The reality of the OUYA console doesn’t match the hype: why you should be skeptical
There is a reason that the press around the newly-announced OUYA game console is based almost exclusively around the amount of money being raised by the product’s Kickstarter, and that reason is simple: There is very little else to report on. There is almost no information about the state of production hardware, and in fact nearly everything about the system seems to be in flux. The Kickstarter page contradicts itself on some points, and many of the images and statements seem to be intentionally misleading. While there are many aspects of the OUYA game console that are attractive, there are many more reasons to be skeptical about what's being offered.
The system doesn’t actually exist, at least not yet
The Kickstarter page states there is a single working prototype of the hardware. Everything else, from the digital distribution platform that will sell the games to the internal components that will make up the final product are in the first stages of production. That’s an uncomfortable reality for a product that’s supposed to hit the market by March of next year. “We have a functional prototype, and we have almost completed our industrial design (the shape and materials of the product you see here),” the Kickstarter page states. “We know the hardware specifications, and are working with electrical and mechanical engineers to test the performance of the hardware. We have begun work on the user interface and software. We’ll pull all these pieces together and test how they fit, while we finalize the product.” There isn't a finished design for the external case, and work has only begun on the interface and the software that will power the hardware, not to mention the challenge of creating the online store that will sell and deliver the games. Creating a robust, stable platform to offer for-pay game downloads is a complicated undertaking, and according to the Kickstarter page work has only just begun on that aspect of the project. The specifications seem to be in place, but testing can be a long and tricky process, even with known components. There are only eight months between now and the stated ship date of March 2013. That would be an aggressive timeline if we were talking about Microsoft or Valve, much less an untested startup. I asked specifically about the ambition of this product, and my misgivings about the goal of a March launch. “We continue to march toward that date,” I was told via email. No further details were given. There are more basic problems, such as the lack of a final controller design. The video on the Kickstarter page shows a few mockups and models, but only one side of what looks to be a production controller has been shown to the public. I asked about this as well. “That design is not final,” I was told. “We are in a prototype phase and exploring several options.” That’s why they can’t show a finished controller; there isn’t one. No one knows what it will be, or how it will look. When a product makes such a big deal out of the fact it uses a standard controller to interact with games on the television, it's unsettling to have so few details about how that controller will look, much less operate. It’s likewise important to note that the company refuses to confirm the existence of a single game that will run on the OUYA hardware. I asked if they could confirm a single game for the platform. “Not at this time,” I was told. “We are obviously talking to developers behind the scenes but feel that its too early to announce.” But wait, isn’t Minecraft a game that will run on the OUYA? “Mojang has committed that Minecraft (and their other games) will be on OUYA,” the Kickstarter page stated. The next sentence, however, makes it very clear that there is not the case: “But only if we prove that we can make a great product (that’s our job) AND enough people want their games (that’s your job). Show them with your numbers that you want Minecraft on OUYA!” In other words, there is no commitment being made, and no reason to believe the game will ever come to the platform. If the console sells well and consumers seem to be interested in the product, Mojang may offer its games on the platform. That's a very big “if.” The promotional video states outright that Minecraft is coming to the system, which is, at best, misleading. I've contacted Mojang for clarification, and will update the story with any comment. Another problem is the fact the OUYA does little except further fragment the Android market, although I was told that's not an issue. “There will be only one chipset for OUYA and a totally standard one at that,” I was told. “This is the best way to develop Android for TV. We will work hard to make it as standard as possible.” I'm going to be blunt: That's a ridiculous answer, and it's akin to claiming the Kindle Fire doesn’t count as market fragmentation as long as you only develop for the Kindle Fire. The OUYA will use a controller when most Android games are designed for the touch screens of phones or tablets, which is a problem. Games are either going to have to be designed from the ground up for the OUYA, or ported from other Android devices that rely on touch screen controls. Unless the hardware sells a few million units very quickly, neither option is going to be attractive to smaller, or even AAA, developers.
