Eat your heart out Ouya: the first free games console is here.
We pay for games, one by one, usually for a boxed copy with a disc, and almost certainly upfront. We don’t stream them. At a push, we’ll pay for a few extra lives or a useful add-on. To pay a subscription to access games that you don’t even get to pick, though? Yeah, it’ll never take off.
Or perhaps it will. That’s also the way we used to think about movies, after all. You bought them on VHS or DVD or Blu-ray, and they were yours to keep, but you couldn’t afford thousands of them on your bookshelves. Now, we have Netflix.
BlueStacks wants to cause the same paradigm shift in gaming. When its GamePop and GamePop Mini consoles go on sale later this year, you’ll be able to nab a console for little to nothing upfront. All you have to do is pay $6.99 (£4.40) per month, and you’ll have access to five hundred games and counting for as long as you keep the subscription, all ready to go on the GamePop’s smartphone-powered, Ouya style hardware.
But wait, there’s more, as the informercial might say. The company knows that’s not enough. In the newly created micro-console market, Ouya’s got a big headstart and even Sony’s getting in on the game with its tiny new PS4 companion , the PS Vita TV. So BlueStacks has a plan to stand out from all these me-too, Android-powered games consoles: let the GamePop run iPhone games too, Apple be damned. If Apple won’t let Apple TV run games, somebody’s got to, right?
We realized last year that a sort of perfect storm was happening in hardware, with traditional gaming and mobile gaming priming the market for something like GamePop,
BlueStacks vice-president of marketing John Gargiulo tells Red Bull UK.
“On the hardware front, Android was surging, and Android devices were quickly becoming easier to source and produce. On the gaming side, console games were becoming something older people do - the average age has crept above 30 - while we were meeting tons of kids and teens who had never heard of Mario but all knew Temple Run. We’re aiming to capture the rush to this new ecosystem of content and bring those titles to TV. We saw a lot of things coming together that would make a free, subscription-based console fly.”
BlueStacks, a start-up of 35 with offices in Silicon Valley, Beijing, Taiwan and Delhi, didn’t start life as a games company. Gargiulo’s own background is in advertising, and at least until earlier this year, the team were better known for smart software that allows you to run Android apps on a PC or Mac - but it got them thinking. Most people don’t want a mobile word processor app on their laptop - that’s what Microsoft Office is for - but they might want to play addictive and original games from mobile app stores on a larger screen.
“The idea evolved naturally from our App Player product,” says Gargiulo. “We were thinking of a subscription model for App Player when we hit on the idea of doing this for TV. Then it got into, how do we make this happen?”
GamePop was born. There are two models, the $129 (£80) original, and the free GamePop Mini. Both connect to your TV and the internet, run Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, come preloaded with games you’d otherwise have to pay for one by one, and can be controlled using your smartphone.
BlueStacks isn’t talking internal hardware just yet, though it’s likely that the full fat GamePop will run on a faster processor than its younger silbing, to better burn through the latest taxing 3D games (“Both will have enough power to run the games we're bringing to the system,” Gargiulo says).
What’s already clear is that BlueStacks is aiming to impress with its hardware designs: one is a sunken cube while the other is barely bigger than a credit card. No prizes for guessing which one is proving more popular for pre-order. “We're finding that the GamePop Mini, by virtue of being free, is flying out the door faster than the GamePop.”
Shipping them won’t be BlueStacks’ real challenge however. Netflix lives or dies by its catalogue, and GamePop will too. To sustain a subscription model for gaming in the living room, it needs top titles and new top titles and then some, all the time. Gargiulo’s not concerned, however.
“This has been our strongest area. Among the companies in the space, we've announced the most popular mobile developers by far,” he says, pointing out that that likes of Fruit Ninja developer Halfbrick, Glu (Gun Bros, Small City), TinyCo (Spellstorm) and kids’ games developer Outfit7 are all onboard.
“Developers get to keep all in-app payments with us and get a huge cut of all our subscription revenue [Half]. On top of that, they need to do no work to their apps to get them on TV - we take on that load ourselves. It's proving to be a fantastic strategy as we've been signing large developers to GamePop as fast as we can demo for them.”
That’s before BlueStacks plays its ace in the hole, too, the iPhone games. The company’s Looking Glass software lets developers port their iOS games to the platform: popular tower defense game Fieldrunners will be coming to GamePop this way.
It’s not a perfect solution by any means (“This one does take a little work,” admits Gargiulo), but it marks the very first time you’ll be able to play iPhone and Android games on the same device. Apple’s notorious for guarding its App Store’s walls, and stopping apps and games that don’t meet its strict rules from getting in - but there’s not much it can do to stop those games breaking out.
“Apple is nonplussed as we don't use any of their bits or break any terms,” he says. “The developers own their apps - they take the one they made for iOS and strip out the Apple-y bits, the redirect payments and so on. It's really exciting.”
BlueStacks’ subscription scheme also neatly sidesteps another thorny issue the industry has still yet to address: how often can you upgrade the GamePop without letting down customers? We’re used to console generations lasting five years or more, but smartphone technology moves much quicker, and Ouya’s CEO enraged fans earlier this year after revealing that there would be new models released yearly, before even shipping the first generation.
If you pay by the month however, you could just move over to a new model at the end of your contract, much like you do with your phone. Not that another GamePop is coming, Gargiulo says. “We will have solid enough hardware that constant refreshes won't be necessary. We will have frequent over the air updates to keep our content fresh and let our developer partners push out their new titles.”
BlueStacks isn’t talking release date for GamePop in terms any more accurate than this “winter”, but Gargiulo says a UK release will follow an American launch. “We plan to launch in the US first, then UK/Europe and rest of the world,” he says. Tantalisingly, he also hints at the possibility of GamePop built in to your next TV.
“We have had a lot of incoming from Android-powered TV OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] in Asia so that's a possibility in the short to medium-term.”
BlueStacks will need to move fast to fulfil its potential, with more and more competitors getting into the sub-£100 console market. Not that last week’s unveiling of the PS Vita TV, which plays PS Vita games and other titles from the PlayStation Network for just £60, phases Gargiulo. Sony can bring it, he says.
“A big company can always come in and try to do what startups are doing, but they don't have a great track record of it. Even Facebook Poke couldn't dampen Snapchat, and there are countless other examples. If anything, we feel like larger companies entering the mobile-to-TV business helps validate the space.”
Gargiulo admits that GamePop’s unlikely to bring in the big bucks right away: with downloads in the eight digits, the company’s App Player for desktops already has a much bigger audience (“It's like we've released an Android tablet that 10 million people have bought”), but it’s telling that nearly everyone in the company has worked on GamePop. It’s their future, if not ours as well, and Gargiulo says they’re in it for the long haul.
“I see this like [smart TV start-up] Roku or Netflix in the early 2000s. An idea that everyone agrees is coming - ‘Why should beautiful games be stuck on four-inch screens?’ - but takes time to build up into the mainstream. Roku for example recently passed Apple TV in usage and has sold millions of units. Many people have just heard of them this past couple years, but they started in 2002! We’re super confident in the viability of the mobile-to-TV space. It's a matter of who gets to scale first and executes best. If GamePop holds a birthday candle to iPod we'd be very happy.”