The thumb-sized console: GameStick hopes to compete against OUYA by focusing on convenience

The thumb-sized console: GameStick hopes to compete against OUYA by focusing on convenience

PlayJam’s GameStick could easily be seen as the latecomer to an Android console party. The product is trying to hop on the bandwagon while the coals are still hot, if you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor. After speaking with PlayJam’s CMO, Anthony Johnson, however, I’m cautiously optimistic; GameStick has a strong foundation to build on, and the rationale behind many of its design and business decisions is solid.

Potent portables

The GameStick, by its very existence, invites comparisons to the OUYA. Spec-wise it’s quite similar, and was announced soon after OUYA’s backers had received their dev units. Another Android-based home console? Another rootable system? And GameStick is being funded through Kickstarter? At $20 cheaper than the OUYA, it’s even targeting the same price range.

I asked Johnson what made the GameStick different and, with the flood of new game-playing devices hitting the market, why he thinks people would choose GameStick.

“What we’re trying to offer is a big-screen gaming experience. Obviously, people are used to playing 10 minutes of Angry Birds on their phone while commuting. The theory we’re working to is people who love playing these simple, affordable, casual games on their phone would very much enjoy that experience playing them on the biggest screen in the house,” Johnson told me. Sound familiar?

The real draw of the GameStick is its innovative design. The system exists inside an HDMI dongle, which is found inside the system’s controller when not in use. You simply plug the unit into a television, use the wireless controller, and you’re playing a game. There are no cables. Before the age of memory cards and cloud storage, did you ever take your NES, SNES, Genesis or other system to a friends’ place? What if you could have just grabbed one of those systems’ controllers, knowing you had everything you needed to play? That’s the convenience of GameStick.

“The portability aspect of it is two-fold,” Johnson said. “One is to avoid having yet another set-top box to put on the shelf underneath the TV and plug in at the back, but also to enable, you know, if you have a kid, you’re going around to their grandmother’s for the day, they’re able to take GameStick, with all their games, and sit and play that on another TV in another household.”

The question is, will people use it? Our games are in our pockets and on our phones. I asked Johnson why I would carry around the GameStick if I already have a phone or tablet. “We’re not directly comparing the ability to carry GameSticks to another TV and the ability to play a game on your phone at any given point,” he told me. “I think the two experiences are very different. One you’ve got a gamepad controller and a 10-foot experience, the other you’re hunched over a small screen on your mobile phone.”

Tested waters

Your TV must support MHL, in order for GameStick to function without an additional power supply. If the TV doesn’t support MHL, the GameStick plugs into the HDMI slot, but connects to, and is powered by, a USB port. Basic HDTVs which have HDMI but aren’t MHL-compatible and don’t have USB slots can still work with GameStick, though the system will need to be plugged into a socket like any other console.

The hardware supports WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, possesses 1 GB of DDR3 memory with 8 GB of flash storage, and utilizes an Amlogic 8726-MX dual-core processor. If nothing else, GameStick packs a lot into an incredibly tiny package. Remember, the controller is just the Bluetooth compatible input device; the guts of the machine are in the stick itself, which is barely larger than a thumbdrive.

We ran a story last week about the OUYA and developers’ reaction to the technical specifications, and came away with the impression that it should compare with top-shelf tablets such as the Nexus 10. Its processor, the Tegra 3 T33, is a quad-core processor. I asked Johnson, in light of the OUYA’s power, why the GameStick would utilize hardware that’s less powerful.

“We looked at this. There is no game in the Google Play store that cannot run as perfectly as was intended on Amlogic’s dual-core processor,” he said. “The reason for that is they’ve got a fantastic GPU integrated with that, which is the Mali 400 GPU.”

“We are working with quad-core chips. We tested a load of quad-core chips. We tested Samsung’s quad-core chip, which actually underperformed when compared with Amlogic’s chip, and it was quite a massive difference in loading times. Will we work with quad-core going down the road? Quite possibly, as soon as we’re able to get them running in the formats we want and the price we want, absolutely,” Johnson told the Report.

“We’re not concerned that we don’t have an overpowered chip in our device to date, because all of the testing we’ve done shows that all of the games, and some of the higher-end games too [play without problems].” Johnson gave the example of Shadowgun, a graphics-heavy third-person shooter, as a game which was “running absolutely perfectly” on GameStick reference boards.

Unfortunately, there is a trade-off. While GameStick may be fine for now, it will no doubt soon be out-classed and out-performed by tablets and smartphones. I wanted to know what Johnson and PlayJam were doing to ensure users weren’t going to be saddled with a device that would only be good for a year, if that. The answer is periodic upgrades to the GameStick’s hardware, which means periodic dipping into the wallet. Johnson didn’t seem too concerned, however.

“I think, realistically speaking, at $79, you’d expect users to upgrade – would be happy to upgrade their hardware on a relatively regular cycle, as they do their phone and pretty much every kind of hardware tech that they’ve got in the house,” he said. “I’m not sure what the cycle will be, but I think, at $79, you’re gonna have… I would say every couple of years, you’d probably want to upgrade to the next version. That’s what the assumption is at this end.”

Software is softcore

There have been many unexpected entries into the home console market lately. Some, like OUYA, want to break down the barriers between gamers and console. Others, like the Razer Edge, want to be an all-in-one gaming solution whether you want a tablet, handheld, or home console experience. What PlayJam and the GameStick must demonstrate, and indeed what every one of these prospective competitors should demonstrate, is a commitment to engaging software.

Some indie developers have stated that Android, due to its fragmented nature, is a “headache” they don’t want to deal with. These new Android-based consoles may bring in gamers, but they could also simply fragment the market further.

On the other hand, GameStick will be the least expensive option for TV-based Android gaming, the most portable, and will benefit from a large number of existing Android titles. It’s not all bad news. In fact, the GameStick may be even more convenient than the already-tiny OUYA, although we’ll have to wait to find out just how powerful the hardware is in practice. Imagine checking into a hotel, plugging the GameStick into the television, and playing your favorite Android games, or your favorite emulator.

If you think GameStick is worth funding, you can back their Kickstarter now.