Google and NVIDIA have come together to release a proper game console, one that has a surprisingly good out of the box experience.
You can't throw a stick without hitting someone writing something about the downfall of the game console. Mobile gaming has exploded such that catering to the casual gamer seems like a more viable business model to some, and with a game console in your pocket what need have you for a device that tethers you to the couch? It's a broad brush to paint with, and this past console generation proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the console gamer is not only here to stay, but demands more.
This amazing clash of gaming cultures is precisely why the NVIDIA Shield exists, and if the companies responsible for bringing it to life can keep the content flowing it's likely we'll soon recognize this device as the fourth major game console on the market.
The road so far...
The line between set top box and game console has gotten awful blurry over the last couple of years. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all came into this last generation of devices with a "home entertainment" theme, and plenty of apps to support the notion that you needn't ever leave the device you are currently using. The Xbox One went so far as to include an HDMI passthrough, so cable subscribers could watch TV through the Xbox and not ever really need to change inputs. Nintendo's massive gamepad doubles as a universal remote, as well as a handy second screen controller for all of the streaming apps. These enhancements are all about removing as many steps as possible between you and the game, and so far it has worked incredibly well.
Google and Apple are trying to become a more significant presence in the living room, and in response Microsoft and Sony are pushing into the mobile world.
At the same time, console folks have seen the benefits of playing nice with indie devs and casual gamers. Sony's indie support is incredible, and includes a ton of free or inexpensive games that can be played for hours or minutes alongside the budding PlayStation Now game streaming service. Microsoft has been a little slower on the indie support, but has also been focused on making Windows 10 an integral part of the gaming experience for those that want it. These moves are all about being the one device for everyone, which is great for every kind of user but one — those mobile gamers that prefer their phones and live in that ecosystem already.
Microsoft and Sony can bring over a handful of popular mobile games to the world of big screens and controllers, but they can't have a significant portion of that ecosystem because it's already owned by Google and Apple, and that's the dividing line right now. Google and Apple are trying to become a more significant presence in the living room so their content can grow into that space, and in response Microsoft and Sony are pushing their own content ecosystems into the mobile world to grow in that space. Neither have gained significant ground on the other's turf, because neither can adequately fill the gaps created by an incomplete offering. It's a standstill for the most part, and it'll take a massive push in one direction or the other to make any significant headway.
NVIDIA's massive push
While Google was clearly not prepared to make Android TV a living room sensation with the Nexus Player, with NVIDIA's help there's hope for the platform. The NVIDIA Shield Android TV checks all of the right boxes for mobile gamers and content consumers out of the box, with 200+ Android games available at launch and just about every streaming media app out there. Cable cutters get an extra push with support for IP tuners and OTA tuners, with a friendly TV Guide-like UI to bring it all together. With Google Cast and HDMI-CEC embedding Chromecast functionality into the box and Google's recent push towards letting your friends use their phones as controllers for some games, you've got a reasonable kit for people embedded in the Google ecosystem.
Grid gives you the ability to stream a massive list of AAA games at 1080p and stores all of your progress online.
The NVIDIA Shield exclusive games and access to the NVIDIA Grid gaming service is where the crossover into console land happens. The Shield exclusives have been a part of NVIDIA's device lineup for a while now, and include some new titles like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and remastered heavyweights like Doom 3: BFG Edition and Half-Life 2: Episode Two top a list of 20 titles that can be installed to the device and played native. Meanwhile, Grid gives you the ability to stream a massive list of AAA games at 1080p and stores all of your progress online. The games launch almost instantly and if you have a decent internet connection offers a flawless experience, and while we don't yet have details on pricing for this system we know that games will be available a la carte, so you'll be able to buy the game and play it just like you would anywhere else. Oh, and did I mention PC gaming on the couch? NVIDIA GameStream may not be the simplest thing in the world to use, but it already supports a ton of games. If you've got a gaming rig, you should be just a little curious.
There's really only one thing missing, and that's multiplayer online gameplay and the community services associated with that experience. Google Play Games is a far cry from the monstrous creations that are PlayStation Online and Xbox Live, and NVIDIA has no compelling alternative. This isn't a problem if you're taking the casual route in your gameplay, or if you appreciate local gameplay and a good story, but it means the matchmaking FPS crowd aren't going to be as interested in these offerings for not. The upside is that NVIDIA and Google could change this with relative ease, as long as they can get game publishers to play nice and support this budding platform.
The next big thing in gaming... maybe.
With most of the pieces in place and a perfectly reasonable price point for the hardware and features being offered, the only thing that will keep the NVIDIA Shield Android TV from being successful is Google and NVIDIA. With an appropriate marketing plan and a long-term plan for AAA titles on the console, there's a decent chance this will be the device that brings Android TV out of obscurity.
Personally, this is my new favorite console. I can stream games from my PC if I'm in the mood, but I'll also be able to play on Grid and enjoy multiplayer when friends come over, on top of being a suitable replacement for my Chromecast. This isn't going to cause mass exodus with people to throwing out the ecosystems they are currently embedded in, but unlike previous efforts all of the right pieces are there for this console to be taken seriously. It's a great first step, and with any luck this device will get the attention it deserves.