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Can Android consoles Ouya, Project Shield challenge PlayStation, Xbox?

By and Matthew Reynolds
nVidia's Jen-Hsun Huang introduces the Project Shield handheld console at CES 2013

© nVidia


The next console generation officially began when Nintendo pulled the wrapping off its Wii U system late last year. Microsoft and Sony have also been tipped to unveil new hardware in 2013, but a surprise challenger to their empires has emerged in the shape of Google's Android platform.

If the success of mobile phone gaming has taught us one thing, it's that not all gamers are concerned about cutting-edge technology and blockbuster production values, as there's a thriving market for plug-and-play titles.

With an influx of Android gaming hardware about to arrive on the scene, Digital Spy offers a run-down of the main contenders and assesses their chances of success in the new console generation, and how the industry - and consumers - will approach them.

The contenders: OUYA

OUYA is arguably the most anticipated piece of Android gaming hardware on the horizon. Running Google's Jelly Bean operating system, the platform runs off a Tegra 3 quad-core processor with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, making it roughly comparable to the Nexus 7 tablet in terms of raw power.

OUYA

© OUYA

OUYA

© OUYA



Endorsed by some high-profile tech industry figures, including Jambox maker Yves Behar and Xbox co-creator Ed Fries, the hackable home console caused a stir on crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter when it launched its funding campaign last year, so pre-release hype is in no short supply.

The HD-enabled OUYA will not include access to the Google Play store, meaning developer backing is an area of uncertainty. However, it will play host to the OnLive cloud gaming service and feature exclusive software, such as a fully-optimised version of Final Fantasy III and a prequel to Human Element.

With specs not dissimilar to a 7-inch tablet, OUYA's hardware is sure to look modest alongside Sony and Microsoft's next generation offerings, but with a price tag of just £99, it will be more than capable of taking a sizeable chunk out of their casual fanbases should developer support prove strong.

A follow-up OUYA system offering stereoscopic gaming on compatible television sets is also rumoured to be in the works, so who knows what future iterations of this console could become?



eSfere

The team behind OUYA could have some serious competition on their hands should the eSfere meet its funding target on indiegogo. This Android-based home console boasts superior specs, with its Nvidia Tegra 3 quadcore processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, and features a customisable touchscreen controller not unlike the Wii U GamePad.

eSfere Android gaming console


eSfere also has the edge on the software front, at least in terms of quantity, as Google Play support has been confirmed. It will also come with the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system on board.

The console's aesthetic design is its most unique feature. This is the first piece of video gaming hardware we've ever come across that can double as a living room item, such as a vase or sculpture.

While eSfere would be a worth adversary for the OUYA, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the project will meet its funding goal on indiegogo. At the time of writing, the console has raised $2,404 of its $390,000 goal and has until January 21 to make up the rest. Perhaps the masterminds behind it should try their luck on Kickstarter?



Nvidia Project Shield

It isn't just the home console sector that has been affected by the Android invasion. PC hardware manufacturer Nvidia turned heads at CES 2013 with the announcement of a handheld system running the Google operating system, dubbed Project Shield.

nVidia Project Shield handheld Android console

© nVidia



The device, set inside a dual-analogue stick controller, boasts a five-inch 720p touchscreen and runs off a Tegra 4 chip with enough clout to run next-generation graphics engine Unreal Engine 4.

With impressive specs on its side, high-calibre exclusive software is a real possibility, but users won't be short of variety at launch since Project Shield supports Google Play and is capable of streaming PC games.

For those who want more than gaming out of their handheld device, Project Shield comes with the standard Android media capabilities, including music playback and support for Netflix and Hulu. The device also links up to a television screen by HDMI and and can play ultra-high definition videos on a 4K display.

With a vast array of software on its side through the Android storefront and some impressive technology under the hood, Project Shield might just be enough of a force to cause Sony and Nintendo some problems in the handheld sector.


GameStick

PlayJam's GameStick is another Kickstarter phenomenon, reaching its funding target of $100,000 within two days. The company has essentially placed a fully-fledged gaming console inside a flash drive that plugs directly into television sets.

GameStick


Running off a Amlogic 8726-MX processor and Android Jelly Bean, the system connects with a specially-designed Bluetooth controller and runs select Android gaming titles that have been optimised to run on a larger screen.

There are around 200 games optimised to run on the GameStick as things stand, and more are being added all the time. A range of content partners, including Relentless Software, First Star Software and Disney, will provide titles for its purpose-built game store.

PlayJam's ethos was not only to create the world's most transportable home console, but also the most affordable. With a launch price of just $79, this might just be the best value-for-money console ever released.



Can Android be a serious challenger to the console space?

The Google operating system has revolutionised the mobile phone and tablet sectors, but how will it fare in the console space?

Home console hardware such as OUYA and GameStick are unlikely to measure up to next-generation machines from Sony and Nintendo, but their bargain-basement price points will help establish them as viable alternatives, and the creative freedom associated with Android will attract developers to them in droves.

OnLive comes to OUYA

© OUYA



Pricing is also an interesting factor, where mobile games are traditionally priced far lower than consoles. While boxed games sold at retail are obviously far higher, even downloadable titles on services such as Xbox Live and PSN can be eight to ten times the cost of a 69p / $1 app. The fact that these products rely exclusively on downloads also means there is no need to appease retail partners with uncompetitive digital prices.

Will we see games at a similar price? Time will tell, but the opportunity to buy games under £5 and have it playable on a TV is an attractive proposition.

Of course through all this, a key factor is the games themselves, which are the driving force behind the success of any system; look at Halo in establishing the Xbox in the console race, for example.

The portable factor of mobiles have led to shorter, simpler experiences, while touch-screens have meant precise-controlling genres such as shooters and platformers (outside of the successful one-tap endless runner space) have had limited success.



The introduction of a physical controller could easily permit shooters and precise action games. But will Android consoles just provide simple games like Angry Birds or can they also offer larger, more cinematic experiences similar to, say, Skyrim or Call of Duty, which are an attraction to playing games on a sofa?

That's not to say established franchises don't have a presence; while indie developers are showing a key interest, publishers such as EA are finding success on the platform with the likes of Need for Speed and FIFA selling big numbers.

If they can support Android consoles with these franchises, their large screen presence and addition of a controller might see players who regularly consume these franchises on costly consoles shift to cheaper alternatives.

Angry Birds Space

© Rovio Mobile

Fifa 13 for Wii U (screenshots)

© EA



There's a lot of challenges and barriers, and so, on the face of it, the Android platform is unlikely to mount a serious challenge to either Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft, but establishing itself as a fourth pillar is by no means out of the question.

However, look at iOS; five years ago; cheap, accessible and portable gaming like this was unthinkable, and now it's a dominant force in the industry that's drawing consumers and developers alike away from consoles.

What's to say that Android consoles can't do the same thing?

Are you interested in any of the upcoming Android gaming consoles? Post a comment below!

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