The Microconsole: Can Amazon's Fire TV succeed where others failed?

By Robert Workman and Andew Yoon, Apr 04, 2014 1:00pm PDT

Amazon's Fire TV is the company's first attempt at a set-top box. However, unlike many of its competitors, Amazon is taking gaming very seriously, as evidenced by their recent acquisition of Double Helix Games and hiring of Portal creator Kim Swift. The company has numerous exclusives in the works.

But can Fire TV succeed where other Android-based consoles have not? For $100, it's clearly not going to go head-to-head with PS4 or Xbox One, but will Amazon be able to make an impact in the microconsole space?

Featuring a quad-core Qualcomm CPU clocked at 1.7GHz, a discrete GPU, and 2GB of RAM, Fire TV should have comparable power to mid-tier smartphones and tablets. In terms of raw specs, Fire TV outclasses Ouya and every major set-top competitor, but that should be unsurprising given how new Amazon's hardware is compared to other offerings.

A key differentiator between Fire TV is that Amazon is also offering a first-party game controller (sold separately, $40). Amazon isn't trying to change the wheel, admitting that it's "instantly familiar to any gamer." It appears the company's attempts to appeal to gamers is working; the controller is sold-out for the next few weeks.

Amazon's Fire Controller doesn't attempt to change the wheel

Although Fire TV won't have access to Google Play, the Amazon Appstore already has a rather robust library of Android games--over 50,000 in fact. However, games will have to be ported for Fire TV, with only 134 games available at this moment. Highlights include Telltale's The Walking Dead, You Don't Know Jack, and Minecraft (even if it is just a port of the Pocket Edition).

Of course, ports of mobile games don't necessarily make for the best on-TV experiences. However, Amazon's biggest weapon in their attempt to become a viable contender in the TV-connected games space is their first-party development. Fire TV is home to the exclusive Sev Zero, a third-person shooter developed internally at Amazon Game Studios. As with tower defense games, players must fight off an alien species by using different towers to launch various missiles and grenades at the invaders. Taking a page from Wii U (and other second screen experiences), a companion app will enable multiplayer. By downloading the "Air Support" tablet app, additional players can initiate air strikes from their tablet, while the TV player engages in face-to-face combat.

After Sev Zero, Amazon Game Studios will see content from newly-acquired studio Double Helix, who most recently worked on Xbox One's Killer Instinct reboot. Portal creator Kim Swift and other noteworthy developers are also moving under Amazon's wing. If Amazon's first-party teams can create a compelling first-party game, that could convince gamers to take Fire TV seriously. The video below highlights a few games in production under Amazon's label as well.

With decent hardware, an attractive price, and some eye-catching talent behind it, Fire TV can become the first microconsole to attract a core gaming audience. And smartly, Amazon has leapfrogged the competition. It won't be long until other companies follow suit--even if the Fire TV experiment doesn't work out. Google has reportedly been working on a set-top box of its own. Likewise, Apple, looking to redesign its Apple TV is unlikely to sit idly by. Sony's Vita TV is another similarly priced, similarly-equipped microconsole currently avaialble in Japan--even if no US plans have been announced.

Amazon seems ideally situated to make Fire TV take off, making it the first truly successful microconsole. But, given how quickly tech moves, it's unlikely to be the last.

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