GameStick sort of comes out to play at GDC

You can look, but you can't play

With the Xbox 720 sitting GDC out and Sony showing little more by way of PS4 hardware than its DualShock controller, smaller gaming systems are taking the spotlight at this year's conference.

Ouya is the most high profile of the alternative systems at this 2013 gathering, but another Kickstarter-funded concept isn't simply standing in the wings waiting to show the dev-heavy crowd what it's got.

GameStick, developed by PlayJam, spent some time in the glow of demo screens and the flash of cameras Wednesday night as the Android TV console's parent company gave attendees at an after-hours shindig a taste of what's to come.

The hardware shown wasn't the final version by any means: We actually got a look at two elements in the evolution of GameStick - a dark gray console and HDMI stick that comprise developer units shipping next week and a glossy white, more refined version of the same pieces that served as models for final retail units.

Though the company was running demos, the dev controllers were, we were told, not ready to use because they had just come from the supplier. While the dev stick was hooked up to a pair of televisions and ran the GameStick UI and a handful of games, we had to use a third-party controller to manipulate the action.


Dev units in gray, final retail models in white

That said, we did at least get to experience the look and feel of the controllers and sticks on hand. While design-wise the units aren't too dissimilar, PlayJam CMO Anthony Johnson told us the final versions will be more responsive than the dev kits.

The analog sticks were elastic enough, and the buttons clacked as buttons should. The backside is devoid of any geography, and thanks to its rectangular and flat shape, holding the controller sort of feels like your carrying a round-edged booklet. It's not uncomfortable, just not entirely ergonomic.

As for the GameStick stick itself, the dev HDMI is larger than the final plug so game makers and UI testers have a little more heft to work with, the PlayJam team said, while the final controller will have a slot at the top to house the toggle.

Normally it slides into TV HDMI ports when in use, but PlayJam had them connected to wires for visual effect.

Dev Unit

The bulkier, darker GameStick dev unit

The bare bones, everything-in-one-place theme carries over to the system's UI. The game store is housed where players' games, profile, settings and media options are all stored.

While spartan, it's simple and inviting enough to induce even the first-time gamer to give it a go. There's something refreshingly friendly about the whole layout.

PlayJam Chief Commercial Officer Charles Tigges told us that eventually color might replace the gray background while a glow will halo selections. The background should get a more animated look in the future and the design will have more overall depth, he added.


Stripped down to what you're looking for

The media center houses both Netflix and the recently solidified XBMC support, so there's definite potential for this to become a portable home entertainment hub, even while on the road.

Developer units will ship with Jelly Bean Android 4.1, but at retail launch consumers will see Android 4.2. The dev units run a dual-core Amlogic processor as well.

User profile

Keep track of your game-buying balance in your profile

Simple indeed

At US$79 a pop for a controller and stick, the whole GameStick experience is certainly wallet-friendly. While you don't have the same weighty satisfaction as holding a PlayStation DualShock controller, the spacious and somewhat rudimentary GameStick controller feels substantial enough.

The idea behind the GameStick experience, Johnson explained, was to create something that appealed to the casual to mid-core gamer.

"We want to have games that range from $0.99 to $2.99," he said. "We're going for affordable mass-market gaming."

Tigges also noted that PlayJam is "pretty happy" with the Zen nature of the system.

"Even though there are lots of consoles in living rooms, they typically go towards hardcore target groups," he said. "The price and simplicity of the product goes towards the mass market."

While PlayJam gave the GDC crowd the first taste of the GameStick experience, it also announced a few of partnerships and pre-install game titles coming to the system.

Both Shadowgun and Smash Cops will come ready to play with the unit, giving users a duo of free titles to play out of the box. GameStop is one of the company's bigger backers, adding a heavyweight retail branch to PlayJam's arsenal.

Dev units will head out globally, as are Kickstarter order fulfillments, but Tigges said that when the GameStick is ready for retail in June, the company will focus first at the U.S., U.K., a few other European countries and possibly Australia.

We'll keep you posted on further details of the GameStick and its launch as they become available, so tune back in for more.

Michelle Fitzsimmons

Michelle was previously a news editor at TechRadar, leading consumer tech news and reviews. Michelle is now a Content Strategist at Facebook.  A versatile, highly effective content writer and skilled editor with a keen eye for detail, Michelle is a collaborative problem solver and covered everything from smartwatches and microprocessors to VR and self-driving cars.