Sleek, tiny boxes that can deliver a near-endless stream of music, television, movies and games are starting to nose their way into the multi-billion dollar video game industry.
Call them set-top streamers or micro-consoles or streaming media devices, the latest entries in this growing market are coming from behemoths like Amazon, Razer and Sony. All three will have their own take on the diminutive devices out this year.
It's a trend powered by the trifecta of a consumer base growing used to downloading content, the increasing quality of mobile games and a desire to tap into a blossoming market with a relatively low-cost device.
Amazon's Fire TV went on sale in April, delivering a 0.7-inch-thick rectangular box and voice-activated remote control for $99, and an Amazon Fire Game Controller for another $39.99. The unveiling was the latest in a series of moves that doubled down on the company's investment in gaming. In the months leading up to the news, Amazon Game Studios brought on a collection of impressive hires, including the designers of both Splinter Cell and Portal.
Mike Frazzini, director of Amazon Games, said Fire TV was born out of a desire to fill what Amazon saw as a gap in the market.b
"For the last several years we sold several streaming devices — Roku, Apple TV — we sold a lot of them and got a lot of feedback from customer at the same time about gaps in the experience," he said.
Those customer comments lead the company into an internal discussion about what sort of streaming device they could make that would fill those gaps, fix the concerns so many customers had voiced.
Frazzini said Amazon doesn't greenlight a project until they're sure what they can deliver will be fantastic.
On the list of items to be fixed was a solution for searching, increasing the amount of content available and how a device could deliver a solid gaming experience. A remote control with a built-in mic and voice search was developed to solve the search issue, Frazzini said. Content was added by connecting Amazon's device to the company's Prime service and its slew of music and videos.
"For games, what could the experience be?" Frazzini said. "The simple observation was we could bring customers a wide variety of rich, compelling fun-to-play games at a great price."
Gaming, he said, is a really important element of Amazon's approach. Where neither Apple TV nor Google's Chromecast offer much in the way of games, and Roku has a limited selection, Fire TV taps into both a selection of the mammoth Android games library and the games the company is now making in-house.
"We want to make games that customers love, that are great games," he said. "We are trying to look for innovative new experiences to deliver to customers. Often that requires us to invent new technology."
Frazzini likens these tiny boxes to smartphones in some ways. Like the smartphone, people won't typically use a Fire TV for just one experience. They may buy it to stream videos, or maybe to listen to music, or even play games, but Amazon's hope is that they'll end up using it a bit for everything it can do.
"The smart phone or tablet is a simple example," he said. "You might buy it for one thing and find yourself doing another with it."
While at first blush, Sony's PlayStation TV, due out in the U.S. on Oct. 14, may seem like a more game-directed experience, it's not. Really, the $99.99 device is more of a Sony streaming box.
As with Fire TV, the PlayStation TV can stream a vast array of content to a television. But in the case of the PlayStation TV, the music, movies, television shows and games will all be delivered via existing Sony marketplaces and services.
The device was designed to target two specific audiences: families and young teens, said John Koller, vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America. And, he added, it's not really meant to compete with other streaming devices like the Fire TV.
"We've just been calling [the PlayStation TV] a console," he said. "I think a better way to define a microconsole is that they are like the Ouya, or Amazon's Fire TV, smaller Android-type experience, not meant to be played on the big screen," he said. "The games for the PlayStation TV are fit for playing on that larger screen."
The PlayStation TV can download PS One and PlayStation Portable games or stream PlayStation 3 games through the company's PS Now service. It also allows current PlayStation 4 owners to play their PS4 games on a remote TV with the device. Finally, Koller said, it can play select PlayStation Vita titles, which have been tweaked to perform better on big screens. Both Sony's Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services are accessible through the device as well.
"You can have Destiny for your PlayStation 4 and play it in a second bedroom," he said. "I think there is going to be a behavior that has not been discussed much. A lot of PS4 owners who go out to buy a PSTV so they can play games in a second room."
