A simple video game controller could be the key to unlocking huge markets for games and disrupting existing platforms. That’s the conclusion of Charles Huang, co-creator of Guitar Hero and the founder of mobile game controller company Green Throttle Games, which came out of stealth this week with a plan to upset the status quo in the game console business.
Sound crazy? It’s worth taking seriously because the difference between an incredible game platform and a boring one often lies in the quality and ease-of-use of the user interface. The mouse and keyboard have worked fine for decades, but the touchscreen finally matured and became easier to use with the iPhone. Touchscreen games exploded, and touch-oriented devices disrupted the traditional handheld game systems like the Nintendo DS.
But as much as the touchscreen represented an advance for casual game players, it was too imprecise for use with the most demanding games, such as fast-action first-person shooters, Huang said. That limited how much of the game business that smartphones and tablets could steal away. To play first-person shooters, you needed a real game controller.
The game controller is intimidating to non-gamers. That was why Nintendo created the motion-sensing Wii controller, which resembled something else that was familiar: a TV remote control. But the Wii-mote was imprecise, and it didn’t work well with shooters or racing games. Still, the Wii was disruptive because it captured non-gamers, the people who would have never picked up a controller. Nintendo tricked (or enticed) those people into becoming gamers via motion sensing technology.
Microsoft introduced yet another cool user interface, the Kinect motion-sensing system, in 2010 for the Xbox 360. Instead of holding a controller, your body became the controller. Motion sensors could detect your body and map its movements into game controls. But Kinect didn’t work at ranges closer than 10 feet, and it was also imprecise. Intel is working on technology it dubs “perceptual computing,” where you can wave a hand inches from a laptop and it will detect your movement as a computer command. Gesture-based controls will get more precise at some point, though they’re not there yet.
So far, nobody has really beaten the humble game controller at precise control. Casual gamers won’t use it, but the hardcore folks swear by it.
“It’s like the QWERTY keyboard,” Huang said. “Whatever its flaws, gamers know how to use a controller with analog sticks and buttons.”
So Green Throttle is launching a controller for Android mobile devices. On top of that, it will provide a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable to hook the mobile device up to the TV, so you can display the cool game graphics on a flat-panel TV.
This is where the disruption can happen. If you buy Green Throttle’s controller and an app to go with it, you can play fast-action mobile games on a big screen, without having to buy an expensive video game console. You can play cheap Android games rather than dish out $60 for each console title.
The threat isn’t lost on the console companies. Sony has embraced mobile gaming with PlayStation Mobile. Nintendo’s Wii U has a tablet-like controller with analog sticks. And Microsoft has launched its “second screen” experience with its SmartGlass app.
There is no end to the possibilities here. That’s why we’re seeing an explosion of innovation in the controller space. Rivals such as PowerA, maker of the Moga mobile game controller, see the opportunity. So does Wikipad, which is making a new gaming tablet with analog stick controls. If somebody nails the solution, then you will be able to play free-to-play apps on a television. And that will disrupt the consoles.
And it will introduce the big players of the new gaming business — Google, Apple, Amazon, and Samsung — into the living room and bring them into direct conflict with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard.
And at some point, every one of those players will probably want to get their hands on a good game controller solution. Players like Green Throttle will be happy to provide it to them. Yes, it’s quite possible that the lowly game controller company could become a king maker.
FYI, I’ll be speaking at the Social Gambling Conference next week in London on Nov. 16.