Zeebo: A Console For New NationsPublished by wes213 on Saturday, April 25, 2009
First Onlive rolls out to try its hand at the console wars using the angle that you just download a small amount of info and play it off the server and now Zeebo is throwing its hat in the ring by selling to countries that are not the target for other consoles.
June marks the launch across Brazil of Zeebo, a console that aims to tap an enormous new market for videogaming. Designed to navigate the dangerous waters of piracy, pricing and patchy wired internet infrastructure in Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia and China, it’s an attempt to extend videogames outside their traditional, and increasingly saturated, stomping grounds of Europe, the US and Japan.
In anyone’s money, making a console for the billion-strong emerging middle classes of such countries is ambitious. And it’s ambition that can’t be achieved by conventional wisdom. “When it comes to traditional consoles, even if you ignore the cost of importing them, the price of the games is massive,” explains Reinaldo Normand, founder of Zeebo. “That’s the reason piracy is such a big problem in these countries. It’s the only way people can afford to buy games.”
It’s a situation he knows well, having worked as a journalist and organiser of game events in his native Brazil. But it was only when he helped set up the mobile division of Tectoy, a Brazilian company that made its reputation releasing Sega consoles loaded with embedded games, that a solution started to become apparent.
6000 miles away in San Diego, Mike Yuen, director of the gaming group at mobile telecommunications company Qualcomm, was having similar thoughts. With 3D graphics acceleration becoming commonplace in cellphones, he was experimenting using TV-out to connect phones to bigger screens and using generic gamepads to provide a more console-like experience. “Internally, everyone thought it was a great idea but the phone-as-a-console concept wasn’t something Qualcomm itself could take further because we create technology for other people to use, so it remained just an idea,” Yuen explains.
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The eureka moment came in the summer of 2006 when, after E3 in June, Normand took his idea on a tour of Silicon Valley, and stopped in at Qualcomm. “It was a wow moment. Our visions were so similar. It started a lot of conversations,” recalls Yuen. These quickly coalesced into Zeebo, a joint venture, part owned by both Qualcomm and Tectoy.
The end result is Zeebo. Effectively, it uses the same Qualcomm chipsets contained in high-end smartphones, together with 1GB of flash memory, three USB slots and a proprietary dual analogue gamepad. It plugs into a TV and outputs at a 640 x 480 pixel resolution. “The key thing is we’re using off-the-shelf components,” Yuen says, explaining that Zeebo also operates on Qualcomm’s widely used BREW software development environment. “We avoid the billions of dollars it takes to enter the console business, as well as having an ecosystem most publishers and many developers are familiar with. They submit their games to Qualcomm as they would any other BREW application, and they get paid in the same way.”
This approach means that, while Zeebo can be priced appropriately for its markets - it will launch at US $199 in Brazil compared to around US $250 (plus another US $50 for a mod chip to play pirated games) for a PlayStation 2 in the region, while still generating some profit for Zeebo and for local retailers.
But the most important part of the Zeebo ecosystem is its wireless digital distribution. It gets around the low penetration of wired broadband in many of these countries, negates the cost of dealing with packaged retail goods, and removes the risk of piracy, with the games locked to the consoles they’re downloaded to. The pricing of games is also designed to undercut piracy. For example, in Brazil, legal PS2 games can cost up to US $100, whereas pirate copies are US $10. Zeebo games will be US $12.
This has encouraged some large publishers to get involved: the likes of EA, Capcom, THQ and Activision as well as PopCap, Gameloft and Digital Chocolate are already signed up. In Brazil, the console will come pre-loaded with FIFA 09, Action Hero 3D and Brain Age, and owners will be able, at no cost, to download Prey, Quake and Need for Speed Carbon. Zeebo’s Brazilian site claims, among many more, that Crazy Taxi, Tekken 2 and Street Fighter Alpha will feature as the service develops.
Games will be purchased using Zeebo's equivalent of Microsoft Points, Z-Credits. Zeebo plans to offer some games, including Quake, for free, however
But Zeebo’s aim to lower the barriers of entry will enable local developers to create games for their local markets, too. “We certainly need the big guys but there are a lot of capable indies. We have 80 approved independent developers and we’ll work with them to make some supercool games,” says Normand. “At the moment, it’s almost impossible for them to make games even for the likes of XBLA. We were in Mexico and they don’t have Apple’s App Store live, so even if they wanted to, Mexican developers can’t make games. The idea with Zeebo is small studios will be able to make culturally relevant games in their own language.”
And Zeebo's plans for world domination are already advanced. The console will launch in Rio de Janeiro in late May before rolling out across the rest of the country during June. Launch in Mexico is planned for autumn this year and other parts of Latin America and India are pencilled in for 2010. “From day one, we’ve always had a much broader vision,” says Yuen. “You’ll see Zeebo marketed as more than just a games machine as we roll out too. In Latin America, where there’s a strong gaming culture, that’s what we’ll be, but in India and China we can be more educational or lifestyle-oriented. Localised content means more to us than just language.”
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