Marmalade's Tim Closs asks: Who will deliver games to the living room?
The revolution will be televised
Tim Closs is CTO of Marmalade, whose products help developers build and distribute cross-platform mobile products.
Up until now, gaming in the living room has been about plugging your console - or before that, your home computer - into the TV set.
The TV itself was a dumb screen, and your gaming experience was dictated by your console and the size of your CD-ROM, cartridge or cassette library.
The past 12 months, however, have seen a major disruption to this environment, with several new gaming mechanisms now vying for the coveted TV screen. Marketeers and digital agencies refer to the living room as a "lean-back environment", where users spend far longer consuming their entertainment.
As a result, the TV screen has become a highly sought-after destination for all players in the games industry.
So what are these new mechanisms, and which ones will win out?
There are 4 contenders:
In order to deliver on all of this, under the bonnet the smart TV is looking more and more like any other embedded computing device - in fact the chipsets inside smart TVs are pretty much identical to those now found in high-end smartphones, including multi-core GPUs.
The software stacks are almost all Linux-based, either vendor-proprietary distributions or Android.
The main players in the smart TV space are the incumbent TV manufacturers: Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic.
Most of these are forging their own path, some are licensing the Android-based Google TV, and some are hedging their bets and doing both.
Their key advantage is existing brand value and supply chains: Samsung and LG each ship over 20 million TVs every year.
Perhaps the key disadvantage is the glacial speed at which consumers are prepared to upgrade their TV screens: at 5-7 years, it's arguably even longer than that for game consoles.
This has led at least one manufacturer, Samsung, creating a plug-and-play Smart TV base station that can be upgraded over time with relatively cheap extension modules.
STBs are like the cheeky younger brother of Smart TVs.
They basically pack all of the same hardware and software goodness into a much smaller and cheaper box, by removing the screen. This box can then be plugged into the HDMI input of any screen.
The STB approach makes a lot of sense: at around one quarter of the price of a Smart TV - say $99 compared to $399 - you can get all of the same functionality.
You can move it between screens in your house - say from the living room to the kids’ bedroom, and you can even load it up with games and take it round to your mate's house.
The price is low enough for consumers to take a punt regardless of their reticence to upgrade the bulky TV screen itself.
Of course, for $99 you're not going to get the same horsepower as a high-end console - you won't be playing Modern Warfare 3 on a STB this side of Christmas – but STBs are easily powerful enough to drive most if not all the games you’re currently playing on your smartphone or tablet, and at HD resolution.
Perhaps the most notable STB right now is Apple TV: a $99 box that currently does pretty much everything except play games, and also connects nicely to your iPhone or iPad.
There is fevered expectation for the next evolution of Apple TV, with many people speculating that the next model will be a full TV set with screen. However, this would be risky strategy for Apple, which can arguably reach a wider demographic more quickly by staying outside of the consumer screen replacement cycle.
Other players in the STB space include Roku (shipped over 2.5m boxes in the US, and were actually outselling Apple TV at the end of 2011) and the Freebox (which amongst other things run’s TransGaming’s GameTree TV service).
Game streaming services
Just as STBs provide agility and reduce initial cost by ditching the screen, streaming services go one step further and ditch the hardware entirely, being pure software services that can exist on any connected and suitably powerful device.
The heavy lifting is done on the server side, and the success of these services relies on their ability to monitor geographic density of IP traffic and physically locate servers to match demand, thus ensuring that round-trips meet the critical low-latency requirements.
Game streaming is in some ways the holy grail of game provisioning: not tied to a specific hardware environment, not tied to a specific software platform (primarily requiring only the ability to rapidly decompress video), not requiring an up-front investment by the user, zero download and install times, the ability to jump immediately into a multiplayer game you only came across 30 seconds ago…the list goes on.
The challenge for these services in reaching the TV screen will be finding a business model that works with the TV or STB providers, who ultimately hold the hardware and software keys to running the service.
If these manufacturers have no competing game delivery ambitions, things look rosy, otherwise there could be considerable friction.
The key solutions currently are Gaikai - which recently announced a deal with LG to bring their service to LG’s Smart TVs - and OnLive, which currently relies on an £70 mini-STB in order to provide their service to TV screens).
Finally there are the good old game consoles.
Over the past couple of years, gaming on these boxes has become more and more of a niche activity, compared with the huge growth of gaming on other platforms and in other demographics.
The manufacturers - Sony and Microsoft in particular - have tried to sidestep this with initiatives to extend the consoles' utility into more of a home media hub, delivering music, video and other connected services.
The success of these initiatives is far from assured, with so much competition from alternative cheaper mechanisms.
Sony is particularly conflicted with its position as a leading TV manufacturer, looking to embrace the smart TV concept and deliver much of the same media functionality as the PlayStation.
It seems inevitable that the role, if not the popularity, of the "traditional" game console will change significantly over the next two to three years.
A key issue that all of these solutions must address is that of the game controller.
The incumbent game consoles have this pretty much nailed with the existing dual-stick and motion controllers. Streaming services either ship their own controllers, like OnLive, or provide compatibility with standard PC and console controllers, such as Gaikai.
Smart TVs and STBs will need to provide all consumers with a suitable controller in order to deliver a good gaming experience.
Providers like Roku already recognise this, and their $99 box ships with a Wiimote-style controller that works really well.
LG has its 'Magic Motion Controller' which is a step in the right direction but will hopefully evolve. Samsung are well behind the curve, shipping a standard digital button controller even with their current high-end sets, therefore severely limiting the gaming experience.
So what should we focus on?
The combined weight of Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic is putting a huge amount of momentum behind the smart TV concept.
That's why Marmalade is starting to support smart TV platforms, beginning with LG. There's a natural path for single-touch and accelerometer-based mobile games to reach smart TV, and we’re trying to make that as easy as possible for developers.
Game streaming services still need a smart TV or STB to run on. Sure, you could connect a screen to your tablet or laptop, but that’s a long way from being standard consumer behaviour – I recall Nokia evangelising this approach in 2006 for the N95. And if you’re going to buy a smart TV or STB, you'll likely already get some sort of gaming service.
A separate streaming service will bring many benefits but will likely still be the underdog.
STBs are arguably the most logical choice for the consumer, but the challenge for manufacturers will be distribution and brand awareness next to the smart TV guys.
Of course, if Apple TV sticks with the STB approach, Apple could well end up monopolising this segment.
One thing's for sure – it's another space where there will be plenty of opportunities but plenty of fragmentation. Game developers will need to spread their bets and have content that can move with agility across platforms.
For more information about Marmalade, check out its website.
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| 16:51 - 29 February 2012
The Roku is the platform I'm interested in as it has the ability to create private channels with no restrictions.
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