“I look around, and I don’t see any other Android gaming consoles,” Snail Games USA VP Jim Tsai told me as I sat with him in the Snail Games booth at CES. “That’s because you’re about two years too late,” I replied to him with a smile as we looked at the 4K 3D projection in front of us. Tai-Chi Panda, an action-RPG that sat on the #1 position on China’s App Store for four months, played in vibrant color in the center of the forest-green booth as onlookers with 3D glasses watched the demonstration. Still, Jim returned the smile as we talked about his company and their ideas for expansion in the US market.
Admittedly, it was initial skepticism that drew me to cover Snail Games new hardware: as an owner of an Ouya (currently functioning as a paperweight now that Towerfall is on the PS4), I’ve gone through my round of hype over Android consoles. I love the idea of open-sourced, developer-friendly gaming reaching households at affordable prices, but after the calamities that were the Ouya, Gamestick, and others, it was pretty hard to comprehend why Snail Games USA would venture another try at the Android console market. But his rationale seemed focused on one key piece of logic: “We’re a game developer: we know what gamers need.”
Snail Games USA is the sister company of Chinese-born Snail Games, a 15-year old developer specializing in free-to-play mobile titles. Tai Chi Panda is a Snail Games product, and its North American localization will be a launch title for both pieces of Snail hardware. They have multiple games running in China, and four that they’ve brought over to the US, including the popular combat-focused MMO Age of Wushu. Both new pieces of hardware plan to utilize a Snail Games-skinned version of Android called SnailOS, allowing them to specially highlight Snail-published games along with running any games users want to download from the Google Play store. They had both the W 3D Smartphone and the OBox console at CES; I took some time to play with both to see if they seemed like they could put up a fight in the current market.
Snail W 3D Smartphone: Ready for Prime Time
As a mobile-focused developer, it’s no surprise that they’d want to create mobile hardware if they were going to get into the hardware game at all. The W 3D, which plans to launch in early-to-mid 2015, feels pretty impressive as a gaming smartphone. Compared to the Sony Xperia PLAY, which featured a slideout game controller with touchpad thumbsticks, the W 3D is a single-faced, lightweight phone with two physical thumbsticks, a directional pad, four face buttons, and four small shoulder buttons, providing tactile interfaces for gaming. Those buttons can also be mapped to sections of the touchscreen, allowing for physical-button interaction on touchscreen-centric games. The thumbsticks are pretty flush to the console, meaning they shouldn’t interfere much when you’re using your smartphone as a device to call others (like phones are apt to do), but still feel sturdy enough for gaming sessions that may last a few hours.
In case the “3D” part of the name gave you any question, the W 3D can display any content with glasses-free 3D, utilizing SuperD 3D technology. Though the Nintendo 3DS already uses technology like this, the narrow viewing angle for the 3D effect usually makes me just turn it off altogether. The W 3D, however, utilizes eye-tracking to adjust the 3D display, creating a wider viewing angle and less rigid gaming posture. I was impressed by how vivid the 3D effect looked when I moved my head around the screen, though I’ll also note that the 3D effect can be disabled for those who have problems with the display, and a 3D-free Snail W phone will be available as well.
When it comes to hardware specifics, Tsai didn’t release many specifics, but said that the phone was “comparable to the iPhone 6+” as far as its display resolution, camera, and processor. Considering the popularity of the iPhone brand, it makes sense to use its specs as benchmarks for their hardware since they’ve developed games for iOS in the past. Tai-Chi Panda ran pretty fluidly in my playtesting on the W 3D, with little lag or frame-skipping even when the action got intense and I fought multiple creatures at the same time. While out of game and maneuvering through the SnailOS menus, the phone felt snappy and responsive, with apps opening and multitasking well.
Even though the hardware looks good, I still have to admit I wonder how the phone will circulate in the US when fighting against big-name companies like Samsung, LG, and Apple. Considering most of the cell phone market purchases their phones through their service provider alongside contract renewals, I asked if they expected to tie in with American service providers. Tsai said that they actually plan to release the phone unlocked, and though he didn’t quote me a price, he said that it would be “cheaper than other phones on the market.” He also hoped that the W 3D Thankfully, the phone will be dual-SIM compatible, meaning that you can use either CDMA carriers like Verizon and Sprint, or GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, without needing to buy a different phone. It also works with 2G and 4G LTE data, so users in all areas should be able to access cellular data.
I think the Snail W 3D and Snail W could make some legitimate waves in the US phone market. Though the Xperia Play comes with a control-scheme made theoretically for gamers, its high price-point, tie-ins with Sony proprietary content, and cramped gamepad layout make it less than ideal for large gaming sessions. Spending time with the W 3D felt like using a thinner PS Vita; the controls felt solid, the system was responsive, and the large display made me feel like I was doing real gaming instead of just burning time in-between other tasks. Even with the exposed gaming controls though, the phone still felt and looked sleek enough to use in public without feeling spells of embarrassment. I’ll be excited to see how Snail implements the W 3D when it finally debuts.
