Andy Kleinman, the CEO and co-founder of secretive startup Wonder, thinks the game industry is finally ready for a truly hybrid piece of hardware — and he’s not talking about the Nintendo Switch. Sitting in The Verge’s San Francisco office late last month, he pulls what looks like a standard Android smartphone out of a mesh black case. It’s sleek, square cornered, and sports a massive screen.
As good as it looks, it’s still a prototype device, crafted by notable Silicon Valley industrial designer Yves Behar. Wonder hopes it will be the centerpiece of an entertainment ecosystem for gamers and gadget heads who are fans of forward-looking tech. Unlike a standard Android phone, this device is running a custom layer of software, tentatively called WonderOS, that lets the company overclock the phone’s graphics processor like it were a PC gaming rig and allows the device to beam the display to a television when docked, much like a Switch.
“Everyone has the same exact product,” Kleinman, whose game industry experience comes from a stint at Zygna and at 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 everybody because Apple is all about the ecosystem.” Kleinman wants to build an ecosystem, too, but one that revolves around gaming and a love of niche gadgets and online communities. Effectively, Kleinman wants to make a device akin to Android co-founder Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone with its focus on enthusiast consumers, but with a gaming and entertainment bent.
The eventual product, which Kleinman says is on track to come out next year, will be a hardware package and a subscription service that grants Wonder users a smartphone, dock, controller, and access to a suite of software services. The dock will let the device play games on the big screen with the controller, while the controller itself will have a physical slot for the phone to slot into like a screen attachment. The software services will supposedly range from access to original games from existing game makers, licensed and mobile-optimized third-party titles, streaming game and media options, and other entertainment hub-like features. There’s no word yet on pricing, or even the specs of the phone itself. Wonder is also not yet announcing any formal partnership news. The product does not yet have an official name.
The device may not even be developed and branded by Wonder either, Kleinman says. “We’re talking with companies that are making high-end flagships about putting out software on them, similar to Roku,” he says. “It’s more like an OS, which is why we can’t say that anyone with a smartphone can do this. There are still ways that we can have other devices be Wonder-enabled and there are certain threshold of specs that you have to have.” Regardless, Kleinman very much wants the device to be a do-everything Android handset that can perform tasks as varied as making phone calls to streaming a PC game via Steam, possibly through Valve’s Steam Link platform.
Wonder is not the only company to take a crack at a gaming-centric mobile device. Nvidia tried something similar with the original Shield in 2013, which was a standard game controller with a flip-up screen and Tegra processor built in. It too ran Android, but a lack of a solid software and anemic third-party developer support left the Shield withering until Nvidia used the product name to launch a set-top box that performed most of the same functions, sans portability. More recently, devices like the Razer Phone have tried to take up the mantle of the Android-based portable gaming device, though mostly as a showcase for next-generation display technology.
In the core gaming market, Sony tried for years in the handheld market, first with the PSP and then the Vita. Those devices let players access classic console titles, play a slate of original games, and connect to their more powerful PlayStation consoles for cross- and remote-play purposes. Yet Sony found that mobile devices were eating too much of the portable gaming market, and there wasn’t a large enough need for a handheld device that existed in the nebulous space between a smartphone and a console, one in which Sony was competing mainly with Nintendo’s more successful 3DS. The Vita remains popular in Asia, but Sony has said it has no plans to continue making original titles for the platform or investing in developing a proper successor. Just yesterday, Kotaku reported that Sony has ended production on physical Vita games.
Of course, the best and more successful example of the type of device Wonder is trying to make is the Switch, which Nintendo launched in March last year and by January 2018 had already sold more units than the lifetime sales of the Wii U. Nintendo’s approach has been a calculated one: it took all the learnings from its success with the 3DS and the failure of the Wii U to course correct in a big way with the Switch. The device combines the freedom of handheld gaming with the power of console-style play — all in a tablet form factor. And, with Nintendo being one of the oldest and most beloved brands in the industry, consumers have lined up for the Switch to play games in celebrated franchises like Zelda and Mario.
Wonder is trying something different, and perhaps a bit more radical and necessarily fraught as a result. Kleinman doesn’t want to make a direct Switch competitor, but rather an entertainment brand that just happens to have the hardware versatility of a mobile-console hybrid. And he thinks it can overcome some of the challenges the Switch faces, like lackluster battery performance and a more restrictive game library by incorporating high-end smartphone components and the ubiquity of Android. “The Switch did a really good job starting with the idea of portability, but there’s a lot of limitations on the Switch,” he says. With Wonder, he adds, “think about building a portable gaming and entertainment type platform that can deliver any type of game.”
Right now, Wonder has a lot of work ahead of it. The ways in which it could hit roadblocks or fail altogether are also innumerable, from failing to materialize the phone hardware to running into issues signing up game developers. Right now, the company not only needs to polish its prototype and get it in the hands of beta testers, but it also needs to hammer out partnerships with device manufacturers, game studios, and other content creators to make sure Wonder can deliver more than just Android apps, and on a real piece of hardware and not just a prototype. Kleinman says his team is talking to Valve about Steam support and game streaming, which may open up a viable path for letting the Wonder platform play more sophisticated PC games without needing the beefier hardware to run them natively.
The company is also working with phone makers, though Kleinman won’t say which just yet, to see how it can help develop Wonder-ready devices under existing popular Android brands. In addition to all of that, Kleinman says his team is already talking with game developers about making Wonder-optimized versions of console and PC titles that run on Android and support both controller and touchscreen play.
It sounds like a lot of work for a team of only 30 based in Los Angeles. Although Kleinman says 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 Wonder’s $14 million Series A funding round last year.
“What we’re doing is not super hard. We’re not trying to create Magic Leap-style revolutionary tech nobody has ever seen,” Kleinman says confidently. “We’re just trying to put together a great experience, in the way Apple does it.” Of course, if it weren’t truly difficult to build such a system, another company — like Nintendo or Sony — would have pulled it off much earlier. Yet right now, the tantalizing dream of a true mobile-console hybrid remains out of reach, at least for now. Kleinman thinks Wonder can get there first, and in doing so, the startup just might beat the industry’s biggest players to the future of gaming.