You probably are familiar with today's leading video game consoles: the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3. But a fourth console of this generation, Zeebo, might matter more.
Zeebo is produced by a company of the same name, with backing from chipmaker Qualcomm. It sports 3G wireless connectivity, ships with four games preloaded, and enables gamers to download a fifth game from the Web for free (as well as others at a cost). Zeebo was made available last week in Brazil for about $249.
Zeebo's focus is on developing countries. Although it is hardly the first console maker to try its hand in emerging markets, the big three have centered their development and marketing efforts on North America, Europe, and Asia.
While those efforts have helped form a multibillion-dollar industry, many game makers realize that as with other forms of entertainment, success in developing countries could be quite lucrative.
The Xbox 360 has had some trouble getting off the ground in India due to a perceived high price. The iQue Player, a joint venture between Nintendo and a Chinese-American scientist, was produced for Chinese gamers. And Brazil--the country Zeebo is currently targeting--has had a homebrew console market for quite some time. A combination of pirated and custom development has provided Brazilian streets with interesting hardware.
Zeebo is setting itself up for success not only by targeting a different crowd from the major console makers but also by helping gamers get their hands on games more easily (and cheaply). Zeebo gamers, instead of being forced to go to a local or online retailer to buy a game, can buy games through the console's 3G wireless connection and download them directly onto the system. According to Engadget, the games will cost no more than $15.
The console maker, based in San Diego, is quick to point out that it's not focused on trouncing the competition but rather on providing a complementary experience. Much like Nintendo's Wii, Zeebo is designed for the novice gamer who isn't necessarily vying for beautiful visuals or epic story lines.
Shailendra Pandey, senior research analyst of mobile content and applications at Informa Telecoms & Media, told ZDNet last month that it's that complementary service that could serve Zeebo well.
"Zeebo can help create a large base of basic games users in emerging markets, many of whom will later migrate to more advanced platforms, such as the Xbox or PlayStation," he told ZDNet.
If it's successful (it's too early to tell how well the console is selling so far), Zeebo doesn't want to stop in Brazil. The company is hoping to make its console available in Mexico later this year, in India and Eastern Europe in 2010, and China by 2011.
"We're on a mission to bring the fun and excitement of interactive entertainment and education to those who, until now, have had little or no access to such technology," the company wrote on its Web site. "Today, the top three gaming consoles in the world have little market presence among the rising middle class of Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe... Zeebo fills an enormous unmet need for digital entertainment and education in Latin America, Asia, and other regions. At the same time, it opens an immense new market for interactive entertainment content and products."
And perhaps that's what is most important about Zeebo.
As a lifelong gamer, I expect new consoles every six years, and I wait for new games to hit store shelves every week. These habits, while not familiar to every American or Japanese urbanite, are completely foreign to those growing up in developing countries. For the most part, gaming hasn't even scratched the surface in developing countries.
Effectively bringing video games to developing countries will significantly increase the industry's popularity and influence. As video games become more popular and more profitable for companies, they can only enhance gamers' experience.
Video games will hardly solve the world's problems. But if companies like Zeebo succeed, gamers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan will potentially have more dynamic games from which to choose, thanks to more gamers and more developer revenue. And those in Brazil, China, and other countries where video games have yet to add color to the entertainment landscape might enjoy games for the first time. We could all win.