Kickstarter and the idea of crowdfunding have become widely popular in the gaming community over recent months, and one project in particular has been almost unavoidable for the past week or so: the Ouya. Watching the video promo on the project’s Kickstarter page, it’s hard not to be excited. An easily moddable Android-based console that can play all of your favorite mobile and casual titles, any number of homebrew games, and AAA games in 1080P all for an entry price of only $99? Sounds pretty darn awesome. The problem is it’s incredibly unlikely to happen, at least not the way the hype would have you believe.
At first glance, it’s easy to understand why the Ouya has captured the attention (and money) of thousands. The designers boast that it will offer the AAA gaming experience familiar to console players, while also being completely open and far more affordable. The plausibility of these statements is thrown into doubt almost immediately with a promise that all games on the platform will be “free-to-play”, which is misleading at best. Hopefully no one is investing in this project with the belief that big titles like Madden ’12 (which is inexplicably featured in the promo video) will be available to play for free. Even the makers of the console recognize this; their definition of “free-to-play” includes any game that allows you to play a demo before buying.
But “free” or not, games like that won’t be making it to the Ouya for a whole host of other reasons. The first and largest problem is that “easily moddable” and “AAA titles” are two features that won’t appear together on a console any time soon. It will be incredibly hard to sell EA on the idea of reprogramming one of their best-selling franchises to be compatible with a console that makes it incredibly easy to pirate. Sure, games for other consoles can be pirated (albeit with considerably more effort), but only the Ouya uses “you are welcome to hack our product” as a selling point.
Even as an independent developer, I would see little reason to develop for the Ouya right now. The Kickstarter page sells it as a “developer’s console”, with few barriers to entry. Unfortunately, PC and mobile Android devices share those qualities while offering a far larger customer base. Why develop for the Ouya, when you can reach millions more elsewhere? Even retooling an existing Android game to be played with a controller and look good running on an HD TV, instead of being played with and seen on a touchscreen, is likely to be more effort than it’s worth. This is especially true when the piracy of your game is not only likely, but encouraged.
Since the vast majority of a console’s success is dependent on its software, Ouya would have to bring some exclusive titles to the table to truly be competitive. Unfortunately, despite what the Kickstater pitch would have you to believe, there aren’t any games confirmed to be in development for the platform which is scheduled for a March 2013 release. While a few developers (a notable example being Mojang of Minecraft) have expressed interest, it’s often contingent on the console itself doing well enough commercially to justify the investment.
Much of that hesistance can be attributed to the afformentioned issues, but perhaps some of it is also attributable to a lack of detail about the console itself. It’s hard to develop for a platform you know nothing about. The Kickstarter page boasts about a “world class”, “beautiful” console and “the Strativarius of controllers”. That sounds great on paper, but that paper is about all we have so far. There is apparently a working prototype, but we haven’t seen it in action or learned much about it yet. This leads to basic questions like “What medium will Ouya games be offered in?” being left unanswered. The idea and interface of the console, along with the statement that the business model is “identical” to that of mobile download markets, might lead you to expect every title to be downloadable, but a recent survey offered to backerslists Skyrim and other major AAA releases as potential Ouya releases.
Let’s face facts: You’re not downloading Skyrim with only 8GB of internal storage unless you don’t want to play much else. I have strong reservations about being able to even run Skyrim in 1080P on what is essentially a cell phone processor, and the fact that it’s even mentioned as a possibility worries me. It’s simply not going to happen. In fact, out of the “top 20” list of possible games surveyed, only a handful have even the remotest chance of an Ouya release. I find it hard to believe that Ouya’s makers don’t know this, which makes me wonder why they seem to be selling a dream instead of the reality. Perhaps because people have been so eager to buy it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the Ouya turn out to be a huge success. Most of the reason indie developers turn to the PC and mobile markets is because console development is incredibly expensive and difficult to get into. I would love to see that change. What the success of the project so far shows more than anything is that gamers are hungry for something new. But judging by the backers who hope to be playing the next Battlefield or Call of Duty on a $99 Android box (let’s be honest, who is really going to buy $60 games for a $99 console anyway?), a lot of people stand to be disappointed come launch day when they’re offered some of the same games they already have on their phone or tablets (which, by early 2013, could very well out-power Ouya hardware) instead.
Is there a niche for a product like Ouya? Certainly. I personally can’t think of a situation where I’d prefer Minecraft, Madden, or modding on the Ouya instead of on my phone, PS3, or PC. With that said, more than once I’ve considered building a cheap Linux-based box for running emulators on my TV and it would be awesome to see one of my development projects played on a big screen. I could see the Ouya filling that role, bringing indie/casual gaming and hobbyist development into the living room. With project funding approaching $5 million, I’d actually feel a lot more confident in the level of support behind the project if it was being sold as what it is likely to be if and when it launches: a moddable Android box for playing homebrew games and perhaps some ported indie titles on your TV. Maybe that idea isn’t as popular and wouldn’t have shattered Kickstarter records quite as fast, but it is certainly more realistic.