Nvidia unveils portable Android console Project SHIELD, fragmenting Android consoles further

Nvidia unveils portable Android console Project SHIELD, fragmenting Android consoles further

The gaming industry has seen a run of Android-based consoles lately. The OUYA made waves thanks to its successful Kickstarter and the idea of taking Android gaming from tablets and phones and bringing it to a more console-like experience. The Android-based GameStick has also been successfully funded, and shares many of the same ideas as the OUYA. Now, in a surprising twist, Nvidia itself joins the fun with an Android-based portable gaming device called Project SHIELD. It’s based on the just-announced Tegra 4 chipset, and comes with a variety of interesting features.

The system looks like someone bolted a screen onto a standard console controller, complete with dual analog sticks, a digital d-pad, and all the expected buttons. You’ll be able to buy and play games optimized for the system through Nvidia’s TegraZone app store. The system is running Jelly Bean, but according to Engadget that may change before launch. It’s likely the system will be running the latest available version of Android before it ships. The hardware features a micro SD slot, HDMI output, and one micro USB port.

The world of streaming

While a portable Android system with a 5 inch, 720p “retinal” multi-touch display and a full controller is big enough news, Project SHIELD will also be able to stream games from your existing PC running Steam, and then display the game on your television to be played using the system’s controller.

“To work, users need an Nvidia Kepler-based graphics card (GTX 650 or GTX 660M or higher), which utilizes a piece of software in GeForce Experience,” the Verge reported. “Games streamed to the device must also support controller input, though Nvidia says some games without controller support can be played by mapping control buttons to the SHIELD’s inputs.”

It took a few tries to get the streaming technology to work during the demo at the press event, but the assembled press and industry folks were able to see Assassin’s Creed 3 streaming to a television, through a PC, being played using the SHIELD as a controller. It’s a convoluted set up, but there is much appeal to the idea of sitting in bed, playing your favorite PC games from your Steam library on a portable device. Of course, losing the mouse and keyboard won’t sit well with most fans of PC gaming.

The world has been fragmented once again

While the OUYA is banking on the idea there is a market for an Android console that hooks up to your television, the market is already getting crowded. The GameStick, an Android console made up of a dongle that attaches to the HDMI input of your television and is played with an included controller, has already reached its funding goal through Kickstarter. Project SHIELD will be a more powerful version of an Android console thanks to the Tegra 4 chip, and the ability to sell games optimized for the system through the existing TegraZone store gives it a leg up.

The problem is that no one knows if there is a market for Android-based console devices at all, much less three of them. The OUYA hoped to fight Android fragmentation, but now developers who are interested in controller-based Android games are dealing with an already fragmented market. Do you release your game on the OUYA’s store, with the requirement that part of your game must be free to try? Do you hedge your bets and try to figure out how to sell your game for the GameStick? Or do you aim your game at the upcoming Tegra 4 devices, including controller support for the SHIELD?

“Project SHIELD was created with the philosophy that gaming should be open and flexible,” Nvidia said in a statement, but to date the most popular ways to play games are closed. Steam all be controls the PC gaming market, the interest in the OUYA is dwarfed by the sales of more mainstream, and expensive, consoles, and iOS development continues to be more popular, and profitable, than Android development. There are now a variety of gaming devices that will play Android games on your television or as a portable device, but who among us ever asked for that? What games will drive the sales of these devices?

Android has always been a difficult market for games and, while these devices add more choice for gamers, they also add complexity and fragmentation to an already strained ecosystem. Even worse is the fact that there is little evidence that mainstream gamers are interested in playing Android games on their television, or in lieu of their other portable gaming options. In a world where almost everyone already has an Android or iOS phone or tablet, it’s going to be hard to sell people on the idea that they need one more device to carry with them in order to play Android games.

The ability to stream Steam games using the SHIELD is certainly attractive, but gamers with older video cards, or non-Nvidia cards, are out of luck. This isn’t a universal gaming device, and it doesn’t stand alone when playing these games; you’re required to already own a speedy, Nvidia-based gaming PC to see the benefits of streaming games.

The wild card is price, which is currently unknown. At $200 this becomes an interesting experiment. At $400 or more it’s dead on arrival. Nvidia is certainly trying something new, and in many ways this is an exciting product, but it’s a risky move in an oddly crowded, emerging segment of game consoles.

Disclosure: while I’m skeptical about the SHIELD’s chances from a business perspective, I’m going to buy the hell out of one if it’s released for under $400.