Ouya and Steam Box: More Consoles Are Not What We Need

I’ve been putting this post off for quite a while, mainly because I really wanted to pretend that the Ouya would fail in the development process and Valve’s arrogant Steam Box would never see the light of day. Well both are officially coming with the Ouya launching in March and the unofficial Piston Steam Box coming in the Fall. As such, I’m finally confronted with the fact that there will soon be five consoles on the market, and, thus I have to discuss the pros and cons of each. The Ouya is the little Kickstarter project that could. Personally, I’m not a supporter of the Kickstarter push in gaming, but you can’t deny that getting a full console out is pretty impressive. The Steam Box is Valve’s entry into the console race, because the company decided that it couldn’t work within the current console framework, and, instead of going back to PC development, decided that making a totally new console was in order. Do note that the Piston, which is the first Steam Box coming out is not made by Valve, but it is connected with them; how much Valve is involved is classified at this point. As you can tell by my tone and the title of today’s post, I am not in favour of either console, but I will try to remain as unbiased as I can in discussing them instead of simply slinging vitriol, which wouldn’t help anyone.

As everyone knows, tiny consoles are better.
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Firstly, let’s look at the current console climate. For most of console gaming there have been between two and three consoles. Most of the time when there were three consoles, one of them died a miserable death, like what happened with the Sega Saturn. Until the last generation, there simply wasn’t a big enough market to support so many systems. Now we have Nintendo, who does its own thing, relying strongly on its first parties; Sony, who’s running the cutting edge (For consoles) power gamut; and Microsoft, who’s in pretty much the same boat as Sony; although with a less impressive list of exclusives. Sony and Microsoft’s consoles are pretty much the same, and only a handful of exclusives differentiate the two. Thus, this generation has seen the rise of multiplatform games as the primary type game developed. That way both consoles can co-exist without forcing developers to cut their sales in half. This is key because otherwise, developers would have to bet everything on a single console, and not betting on the winner would be a major detriment. This is why many console cycles have had clear winners (Ex: the PS2), and those that don’t end up with two or more extremely distinct systems based on the games developed for them (Ex: the SNES and Genesis). Now, the only thing separating the primary consoles is a smattering of minor features and exclusives.

This is what’s pictured in the dictionary under domination.
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The instant problem with introducing a new console is that there simply isn’t a big enough market for more. Console development is costly, so costly that console developers have a hard time turning a final profit on their hardware. I, personally, don’t think that it’s a smart idea to enter the console race at all for the company who’s entering, but the dangers to the industry are much greater. With every new successful console, the market share that each console has grows smaller, making them increasingly less profitable. Let’s say Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have 33% of the market each. Then let’s say the Ouya is strong in sales and matches each of their market shares. This will reduce everyone’s share to 25%. Then when the Steam Box comes in, each will end up with a mere 20% each. Of course these numbers are simply an example, but the principal behind them is important. Each new console makes all of the consoles less profitable, and the console market is already one that is hard to find profit in. The video game industry is bigger than it ever has been, but it still cannot support a huge number of new consoles. This is even ignoring the huge spending power that Sony, Microsoft, and, to a lesser extent, Nintendo have, that they’ll use to push out newcomers. Sony’s attack on and destruction of the poor Dreamcast is well known, and there’s no reason to think that such a thing can’t happen again.

I’d say rest in piece, but if any console is going to be a murderous spirit, it’s the Dreamcast.
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From a consumer standpoint, each new console means one important thing: a whole new slew of exclusives. In a world where the major distinguishing aspect of consoles is the exclusives they are able to obtain, each new console means that fewer gamers are able to play the games they want. Sure most games will be multiplatform, but any console that wants to stand out will be courting exclusives, otherwise, why would anyone waste their time on it. For example, if the PS4 can play every single game that the Piston can play, but also Uncharted, Ratchet and Clank, Metal Gear Solid, etc. Why would anyone buy the Piston? No, the only way to be competitive is to have exclusives all around, meaning that a gamer would have to own an increasing number of systems if they want to play everything. At this point, owning all consoles is a significant financial hardship for most people. Imagine how much worse it would get with five or more consoles. Having more than one console on the market is a good thing, because it encourages competition, thus lower prices and better features and games. However, there is a point where more consoles isn’t going to provide a benefit, but instead is harmful to the industry.

