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Consoles are dead - long live the unconsole, says Danke Games' Fraser MacInnes

Consoles are dead - long live the unconsole, says Danke Games' Fraser MacInnes
Fraser MacInnes is a mobile games industry professional who cut his teeth writing for Pocket Gamer.

He's now working for Danke Games, a new gaming start up based in the heart of the Black Forest in Germany.


Indulge me a brief reverie, if you will.

My first gig 'in the industry' was as a scribe for Steel Media - the company behind this very website - way back in the pre-iPhone world of 2006.

Smartphones were not a mass-market device back then and mobile was a footnote in gaming, hamstrung by draconian network control of content and imbued with the sort of processing power that today's digital watches would scoff themselves insensible at.

It was a niche market, and when I enthusiastically bragged about having found some loonies to let me write about mobile games in exchange for money, I drew concerned looks from friends and family.

Seven years later, mobile phones, mobile technology and mobile games are shaping the future of the games industry at large – a feat that most people of 2006, would have considered less likely than an invasion of robotic llamas from Venus.

Hands up if your mum plays Angry Birds? I thought so…

The journey to the unconsole

There's no clearer example of the journey mobile has made over the last seven years than the arrival of the new device category known on these pages as the 'unconsole'.

The term was coined by PocketGamer.biz's Jon Jordan, and we all know the main entrants by now - the Ouya, the GameStick and Nvidia's Project Shield.

All of them offer a simple proposition – Android games, on your TV, with a proper twin stick controller. Both the Ouya and GameStick go one further with their value proposition by suffixing 'for under 100 dollars' to that formula.

Disruptive publishing

But it's not the fact that all these so-called unconsoles run a mobile OS that make them a yardstick for how far mobile has come.

The thing that really illustrates mobile gaming's ongoing impact is how unconsoles have the potential to disrupt the console games publishing business in a big way.

The neutron bomb that was the iPhone – and aftershocks of the App Store and then Android – have given rise to a digital-only publishing model for mobile games that makes the stringent and protracted route to getting software onto a traditional console look Odyssean by comparison.

Using the smartphone publishing model that has driven such explosive growth in the mobile gaming sector to give developers mainline access to the most coveted screen real estate in the business is enormously clever.

These little unconsole gizmos do more than just broaden the scope for smaller developers and publishers though (assuming a decent collective installed base amasses itself).

The other, arguably even more important change that the unconsole could bring about is in how we view the lifecycle of hardware and the technology trajectory of any given platform.

Hardware trajectory

At less than 100 dollars, the Ouya and the GameStick are impulse purchases for a large cross section of gamers.

The Xbox 360, released in 2005, still hasn't entered that price bracket, unless you take up some exotic bundle.

That's eight year old technology sitting under your TV and if you bought it recently, you probably paid 200 bucks or more for it. And don't even get me started on the price of a PS3.

So imagine a console where the hardware is refreshed and given a spec bump every twelve to eighteen months.

If you were being asked to pay 300-400 dollars for that box (as is the going rate for new consoles), you'd probably scream blue murder at your local retailer and cause an embarrassing scene. If you were asked to pay 70-100 bucks, you may well react very differently.

After all, look how far the iPad has come in three short years technology-wise. Imagine if that device cost a quarter of what it does and served all your big TV entertainment needs.

How long would it be before that technology trajectory first matches and then outpaces the traditional under the TV consoles, during their eight to ten year lifecycles?

Do the sums add up?

Thrashing and clamoring out of the bog of my reverie and back into the chilly unforgiving now of January 2013, I find myself working for a start-up in the games publishing space, with mobile and its related technologies very much in view.

Though it's not necessarily fun to live quite so relentlessly in the real world, like most other small companies, Danke Games has to be careful about balancing what is exciting against what already has significant market proof.

On those scales, plunging operating capital first into a pool that may not be the rising tide of consumers that the buzz suggests, risks any small developer publisher getting a nasty bump on the head.

The potential for the unconsole to be a disruptive power for the games industry at large is certainly very exciting, but for now the GameStick and its bretheren remain a tantalising prospect that prudent, small developer/publishers in the mobile/tablet/web space will be shy to take a risk on – at least until the sums make sense.

Even so, I wonder how many of those developers and publishers even existed in 2006?
You can follow Fraser's industry commentary on his blog, or else grab bite-size rants via Twitter.

Generous people who've shared their wisdom with Pocket Gamer

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Fraser Ross MacInnes Product Director at iQU
I think that the whole invisible hardware thing is a good route and I do think we're headed that way, though the magic gel that binds all the different platforms together is still a bit complex for the average consumer. Not everyone who buys a Raspberry Pi, a GameStick or an OUYA is going to do things like install XMBC on it so they can airplay games and shows from an iPad.

As for a Sony or MS unconsole, I'd love to see it happen, but hitting that crucial price point and leaving the doors for developers as wide open as Android does seems unlikely. Stranger things have happened I suppose. Apple already has an unconsole in waiting with the Apple TV which is already on shop shelves for 99 bucks. Open that up to devs, launch an official twin stick controller for it and Robert's your father's brother...
jon jordan
In general, I agree, but marketing could also play a big part. Consider the mass market appeal of a Sony or Microsoft unconsole...
Phil Maxey
It's not going to be long before the hardware is invisible. Whatever game we want to play will be expected to run, just by turning on your TV or mobile device. I think that's what we are heading towards. It's all going to be about who has the biggest app store, and nothing else.
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