Snail OBOX: Some Prep Needed Before Showtime
What drew me to the Snail booth in the first place was its promise for an Android-powered console, a tried-and-failed prospect for multiple companies in the US marketplace. But when I asked how they expected to succeed where others didn’t in the market, Jim showed me that Snail is taking the high road in terms of Android console development: instead of working on a light, portable system that appeals to budget or semi-mobile gaming, Snail Games’ OBOX aims to be a full-fledged console in its own right, with specs and features to make it command TV space in the living room or otherwise.
The OBOX (a counter to the Xbox, perhaps?), a shortened term for “Box Online,” features a Tegra K1 processor capable of delivering 4K 3D content. Four controllers can simultaneously sync to the console, each logging in with its own Snail account a la PSN or Xbox Live. Though he wouldn’t give me a price point, Jim said that it was going to be “cheaper than other consoles.” Similar to the W 3D, it would be compatible with Google Play games. Though it only comes with 2 GB of native storage, it accepts multiple types of expansion storage, and includes 4 HDMI ports. The open-source nature of the OBox means it could be used for multiple functions, even potentially as a DVR box.
In many ways, the OBox seems to have learned from its predecessors. The console itself is a sleek, modern-looking black-and-green box which would look appropriate next to other consoles or a DVR box, making it seem less like a toy than other Android consoles. But I had a couple of hangups, chief of which is its controller: made of a rather standard-issue glossy plastic, it feels less durable, less sturdy than a PS4 or Xbox controller, and was exceptionally fingerprint prone. There’s also a touch-sensitive center button similar to the Xbox Home key, but the green LEDs lighting it are underneath the plastic and turn off when the button isn’t pressed, leaving the center of the controller looking somewhat empty. I don’t know if the intention is to use that space as a touchpad for future games, but for now it feels like a bit of a paradox.
As far as the console’s performance itself is concerned, it feels good, but has trouble staking its claim as a full-fledged console instead of a large-screen mobile experience. In part, that’s likely because I was playing Tai Chi Panda, which was originally created for mobile; when I tried a bit of Age of Wushu at a later demo I was a little more convinced, but Age of Wushu had some of its own issues with responsiveness and target acquisition during gameplay. Overall, the OBox display works when doing 4K 3D, but it definitely looks and feels better when playing on a traditional 1080p display, with a better framerate and smoother graphics.
My personal hope is that the OBox is able to make an Android-powered console viable for the American market. Sure, I was burned by the Ouya, but Snail looks like they’re interested in putting in the time and effort to make this box work. Three components are going to be critical to the console’s success, in my opinion:
- Quality, SnailOS-designed launch titles. Tai Chi Panda is a fun game, and Snail will be working with Gameloft to prep games for the Snail platform as well, but they’ll have to rely on games that look great and are designed for an OBox controller to really sell the console experience and the additional money it costs.
- A great-feeling controller. I can’t overstate the importance of a responsive, gorgeous controller ready for multiple hours of use. Prior Android consoles have allowed pairing with other controllers via Bluetooth, but it shouldn’t be assumed that someone will have to wrangle up their Playstation or Xbox controllers in order to use your console. Snail’s controller is close to primed, but I hope they make some minor revisions before shipping.
- Cross-functionality with the Snail W and W 3D. This is the place where I always think that Nintendo misses the mark: though they have a loyal handheld consumer base, and a loyal console base, they have trouble connecting the two experiences. Considering the W will launch before the OBox, it just makes sense to use W owners as ambassadors for the OBox. Tsai said that Snail is still working on potential cross-compatibility with the W and the OBox, but considering the similar control schemes, it would only make sense that you could use a W as an OBox controller. You could also set up some second-screen compatibility for Snail Games, and that capability could be open to any Android mobile device.
Snail still has some tricks up its sleeve that could make the Snail ecosystem appealing for developers and gamers alike. The Snail SDK, which will be available at a discount for early developers, is not only Unity compatible, but will allow for developers to easily take their content to the Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and other platforms. Snail, as a company, is also interested in working with developers who want to create Snail content in the US, and are looking to partner in terms of advertising and distribution. Given their experience with free-to-play gaming, they’re planning on keeping Snail Platform games either free outright or free-to-play, but there’s no contesting that the free-to-play payment model is both successful and here to stay. We’ll see how the W, the W 3D, and the OBox perform as 2015 carries on; stay tuned to Popzara for more information as we keep up on Snail USA developments.