Ben Kuchera

The OUYA works, it’s here, and it’s heading your way: our first look at the finished system

The OUYA works, it’s here, and it’s heading your way: our first look at the finished system

OUYA CEO Julie Uhrman is sitting in front of a television in a large industrial space in San Francisco. On the table is a final, working OUYA console. The metal feels good in your hand, and it’s pleasantly small. There is an outlet for power, a USB port, a micro USB slot, and a wired Internet connection. The names of the backers who gave more than $10,000 to the console are etched on the side.

The television shows the OUYA’s user interface, and it’s bright and minimalist. There is no shop, and no list of games. Instead each section is listed as a verb, and a call to action. There are sections labeled Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. We take a second to browse the games, and we play a few of them. I ask if this is actually connected to the Internet, using the company’s working online infrastructure.

“Oh yeah,” Uhrman tells me with a smile. “This is real.”

The word made flesh

Uhrman is obviously having fun showing me the working system, complete with its comfortable controller. This is everything I wrote they wouldn’t be able to accomplish in such a tight timeframe.

She lists the improvements they’ve made to the production controller, and they include buttons that are more friendly to colorblind gamers. The batteries are easier to get out. The analog sticks are more pleasing to the touch.

Games will be sold for actual currency, so you don’t have to worry about an OUYA equivalent to Microsoft points. You’ll have to put in your credit card information when you set up your console, making it a simple thing to purchase more content. The downside is that there will be no parental controls at launch, although that feature is coming. “I have a daughter who will run up my credit card bill. I know it’s super-important,” she explained.

“Also, today it’s one user, one box, we will extend it to one user can play on X number of boxes, we’re finalizing what that number is. You’ll also be able to set up X number of users on each box.” The early backers to the Kickstarter will be using the software I’m seeing now, but the feature list will grow and improve with player feedback. The “real” launch of the system will take place on June 4, when everyone will be able to buy the $99.99 console online or at select retailers.

No credit card, no problem. You’ll be able to buy gift cards with OUYA credit on them at retail as well if you want to avoid using your credit card, or simply want to give some credit as a gift. So expect cards at least at the retailers handling the system, including Best Buy, GameStop, and Target.

That’s not to say the console will only be for casual users, as Uhrman walks me through an area that developers can use to test their games in progress on the television. If you decide to sideload your own apps and content, it will be available in this particular area.

I was able to watch a bit of high-definition streaming video, and I was told that you can easily make OUYA your home theater box by using programs such as XBMC. There will even be a section that gives budding developers news about the console , and that section could expand to include information and tutorials that will help people create their own games. The ODK (Ouya Development Kit) is, after all, free.

OUYA’s Project Greenlight, and monetizing content

Every game on OUYA has to be at least free to try, and that can mean any number of things. You can simply provide a free demo and then a for-pay download of the full game. Or you can release a free-to-play title.

The system is flexible, and I was even shown a game that was completely free, but that allowed users to send in a “tip” to the developers. It wouldn’t change anything about the game, but if you liked the game and wanted to give a little back, the system allowed you to. The section of the game was called “The Pizza Shop,” and you could buy the developers a slice of pizza for $0.99, or a stack of pizzas for $14.99. Uhrman said that she had never considered a pure donation system, but why not?

The OUYA also has a system very much like Steam's Project Greenlight, but instead of relying on votes the process is handled by crowd-sourcing curation to the players. When someone uploads a game to the servers it’s put in an area called the Sandbox. What happens next is up to the community.

“Games don’t get out of the Sandbox and put in a genre list or the featured list unless they’re fun. The only way that happens is that it meets some minimum level of engagement,” Uhrman said. What that level is hasn’t been announced. It may have to be downloaded a certain number of times, or people may have to give the content a certain number of thumbs up. Developers will have to actively promote their games, or rely on word of mouth, to get into the more heavily populated portions of the system.

Everything about the design of the software makes the system feel welcoming and intuitive. You want to spend time exploring the games, and everything you see can be played, to some extent, without having to pay.

Everything isn't perfect; I noticed a slight bit of lag on the controller, and I can't point to a single game that would make one need to buy a system at launch. Much of the value of the OUYA hardware lies in what you can do with it, from media functions to creating your own games. It's very possible that a breakout game is coming, and we just don't know what is it yet, but at this point it's hard to point to one single game that will get you to buy a unit.

Still, the fact that it exists, is finished, and is running working software with a store you can already browse is in and of itself amazing. “Nine months, under 20 people, hardware product, a software platform and ecosystem that people are super-excited about,” Uhrman said. “We’re leaders of this new 'un-console' movement, and we just want to deliver and include people in the process.” 

Based on everything I've seen, they're just getting started.