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Unconsole pioneer Mike Yuen on the challenges facing Ouya, Green Throttle, GameStick and Nvidia's Project Shield

Learning from Zeebo's failure
Unconsole pioneer Mike Yuen on the challenges facing Ouya, Green Throttle, GameStick and Nvidia's Project Shield

He's now back at Qualcomm as senior director of business development, but four years ago, Mike Yuen left to co-found Zeebo.

Based on the original Android G1 phone, this was an ambitious attempt to launch a cheap mobile-based games console for emerging markets such as Brazil, India, Mexico and China.

Ultimately it proved unsuccessful, but given the wave of hardware such as Nvidia's Project Shield, PlayJam's GameStick, Ouya and Green Throttle's Atlas controller - something I'm calling 'unconsoles' - we hooked up with Yuen to get his take on the current situation.

Pocket Gamer; What similarities do you think Zeebo has with respect to the current wave of devices such as Ouya, GameStick etc?

Mike Yuen: Zeebo was born from ideas originated within Qualcomm, a company with mobile in its DNA, and I think it shows just how far mobile has come.

To some extent I think it is an endorsement of the strategy and vision established with Zeebo - mobile technology can be used along with open platforms like Android as the basis for creating big screen (TV) experiences.

It's also enabled many new entrants when historically it was only a handful of very large companies (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony) that could attempt to do this.

Are you surprised about the consumer interest?

The high interest level from consumers and the industry shows that the app ecosystem holds great appeal and applicability beyond just mobile devices.

Android-based Ouya kickstarted the unconsole sector in 2012

It's early and we don't know what will happen, but no matter how you view it, there are attempts at market disruption underway in the game industry, and again, I believe mobile has a lot to do with sparking this current wave.

Zeebo was based around a mobile device, using its connectivity, plus physical controllers. Why do you think this concept wasn't successful in terms of proving a cheap games console for emerging markets?

Launching hardware is difficult. Launching hardware in emerging markets is even more difficult. We tried to provide not only games, but also an internet experience and later education services.

All of these things are important to the type of consumer we were targeting, some of whom didn't even own a PC. However it made for a much more complex offering to put together and manage across several aspects from content to browser to connectivity to retail distribution to marketing to even things like currency conversion.

The Android G1-based Zeebo unconsole was ahead of its time

Operating in multiple countries around the world was also inherently a tough thing to take on as a start up. Focus on one thing and doing it really well is the lesson learned.

Four years on, do you think the situation has changed radically?

Do I get any points for vision?

No, but seriously, I think the vision was right and still remains valid today, but perhaps we were ahead of our time. And I still do believe something will come from this, whether the time is right now with one of the devices that have been announced or new ones that will appear later.

The dots are all there, getting bigger, and better. It is just a matter of can someone successfully connect them all. And who knows, it may just end up being your smartphone or tablet with other things like the gamepad and TV connecting to it versus a dedicated piece of hardware. Time will tell.

What do you think are the key challenges for companies in this space?

Differentiation. They need to bring a substantially different gaming experience than what we already have with consoles, or mobile devices.

Today, the Snapdragon-powered phone in my pocket can play the same games, produce the same, console-quality graphics, shared wirelessly to the my HD TV using Miracast, connected to a Bluetooth controller, or recognise gestures, output 7.1 surround sound, and still go with me when I go out where I can continue to play, perhaps in new and different ways.

And for hardware to be successful you need to be able to scale.

So now everyone has a powerful mobile device in their pocket/bag, do you think that consoles (or console-like devices) actually matter?

Of course they still matter, but now they are not the 'only game in town' if you want to have high quality game experiences on a big screen with cutting-edge graphics, controllers, gestures, 7.1 surround sound, etc.

Today's consoles are great platforms for console games. The question we should be asking is what can mobile devices do that consoles cannot?

With always on broadband, more sensors than we have senses, and strong consumer affinity, today mobile devices have the potential to bring new game experiences that consoles never dreamed of. Mobile has also introduced new play patterns and business models into the game industry that are here to stay and that never existed before.

Does access to a big screen still matter? Does a physical controller matter?

Sure. When I want to play a game with my friends on the couch, the big screen is the way to go, so that we can all share in the experience. It's the same reason why people still go to movies. While home theater has come a long way, it still doesn't compare to seeing a movie at the theater.

Some gamepads designed to work with mobile devices

Controllers are a personal preference for some gamers. As a long-time gamer, there are great games out there that were built around and play best with a controller in your hands.

It's a powerful input device, and just because we innovate in human interface with gestures, touch, voice, etc., does not make the controller obsolete. It just opens up more possibilities and for more innovative ways to play and interact with games and content more broadly.

Isn't it also interesting that you see all of these new types of devices popping up that are built around the gamepad. This seems to be sub-consciously grounded in the belief that a controller is still what works best with a big screen (TV).

To me this is interesting because on one hand some of these devices seem to want to appeal to a little more casual gamer with mobile-like habits, yet they're relying upon a hard core gaming input device.

What I would like to also see happen and something I've spoken about many years ago is when will we see more true cross platform-designed games between say a small screen and big screen, or between a mobile experience and stationary living room experience.

Do you think the sub-$100 price points will encourage gamers to try out these 'unconsoles'?

In the past, new console purchases have almost always been driven by the purchase of a must-have, first party game, and the cost was not really much of a barrier for serious gamers (as opposed to more casual users.)

It is unclear at this point if there will be similar AAA drivers for this new class of devices, or if they will offer updated version of games we already have access to with our mobile devices.

GameStick - soon to be yours for $89

From a content perspective I personally don't think we're going to see an exact repeat of what is offered on console on these devices. Mobile has introduced new models and play patterns such as freemium, ad sponsored, micro-transactions, shorter sessions, social mechanics, etc. and these will all have a big influence in how the content ecosystem is formed, monetised, and consumed around these types of devices.

More specifically, the top grossing games are fairly simple gameplay-wise, but offer social, always-on short sessions,

What's your gut feeling about how mobile developers think about such devices and what's the most important thing required for them to support such devices?

For the mobile publisher or developer, I think it is good news. It means that their potential audience has been expanded beyond typical mobile devices with small screens like smartphone and tablets to the big screen (TV).

Also, they can potentially reach a market that has been traditionally dominated by the console publishers and developers. Many of these new devices are Android-based so that brings some commonality to the underlying OS and hardware.

CES' big surprise - Nvidia's Project Shield

However, what's important when supporting these devices is to not just run your smartphone or even tablet game as is on the big screen a game that plays well on a 4-inch or 9-inch touch screen is different than a game that plays well with a controller at 10-foot. Art assets need to be in HD (720p) too so they look sharp and polished on a TV.

You're a tech guy, so will you be buying Ouya, GameStick,  Atlas, Project Shield (company allegiance aside), or the next Xbox/PlayStation?

I would like to be able to say I would buy them all and back in the day it's something I probably would have done. But my gaming habits have changed now that I have an 8-year old son, and admittedly I'm getting older.

I pretty much play whatever my son plays with, and on, so I can spend more time with him. Hence, for now it's smartphone and tablet along with PlayStation 3 for anything Lego. Everything goes in cycles right, so when he gets older maybe I'll be back to some of the hardcore stuff again.

Thanks to Mike for his time.