a claim disputed by ExtremeTech, but it shows the competitive seriousness of mobile hardware developers.

 

Back in 2013, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for “Project Ouya” – an Android-based, portable microconsole that promised a completely open-source console experience for developers and gamers alike. Their Kickstarter campaign FAQ declared “”any developer can publish a game – if you’ve got a game, you can put it on OUYA”, and that hackers can “root it. Go ahead. Your warranty is safe. Even the hardware is hackable.” The actual product received a lukewarm response from critics, however, and only sold a reported 7,000 units. The bright side for the manufacturers was that it was bought out by Razer, as part of their plans to focus on Forge TV, Razer’s own Android-based console.

 

To add to this mix of Android-based microconsoles, Nvidia’s SHIELD Android TV received highly favorable reviews earlier this year. The Shield seeks to bridge the gap between PC and living room gaming, by streaming your PC games to your TV – but it also has Google Play accessibility, being an Android-based device.

 

Thus, what we’re witnessing is the bridge gap between PC, console, and mobile gaming becoming so increasingly narrowed, it’s hard not to imagine console execs shaking in their boots a little. Sony, for example, tried to respond to the microconsole race in 2013 with the PlayStation TV, yet only sold around 42,000 units, and stopped shipping them to western markets entirely in 2016. It’s no surprise, as the PlayStation TV’s main “selling point” was being able to stream PS Vita games to your television.

 

What the console giants are going to face in the future is the limitations of their game libraries – the PlayStation TV attempted to bank on streaming the PS Vita’s game catalogue to your TV, for example, but how would it compete against a constantly growing open-source library? What’s the point of a microconsole that can only play Sony exclusive titles already available on Sony’s other consoles, when Android-based microconsoles are going to offer much deeper catalogues? With an Android-based microconsole, you could stream PC Steam titles to your TV off your PC, download the latest Google Play titles, watch Netflix in 4K resolution, or play browser-based casual games like Uno Online. Of course there’s brand recognition to consider, but what about

when AAA game developers start jumping ship?

 

If any criticism can be made about Android-based microconsoles, it can likely be made about that very open-source nature that is touted as their driving force. Outside of development communities, “open-source” is still very much considered a dirty word. The idea of a gaming device that can be “developed for or modded” by literally anybody has niche appeal written all over it in big black marker. When average people have a problem with their Windows operating system, they go to Microsoft for help. When not-average people have a problem with a Linux operating system, they go to DIY troubleshooting sites like HowToGeek or Appuals. Not-average people wouldn’t have open-source OS problems to begin with, catch my drift?

 

Thus we need to ask some very serious questions about the future of open-source microconsoles. The number one weakness I personally see is the open-source nature of it all – and I’m a huge fan of open-source projects. This Kotaku article asked some similar questions of Project Ouya, pointing out that an open-source, hackable gaming console will be a software pirate’s dream come true. What I’d like to add to the questioning table is virus and malware containment. Despite Google’s best efforts, malicious apps continue to crop up all the time. In fact, TheHackerNews reported on April 25th, 2017 that 2 million Android devices have been infected by malware via apps downloaded straight from Google Play Store.

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