Let’s face facts, without it’s first parties, Nintendo would’ve died back at the N64
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Let’s look at the Ouya first, because it is, truthfully, the more well thought out of the two. The Ouya is an underpowered, android console that will launch for $100. The big selling point of the Ouya is its cheap price point, and its homebrewable nature. There are some big games coming to the system such as Minecraft, but, otherwise, nothing spectacular game-wise. The Ouya has a chance, albeit a tiny one, to capture a new market and not interfere with the traditional console market in a similar way mobile phone games do now. That being said, I have yet to see a single good reason as to why you’d want one.  At best it’s inoffensive, but considering PS3s and 360s can be bought for a similar price and both of those systems are at least as powerful and have huge libraries of games, I don’t see why anyone would bother. That’s not even mentioning the Ouya’s worst feature, which is that the developers intend to release a new one each year. This is bad for consumers and developers. For consumers, either they’ll have to upgrade each year in order to play up to date games, or that each update will be inconsequential and a general waste of money. For developers, this either means that they’ll have to develop for an increasingly smaller userbase as not everyone is going to upgrade, they’ll only develop for the earlier models, or they’ll develop for other consoles/phones and port over whatever slop they see fit. No console should be based entirely on ports, so I’m hoping the Ouya team isn’t relying on this.

Above: The Ouya minus the 360 attachment.
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The Steam Box, or simply the Piston is so terrible an idea that I can only imagine that it’s part of some elaborate conspiracy Valve thought up to damage the console market so more people will buy PCs. The basic premise is that it’s the exact same thing as the PS4 and Xbox successor, but instead of the PSN or Xbox Live Arcade, it would have Valve’s Steam. Valve will not confirm their exact involvement with the Piston. My bet is they’re using it as a sort of sacrificial lamb in order to test the waters for whatever they’ll put out themselves. As it stands, the Piston is set to directly encroach on the traditional console market, unlike the far more passive Ouya. At least that’s the only market that makes sense for the Piston and, by extension, the Steam Box to target. Strict PC gamers don’t want consoles, and a slightly more flexible system isn’t going to pull them off their rigs. At the same time, targeting the console market doesn’t make a ton of sense either. Simplicity and accessibility is the name of the game for the console market so any flexibility in hardware is wasted. If the only thing the Steam Box/Piston brings is a different distribution network, I don’t see any reason for it to exist.

Sure it looks like the Ouya, but this one comes in at 10 times the cost.
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However, unlike the Ouya, which has a chance, the Piston is destined to fail miserably. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. It will be launching against the PS4, so the competition is huge. It won’t have Valve’s full support, so no killer Half Life 3, or anything similar. Finally, it’s going to be coming out at a $1000 price point. The PS3 almost killed itself at $600 and Sony was coming off the PS2, one of the most successful consoles of all time. The Piston has decided it will launch at almost double that price point, in a worse economy, without any reputation or exclusives to back it. In short, the Piston is madness, and I don’t see any reason why it exists other than a prank Valve has decided to play, not just on consumers, but the hardware developers themselves. It is possible that much more will be revealed as we come closer to the release date, but I don’t think anything would make it worth even close to $1000.

Arrogance personified.
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I think the Ouya has a chance to survive in a very niche market. At this point, I don’t see any reason to own one instead of an Xbox and a phone, but it may be able to carve out a tiny corner of the market if it can find a group to appeal to. On the other hand, I personally, think the whole idea of the Steam Box is incredibly damaging to the industry, both from a developer and consumer point of view. The Piston, whether it will be the finalized Steam Box or not, is not going to be a success. In fact, I would be very surprised if it wasn’t a catastrophic failure. I don’t understand why Valve has decided it wants to get into the hardware business. I understand they make huge profits from Steam, but do they need an entire console for that reason alone? After all, it isn’t like their console games such as Left4Dead and Portal 2 haven’t been successful, and, let’s be honest, Valve hasn’t made anything that couldn’t work well on a console, so there’s no need to build something new to house their “genius”. In short, I am of the firm opinion that the last thing we need are new consoles, and the Ouya and Piston/Steam Box have done very little to change my mind.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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