Over the past several months I’ve watched with amazement as the Kickstarter darling console, the OUYA, blazed a trail held together with twine, banding wire, and dubious PR. This isn’t a surprise in itself as Kickstarter has been known to be the spawning chamber of dubious products (in addition to quality ones), but what’s perplexing is how the mainstream gaming media has swallowed everything the OUYA team and the face of the project, Julie Uhrman, has been spoon-feeding them since July of 2012. In its Kickstarter campaign alone, the OUYA, based on nothing more than carefully airbrushed mock-up art and lofty dreams, managed to raise over $8.5 million from over 60,000 backers, shattering all prior records for Kickstarter funding including Chris Roberts’ ambitious Star Citizen.
Julie Uhrman refers to the television as the last “closed platform”, and describes how the Android-powered OYUA is going to be an independent game developer’s dream by breaking the bonds that have shackled small developers for years and kept them from developing freely for the home console market since the video game crash in the 1980s. OUYA, according to Uhrman, is poised to create a gaming revolution that will put video games “back in the living room” where they’re at their best, and directly challenge the “big three,” Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, by offering a product with a small footprint that is both capable and affordable. It’s a seductive argument, and compelling to a certain hipster zeitgeist mentality that wants a People’s Console. OUYA is presented as a way to both game and stick it to the Man.
The only problem is it’s a fantasy.
The heart of the OUYA is the Tegra 3, a common chipset for modern mobile devices such as the HTC One X and the Nexus 7 tablet among others. It provides impressive specs for its cost, and is capable of surprising fidelity in mobile gaming in the hands of capable programmers. It’s also over a year old, and everywhere. So the hardware brings nothing new to the table, sure, but what about the OUYA’s features? Well, aside from an HDMI out, there’s really nothing it can do that my Nexus 7 can’t do, better.
A host of inexpensive Android devices and mini PCs already exist that can be connected to an HD television and a game controller, allowing you to play your mobile games on an HDTV if, for some reason, that appeals to you. And yet, press coverage of the OUYA has been quite positive with broad skepticism relegated to the occasional forum thread. Then SXSW Interactive happened.
Uhrman was interviewed by Josh Topolsky on the merits of the OUYA, and we heard much the same answers as before. She discussed how budgets for video games are expanding to the point where small developers are unable to write games for consoles, and the gaming experience is being continuously pushed out of the living room. In an appeal to our inner capitalist she states, “Anybody with a great idea can now build a game,” as if OUYA was some kind of liberating breakthrough in computer entertainment development. There’s actually another open platform that already exists called the PC. Right now anyone can create a game on a PC, put up a website, and sell their product themselves. If a developer wants to create an App for Apple, they can code it on their Mac while testing it in a simulated environment for Apple’s mobile devices, and finally pay a scant $100 fee to become an Apple developer. There’s also Microsoft’s independent game developer program, bloated with shovelware as it is.
Throughout the course of the interview, Uhrman deflected and dodged pointed questions by Topolsky, providing evasive answers to basic, important questions. When pressed, she refused to give OUYA sales numbers post-Kickstarter, repeating that they’ve sold “a lot.” One could only watch with grim amusement at Josh Topolsky’s polite skepticism as the interview went on. Uhrman also seemingly contradicted herself more than once on the nature of the OUYA, touting it as an open platform for garage developers while also being a closed, controlled, and secure environment.
When pressed as to why anyone would want to play an Android game on their HDTV, she pointed to exclusive content the OUYA would bring to market, such as Robert Bowling’s Human Element, scheduled to release in 2015. She also made the perplexing statement, “There’s going to be a game that the only place that you can play it is gonna be on OUYA and it’s with the three friends, Day one, that are sitting right next to you because We’re not going to have online multiplayer until the end of the year, most likely.” Apparently this is a feature. She also declined to mention what this killer game was.
The very concept of exclusive content for the OUYA is baffling to me – why would any sane developer create a game exclusively for the OUYA, a platform running Android, and not put it in Google Play? Why limit yourself to a miniscule audience? We’re not talking about Microsoft or Sony who can afford to pay for exclusive contracts here. Who is the target market for the OUYA? Gamers, ostensibly, who already have a console in their living room and most likely a smartphone or tablet device capable of everything the OUYA can provide. Hell, the OUYA’s $99 price point nets you the base unit and a single controller.
If you want to play with a friend, a second controller will put you at $150, the price of an Xbox 360 which has a vast library of excellent AAA titles that you can buy for cheap if you go used and yet the media still treats the OUYA with polite deference if not reverence. It’s akin to watching a drunk relative making a fool of himself at a wedding – no one wants to be the first to intervene and take them aside, instead hoping that either someone else will do it, or the drunk will tire himself out before he falls into the wedding cake.
There have been a few notable figures voicing skepticism with the OUYA, such as Adam Sessler and John Romero, and if John Romero is the voice of reason, maybe it’s time to take a good, hard look at what you’ve been doing. Finally, the breakneck speed of the OUYA’s development cycle, specifically its online marketplace, is riddled with problems as recently as two days before the console’s launch to its Kickstarter backers, such as test purchases for developers being broken and charging them real money while the OUYA team scrambles to find a work-around.
To be fair to Julie Uhrman, she doesn’t strike me as a scam artist as some have suggested, but rather someone who’s gotten high on her own supply – something most dealers try to avoid. Despite her cringe-inducing PR spin, it’s not as if I have a vested interest in the OUYA’s failure. Hell, anything that gets more games out there and creates a drive for better content is something I’m for, but it’s hard to believe anyone could look at the OUYA with the least amount of critical thinking and not see it’s doomed to be a massive failure, and when the dust settles, there’s going to be a lot of sheepish journalists out there.
As for the future of the development team, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they ended up like Randy Wigginston, a founding employee of Apple who famously commented on the Apple III: “The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and everybody had this bad headache and there’s this b*stard child, and everyone says, ‘It’s not mine.’”
What do you think of the OUYA? Share your thoughts below.
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This article was first posted on March 30, 2013