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Zeebo: Gaming for the next billion

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Myopic Rhino


During GDC Mobile yesterday, Qualcomm's Mike Yuen and Zeebo's John Rizzo officially announced the launch of the Zeebo console. Given that I work at Qualcomm, with Mike and Dave Durnil, two of the people that initially came up with the idea, I've known about this for a while and was glad to see it finally go officially public.

Rather than attempting to compete with the Big 3 on technical level, Zeebo is targeting a niche, albeit a rather large one: middle class families in emerging markets, such as Brazil, India, and China. The console was designed with the following factors in mind:
  • The target audience has never owned a game console before, so cutting edge technology isn't needed
  • The target audience can't afford one of the existing consoles, so the much lower price (around 1/5 the cost of a Wii) will make Zeebo much more appealing
  • Piracy is rampant in the target markets, creating little incentive for publishers to develop for those markets. Zeebo addresses this by distributing games (at prices slightly higher than pirated prices) exclusively via their 3G network, using BREW

Zeebo features an 528MHz ARM 11 processor, Qualcomm Adreno 130 graphics core (OpenGL ES 1.0+), 1GB of NAND Flash, and 128 MB DDR SDRAM + 32MB stacked DDR
SDRAM. Being based on cellphone technology, Zeebo also draws very little power, further reducing the cost to own.

Publisher support of the console is already strong. The console will ship with 4 titles embedded, and another free to download. More than 40 titles will be available either at launch or within 90 days of launch. The console will launch initially in Brazil, with other markets to follow.

It's of course difficult for me to evaluate Zeebo without some kind of bias. I was skeptical of the idea at first, but it does seem like it has the potential to open a whole new segment of the market that currently isn't being reached at all. As one developer pointed out, it seems like the tendency is going to be for publishers to just port their back catalogs, rather than create new titles. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing: it's cheaper for them, and the games will be new to Zeebo owners anyway. I do think it'll create opportunities for smaller, local developers to create games tailored to the culture.

Regardless, I'll be watching with interest to see how well Zeebo is received.
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My question would be, would people rather buy a system where they pay less for the console or a system where they only pay for the console?

I'll be interested to hear how this turns out. Especially if the mod-chipping community cracks it quickly.

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Well, typically, they're still paying for the games, even though they're pirated, but they do so at 1/10th of the retail price. And they buy the game in black market areas where they don't know until they got home if they really got what they paid for. Zeebo games will sell for only 10-20% more than the pirated price, and the thought is that people will pay that for the convenience and for knowing what they're getting.

I'm not sure that cracking Zeebo will be easy to do, but we'll see.

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I'm interested too how this will turn out.

As someone who lives in a country next to Brazil, I can tell you lately PS3 & Wiis are a bit expensive.
But we DO know (well I'm up to date because I work in this industry, but I mean everyone else too) the big titles; mainly because we were able to afford PS2, PSOne and N64s in their time.
But also the PC is a big "console" here, with piracy, like they say, very big.

Given the PC titles, prev. generation console titles, and internet reviews, we have a big community of gamers familiar with the big titles.

However you can play Xbox360, PS3, and Wii titles in some stores/cybercafes for little money.

Original post by Myopic Rhino
I'm not sure that cracking Zeebo will be easy to do, but we'll see.

Well, again, as someone who lives in a country where piracy is so big that publishers don't even care and forget about us (if you ask me, I think that's why they call us a niche market) I was surprised when I talked with someone who saw how some PS3s, Wiis and Xbox were able to run pirated games. The talk was something like this:

Me: But I heard these consoles have strong hardware DRM capabilities. How do they manage to run cracked copies?

Him: Modchips can be installed, there are also some boot CDs that exploit some vulnerabilties that allow a non-orginal CD to be booted, like with the Dreamcast.

Me: Yeah but I've heard the console's firmware can be updated, which detects the modchip. So basically you shouldn't be able to update the firmware.

Him: Yes, but the modchip has a switch to turn it off. The firmware is updated. Then the modchip can also be updated to counter the firmware's update and be turned on again.

Me: So what do they do against that?

Him: Well, at least Nintendo seems to have started giving 3-year warranties. So no customer wants to void that warranty because they're too expensive already and that's how they solved the modchip problem in their Wiis. I don't know about the other two consoles.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How clever those methods to crack the console were. I thought those consoles were even harder to crack than the previous ones, and it seemed when he talked like if it were a piece of cake.
And I was also surprised how Nintendo solved the problem.

The Zeebo's idea is a very interesting one, but it won't be an easy road. They'll have to be very smart.
The low price for the console is a very good approach, as parents do buy cheap consoles for they little children's (famicons and sega genesis are still being sold here for that very own reason) but it won't tempt regular gamers we're used to deal (the hardcore, and some casual too) because they prefer the PC (or, if they have the money, a next-gen console)

Just my 2 cents.
Dark Sylinc

PS: If you're asking yourself why publishers don't sue shops who sell pirated/modded software or hardware it's because.... well they would have to sue most shops in the country. Yes piracy is THAT big.
Some vendors seem to start making a different approach: instead of sueing every shop in the country, they make deals with them, with the conditions they don't sell their stuff pirated. Increasingly you're starting to see in the magazines, advertisements and shops "Console XX price: $YY Status: Not modded"
Yes, you read it right, their "modded" status is part of the description, like if it were a regular thing, when that thing shouldn't be even mentioned.

Good luck Zeebo!

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