The conceptual images on the project page show a small, sleek looking machine, with a clean and appealing graphical user interface. The controller is equally elegant. Outside of rumble, it has all the sticks and buttons one would expect from a modern home console, in addition to a touch-pad in the center.
Outside of pretty pictures and a marketing blurb, the available information is vague. One can wonder if that vagueness is intentional, and if so: is it because the details have not yet been completely finalized, or does the fine print make the product less alluring? We do however know a little about the machine itself. The internal hardware is neither new or particularly exciting, the same can be said for the operating system - Android. Its potential lies instead in how these parts are fused to create a product with a unique proposition.
The Android base means that there are no shortage of games waiting to get ported from other platforms. With a touch-pad on the controller, it’s suggested that games for tablets and phones are no problem for OUYA. While iOS and Android developers haven’t had to worry about high entry fees for licenses or SDK kits, the entry cost have never been so low for traditional home consoles (outside of Indie games for XBox, whom sadly gets little attention in the shadow of retail games and XBLA). In addition there are no publishers here trying to shape or censor your game; your creation is entirely your own. These facts along with support for the popular Unity platform, are sure to make many developers consider the platform for their next projects. It isn’t impossible to imagine this device becoming the biggest home console in regards to indie games. Beating the other established players not only in breadth of content, but probably also in prices. And the openness of both the hardware and software, will probably make it useful for so much more than simply playing games. While I won’t start to guess all the numerous things a creative person (with some coding skill) could make this thing do, I expect to at least see some familiar media centers and emulators shortly after launch.
It’s easy to draw comparisons to phones and tablet devices. The key similarities are the Android OS, the non-restrictive software publishing and the open price structure. A recent report by SuperData shows that more than 55% of all mobile gaming revenue stems from games that use the free-to-play model ("based on SuperData’s proprietary global data on paying gamers"). Meaning that the money is spent on in-app-purchases. This is a business model that’s currently not in use on any other home console - and with the mobile gaming revenue being over 4 billion dollars, that’s a lot of money not going their way. Roughly speaking, the OUYA team have taken the software and this successful publishing model from mobile devices, and put it in a game console. And that suddenly makes it a completely different product. The average mobile gamer spends between 8 and 15 dollars on game software each month, and considering that the phone or tablet are not dedicted gaming systems, I’m inclined to believe that the average OUYA owner is willing to spend just as much.
While the console seems to be brimming with potential on the surface, there are still a few factors that could be cause for concern. One of the most comparable situations we have today, are the app stores for the aforementioned phones and tablets. And while the open distribution model can yield great products, it will almost certainly bring with it some not so great ones. The software stores on today's mobile devices are flooded with content. Content of wildly varying quality. With there being so much content to wade through, a customer has less quality control of the software. For every great title, there are ten forgettable ones, and at least five that I would call unplayable. The “free-to-try”-model may somewhat remedy this, but that takes us to my next point: price.
In a market place where people can price their products as they want, things are bound to get ugly. As only a small minority of the content on display is a known quantity for most consumers, people will dismiss very much of it based on price alone. Why buy “product X”, if “product Y” also features disgruntled birds but at a lower price? On the stores for both Android and iOS devices the effects are easy to see. Many games are priced as low as possible, or even free in a lot of cases, with hopes of generating revenue after that initial purchase.
Yes, these are the in-app-purchases, also known as microtransactions. Making the player dole out real money to get more in-game content in a hopefully steady frequency. I don’t have any problem with the idea of microtransactions in itself; it’s when developers can implement them however they see fit without rules or guidelines the problems appear. Many games rely on in-game purchases to give the player character upgrades required to progress in the game, or instead to let the player speed up a process that can be deemed boring. In these instances microtransactions replace parts of games that before was unlocked by exploration or by overcoming difficult parts. Therefore they remove aspects of games that would feel encouraging or rewarding to the player. Making the games less reliant on how it’s played, but rather on how much is paid.
My last concern is regarding desensitization. With games being as cheap as they are for the smartphones today, one is much less critical of what one buys. Some of my fondest gaming memories stem from my childhood, when buying a new game for my Super Nintendo was something I didn’t do every day. I had usually saved money for months, and when I finally laid all my money on the counter, I knew there was just as many months until the next time I would get a new game. As a result, buying a new game was a big event. I was excited beyond words when I finally popped the new cartridge into the machine. And I would play that game for weeks, or even months in some cases. If a game was hard or frustrating in parts, I stuck with it until I overcame the challenge. The feeling of mastery and reward was exhilarating. I would get my money's worth out of necessity. In the end I knew all my games intricately, and each of them felt memorable and special to me. The games I have for my iPhone are on the other end of the spectrum: They’re games I’ve casually bought without giving them much thought either before or afterwards. They have become throwaway experiences, giving me much less enjoyment than they are capable of. While this devaluation of games has been going on for a while with second-hand games, trade-in deals and cheaper downloadable games for the consoles, the mandatory free-to-try model on OUYA will be yet another step in that direction.
Hopefully, none of my fears will materialize. Instead we will get the console that’s the perfect medium between the small time-wasters on my cell phone and the premium triple-A adventures we enjoy on our current game consoles. A console without the publisher's hand to streamline one's creation into genericness. A console where fresh and daring new games will be the rule and not the exception. A console that will give birth to the next Braid or Journey.
While the long-term outcome of the device is up in the air, there are a lot of believers out there. So far 30,000 - and counting. Not too shabby for a console that entered our existance only a couple of days ago.