The portable Android gaming console GameStick proved to be a hit when it reached its $10,000 Kickstarter goal in just two days — and here at GDC 2013 PlayJam is showing off the the developer version that will be shortly shipping out to some early backers. In concept, the GameStick is similar to the Ouya: it's a gaming console powered by Android, complete with its own proprietary gaming store. But while the Ouya focused on creating a stylish box of its own, the hook with the GameStick is portability. The guts of the console are a stick roughly the size of a USB thumb drive that plugs into the HDMI port on your television — and slots back into the GameStick controller itself if you'd like to take it to your friend's house.
The squared-off shape is charming
PlayJam showed off two versions of the GameStick at an event this evening: a dummy mock-up of the final version, which was helpful in terms of gauging aesthetics but had no moving parts whatsoever, and the developer kit units. The controller for the latter is a mix of happy surprises and somewhat questionable choices. On one hand, the buttons are nice and clicky — though we would have liked more throw in the shoulder buttons — and the analog sticks felt snappy. Considering the choices the company is having to make to meet the final product's $79 price point, it's a solid combo. While an odd choice at first glance, the squared-off shape is charming — it actually brought back memories of the original Nintendo Entertainment System controller — but it's also quite large, making it a little awkward to hold. While some aspects of the final controller could shift, the size does appear to be final.
How does it hold up to actual gameplay? Unfortunately, we weren't able to try that. While the units on hand were fully-functional mechanically, the company told us they weren't yet working with the actual GameStick unit itself. The developer unit also doesn't incorporate the GameStick's clever all-in-one storage feature, due in part to the larger console stick the dev unit uses.
A clean and sparse interface
We were able to try out the interface and play a few games using a third-party controller, however. The interface is clean and sparse — games, media, settings, and a developer section are listed on the left, while large icons fill the rest of the screen. A set of buttons on the top of the screen of the games section let you switch between the GameStick's own store, and the games you already have downloaded. On the media side of things, the GameStick features both Netflix and XBMC. The speed of the UI wasn't breathtaking, but it was responsive enough for a device at this price point, and it never felt like it was noticeably lagging.
The same was true with gameplay itself. I spent some time playing Vector, and while performance wasn't as impressive as you seen on high-end smartphones, I also wasn't expecting that kind of firepower. The GameStick is clearly a device targeted towards casual gamers, and with that intent in mind there's an undeniable charm to the concept.
It will all come down to games
Of course, games will be one of the major deciding factors on whether products like the GameStick or Ouya will find success in the marketplace. Stoking developer interest is a big part of why PlayJam is at GDC in the first place. The company estimates it will have 20 to 30 high-end games on the GameStick when the final product ships to its Kickstarter backers in April. While that may be enough to keep those early adopters happy, it will have to expand that selection of titles quickly if it wants to compete as a true consumer product. We'll know more when the GameStick goes on sale at retail outlets later this year.