Of all the chip vendors, Nvidia took the biggest risks at CES this year, launching both a line of rack-mounted gaming servers and a hybrid handheld gaming device.
Together, both platforms could accelerate the direction of the industry, allowing gaming to arrive at its destination five years sooner than expected.
Allow me to explain. Yes, some folks are having a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around Nvidia's Shield platform because they want to drop it in the console gaming box. However, while the device is likely to make console seem obsolete, Shield really isn't one, nor can it be described as a handheld gaming system. Rather, it is a very, very different approach to gaming.
Gaming in 2013
Today we are surrounded by struggling gaming companies. The current console and hand held games are living off of a razor blade model where the hardware is cheap and the vendors make money off game royalties.
This is why the industry heavyweights don’t change their consoles very often and why those systems are being outperformed by even by current generation smartphones. In the PC gaming space the problem is mobility, and while PC-centric games are vastly more complex than their console or handheld counterparts, they aren’t really very good in terms of providing a mobile experience.
True, there are cloud companies like OnLive which stream games, but they have trouble gaining traction simply because PC games don’t translate well to generic TVs or tablets. In sharp contrast, smarphone games are doing better because handsets actually do make pretty decent gaming platforms. Nevertheless, they sometimes fall far short of the user experience rendered by a dedicated hand-held gaming system.
The Likely Future
What do I expect to happen? The console and hand held gaming platforms will slowly die out, much like they did in the Atari years. Meanwhile, mobile games and streaming services will slowly gain power and at some point, like what happened the PlayStation and Nintendo gaming resurgence in the 1990s, a new platform emerges that ties everything together with dedicated gaming client hardware.
In essence, it would be a blend of what had come before to collect most of the resources that had been divided up amongst a variety of platforms - tying them back to hardware at both ends that is purpose-built.
Nvidia's Early Future
Nvidia looked at this and apparently wondered “why wait?" After all, the company isn't in much of the existing console technology, which is dying anyway, so why not skip the whole death and rebirth cycle of video games and just jump to the more profitable rebirth part?
To do this, Nvidia needed to approach all three of the major sustaining components: a portable game system capable of scaling to a console experience, access to existing games on both mobile devices and PCs, and a server platform that can aid in the ongoing transition from PC to cloud gaming.
So Nvidia created NVIDIA GeForce Grid, a purpose-built wrack mounted graphics heavy multi-user server specifically for streaming games, and Shield which is a purpose built mobile gaming platform capable of accepting streaming content from the above-mentioned servers (or gaming PCs) as well as playing native Android games.
They also broke the razor/blade model, namely, preventing existing players from cycling their hardware in a timely manner. While this makes the client hardware far more expensive, it effectively lowers the cost of the games, and allows them to aggressively approach ways users can playtitles they have already paid for - simply because they aren’t living off of game royalties.
Put a different way, the existing game systems, both mobile and static, were created based on a way of thinking that was popular in the 1980s. However, Nvidia started with a clean slate and technology we have this decade to create what we likely wouldn’t have seen until the 2020s.
Wrapping Up: Nvidia's Vision Problem
The risk for Nvidia isn't the corporation's internal vision - which is accurate - but ours. Meaning, we don’t take to change easily or well and typically require a few more years to get comfortable as a market with a product that could shift between streaming, local playing, and remote PC access playing.
In any case, it will still take us quite a while to think through all of the things we aren’t currently doing without Shield, simply because we don't have the right hardware. For example, you could create a virtual reality small audience TV show where the actors used the Shield systems to control the characters in the film (seeing through the character’s eyes) and the audience would see the actual show/movie created live by watching the avatars.
This would be like watching World of Warcraft, even if it would appear to an audience like a dynamic Lord of the Rings movie in Ultra HD. Or, more simply, coding a driving game where players drove the cars and saw through the windshields with their Shields and an audience was watching the race like they would F-1 or NASCAR.
I think for most of us, we’ll have to see this work, I know I did. But Nvidia has done something amazing here. They took an idea we likely wouldn’t have seen for at least another 5-10 years and showcased it at CES this year, which is definitely a counterpoint statement to “nothing big ever happens at CES anymore."