Forget the PlayStation 4. If Nintendo should get nervous about a competing platform, look to the mobile space because Green Throttle Games and its new Arena app for Android is about to drink the Wii U’s milkshake.
Oh, not right away, and not until it gets a few kinks worked out. But Green Throttle, the company co-founded by Guitar Hero creator Charles Huang, will come out of the gate with a new mobile-gaming system that holds several significant advantages over every new game console due this year. It even has a legitimate shot at crossover appeal between the casual and hardcore markets — something that frequently eluded Nintendo on the software front.
“Games on mobile platforms started with a very casual bent and moved up to mid-core and eventually hardcore,” says Huang. “I suspect we’ll see a similar trend.”
Arena centers on an Android app that combines a homepage with its own store, showcasing games, videos, demos, and staff picks. That rolls out today on Amazon’s Kindle Fire but will rapidly transition to other Android tablets and phones. Plug those devices into your flat-screen television with a common Micro HDMI cable, and the image scales up to a clean HD image. While games featured on Arena function with touch controls — sometimes in a simpler, streamlined way — they’re optimized for Green Throttle’s $40 Atlas controller. It looks and feels a lot like what you use on your Xbox.
“This is the QWERTY keyboard of game controllers,” jokes co-founder Matt Crowley, a veteran of the mobile industry.
Generic? A bit, yes, but it completes the system. Now your Android device is the game console. The Kindle Fire might be first, but Huang and Crowley talked about moving to the LG Nexus 4, Samsung Galaxy 4, and Galaxy Tab smartphones next.
By design, Arena accommodates both casual touch-screen players — often with dynamic touch controls that activate wherever your fingers land — and hardcore, controller-busting gamers who demand precision. And unlike the Wii U’s GamePad, you’re completely untethered from your television. Take it anywhere, play it on the way, and plug it into any TV with an HDMI port when you arrive.
Of course, the initial six offerings on Arena won’t actually topple Nintendo or anyone else anytime soon. Most are rehashes of old-school classics — off-brand Space Invaders and Robotron 2084 “homages” — and/or simple side-scrollers that feel like last-second homework turned in by design-school students. But those are really for casual users, and as Huang’s projected trend suggests, the mix of game types should evolve quickly.
Free Range Games will bring its highly popular third-person, class-based multiplayer shooter Freefall Tournament to Arena. nWay Games plans to port over its face-punching Facebook hit ChronoBlade. Arcade shooter Expendable Rearmed from U.K. developer Retrobomb won’t be far behind.
And that’s another big advantage Green Throttle can talk about: genuine third-party support.
“We have sent out over 1,000 controllers to over 500 developers,” says Huang, citing a mix of console and mobile companies. They’ve gotten an amazing response back. “Realistically, 95 percent of all console titles don’t really push the graphics. All those games can easily find their way to a platform like this, and it’ll run them just fine.”
Indeed, Green Throttle will soon announce deals with major console developers/publishers to add several very well-known franchises to Arena’s catalog.
Altogether, Huang suggests that Arena can schedule multiple releases on a weekly basis for quite some time to come. Good luck finding that kind of output on any console. By comparison, the Wii U hasn’t seen any new games of note come out in the last 10 weeks.
Developers also have a strong financial incentive for signing on. “There’s a lot of titles which don’t really make sense on a console anymore,” says Huang. “The economics don’t make sense. If you’re honest, probably 80 percent of console games just don’t make money on a console. We’ve had a lot of interest from developers looking at porting those titles over to Android and iOS, where they can reach a larger audience.”
That audience will soon expand from the Kindle Store to Google Play, and Arena will even find a home on other Android-based platforms like the upcoming GameStick. But it’s Green Throttle’s generic controller that really makes all the difference. “You’ve seen Grand Theft Auto ported over to mobile,” Huang says. “They actually have to shut off a lot of the features to make it work. But if you wanted to bring over a game like, say, Street Fighter, and you wanted two players with the original button combinations, you can do that. The console guys can now port a game over the way it was meant to be played.
“Getting the games to support our controller is relatively straightforward,” he said. “We’ve developed plug-ins for some of the more popular engines. It generally takes developers a day, a day-and-a-half to get their games ported over.”
That gives developers access to a much wider install base potentially across hundreds of compatible devices. But a $199 e-reader — or even a $500 tablet — can’t match the raw graphical capabilities of a powerhouse game console … yet. The mobile platform has one more edge over those systems, and that’s a far more agile design cycle. Most tablets come standard with quad-core processors right now, and they iterate on a yearly basis. Consoles can go five or six years between upgrades.
“What’s one of the primary companies driving where graphics go?” says Huang. “It’s Nvidia, and Nvidia has one of the biggest market shares of mobile phones. They’ll figure it out. They will get the technology that powers high-end console and PC gaming over to mobile phones and tablets.”
When they do, Huang plans to be ready with newer, better controllers and a TV-ready gaming hub that fits in your pocket. If that’s not the future of gaming, it’s certainly a big part of it.