Editorial: Savaging the Ouya

Optimism is a wonderful trait. Optimists live longer they say (sadly this was recently debunked), and have happier day-to-day lives. Sunshine and roses are wonderful things. Turn that frown upside-down, and put on a happy face. Unfortunately for me, I was born a pessimist. I look at the worst-case scenario, and move down from there. Your great idea? Here are twelve reasons why it won’t ever work. Here’s a tissue while you sob in the corner. I’m sorry (that your idea was so terrible).

This is the reason why when I hear about something like the Ouya, I always attempt to hold off on having an opinion until I get enough information to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Because I want to avoid hopping on to my first thought, because I know it will be a negative one. I want to offer proponents a chance to convince me of something’s merits so I avoid crushing it with an avalanche of negativity.

Looking at the Ouya, it’s one of those sunshine-roses things that seems like it should exist for the good of everyone. The console market is expensive. Save for a few publishers, no one has access to make the games they want to make (at least without paying a premium price).  It’s a model that doesn’t work for everyone, and prohibits creativity from a lot of talented developers. An open source model would allow them to self-publish, giving the little guy the access he didn’t have before without Sony, Microsoft, Activisions et al taking a piece of the pie.

And so, I waited, hopeful that someone (other than a Ouya employee, obviously) would be able to convince me that this was a workable piece of hardware, and that Ouya’s business model has promise. And who better to analyze that promise than the potential developers themselves? And in an article on Joystiq, the most influential of the indie developers gave their thoughts on the system.

The news, my friends, is not good. It seems that not one of these influential developers will actually pledge to launching a game on the Ouya. They universally expressed their appreciation for what the system’s creators are trying to do. Then, one by one, each indicated that they would develop a game for the system “if they developed a healthy market.” Or, “if it takes off.” Or, “if it gets legs.” None of them promised launch support for the system. The truth is, despite the positive tone in some of their comments, they are as pessimistic about the Ouya’s prospects as I am.

This is understandable. These distinguished gentlemen are the heads of small companies. One failure could be devastating, and without the promise of a sizable audience, it’s difficult for them to promise to take the plunge. Developing for iOS devices or for a mainstream console provides a much larger install base. Currently, the Ouya, with its $5,000,000 in funders, has around 40,000 people promised a system. 40,000 isn’t a large enough install base to justify development. Both PS3 and 360 have install bases well north of 50 million. Yet the top selling titles tend to sell around 5 million copies. On XBLA, Microsoft throws a huge party when a title breaks 1 million copies. A title that hits 10% of the install base is very, very lucky. A system requires need a massive install base in order to have the sales potential necessary to attract development. When the 3DS launched to lackluster initial sales, publishers delayed their titles, hoping more systems would sell before their games were released. This is the problem the Ouya faces.

Notch isn’t going to turn Minecraft loose on a system if the 10% of the install base that would buy his title is only going to get him 4,000 sales. Yet, without people like Notch, the Ouya isn’t going to sell enough copies to attract any developers. And, unlike a Nintendo or Sony console, there are zero first party developers. Ouya requires partners in order to be successful, and those partners do not appear to be forthcoming.

Ouya is going to have to get show some leg before this appears on the system.

My most honest assessment: the Kickstarter campaign for Ouya is a gimmick. It demonstrates to potential funders that there is interest in the existence of an open source console.  $5 million is insufficient to finish console development, secure partners, build the infrastructure for mass production, obtain retail space, actually build the units and market the system on a scale needed to build interest to gain the necessary install base. $50 million is much closer. But with an open source system, with game profits flowing directly to developers and not to Ouya, is securing that funding even possible? Only time will tell.

Ouya certainly has potential. I can see the attraction of an open source system. The freedom of developers freed from the hamstringing console infrastructure could result in some fantastic and creative new console games. But, gaming is above all a business, and the Ouya’s business prospects are murky at best. And there’s a reason that, despite a history of dozens of console makers, we’re only down to a Big Three. The market is incredibly tough, and success takes an amount of luck and timing and a tremendous amount of work. Ouya is attempting to lay the groundwork. But can they secure the additional resources they need in order to push to market? Ouya’s CEO has indicated she’s only currently seeking resources through Kickstarter. If so, that’s a shame. I’m seeking optimism with the Ouya, but for the moment, the only ground I stand on leaves me pessimistic.

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Author: Tony Odett View all posts by
A member of the Perfectly Sane Show crew and Vagary.tv's Features Editor, Tony brings the smart and funny (and the rapine and pillage...). Also known as The Strategy Gamer, Tony declares it his duty to get as much coverage as possible for what should be everyone's most loved genre.