It’s selling a dream, not a solution
“I'm skeptical of why people are so excited about OUYA,” Antichamber developer Alexander Bruce said. “If you want to develop a game for consoles with less gatekeeping than PSN or XBLA, I'm pretty sure that's what XBLIG was supposed to be for, but people aren't exactly going crazy over selling their games there. If openness is your main concern, I'm not sure what is stopping you from targeting the PC and selling games directly through your website. I personally believe that until you've got a high quality game on your hands, where you sell it or which gatekeepers you have to get past aren't your biggest problems.” I spoke with Robert Boyd, who has released retro-styled RPGs on both the PC and the Xbox Live Indie Channel, and he has harsh words for the system. He’s the sort of developer OUYA is trying to attract, but he doesn't buy any of the system's strengths. (Disclosure: Zeboyd Games developed On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, which is a Penny Arcade title) “My main problem with the OUYA is that it's selling a dream: ‘The Console for Indie Developers,’” he explained. “It's primary selling points are that it's cheap and developers can make games for it without buying expensive development kits. However, you can already get all that with a cheap PC and unlike the OUYA, the install base for the PC is already massive.” He also rejects the idea that an “open platform” is the secret to independent success. “The reality is harsh; we've seen what happens with open platforms. Look at Xbox Live Indie Games, where very few developers were able to make a living off of it and now the platform is dominated by knock-offs of popular games and wannabe Japanese softcore porn,” he said. “The Apple App Store has been more successful than XBLIG, but even there, you either get in the top 10 and make a fortune or you ‘die in obscurity.’ And the Android is even more open than Apple's and yet how many success stories do you hear for Android developers? Not many.” Keep in mind all of these platforms have an installed base many times that of the OUYA. “It's hard enough to make a living as an indie developer on a popular platform like Steam. Even on popular platforms, there are many games, both indie and otherwise, that fail to sell enough to support the developer. However, trying to make a living on a niche console like the OUYA feels like an even bigger gamble,” he continued. OUYA is actually making these problems worse with its marketing. “Finally, the creators of OUYA are actively encouraging both free-to-play, all games must be ‘free-to-play’ although their definition is very loose and includes demos and purchase for full version, and hacking. Trying to get a significant portion of an audience like that to actually pay money for a game and not just spend all their time on free emulators for old arcade and video game systems could prove challenging indeed.” The OUYA console will likely be the Android platform with the lowest installed base, and it will require the most work to get games looking good and playing well compared to the Android handsets and tablets that make up the majority of the market. Why retool your existing Android games to use a controller and look good on your television when you’re targeting an untested platform? Piracy will also be a major concern, due to the fact that rooting the device will be made as simple as possible. Developers already wrestle with pirated and cloned games in the Android ecosystem, and the OUYA prides itself in being open and hackable, both in terms of software and hardware. That's attractive in some ways, but it also makes it very easy for piracy and other shady activities to thrive. So not only is there no finished hardware, no service at the moment, no controller, and no games—although we’re being asked to take their word that they can create each of those things in eight months—but focusing development costs on an incredibly risky platform with a small installed base and features that make piracy all but given makes no sense for most developers who release games you'd like to play. It’s an environment that not makes little sense for commercial development, in many ways it’s actively hostile to people hoping to create games for it. The OUYA may find a home for people interested in hacking, piracy, and fun homebrew projects, but most details about the project point to an ecosystem that, if launched, will make very little sense to support commercially.
The hype doesn't match the reality
The entire system hangs on the ability that you want to play ported Android games on a cheap system, with an unseen controller, on a television screen. While many developers are willing to provide quotes about how great the OUYA could be, so far no one is willing to put their money where their mouth is and announce projects for the hardware. No one involved in the project has experience launching products even close to the complexity of the OUYA, in terms of either gaming hardware, software, and services. At least, we don’t think so. “There are plenty of other people involved, but some of them would get fired if we tell you who they are,” the Kickstarter page stated. That doesn’t inspire confidence, and if any of these individuals works at a company that owns their extra-curricular output, which is a sadly common state of affairs, the legal mess could become quite deep. It will be great if the OUYA is a high quality system that finds success, despite the fact it's worth throwing some cold water on the hype. The more homes developers can find for their games, the better for everyone. Still, the challenges the system faces and the fact the OUYA doesn’t have a single game to promote should make you cautious, not excited. There is nothing wrong with taking a step back from the hype and waiting until the system is released commercially and has a robust catalog of games to enjoy. Until then? Caveat emptor.