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My thoughts on OUYA

28 October on Blogs, Editorial  

I have been asked a lot lately about the OUYA. Just in case you haven't heard, it's one of the most recent Kickstarter sweethearts in the form of an open platform gaming "console". The term should be used lightly, and while a lot of people seem incredibly excited, to me this looks like one of the biggest scams in the industry since the Phantom. What boggles my mind, though, is that I am actually not sure if the creators are ill-intentioned or just naïve.

I think it's nice to start this post with a cautionary tale. Once upon a time, Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, decided to leave the company to pursue his dream of creating a semi-open videogame platform - some of you may remember the 3DO. Not only did the company allowed other manufacturers to create their own hardware revisions, but software licenses were extremely low. The concept seemed sound: make a very powerful console with incredibly competitive license fees and allow several hardware revisions with little risk. But the high sticker price for the console itself held initial sales outright, and the low royalties resulted in virtually no support for third parties. Result: a huge train wreck.

Now OUYA tries something different, but some lessons should be kept in mind. Let's start by reviewing OUYA's mission statement. They are offering an Android-based deck with specialized software to run its own store (not unlike what Amazon did with the Kindle Fire). The internals don't steer too far from other media centers and tablets available on the market. It prides itself in being extremely hackable, and it was put on Kickstarter with a focus on selling to developers. If you don't think too much, it sounds like a dream for any indie developer: a capable piece of hardware that is extremely accessible and with almost non-existent development hurdles. So their $950,000 investment goal was reached... and surpassed. They are now sitting on top of over 8 million dollars. "Awesome!", budding indie game devs are thinking about their huge instant user base. But how great is that in reality?

My biggest concern comes in the motivations of its creators. First off, they seemed a bit ambiguous or confused about their strategy, including saying conflicting opinions on whether they would seek additional funding elsewhere. I also like this article reminding us of some of the realities that seemed to be forgotten by its creators. But let's put all of that aside and think about this for a second. Ultimately, most of the hardware development the OUYA requires is for its case and assembly (which CAN be problematic, as the Xbox 360's original failure rate reminds us). Most of the software development is based around the store. So... really, the OUYA is ultimately a game delivery platform - not unlikely the Phantom (they at least made the "lapboard" to show some effort). If their true interest is to help the wannabe game developers wouldn't it make a lot more sense to just create OUYA as a distribution platform for current platforms like SmartTVs and Media Centers? Yes, you'd have some hardware variation which is bad... but if they are so intent on user hacking, wouldn't that amount to the same thing?

Think about it. If OUYA was an app that you could install like a channel on Google TV, Samsung SmartTVs etc. (which, by the way, was one of the things Gaikai is doing, or at least was before the Sony acquisition) wouldn't it be a much better deal for developers? You'd have instant penetration in millions of homes, with a very wide demographic. Right now the audience for the OUYA seems to be... a lot of indie game developers. They are an audience, but not exactly ideal.

Now we go back to the actual business model. I assume they aren't making their money from the hardware only - there is going to be a cut from sales from their store, which I assume will be the  official way to buy games. Anyone can root the device and therefore piracy on it should be reasonably easy to implement - not a good sign for developers. The store is still curated, and that can go either way - Xbox Live Arcade and PSN have a great user experience and amazing support, but are incredibly restrictive to most smaller developers. The App Store is more open for the small guys, but has arcane and arbitrary rules that make it unpredictable and very hard to put any serious investment in. Until we know how they will operate, it's hard to guess the specifics. But the worst part is that chances are that they will follow the 3DO route to try and lure developers and end up not supporting them properly on the premise of the platform being "open".

In fact, I have serious issues with the use of the word "open". It is used in misleading ways. The store is curated, so it isn't truly open. They demand some sort of free trial of the game, and who knows if they will later put content restrictions. Can I make a game featuring graphic pornography? And if I do, isn't that going to be a problem with parents? I am aware that there is no "right" answer in any of those cases. You can't win them all and compromises need to be made, but I would very much like to be aware of those before stepping in. We hear about big backers like Square Enix joining the fold... but do you think they will stay for long if the store gets flooded with porn rape simulators?

So let's recap: we have off-the-shelf hardware put in a nice case, we are left unsure of the fact retailers will sell it in brick and mortar stores, an audience of primarily game developers, a distinct possibility of very little developer support, rules that are unclear - and due to their use of "open", developers will probably have zero legal standing if they change said rules and screw you in the process... all for a very generic hardware configuration.

Let's be a bunch of optimists for a second here. Let's say EVERYTHING works out like a charm. Let's pretend like they don't bump into any of those thorny issues. How many digital marketplaces tried to compete with Steam, a platform now available for PCs and Mac, and probably Linux in the future, given Gabe Newell's recent outburst? The OUYA not only will have to compete with a lot of digital marketplaces (which are still popping everywhere lately), but also several dedicated and non-dedicated game machines. Why risk fighting a huge battle on two fronts (where, might I add, many failed) when you have a hardware configuration that makes you compatible with a huge slew of devices?

Unfortunately, I think OUYA's success is the fruit of both consumer and developer frustration with our increasingly controlled digital environments. It's like a rebelling teen, shouting a bunch of idealistic platitudes - it might even mean well, but it will probably never lead anywhere.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.