With all the PlayStation 4 teasers, Grand Theft Auto 5 release details, and Nintendo Wii U hype trains spilled over the past few weeks, it’s easy to forget about Nvidia’s Project Shield. You know, the one that looks like an Xbox controller with a touchscreen attached to it? The one that’s coming shipped with the graphics maker’s new Tegra 4 chipset and pure Android 4.2? With the ability to stream high-quality PC games straight from Steam (under certain conditions, at least)?
Yeah, I figured you’d have forgotten about it for a second. I don’t blame you either. Despite the fact that the Shield is packed with futuristic hardware, and despite the fact that it’s being made by made by a group of people well familiar with the gaming scene, it’s going to be dead on arrival whenever it hits the market.
What the Shield Does Right
I’m going to be doing a lot of beating up on the Shield in a minute, but I don’t want you to think that everything about it is misguided. Its technical specifications are certainly impressive, with Tegra 4 reportedly bringing six times as much power to its machines than its still-impressive Tegra 3 predecessor. Its 5-inch touchscreen has a ppi of 294, which will make plenty of games look nice and purdy on the go. Running pure Android Jelly Bean and making all of Google’s excellent OS available to players when they’re not gaming is a nice touch. And that OnLive-like streaming compatibility with Steam will be neat to the patches of PC gamers who feel like lounging around the house while playing Assassin’s Creed every now and then.
But the biggest plus the Shield has going for it is that it’s actually attempting to “legitimize” the Android platform for the core gaming demographic. Whether it’s fair or not (hint: it’s not), that hardcore crowd is largely convinced that any gaming device without buttons isn’t a “real” gaming device. I’d tell those people to go play Infinity Blade II or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but Nvidia understands the reality of the situation, and has acted accordingly with its “console-grade” controller. The fact that it’s added the support of Steam, where the hardcoriest of all hardcore gamers reside, is another major step towards getting people to take Android seriously as a gaming destination. It’s also garnered the interest of major developers like Ubisoft and Epic Games, which could mean better software is coming someday too.
But none of that changes the fact that, right here and right now, the Shield is pointless. It’s stuck in a weird middle ground of trying to attract casual and core gamers at the same time, and it doesn’t satisfy the needs of either. Let’s get into why.
The Shield isn’t Portable
The first problem is a simple one: the Shield’s design. To recap, it’s more or less an Xbox controller with a 5-inch touchscreen attached to it, and Nvidia is more or less calling it a portable console. Who could ever find that setup “portable”? Sure, you could stash it in a backpack or a carrying case, but only MC Hammer is going to be fitting this thing in his pockets like a smartphone, Vita or 3DS.
The Shield’s size is only going to be compounded by its weight. Nvidia is saying that the Shield will have 5-10 hours of battery life, which would presumably require some fairly sizable batteries to carry all that juice. This will take some effort to carry around, limiting its portability. And while you’ll be able to stream content from the Shield straight to an HDTV, it’s not as if a device with a 5-inch screen could ever be said to be “built for the home.” Plus, there are already plenty of mobile devices that connect to TVs. This is something that has been available for years now.
Android isn’t a Viable Gaming OS
The next issue is that Android is not and never has been a viable destination for many gamers, even if Nvidia is nobly trying to shake up that perception. The video game industry will always rise and fall on the strength of its games, especially when it comes to the hardcore demographic that Nvidia is trying to sway here.
Android simply doesn’t have many must-have exclusives for that core crowd. And even when it comes to its more casual offerings, Android still lags far behind iOS, often receiving lesser ports of games weeks after their initial release. The Android gaming scene is certainly getting better as time goes on, but it’s tough to understand why a gamer would buy a “gaming handheld” that runs a platform without many good original games that can’t be had anywhere else. Gaming has always been a secondary feature for Android, not a selling point, and the Shield will have to be pretty in demand to change that.
PC Streaming is Great, But Has Some Caveats
One could argue that the PC streaming solution solves that problem, but even then there are certain restrictions that will limit that functionality from the start. Not every PC game will be able to stream through the Shield, and you’ll have to have a PC running a recent version of Nvidia’s own GeForce chips as well as an Intel Core i5 processor or better. Basically, only people that have already dropped enough cash on a PC capable of playing most major games will be able to play those same games, just on their television instead of a monitor.
Don’t get me wrong, the tech behind all of this is certainly impressive, but let’s think about the real world here. Are many hardcore console gamers going to get a relatively powerful PC, only to stream it back to their televisions? Are many hardcore PC gamers going to risk connection issues (of which there were a few during Nvidia’s CES demo) and use a gamepad to play what already works just fine for them? And are many mobile gamers going to give a damn about any of this in the first place?
Some will. But will it be enough to justify the purchase of another handheld to carry around? I have my doubts. Plus, there are already multiple mobile devices that can stream games to TVs, even if it’s not through a home PC. That was what the whole OnLive thing was about, and look how popular that turned out to be.
Oh, Nvidia is also offering TegraZone as a third outlet for games on the Shield. Moving on.
Even in a Perfect World, the Shield isn’t Necessary
But okay, let’s take a step back and pretend that Android was a viable gaming platform with a rich catalog of dozens of need-to-own exclusives. The Shield’s main question would then be, why wouldn’t someone just play those great games on a tablet or smartphone? Well, the obvious differentiator would be the physical controller. The buttons would give a greater sense of…control, and could optimize the experience for those not comfortable with playing on a touchscreen, right?
Sure, if tablets and smartphones didn’t already exist. But they do. And more people are going to own them instead of an Nvidia Shield, no matter how well the latter does in sales. That means that Android games are still primarily going to be designed with touchscreen users in mind, naturally making some games awkward to control on the Shield from the start.
For something billed as an “Android gaming machine,” the Shield shouldn’t have this kind of problem. Yes, people could use the attached touchscreen and play them normally from there, but the Shield’s design appears to make that kind of play look awkward. Making the screen adjustable may help there.
Plus, there are already ways to play Android games with a controller, and there’s going to be even more ways coming in the future. Many players who run classic emulators on their Android tablets or smartphones have been hooking up controllers to their machines for a while now, and future consoles like the Ouya and GameStick are going to offer controller-based Android gaming on a home TV too. All of this can already be done in some capacity. Are we sensing a theme here?
The Shield Won’t Be Cheap
It’s worth mentioning the Ouya and GameStick, by the way. Not only will those probably be the Shield’s main Android gaming competitors, they’ll also cost $99 and $79, respectively. This brings us to the last, and probably most significant of the Shield’s future woes: pricing. Nvidia has publicly said that it will not be selling the Shield at a loss. Considering all the new tech and impressive specs this thing sports, we can then assume that it won’t be too wallet-friendly. Nvidia will rely on hardware sales to make a profit on the Shield, since Android games are sold on the cheap. That’ll be a dagger.
It’s kind of amazing that I haven’t mentioned the Vita in all of this yet. But if there’s one thing that Sony’s struggling handheld has shown, it’s that a high price tag combined with a lack of “killer app” titles (see: the entire Android OS) will equal little revenue. The Vita comes with PS3 connectivity, a library of great indie games and well-known console IPs, and the PlayStation brand stamped on it. But it still cannot sell to most gamers these days, largely because of its high cost of entry and growing irrelevancy in the age of mobile gaming.
The “hardcore mobile gaming device” is rapidly becoming a myth. Only Nintendo, with its massive faithful install base and enormous library of first-party hits, has been able to sustain itself against the rise of mobile gaming. But its 3DS handheld needed a big price cut to start moving, and even then it’s not the enormous success its pre-smartphone predecessor (the Nintendo DS) was.
The Shield Should Be Marketed Differently
So why should Nvidia feel like it has a better shot? It shouldn’t. Not when it’ll (likely) cost more than other capable Android machines. Not when Android itself is a lacking platform. Not when its big hook, the PC streaming ability, collapses unto itself because of its inherent requirements. And not when the entire thing lacks to fill any void in the gaming industry.
I’m not saying that the Shield will be the next N-Gage. I doubt it will be. In fact, I think Nvidia would be much better served marketing the Shield as a PC gamer’s accessory, one that would let that kind of player toy around in mobile gaming while adding another dimension to Steam sessions.
But for now, it’s difficult for me to see why the Shield exists. And it’s even more difficult for me to see many people buying one. I hope I’m wrong.