Already, Sony has seen an interest in the ability to remotely play games from the PS4. The handheld PlayStation Vita, which supports remote play, has been a "really interesting study in how people use mobile," Koller said.
"A decent number of people use it in their homes," he said. "They'll use their main TV to watch television and then use the Vita to play games while sitting on the couch."
The PSTV, which was released as the PlayStation Vita TV in Japan last year, has proven very popular among families there, Koller said.
"The research came back that families where far and away the biggest purchaser of PlayStation TV," he said. "Second was someone who owns most consoles, so a PS4 owner who wants to use that in a second bedroom. That was very interesting to us."
In designing the PlayStation TV, Sony looked at similar case studies including cable television, which sometimes requires a small, less expensive box in secondary rooms to watch a smaller selection of cable TV.
"We did look at cable boxes, that is an interesting behavior as well," he said. The company also conducted surveys to see how many people would want another console that does a lot of things, but isn't necessarily a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4. It turned out quite a few people did, he said.
Remote play on the PlayStation Vita has been so popular that it's helping the handheld make a bit of a come back, he added.
Razer + Google
Scheduled to be released this holiday, Razer's take on the micro-console may end up being the most innovative, given the peripheral company's history of out-of-the box thinking and mash-ups of crazy tech.
Still unnamed, still unpriced, all we really know about the new device is that it will be powered by Android TV, will stream movies, music and other apps on a television with an "emphasis on gaming."
Razer often dabbles in technology the company and its founder, Min-Liang Tan, find interesting. Over the years, Razer has released a slick, expensive gaming laptop, a tablet with built-in controller, and, soon, a wearable smartband.
But why get into the set-top box business with Google?
"It's all about the consumption of content," Tan said. "Gamers are grabbing content from tablets, from the PC and of course into the living room too. So I think it was a natural progression for us to move into the living room. But on this point, I think we took a couple of years really looking at the entire ecosystem. We wanted to make sure we got the entire design right."
He said they didn't want to just slap a dongle on a device and attach it to a TV.
"I think a lot of people have tried that," he said. "It hasn't worked very well."
It was Google's decision to roll-out Android TV and Razer's ability to partner with the company that finally pushed the project forward, Tan said.
Tan says that he believes the micro-consoles and devices like it are the latest step in the evolution of gaming and the platforms people game on.
"We think that gaming is going truly multi-platform," he said. "With processing power going up you're going to see similar types of content on the PC, on Android, so on and so forth. But at the end of the day, gamers don't really care where they play the games. They just want the best possible experience."
Android content in general, he added, is becoming much more robust than the simple mobile games that once helped launch the operating system.
"We think Android TV is going to do for the television what Android did for mobile phones," he said.
While there are plenty of other devices dropping into this emerging market, Tan believes that Razer's will be the first that "truly understands gaming."
"That's the secret sauce," he said, when asked what that exactly means. "It's probably one of the biggest things we have to announce. You'll have to watch for it. But I'm confident it's going to surprise pretty much everyone out there."
Razer's immediate goal, he said, is for their device to pull in everyone and provide a cohesive experience to gamers.
"I think at the start this is going to be more of an addendum," he said., "It's going to provide for a better experience for PC gaming, it's going to provide for a better experience for console gaming. Ultimately, I think we're looking at Android gaming growing up together with hardware and stuff like that. I really think the sky is the limit. Look at how Android has reinvented the smartphone space. I think we're just scratching the surface right now."
Tan believes that the micro-console could eventually be a step toward a future, perhaps a distant future, without the sort of big, pricey consoles gamers of today have grown accustom to.
"Right now for the consoles to go away there are a lot more problems to think about," he said. "Bandwidth, for example, reliability of connection, speed of connections out there. So, I think it's still too early, it's not the sort of thing micro-consoles can solve, but it is a step in that direction."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.