Thunderbolt logo

We Need to Talk About Ouya

Hardware

An open-source, Android based, hackable console, that will empower anybody to become a game developer, all for $99. That’s what the CEO and founder of Boxer 8, Julie Uhrman, is proposing with an ambitious Kickstarter pitch for a new console – the Ouya. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Many of you out there sure think so, because at just 7 days into the project over 38,000 people have pledged upwards of $4.9 million dollars, far exceeding Ouya’s initial goal of just under $1 million to become Kickstarter’s fastest growing videogame project to date. But all is not what it seems. Read between the lines of the pitch, see past the seductive design and the allure of the promises being made, and you might just find that it all seems a little too good to be true.

Consider the economics of creating a new console. The current generation cost roughly $5.8 billion in research and development, marketing and games development costs according to industry investor Kevin Dent. And up until now the Ouya has been funded solely by family and friend angel investors, with Urhman stating that venture capitalists “are still scared away from hardware”.

Can the Ouya really be manufactured, marketed and developed for just over $4.9 million? Let’s pluck a rough figure out of the air and say that the console costs $60 to manufacture. $4.9 million would net you 81,000 consoles. Now that’s an unscientific calculation, sure, but the fact is that bringing a console to market takes a huge financial investment, and 81,000 consoles is not enough for a successful launch. Unless Ouya has some secret well of unannounced resource, it’s going to stumble at the first hurdle.

Besides the basic figures, the most important component to launching a new console that any manufacturer would be remiss to forget is the games. And any developer considering the Ouya will be asking themselves the same questions right now – who is the market and what can I do with it?

screenshot

Well, Ouya comes powered with the same NVIDIA Tegra 3 chip set as the new Nexus 7 tablet, you can see a demo of its graphical capabilities here. It’s impressive tech for the portable tablet market, but for home gaming? This thing isn’t going to be pushing out an Uncharted anytime soon, let’s put it that way.

But the Ouya is android based you say, it already has a massive library of smaller games ready and waiting. Yes, that is very true – a massive library of games designed for portable devices! There’s a reason why a Cut the Rope or Tiny Wings sells well on a tablet or smartphone. They are bite sized treats, slivers of light entertainment you can dip into for 10 minutes whilst waiting for a bus. Do you really want a tiny salad as the predominant experience on your home console? I for one at least want the option of steak and chips on my TV.

The current console generation offers this kind of variety already; arcade games, high end experiences as well as everything in-between, and it already has a significant install base. Ouya may claim that “We don’t like it when people pay $60 for a game and feel cheated”, but I’m pretty sure I recently payed £6.85($10.00) for Fez, £10.20($15.00) for Spelunky and £13.60($20.00) for Minecraft on my Xbox, all of which I would consider independent titles, as well as great value for money.

Admittedly, independent development on the 360 and PS3 is a relatively stunted affair, and Microsoft and Sony’s consoles are nowhere near as open as they should be. This is one area that the Ouya could potentially carve out its own market niche. But that idea comes with its own set of issues.

Their claim is that with Ouya “anyone can make a game”, which is all well and good, but game developers go to game school for a reason – game development is hard. Trust me, I’ve learnt a bit of coding and fiddled around with Unreal Engine 3, Unity and other engines, and I couldn’t even make a simple Space Invaders clone. Unless Ouya comes with a sophisticated set of development tools and has some rigorous quality control measures in place, there could be an influx of low quality titles.

Those who are passionate enough to make great games independently already have an open, hackable platform with a vast audience of insatiable consumers – It’s called the PC. Steam and independent download services are the hubs of homebrew development these days. And even Microsoft and Sony have been a more open place for lower production, creative development recently, the kind of game that the Ouya looks to differentiate itself with.

There’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors concerning just what games the Ouya will launch with as well. Their pitch claims outright that “Minecraft will be there”, which is in fact, a lie: Kotaku recently confirmed with co-founder of Mojang, Carl Manneh, that he and his colleagues“haven’t committed to anything” with regards to the Ouya. Similarly Ouya’s games reel shows EA’s giant American football franchise Madden on the dashboard, which is another flight of fancy on the behalf of Uhrman and co, as nothing has been officially confirmed.

In fact there isn’t actually a single confirmed title for Ouya’s (now ambitiously sounding) March 2013 release. And apparently, every single one of these non-existent games will be free-to-play, which is another falsification. What this actually means in Ouya terms is that all games will have a free-to-play component, which could just be a demo.

screenshot

Even considering all of this, what is potentially the biggest issue with Ouya is its supposed openness. I don’t know about you, but I tend to lock my door when I leave my house, not swing it wide open and plonk a huge sign outside declaring ‘expensive electronics inside, but don’t take them!’. The Ouya will be a hackable platform, which is another of Uhrman’s claims. Do they really think that a community as tech savvy as gamers won’t use that as an opportunity to come up with ways to illegally download anything and everything?

And how does the Ouya hope to compete with the future of streaming services? As we have already established, it doesn’t have enough money to even build enough consoles, let alone construct the architecture required for a streaming service all by itself.

It really is hard to see Ouya competing with the current console manufacturers when they don’t have the brand recognition, the independent properties (and lack the financial power to create them) or a future proof plan. It’s too underpowered to fit in with current publisher models, too underfunded to get off of the ground in the first place and too at odds with the market it seeks to fit into to carve out its own niche. Aside from its potentially dangerous ‘openness’ it really doesn’t have much else going for it.

To me Ouya’s Kickstarter success doesn’t so much predict the arrival of a new console that will ‘shake up’ the industry, as it does indicate the frustrations felt by gamers clamouring for something new within the console sector: A result of Sony and Microsoft racing snails into the next generation, cautious of letting their now profitable current consoles go in hard economic times.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish Boxer8 the best of luck and I sincerely hope that they prove me wrong. But it’s all too easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of hype and excitement that surrounds the announcement of a new console, without considering the realities. And the reality I foresee is one filled with echoes of the N-gage and visions of the Phantom. There is simply too much inherent conflict within what has been revealed of Ouya’s design and strategy for it to succeed. And as much as their pitch might try to convince you of it, they aren’t appealing to any gap in the market so much as trying to place a square Ouya shaped peg into an already full, circular hole.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2012. Get in touch on Twitter @matski53.

Gentle persuasion

Like chit chat? Join the forum.