Yesterday morning at work, I started getting blips on Twitter about the Kickstarter for OUYA, an Android powered home gaming console that aims to have the hardware of a high-end phone or tablet but designed to connect to a TV with a controller, be wide open and hackable by anyone, all for $99 and principally fuelled by indie games. Within 30 minutes, I’d kicked in at the $95 tier that guarantees me once at launch. Within a few hours, they’d added another tier with 5,000 more pre-order units, then 10,000, now it’s at 20,000 and only a day in, this $950,000 goal project is approaching $3,000,000 and is trending to beat the Pebble Smartwatch which was Kickstarters record project to date.
There’s seemingly crazy interest in this product and from what I’ve seen, it is being put together by people who have shipped some ambitious projects in the past, such as the $100 laptop. $950,000 isn’t nearly enough to mass produce and more critically, market something like this so my guess is that like many other Kickstarter projects, they have investment money waiting in the wings for when they can prove they have people willing to part with money for this. That’s been demonstrated more than twice over already with still a month to go.
As with any announcement that isn’t for an Apple product, there’s legions of people coming out to laugh at it, call it vapourware (I’ve seen comparisons made of this day-old product to the Phantom console which was an investment scam that was backed by a known crook) and draw weak links to other open source gaming products like the GP2X which never attained more than super niche appeal. Others have said that all this enables consumers to do is play cell phone games on their TV which is something that no one’s really asking for and which some Android phones and tablets can already do anyway.
It’s a lot of the same narrow-viewed comparisons we saw made when people first started talking about the idea of playing games on an iPhone, something that was largely called a dumb idea that would never take off.
I’ve said many times that I think vast majority of mobile games are crap, including much of the popular stuff. 95% of what’s out there is garbage and of the 5% that isn’t, most are simplistic, unoriginal, boring and increasingly, little more than microtransaction Skinner Boxes. There are exceptions but as a whole, mobile gaming to me doesn’t feel like an evolution of the medium. Yet, not only did I put $95 down to pre-order an Android console, I think it has the potential to be a pretty big deal if its makers get some real investment dollars and market it smartly. I think OUYA is a device of incredible possibilities but its creators have muddied views of this by emphasising what’s the same about it instead of what could be different. Before you go thinking that this is just an Android tablet with a controller and no screen, there are some important points to consider:
1. Android isn’t just for mobile devices. It’s really just highly modified Linux when you get down to it. It’s been primarily used for phones and tablets but it can run on anything you want if you care to modify it for that. Just because something’s on Android doesn’t mean it’s just going to play upscaled mobile titles.
2. It already has a huge number of games available. While Android isn’t just for mobile, running it and similar hardware to some of those devices means there’s already a vast software library available for OUYA out of the gate. Much like when iPhone game developers did when the iPad came out, all it would take is some slight modifications and your existing Android game is ready to be bought and played again on an HDTV, giving both past and current games creators a brand new audience to tap into.
3. It’s a single-purpose device. What often makes Android janky on mobile devices is that they’re trying to be jacks of all trades and are often masters of none. OUYA is designed to be a games device first. There’s no web browser, no GPS, no cellular radios, minimal multitasking and no carrier bloat. It’s much easier to make a product sing when you have it only performing a single tune well instead of 15 middlingly. It has the hardware of the latest Android phones and tablets but has to do a lot less at a time, that means more power for the main attraction.
4. It’s hackable. The worst part of both gaming consoles and non-Android phones and tablets is that they’re closed systems. You’re only able to use them the way the manufacturer allows. OUYA is not only hackable, its creators are embracing that. What that means is that there are an unlimited number of possibilities for it both in gaming and non-gaming contexts. For the average consumer, this probably won’t mean much initially but once the hardcore community gets their hands on this and if they can make their hacks easy to apply, this device could have a huge lifespan doing all matter of different things.
5. It’s got a proper controller. Touch screens are great for many things but when it comes to gaming, they’re severely limiting in many ways and are the main reason why many mobile titles fail to impress me. OUYA doesn’t have its own screen, it has a proper controller with analog sticks, a d-pad and buttons. While developers may be coding on something with mobile guts, they’ll now have the freedom to make more complex games that can take advantage of the extra inputs, precision and lag-free response that a controller offers. We may even see some figure out how to make games that can work on both input types, making them cross-platform and therefore, more appealing to more people.
6. It’s dirt cheap and indie powered. So many talking heads in the gaming industry are going on about how retail pricing models are broken and that there’s no future in games that aren’t $0.99 or free. Yet they continue to ignore that when the barrier to entry involves a $500 tablet or a $200 smartphone with an $80 per month contract, that still puts gaming out of the reach of many people. I don’t know how OUYA’s creators plan to sell this thing at retail for $99 but that’s their claim. If so, this is a huge deal because it makes entry very cheap while also giving access to all the $0.99 and free games to go with it. There’s a ton of potential gamers out there who can’t take part in the supposed mobile revolution and with this, now they can. Best of all, since OUYA’s being primarily touted as a platform for indie games, it gives those creators a huge new mainstream audience to advertise to, people who didn’t even know indie games were a thing.
I think OUYA’s creators put together a slick pitch but it isn’t without problems. The name of the product is terrible and they didn’t even say what it meant in the pitch. They spent too long pointing out how similar this is to other Android devices while not focusing on what makes it different and some of their design needs refinement, especially the controller. They also didn’t really talk about what their business model is since these things can’t have much of a hardware margin with what they’re selling for and one of their main points is how most of the games will be free. Even Nintendo who traditionally makes money on their hardware ultimately needs strong software sales on top of that to make real money.
Ultimately it’s going to take a product like this getting to market to show whether the idea is viable and I think it’s a critical experiment to attempt, even if it ends up flopping. This is going to need major retailer support and a slick, expensive marketing campaign to stand out not only against existing home consoles but the very smartphones and tablets it’s design borrows from. If they don’t have many millions waiting in the wings to back up this Kickstarter, they’re not going to get the critical mass they need. Nonetheless, I think this has the potential to be a big deal and maybe shake up the home console space which many people have already written off as dead. This is far from true when you speak in reality instead of hyperbole but n0netheless, the current three party system needs a shakeup and OUYA could be the device to do it. Even if it only secures a distant fourth place in the console race, that could still be a huge win for its creators as when you don’t have a huge company to support, you don’t need to sell as much to do well. When this is done, I’m going to end up with either one of the first in a new breed of home gaming devices or a collector’s item that can go up against the Virtual Boy. Only time will tell but even as someone who doesn’t like most mobile games, I think this has great potential and I’d love to see it succeed. I can’t fault anyone for not buying in until they see something real but gamers should give this idea a chance to impress before writing it off.