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The Android console race begins today with Green Throttle's launch Exclusive
The Android console race begins today with Green Throttle's launch
March 5, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

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.

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Dave Ingram
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"... right now, just the Kindle Fire HD"

I tested the pre-launch SDK and controller on my Samsung Galaxy Tab and another Samsung tablet that my dev partner uses, and it worked perfectly. Did they remove support for devices other than the Kindle Fire? That would be extremely counterproductive.

Christian Nutt
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They spoke of supporting Samsung tablets in the future, but the release today only works with Kindle Fire HD, and is only available on the Amazon Appstore for Kindle.

In other words, there's nothing INTRINSIC that makes it support only the Kindle at present; it's a business decision.

Kyle Rechsteiner
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Dave, we are planning to support Android 4.0 and higher so you are correct in that the controller and SDK will work on the Galaxy Tab. We are just still working on optimizing that experience.

Dave Ingram
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That makes sense. I look forward to your official support of additional devices, and I wish you the best of luck throughout your launch.

Kenneth Blaney
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Thanks for asking this question Dave. I was wondering the same thing (except about an ASUS Transformer, not a Galaxy Tab).

Kujel Selsuru
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This is too hard a product to support, most poeple with a tablet wont have one and building interfaces for it is too much work for too little gain. I don't epect this product to still be with us by net march.

Robert Lever
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It doesn't matter if it "works" quite yet, it's a step in the right direction. Very exciting stuff.

K Gadd
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What does this have to do with the 'Android console race' when it's not an Android console? I'm confused. It's just a wireless controller you can pair with an Android device (albeit a pretty solidly designed controller, even if their design process appears to have been 'steal the mold used to manufacture XBox 360 controllers from a chinese factory and fiddle with it a bit') I think it's an interesting product, but angling it as a console is a really bizarre choice.

Christian Nutt
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It effectively turns a tablet into a console. How is that not relevant to competing with Ouya/GameStick? I have to say, as i intimated in the piece, I find the idea of turning an existing tablet which retains the rest of a tablet's functionality into an Android console much more appealing than an actual Android console.

Kindle Fire HD + Green Throttle + HDMI Cable + TV = Console. No?

K Gadd
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By that definition, Macbook + XBox 360 controller + HDMI Cable + TV = Console. I think stretching the definition of 'Console' to 'some general purpose device plus a commodity game controller' is stretching the definition to the point that it is meaningless.

Furthermore, game controllers compatible with Android have existed for ages, so if they were all it took to start the 'Android console race', then it's been going for years now.

EDIT: Furthermore, while I imagine you may not know this, game controllers for Android have been *handed out* in GDC swag bags - the conference run by the company that owns Gamasutra - so if a controller were all it took to start the Android console race, how didn't you guys know it was started?

James Yee
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I would ask though Kevin is there a need for the definition "console?" As you say much of what we have can already sit in a TV console and hook up to it. You can also hook up "consoles" to monitors and use them in a desk setting.

So what IS the definition of Console?

K Gadd
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If we're talking about a race, we might at least want to stick with the traditional definition of a race, where competitors are attempting to do the same tasks or move from one point to another the fastest.

You can argue all you want about how 'console' doesn't mean anything anymore, or everything's a console, but at that point, how is it a race if everyone has a different objective and is operating based on different definitions of the same terms?

The fact is this: In the past, most of the devices we called 'consoles' shared a huge number of common traits and design decisions, and that made it possible to do a mostly objective comparison of them: How many units sold, what's the attach rate like, how convenient is it to play games on it, etc. If you are literally positioning the PlayStation 4, Ouya, and a wireless game controller in the *same exact product category* and calling them competitors, you've basically given up on making any meaningful comparisons between them.

To be helpful, here are a few basic criteria that I would argue apply to most things people have called 'consoles':

Primarily designed for playing video games
Fixed or nearly fixed hardware specs for a developer to target
Purchased as a 'batteries included' package that includes everything you need to actually play video games (other than, perhaps, a way to hook it up to your TV's particular set of connectors)

You'll note that these three simple criteria apply to the XBox 360, the PS3, and the Ouya, but definitely do not apply to Green Throttle or to the iPhone. This doesn't make the latter devices inferior in some way, but it does mean that by this definition they are not consoles or part of the 'console race' - though they can easily be helping shrink the console market, so to speak.

You're free to try and advance some alternate definition of console, but if your definition also encompasses *all general-purpose computing hardware* or *doesn't include wildly successful consoles like the Wii or PS2* you should probably re-evaluate your obsession with using the word console.

Bob Johnson
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"How do I get my app discovered if I am one of 500,000 apps? "

Sorry, but I always find this discoverability talk hilarious.

Christian Nutt
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Okay. Why?

Bob Johnson
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Think about it.

Think about the other 499,999 app developers that have the same question and get the same answer.

Luis Guimaraes
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That question: will this controller run on other Android consoles?

Mike Kasprzak
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I think I saw something in the GameStick docs about Green Throttle support. At the very least Mr Green Throttle talks in their Kickstarter video, so there's something going on there.

Ian Fisch
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I still think this is a great concept, and I really hope GreenThrottle can pull it off.

I don't understand why the Arena isn't its own appstore though. I mean why not make money that way?

That money could then go toward advertising and securing good system exclusives.

Christian Nutt
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Because discoverability tools are 2013's trend. App stores are so 2011.

Ian Fisch
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Yea but launching a console costs a ton of money. Why do it if you're only going to collect some paltry ad revenue?

I'm sure there's a very legitimate reason for why Arena isn't an app store, I'd just like to know what it is.

