In Depth: Can the OUYA succeed and why should we want another home console?

The OUYA promises a $99 Android powered home console/dreamland for indie developers, but why?

I don’t ask “why?” to be a good old-fashioned Debbie Downer, or even a Negative Nacy (or any other combination of adjective and name paired by alliteration), but rather to pose the very real question that the people behind OUYA should be asking; why do we need another console? What will the end-user gain from it?

For those unfamiliar, the OUYA debuted its KickStarter page only a few days ago now (July 10th) and managed to hit the target goal of $950,000 with almost a full month left to still raise funds (at the time of writing this article the total raised tops $4 million).  This includes roughly 30,000 units already bought before the system has had any sort of live prototype demonstration.  Impressive numbers, but can the OUYA deliver on what it claims, and will it have any impact once it leaves the die-hard gaming community and enters the real world?

A quick run down on the OUYA hardware itself for those playing catch-up: The OUYA makes some pretty impressive claims.  The proposed specs being promised, as quoted from the KickStarter page:

Specifications:
Tegra3 quad-core processor
1GB RAM
8GB of internal flash storage
HDMI connection to the TV, with support for up to 1080p HD
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth LE 4.0
USB 2.0 (one)
Wireless controller with standard controls (two analog sticks, d-pad, eight action buttons, a system button), a touchpad
Android 4.0

Pretty impressive stuff for only $99.  Beyond the hardware, OUYA promises that everything about it will be free to hack/use as you see fit; including developers. The OUYA will be an end-user gaming console for gamers and a developer-kit for developers and opening it up and tinkering around won’t even void the warranty. The key marketing word seems to be, “open.”  The other word that is defining the marketing of the OUYA is “free” as in “free to play.”  The people behind OUYA claim that every game on the system will be free, in at least that there will be a free playable demo for every game, but if the system intends to truly mimic the Google Play marketplace than there will also be hordes of “freemium,” subscription and ad-supported games as well.

This all certainly sounds interesting, great even.  A cost effective, open source game console that puts a lot of power into the hands of the developer; it’s almost like they were listening to a list of complaints about the XBLIG marketplace when conceiving the idea.  But even ignoring the fact that indie game success on home consoles have been a very mixed bag, that there are serious quality concerns in regards to the OUYA’s marketplace content (the Android is already plagued with games of poor quality and developers of poor ethical standing) and there are serious questions about whether or not OUYA can sport such tech for only $99, do gamers really want another home console?

Keep in mind, the question of whether gamers want a new console is a vague one.  Just what is a gamer?  If gamers are the people who buy COD every year and play it regularly on their Xbox 360 or PS3, then I think the answer is no. If a gamer refers to the hordes of people who bought a Wii for Wii Sports, then again, the answer is no. If a gamer is defined as those who regularly try new games, including non-AAA titles, then yes.  The truth though is that “gamers” are all of these things, and a sore point for many indie developers is that the latter group is really the minority.  So with so many gamers already primarily playing on only one system, and so many primarily only making a few gaming purchases each year (read COD), can the OUYA make enough of a splash to draw enough developers to the system to in turn draw gamers?

The people behind OUYA certainly seem to think so, and seem to be basing much of this on the success of the Android and iPhone marketplaces as evidence.  The problem with that is two fold. First, people were already buying phones, and playing games on your phone just became an extension of something already being bought in large numbers.  I consider myself to be a pretty avid gamer (I did start this site after all), but I am already stretched thin time-wise between my Xbox 360, 3DS, PC and Android powered phone (and I tend to play them in that order).  While I have found one or two Android based games I really enjoyed, I have by and large found the games to be throwaways. Something to do while waiting in line rather than something sought out as entertainment on its own.  With one exception, I have never played a game on my phone in lieu of playing on any of the above mentioned other options.  Is it possible that given more power, a controller and a bigger screen (HD TV) that these developers could make something much more impressive? Yes, absolutely, but I am far from sold.  For me personally, it doesn’t help that the OUYA is likely to be a bastion of a gaming style I don’t care for: “freemium” or micro-transaction style games.

Ultimately though I’m not convinced a dedicated gaming console can be built around the same business model that has worked on Android phones.  Most gamers don’t even take the games on phones as “serious gaming.”  The OUYA not only has to battle this preconception from gamers who are bound to be skeptical of a system that not only uses the phone-based game industry as a business model, but relies on the same developers and operating system. Basically, can a home system be built around casual gaming? More-over, the people who have made mobile gaming such a big hit are in many ways people who don’t normally play games on a home console; the rate of market penetration with that group will likely be slim to none.  Mom plays Angry Birds because your soccer game isn’t that interesting, not because she is a gamer.

Really though, this comes down to the very real question of whether gamers will be willing to turn off their Xbox 360’s and PS3’s to play the OUYA; as the system is not likely able to compete directly with them.  Rather, the system is best thought of in terms of the relationship between the Xbox 360 and the 3DS; sure they may compete for your time but offer different enough experiences that they are less competitors than they are parallels.  The consumers that make up Reddit and other corners of the internet may be screaming frustration with the current model of games, but the average gamer, who spends far less time concerned about the state of gaming, doesn’t even realize there is a bunch of yelling going on.

The truth is, this all seems very unlikely.  Now, to not end on such a sour note, I should say that as someone who has really grown a fondness for indie gaming and the indie developers behind said games, I certainly hope my pessimism for the OUYA is misplaced.  Perhaps this is actually the shot in the arm gaming needs, and even if the OUYA isn’t an outright success in the long term, the success of the KickStarter campaign may show the big guys just how much they are currently short-selling the indie gaming scene.  Imagine a Microsoft that makes it easier for more new, creative and innovative games and game developers to publish on the Xbox and tell me that isn’t a gaming future you want to see.

We have reached out to representatives over at OUYA to try and get answers to some of the questions raised in this article. We’ll let you know if/when they respond.

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About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.