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What Ouya Isn't

12 Aug 2012

edited to add “Why Android Games Aren’t Ouya Games”, at the bottom

Ouya is not a revolution. Ouya is not even that novel. Ouya is a box that plugs in to your TV that runs programs. We have many of those already - 360, PS3, Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, Windows Media Center, Boxee, and many more. What does Ouya offer? Quite a bit: a controller with built-in touchpad, TV support, Netflix streaming, no-devkit development, a known API (Android), easy rooting, Twitch.tv streaming, Minecraft, Final Fantasy III, and OnLive.

They also offer over $8.5 million in Kickstarter-guaranteed funds (minus the 5% cut from Kickstarter and 3-5% cut from Amazon) and a cavalcade of press coverage. Their copy is heavy on the console angle of things. It has a controller! It has open development so anyone who owns one can develop for one! It has Minecraft!

So, let’s analyze it as a console. How does it stack up to the 360? Well, its hardware seems in line. Basing my stats completely on Wikipedia, they have maybe-comparable CPUs (quad-core 1.6GHz for Ouya, three-core 3.2GHz for 360), RAM (1GB shared vs. 512MB main/10MB dedicated video), and GPU (520MHz/8 shader units vs. 500MHz/8 ROPs). So, maybe this thing can run Gears of War or whatever indie devs want to throw at it without a AAA budget.

Not too shabby - $100 for a console that is comparable to one with seven years worth of games in its library. Ok, maybe that is shabby.

Moving on: open development. Direct from their marketing blurb,

Cracking open the last closed platform: the TV.

We’ve packed this little box full of power. Developers will have access to OUYA’s open design so they can produce their games for the living room, taking advantage of everything the TV has to offer. Best of all, OUYA’s world-class console, controller and interface come in one beautiful, inexpensive package.

This seems a noble goal - let developers take advantage of the full power of a console and release their games to the world. Sounds an awful lot like PSN/XBLA (if you have a publisher) or XBLIG/Sony-published PSN (if you don’t).

So I’m a little confused here - they seem to be offering, essentially, an XBLA-only Xbox. So why develop for Ouya? The console is still 9+ months out and has an initial run of at least 60k units. The current published sales record for XBLA was, oddly enough, Minecraft, which sold over a million units in a week. If I’m an indie looking to make money with a good game, that blows any Ouya potential out of the water. Even if the 60k Kickstarter number can increase by 20x, you need to hit over 80% saturation to get those numbers. Halo 2, the best selling game for Xbox, hit 33% (best selling Xbox games vs overall xbox sales numbers).

Not a gold mine, then, not compared to XBLA. Looking at sales figures for the other options, you’ll find similar stories for PSN and iOS - the blockbusters sell a lot of copies, way more copies than you’ll find Ouya consoles even given a generous guess of the install base. So, you won’t develop for it to make a blockbuster.

What about even a modest success? You can gamble on it. Try and take advantage of being an initial launch title to hit the jackpot. Except to do that, you needed to fork out $699 for the “Developer Special”:

Developer Special. A first-run OUYA (already rooted so you can just get going), EARLY SDK ACCESS, an extra controller, and we’ll help you get started. We’ll also help you promote your game for ONE YEAR, and your games will be marked with a FOUNDER EMBLEM.

Est. delivery: Dec 2012

For all this talk of breaking open the games industry by allowing innovation and free, open development, I’m still not seeing it. To publish on XBLIG you need to spend $200 for a 360 and $99 for a Creator’s Club membership. That is under half the price of the (current) equivalent Ouya package to be a “launch” developer. When it is officially out, you can theoretically buy one for yourself and get straight to developing for it. You could also do the same, right now, for your desktop. Or your XBMC. Or your Google TV.

I could go on and look at the other realities of this project, but I won’t. I don’t even care if the thing succeeds or not. I’m just sick of the breathless enthusiasm for a complete unknown in an exceedingly difficult industry.

Ouya isn’t a console for the hardcore gamer (see above). Ouya isn’t the only set-top box you need (TVs are starting to get all of these features built in). Ouya isn’t the future of the games industry (that would be the new Xbox and PS, when announced). Ouya isn’t a breath of fresh air in the gamings industry (it seems exactly in line with the entire thing).

Ouya is just a acceptable CPU sitting in an attractive box plugged in to your TV that you can program things for. Who, honestly, wants another one of those? And why didn’t you buy an Apple TV, Google TV, Windows Media Center, PS3, or 360?

Ouya is a lot of promises and fluffy ideals in an industry that doesn’t give two shits about them. An open machine plugged into my TV sounds cool, but what would I use it for that one of the myriad non-open options doesn’t already do?

addendum: Why Android Games Aren’t Ouya Games

A common rebuttal, which I should have addressed originally, is the vast Android games library that will be ready to run on the Ouya at launch day. I have a few things to say about this:

First, there isn’t a thriving Android game market, currently. That can change and I’m not going to offer a prediction, but for now it doesn’t exist. Moving on.

Second, how will all of those Android games get to the Ouya? Is it an official Android device, with access to the Android marketplace? If not, will each developer need to upload their game to the Ouya marketplace? Will it just scrape the market listing and assume every developer wants their game published on Ouya? How will you market a game built specifically for Ouya if it co-exists with all the straight written-for-phone ports?

Third, an Android game really isn’t an Ouya game. The touchpad on the mock Ouya controller looks to be about the size of the one on my Thinkpad - about three fingers wide and two fingers tall. That size can not scale to the dexterity necessary for a phone game. What about a phone game scaled to a 52-inch TV. No, touch on this thing will not work given those dimensions. I take that back - Tic-Tac-Toe could work. Reversi sure won’t, nor will chess - 8x8 distinct finger positions on a surface area a few inches on each side is too much to ask. Try it with a sticky note. And none of those games require real-time, precise input.

So, simply running a phone-optimized game on the big-screen of a TV is going to create a, frankly, shitty user experience. If that is all the Ouya has to play on launch day, it will go up in flames.

We are back to a console with an abnormally small install base, specs comparable to a 360, and no word on the final API or controller 9 months out from shipping. Maybe it isn’t a console; maybe it is just an Android device that plugs in to your TV and comes with a video game controller and is heavily marketed towards gamers and their sense of nostalgia, with lots of prose on how it will change the future and liberate game devs to do as they please. Nope, still sounding like a console to me. Save us your breathless enthusiasm - get a 360 if you want something that plays games on the TV and has a thriving indie market. And if you really want a programmable Android box that plugs in to your TV, try the Google TV. You can buy one now.