Gaming startup Wonder is building an Android-powered Nintendo Switch competitor

Andy Kleinman, CEO and co-founder of Wonder, the secret company, believes that the video game industry is finally ready for a piece of truly hybrid hardware, and is not talking about the Nintendo Switch. Sitting at The Verge's office in San Francisco late last month, he pulls out what looks like a standard Android smartphone from a black mesh briefcase. It is elegant, squared and has a giant screen.

As good as it looks, it's still a prototype device, designed by the notable industrial designer of Silicon Valley, Yves Behar. Wonder hopes it will be the centerpiece of an entertainment ecosystem for gamers and device bosses who are fans of forward-thinking technology. Unlike a standard Android phone, this device runs a custom software layer, tentatively called WonderOS, which allows the company to overclock the phone's graphics processor as if it were a PC gaming platform and allows the device to display the screen when it is docked. Very similar to a Switch.

"Everyone has the exact same product", Kleinman, whose experience in the gaming industry comes from a season in Zygna and in a studio acquired by Disney, says of the oversaturated mobile market. "They position it the same way by going after the masses – nobody has anything unique – Apple is basically crushing everyone because Apple is about the ecosystem." Kleinman also wants to build an ecosystem, but one that revolves around games and a love for niche devices and online communities. In fact, Kleinman wants to make a device similar to the Android Phone co-founder Andy Rubin's Essential Phone, with its focus on enthusiastic consumers, but with an inclination of play and entertainment.

The eventual product, which according to Kleinman is on track next year, will be a hardware package and a subscription service that will be awarded to the Wonder users a smart phone. Dock, controller and access to a set of software services. The dock will allow the device to play on the big screen with the controller, while the controller will have a physical slot for the phone to fit like a screen accessory. Software services allegedly range from access to original games from existing game manufacturers, licensed third-party titles optimized for mobile devices, real-time media and game options and other features similar to entertainment centers. Still nothing is known about the prices, or even about the specifications of the phone. Wonder also does not announce any formal association news yet. The product does not have an official name yet.

The device can not even be developed and marked by Wonder, says Kleinman. "We're talking to companies that are doing high-level flagship projects on software placement in them, similar to Roku," he says. "It's more like an operating system, so we can not say that anyone with a smartphone can do this, there are still ways we can make other devices compatible with Wonder and there is a certain threshold of specifications that you should have." Anyway, Kleinman wants the device to be an Android phone for everything that can perform tasks as varied as making phone calls to transmit a PC game through Steam, possibly through Valve's Steam Link platform.

Wonder is not the only company that seizes an opportunity on a game-centric mobile device. Nvidia tried something similar with the original Shield in 2013, which was a standard game controller with a drop-down screen and an integrated Tegra processor. Android also ran, but the lack of solid software and the support of an anemic third-party developer left the Shield withering until Nvidia used the name of the product to open a decoder that performed most of the same functions, without portability. More recently, devices like the Razer Phone have tried to take the mantle of the Android-based portable gaming device, albeit mainly as a showcase for next-generation display technology.

In the central games market, Sony tried for years in the market for portable devices, first with PSP and then with Vita. These devices allow players to access classic console titles, play a list of original games and connect to their most powerful PlayStation consoles for cross and remote gaming purposes. However, Sony discovered that mobile devices were consuming too much of the portable gaming market, and that there was not enough need for a portable device that existed in the nebulous space between a smartphone and a console, in which Sony competed primarily with The most successful 3DS from Nintendo. La Vita is still popular in Asia, but Sony has said it has no plans to continue making original titles for the platform or to invest in the development of an appropriate successor. Yesterday, Kotaku reported that Sony has finished the production of Vita's physical games.





Photo: Wonder

Of course, the best and most successful example of the kind of device that Wonder is trying to make is the Switch, which was released by Nintendo in March of last year and by January 2018 it had already sold more units that the Lifetime sales of Wii U. The Nintendo approach has been calculated: it took all the learnings of its success with the 3DS and the failure of the Wii U to correct the course with the switch. The device combines the freedom of portable gaming with the power of console-style gaming, all in one tablet form factor. And, as Nintendo is one of the oldest and most beloved brands in the industry, consumers have lined up for Switch to play games at franchises such as Zelda and Mario .

Wonder is trying something different, and maybe a little more radical and necessarily tense as a result. Kleinman does not want to become a direct competitor of Switch, but rather an entertainment brand that simply has the hardware versatility of a mobile console hybrid. And he believes he can overcome some of the challenges Switch faces, such as lackluster battery performance and a more restrictive library of games by incorporating high-end smartphone components and the ubiquity of Android. "The Switch did a very good job starting with the idea of ​​portability, but there are many limitations in the Switch," he says. With Wonder, he adds, "think about building a portable gaming and entertainment platform that can offer any type of game."

At this moment, Wonder has a lot of work ahead of him. The ways in which you could hit the roadblocks or fail completely are also innumerable, from not materializing the phone's hardware to having problems logging in to game developers. At this time, the company not only needs to polish its prototype and put it in the hands of beta testers, but also needs to forge partnerships with device manufacturers, game studios and other content creators to ensure that Wonder can offer more than just Android applications, and in a real piece of hardware and not just a prototype. Kleinman says his team is talking to Valve about Steam support and the transmission of games, which can open a viable way to allow the Wonder platform to play more sophisticated PC games without the need for robust hardware to run them natively. .

The company is also working with phone manufacturers, although Kleinman will not say which one at the moment, to see how it can help develop Devices ready for wonders under the popular Android brands. On top of all that, Kleinman says his team is already talking to game developers about how to make Wonder-optimized versions of console and PC titles running on Android that are compatible with both the controller and the touch screen. .

It seems like a lot of work for a team of only 30 people based in Los Angeles. Although Kleinman says that Wonder now has an engineering group in Seattle, an industrial design division in San Francisco and manufacturing partners in China, courtesy of consumer electronics giant TLC, which invested as part of the Series A financing round of $ 14 million from last year.

"What we are doing is not super difficult, we are not trying to create revolutionary technology like Magic Leap that nobody has ever seen," says Kleinman with confidence. "We're trying to put together a great experience, the way Apple does." Of course, if it were not really difficult to build such a system, another company, such as Nintendo or Sony, would have achieved it. much earlier However, at this moment, the tempting dream of a true mobile console hybrid remains out of reach, at least for now. Kleinman believes that Wonder can come first, and by doing so, the startup could outperform the industry's main players in the future of the games.