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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The OUYA, The Console, and Indie Game Development

More than one person has asked me what I think of the OUYA, which people seem to either love or hate without much in the middle. If you want to read what the people who are making it (or claim to be) think, you can find that on their Kickstarter page.
Here's the short version. OUYA, as the developers imagine it, is a console intended to cater to indie games. It would be built on Android, and could support games for Android devices (including touchscreen games, with its own touchscreen on its controller), as well as new games developed particularly for the console. It would be easy to modify - owners could modify the hardware or software at their discretion. The games for it would be free or would have free-to-play elements, so developers could get their content to a broad audience and players would be able to sample games without having to buy them. OUYA is being billed as a way of getting rid of old limitations on consoles, including a weaker market for indie games and firm hardware and software capabilities, while at the same time waxing nostalgic about the era of the console it hopes to restore.

For some reason I'm nostalgic for everything about the SNES, including untangling cords and games just not working.
Having set out to raise $950,000 in a month, OUYA instead raised $2 million in their first day. Seven days in, they've raised almost $5 million.

They only ever show 60% of the controller in pictures. The other 40% may still be in development. 

There has been some controversy over this. One group says OUYA is going to revolutionize gaming, and that it's a logical and exciting step forward for indie developers that may be one of the greatest innovations in video game history. Another group says it's the greatest fleecing of the consuming population ever to happen anywhere, let alone on Kickstarter, that the console will never appear, and that the fact that so many morons are willing to throw money at it signals the imminent collapse of western civilization.

I may be overstating both positions slightly. The most major question is whether what OUYA promises - a $99 console within the next year or so that will be a significant enough improvement over the PC and existing systems to be commercially viable - is at all realistic or possible. A secondary question is whether it was a good idea in the first place.

Without completely characterizing where people fall on those questions, I'll say both that I think it's possible, and I think it's a good idea.

I want to immediately qualify those statements by saying "But it may very well still fail and it's entirely possible that a lot of money is about to evaporate, leaving behind a smoking crater and tens of thousands of really pissed off gamers."

But I don't think those are good reasons not to be optimistic, and even if you're not, I don't think pessimism is a good reason to avoid getting behind it.

Nothing in the hardware is especially revolutionary. Mass production and quality testing might be complicated, but with the right know-how and without the complexities of moving parts (no disc readers, etc.) I think it could be doable. I certainly don't think anything about this project says that it's too big or too complicated to be done, especially with as much money as has been spent on it in its first week. Sure, it will need a lot of developers, but if the interest in it is big enough - which the aforementioned $5 million-in-one-week suggests is possible - then developers will be drawn to it. Daniel Cook of Spry Fox and Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany have already expressed interest; if people of their creativity and energy got behind the product, you can believe that even if it's not successful, it'll certainly be interesting. As a developer myself, currently working on a game that wouldn't work on phones but is very undemanding of most PC's, I'll say that I'd love to have a console like the OUYA to develop for if their distribution model seemed to work, and if I thought it would help me reach an audience. With me, as for most developers, the question is mostly how excited the gaming population seems to be about the OUYA. If it keeps on its current trajectory, I for one will be trying to get a dev kit.

As far as whether it's a good idea, I think that it represents a change in the way we think about consoles. I don't know if that should take this form, but I think it should take some form and this is the best shot I've seen so far. I, for one, like the idea of indie games having a more dedicated place on the console. Admittedly, there are lots of ways to get indie games on your consoles these days, but I can imagine that a system particularly tailored to the indie market could end up being better for it, particularly if the devs had more license to make modifications to the system.

I don't know if this system is going to be the "revolution" it promises; the OUYA is a video game console, and if it does that successfully then it doesn't need any further manifesto. If it really is the game developer's system, then maybe it will end up being a place for devs with new ideas but few resources to get their ideas out to an audience tired of the same-old, same-old. If it fails in that, then it has proven that people are at least willing to put their money towards a similar idea, and it's entirely possible that a successor will have better luck. Is it possible that the OUYA might burn investors to the point where they won't be willing to try again? Absolutely - but even if that happens, I don't think the 38,000+ people who put money into it are going to want to give up that idea so easily.

Do I want to like the OUYA? Yes. Do I think it has the potential to be a big, big change for our industry? Yes. Do I think it has the potential to fail catastrophically? Yes. Am I going to support it anyway? Yes. I don't think these people are trying to steal our money, I think they're trying to make something cool, and as a developer I'd rather put myself behind it, win or lose, and hope that one day - maybe as soon as March, when they're planning to release - there will be a group of developers and gamers ready to accept it.


  1. This is interesting. I'm hopeful for the Ouya as well, although as time goes by, I'm starting to think the path they are taking will be a lot trickier than I first thought.

    To my mind, it all comes down to this: will the Ouya be able to curate their library of games? When you look at sales for the "big three," it's apparent that sales for each of these consoles has "led from the front" -- driving sales with blockbuster game experiences. Where would xbox be without Halo? Wii without Mario or the Zelda franchise? They would still be around, might even be strong platforms, but they wouldn't command the respect they've earned in the market.

    Of course, as the Ouya folks have picked up on, gaming in the cellphone market (and maybe handhelds generally?) has followed a completely different trajectory. While Angry Birds and Temple Run may be blockbusters, I don't think they're driving the market. I think they happen to be the games that people are buying right now. (I'd love to hear more conversation on this point though.) But fundamentally, even if cell games work differently, if people buy them differently, isn't that because they exist in a completely different market ecosystem?

    Put simply, a big chunk of people who buy games on their phones would never call themselves gamers. Would this market spring for a console? Most of them won't. Of course, some of them would, but I think this goes to the crux of the question. The indie community may prove to be the backbone of the Ouya experiment, but without a big market to expand into, it won't bring the market disruption the project is promising.

    But then, the market for games is changing, fast. Many, many people have discovered electronic experiences for the first time in just the last few years. If those appetites are whetted, who knows what comes next?

    1. Good article on big three sales: