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Ouya! Oh Yeah?

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By Nelson Schneider - 07/15/12 at 02:58 PM CT

This past week, a new Indie developer came out of nowhere and took the world of console games by surprise. This new company, called Ouya, isn’t, however, an Indie game developer, but an Indie console developer. Could such a thing actually work?

Ouya launched via Kickstarter with a relatively-small venture capital goal of $950,000. Less than $1 million to engineer, manufacture, and distribute a game console? Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo should take notice! Of course, Ouya didn’t just earn their initial goal: As of this writing, they have accumulated nearly $5 million in contributions, the vast majority of which comes from backers at the $99 level, which essentially amounts to pre-orders, as $99 will be the Ouya console’s retail price.

In the modern console environment, the Ouya is bucking all of the trends. While the PS3 launched at the price of a decent laptop computer, the Xbox 360 launched at an equivalent price to a reasonable desktop PC, and the Wii launched at the price of two Gamecubes duct-taped together with a waggle wand, the Ouya plans to launch at the price consoles usually don’t hit until they are technically ‘dead.’ The PS2 sold for years after its death at a $99 price-point, simply because it had more and better games than the PS3.

But will the Ouya have more and better games than… well… anything? The Ouya will be an Android-based system, sporting a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, 1 GB of RAM, and all the wireless accoutrements we’ve become accustomed to this-gen. Essentially, the Ouya will be the equivalent of a high-end Android-based smartphone with the phone part removed and a roomier case that will eliminate the engineering costs associated with stuffing a powerful computer into something smaller than a bar of soap. And what games are available on Android-based smartphones? Terrible ones! Of course, there are plenty of FREE terrible games, as well as a few overpriced ports of non-terrible games ($15 for “Final Fantasy III”?). But honestly, the Android game library is a travesty. Can Ouya save it?

While Nintendo seems to be going backwards with the WiiU, errantly claiming that game consoles are ‘TV parasites’ and shaping their next console into something distressingly-similar to a stationary handheld, Ouya understands what’s great about console gaming: Games that just work, on a big screen with surround-sound and a nice, buttony controller. While Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo strive to find increasingly-annoying and inaccurate ways to interact with games, Ouya promises a standard controller with a small, built-in touchpad for compatibility with touch-only smartphone games. The real goal of Ouya seems to be to provide a source of inspiration to encourage Android developers to try harder.

Smartphone games are portable games: They are meant to be played for short periods of time while out-and-about. Smartphones have battery-life issues, smartphones have tiny screens, smartphones have a dearth of buttons: Nobody should expect to see a console-quality game on these platforms anymore than they should expect to see a console-quality game on a Nintendo or Sony handheld (yet Nintendo and Sony foolishly insist on releasing console-quality games as handheld exclusives). Smartphone games are (and should be) tiny oases of distraction in our hectic daily schedules. Once the day is done and we’re ready to relax and engage in our gaming hobby, something more substantial than “Angry Birds” is required – something that can be played on a TV console for hours at a time. If Ouya can convince Indie developers that it is worth their time and energy to create real games for Android to be played on this console, I can foresee Ouya redefining console gaming.

Of course, Ouya is absolutely 100% beholden to third-parties. Ouya isn’t a game developer. Ouya isn’t associated with any big game publisher. Ouya is Indie, and outside of Humble Bundles, Indies don’t really provide any meaningful support system for each other. Sure, using Android as their console’s OS gives Ouya something of an in with Google – and Google is HUGE – but Google has never shown any indication that it is interested in games. Google’s Play store is a disorganized mess filled with non-game-garbage and sometimes malware. Not even Microsoft has allowed malware into a game console before (unless you want to count the ‘Halo’ series)!

By courting the Indie developers who make Android games, Ouya is not only pitting itself against the established console makers, but also against PC gaming via Steam, the premier platform for Indie games. I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of great Indie games available via Steam are NOT available for Android. This comes down to a hardware architecture issue, as Steam games are designed for x86/x64 machines while Android games are designed for ARM devices. One would think that a simple recompile would allow most Indie developers to release ports of PC games for the Ouya, but I’m not a game programmer, so I’m unfamiliar with just how user-(un)friendly that process is in practice (and even Mac ports of PC games always feel a bit… off).

Speaking of Steam: Valve is still rather nebulous about whether-or-not it is planning to produce an official ‘Steambox’ gaming machine. If Ouya takes the first step and proves that there is market demand for such a device, Valve’s deep pockets and established library could utterly destroy the Kickstarter-funded upstart.

Regardless of its future success or failure, Ouya is shaking things up in a good way. Console gaming and PC gaming are homogenizing. Indie-developed games can stand toe-to-toe with mega-budget ‘AAA’ titles by corporate titans. There needs to be a console that understands that ‘expensive’ doesn’t always mean ‘better.’

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View Chris's Profile


Wrote on07/16/12 at 08:42 PM CT

I'll be keeping an eye on this as well. Wave of the future? Maybe.

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View Nick's Profile


Wrote on07/16/12 at 01:38 PM CT

Looks like it will happen. Will it be popular? Who knows.

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