Green Throttle's Xbox 360-like game controller for Android devices started shipping Tuesday.
The controller syncs with Android tablets -- right now, just the Kindle Fire HD, but more will come -- via Bluetooth to provide console-like controls for mobile games, in concert with the company's "Arena" app, a free download that adds a console-like interface to the device, while also adding the software that lets the controllers offer in-person multi-controller multiplayer and analog control.
Can it work? Can it stand up to dedicated Android consoles like the Ouya? Gamasutra sat down with CEO Charles Huang and COO Matt Crowley to find out how their business -- and their device -- can compete.
Using Green Throttle's free SDK, developers can quickly integrate a game developed under Marmalade, Corona, Unity, and other engines popular with mobile developers -- according to Huang and Crowley.
"That plugin will handle a lot of the integration with the game," says Huang. "Actually, a lot of the work is not in the technical aspects of making the controller work with the game. It's actually designing the menus."
In other words, the work lies in creating "the console experience," says Crowley.
The Arena app is not a game store; if you decide to buy a game from within it, the system will launch whatever store the device uses by default, and Green Throttle will not take a cut of that sale.
The company's got a three-part business model. Step one is to sell the controllers -- and it has plans to offer more types of pads than just the initial 360-esque controllers in the long run. Green Throttle has already begun to develop its own first-party games. Finally, and probably most significantly, it will offer app discovery and advertising options for developers that use Arena.
But much of this is in the "check back later" department. The initial first party games are little more than tech demos to showcase controller integration; the discovery engine is in its earliest stages of implementation, and no functional biz model for it exists just yet.
The Ouya Question
Ouya made a huge splash on Kickstarter, and the appeal of a cheap Android console is obvious, keeping the company in the headlines. With that, as well as the GameStick on the way, what's the appeal of the Green Throttle solution?
"Our thought is that the tablet, as you go forward, becomes one of the primary entertainment devices that people have," says Huang. "The tablet can do so much. You can use it as a standalone entertainment device... you can plug it into a TV and have a shared experience with multiple people. You can stream movies and videos. It's portable."
In other words, the tablet is, itself, already inherently appealing as a device. Green Throttle transforms that existing tablet into a (more flexible) console.
The Arena home screen.
The good news is that you, the developer, don't have to choose between supporting Green Throttle and Ouya or GameStick.
"In fact, I encourage most of the developers that I talk to that if they're going to support one controller, they should support all of them simply because it doesn't take that much more work to support two or four," says Huang.
The Nuts and Bolts of the Green Throttle Business
It's no secret that selling controllers can be very high margin (if you doubt that, read Activision's financials from a few years ago.) This is something Huang knows from his days slinging Guitar Hero. It seems, however, that the biggest revenue potential for Green Throttle is building an ecosystem where developers pay him for user acquisition and discovery via the Arena app.
"I think as we talked to developers about what we were doing, it became clear pretty quickly that for most people that work on the mobile platforms, the number one problem they had was customer acquisition," Huang says. "How do I get my app discovered when I'm one 500,000 apps in the App Store? So, we keep hearing that. That's the problem that we're trying to solve."
According to Huang, even though Apple and Google know the importance of games, they "don't really care" about the discoverability problems developers face. He wants to sidestep that problem by creating an ecosystem where both paid ads and Green Throttle's editorial staff can showcase games and find them players.
He has plans beyond this, too. "We're working on things to be able to, for instance, be able to pay a referral fee for any developer that's able to, in their game, refer a consumer to buy our controller. So, things like that, where we can hopefully add to the economics that a developer has to be able to do that."
But There's One Missing Ingredient...
There is one obvious question, however. "People don't buy controllers or platforms. They buy a game experience," says Huang.
It's a lesson he learned with Guitar Hero: "If that game experience is compelling enough, they'll buy the hardware that it takes."
"And we see the same thing with this as 500-plus developers that we have and even more developers get their hands on it, there will come a game very soon where it will have that same effect that Facebook or Angry Birds had. It will just tilt the ecosystem. 'Oh, of course you can use a tablet and plug it into a TV to play a game,'" says Huang.
Problem, then: the killer Green Throttle app is just not yet apparent.
Crystal Swarm, an overly simplistic twin-stick shooter and Green Throttle first-party title.
In fact, too much of the Green Throttle's strategy is forward-looking at present: its initial slate of first party games aren't ready for prime time. It isn't on any other Android devices than the Kindle Fire. It hasn't hit retail yet -- just Amazon and its own site -- though it does plan to. And its recommendation engine isn't up and running just yet.
But what Green Throttle is attempting might make more sense than the Ouya or other dedicated consoles. By taking the device you already own, which is attractive in its own right, and making it into a functional game console, you aren't tied to a $99 brick that's not good for anything else. And by not charging game developers for implementation -- it even sends out the controllers for free, at least so far -- it's got a low barrier to entry on the developer end, too.
As it slips into the wild, Green Throttle is one to watch. Just call this the beta.