James Hofmann
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Nobody in microconsoles is launching like a traditional console because their cost structure and business model is not the same. In fact, their business models are more different than similar, which is why these companies tend to preach in terms of cooperation.

Green Throttle: Reference controller platform
nVidia Project Shield: Reference Tegra 4 platform
Ouya, Gamestick: "Smart TV" extensions oriented around interactive content

Basically, they're each targeting a vertical slice of the market. Building on Android makes their R&D costs small enough that they can manufacture and promote custom devices as part of their marketing strategy.

So a company like Green Throttle doesn't want to seek royalties for the same reasons that nV doesn't do so with their TegraZone app - the software is just their endcap, what they're really selling is their hardware business. On the other hand, Ouya and Gamestick are more interested in taking a share of the software market and thus are building up more of the console software packaging - the app stores, user accounts, etc.

Ian Fisch
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Fine, but that still doesn't answer the question as to why Green Throttle is leaving this money on the table.

Also, unlike the strategy with Tegra, whose aim is to hook you and then keep selling you new models as the old one goes obsolete, Green Throttle is selling gamepads that will likely last years if not decades.

Ouya and Gamestick are getting royalties off the games sold on their stores, by the way.
That's the traditional console business model.

I'm not criticizing Green Throttle here. I simply don't understand.

Christian Nutt
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I can think of a few reasons, but I'd need to do more research to fully understand it.

- Most games are F2P, moving forward. Would their app store get a cut of that? If not, what's the benefit to them? Would have to read the terms for setting up your own App Store via Google.

- Would Amazon carry it if it didn't use the Amazon Appstore? Does Amazon allow the installation of multiple app stores on a Kindle device? If the answer to either of these is "no", maybe it's not worth it to them.

- I don't know how it is today, but when Amazon Appstore launched, it was really clunky to get it onto your (non-Kindle) Android device. Maybe this is just not a great path for people who aren't Big Names to take.

- Are third party app stores flourishing in the US, for that matter?

- Just because they have investors, doesn't mean they have enough money to do everything well. They're selecting the three pillars they want to best concentrate on, possibly. Sure, app store might have come in at #4, but maybe they don't realistically think they can do 4 things.

James Hofmann
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If you read the article again, it says: "It's no secret that selling controllers can be very high margin." There have been plenty of companies that built their business almost entirely around gaming controllers, going all the way back to the 80s and that era's Atari-compatible joystick market. It amounts to a dismissal of the collective wisdom about what is and isn't profitable in that line of business by saying that "people won't buy more than one."

I am not involved in the controller biz, but simply by entering the market for Android controllers, they're signalling that they think there's a profit to be made on that alone. And they're one of many companies in the space. The crowdfunding and the app are their main differentiating factors.

As well, if this market shift is about destructuring and moving away from a vertically integrated model...operating a software business AND a hardware business runs against this trend.

Ouya and Gamestick still have non-traditional elements: Zero retail support, and the hardware refreshes on faster cycles(again, this is because they aren't shouldering R&D burdens and can sell at profit). That said, I agree that they are the closest to the traditional model and are probably facing the most risk, since they're competing against all the other app stores out there. The hardware may turn out to be a marketing tool for them, too.

Ian Fisch
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I guess if they charge a company whenever their game is clicked on, it's almost the same thing as having their own appstore, except then the developer has to pay both GreenThrottle and Google.

Oh well. I hope it works out.

Ian Fisch
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@James Hofmann

"but simply by entering the market for Android controllers, they're signalling that they think there's a profit to be made on that alone."

Not sure I follow your logic here.

Mike Griffin
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It's good for all the Android consoles and hybrids out there, simply in terms of encouraging tablet and phone guys to consider "proper" controller-based support early in their development pipeline.

Instead of slapping it on at the last second, or after the fact, which probably doesn't help the game feel like it was made (or tested-for) controller use. This is especially true for mid-core genres and correctly-tweaked analog controls.

This is also the year when Smart TVs will begin to include fairly powerful Android-based chipsets as a games/Google component, and some of those TVs will ship with controllers while others will be open to Bluetooth peripherals.

So, the more the merrier if it helps to mature and refine the implementation.
It will only benefit folks who play games on the Android OS, irrespective of their chosen game-centric device or input method.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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It think that Archos Gamepad style is much better solution, we only need overall component quality. Wikipad seems to be mistake, becase Gamepad has 330g, but Wikipad game controlls accessory has 400g itself..

First of all, we need AAA games for android and this is long way. Because now best games for Android are 17+ years old Dosbox and Amiga emulator games, what is the shame.

Karl E
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The sad thing about this is that it's entirely dependent on network effects. If Google truly supported an "official" controller compatible with every android device sold, it would reach critical mass. Unfortunately, projects like these are likely to fail, and their failure are likely to wrongly convince Google or larger android companies that noone is interested in controller gaming on touchscreen devices. Thus, projects like this might ultimately have a negative effect on android console-like gaming.

Steven Christian
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Selling discoverability seems to be worthwhile as even devs of F2P games need to purchase discoverability.

James Smith
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My only beef with this that would be solved by an Ouya or similar, is purely battery. A good chunk of my favourite games on my phone (HTC One X+ (and some more ending letters) kill the battery even on charge. Maybe that's because I usually use laptop when a socket would be a tad better, but hooking up a controller (and TV) will surely reduce it to 1/2 - one hour stints, and that makes me look more at the consoles again.

Will the controller be supported on Windows? I can always go for an extra pad there, so dual use puts me back in the shop here.