Shine On You Console Dreamers

If you’re hip to the tech community, you’ve probably heard about OUYA (pronounced “oh yeah,” like the Kool-Aid man busting through a wall) by now. It’s busting the charts over at Kickstarter, now at $4.7 million with almost a month to go. The promise is an affordable, hackable, sustainable, free-to-play, and well-supported console powered by Android (4.o/Ice Cream Sandwich, to be exact), with a gig of RAM and a Tegra3 processor. It’s also been garnishing a lot of merit and a lot of skepticism from many sources (and in some posts, a lot of both). In short, it’s a cross between a PC and a set-top-box being sold to the console crowd, built and powered by smartphone/tablet technology.

There’s a reason for the criticism. In order:

  1. Lack of a product + tight time frame = unrealistic expectations. There’s no way they’ll make their claimed release date, March 2013, barring a miracle. I’d rather the devs claim a 2014-’15 release and deliver earlier than see the predicted next-year release inevitably be bumped back months if not years. Why? Everyone else will be scrabbling over the same hardware to keep up with the big smartphone/tablet releases hit this year, meaning it’ll be in shorter supply for the OUYA. In other words, OUYA will be fighting against all those companies trying to compete with the new iPad to get the supplies they need. Why the pessimism here? They don’t even have a finalized prototype yet. Pinning that down, getting the hardware contracted and paid for, moving into production, and then distributing it in eight months. Does that sound realistic to you?
  2. Lack of guaranteed game support. I have the feeling the OUYA will see release (eventually), but that its support will be Android ports—the same games you have on your smartphone or tablet—and maybe get a few casual/pseudo-casual games like you find on the Xbox Live Arcade or cheap on Steam (thinking games like Plants Vs. Zombies, Toy Soldiers, Limbo, Bastion, Trine, etc.). Thanks to the hackability and user input, a lot of other stuff—ROMs, DosBox, maybe abandonware/freeware—will pop up. But I don’t foresee the system having everything gamers want. The top-20 wish list—from a user survey—are mostly titles like Skyrim, Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Torchlight. Can the tablet hardware support those titles even if you managed to convince EA and BethSoft to make versions of their products for ‘Droid? Work out a deal with Steam, GOG, nail down a contract with a couple of companies, just get companies moving towards OUYA and Android and I’d feel more secure about getting the game support the survey-takers want.
  3. Fragmentation of the Android market. Now you’re asking companies to make games with gamepad support, sold on a network outside Google Play (formerly the Android Store), on top of the touchscreen support that’s their bread and butter. Sounds like too much to ask for smaller/indie publishers, and AAA-title companies will need to see customer bases in the millions before there’s incentive to branch support to another OS and device. The OUYA has impressive support already, but that’s just on a consumer level; to most companies, even 80k customers is a drop in the bucket.
  4. More fragmentation: Android saw more changes in the last two years than Windows or OS X did in the last five—portables need to stay competitive and keep up with the blazing new developments in their fields, hence why you get a new flavor of Android and iOS every year. Tying the device to one Android build means that devs will have to keep tailoring games and support for Android 4/ICS long after it’s gone from smartphones and tablets, or that you’ll have to buy a new OUYA in two years to play dev-supported games. The later is a huge burden on devs, on top of the burdens to add gamepad capabilities (current Android game devs) or Android OS support (non-Android game devs), the latter makes the Apple Tax seem generous. And if the OUYA itself upgrades to newer versions of Android, great, now the game companies have to keep up parallel support or their game won’t run properly on the new OS. As tech continues to improve, and portable gaming follows suit, the OUYA will struggle with Android games taking higher and higher tolls on the hardware.
  5. Free-to-play isn’t. The OUYA Kickstarter is hyping up free and free-to-play games, but c’mon, we all know that’s a myth. Without transactions of some kind, the company just threw its money away and has no way to remain solvent. Free-to-play cuts corners via micro-transactions and downloadable content (DLC); it assumes gamers will be more willing to drop $2.50 on content—another level, new weapons or characters, more music tracks, shiny hats—than they would to drop $60 on a AAA title. It’s an interesting market with a lot of viability, but let’s not kid ourselves: free-to-play isn’t free games. Pushing free-to-play over purchases—even small purchases, like $10 for the complete game—gives the marketplace, and by extension the companies’ design and focus, different priorities than most current PC/console developers have.
  6. “Hackable” was not the word they wanted to use. It brings to mind images of piracy or shady Anonymous hackers, not the ability to modify or upgrade (“improve”), or any of the benefits of open-source. It’s a good buzzword for hip technologists and people who know what a hacklab is, but you can see the misconception in the articles: every one of them seems to construe “hackable = pirates will steal the games,” thus why it’s all free-to-play. Outside the tech community, “hackable” is a keyword for a security risk, not a lauded feature.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m more of a PC gamer than a console one, but if the OUYA delivers on half its promises within a tidy time-frame, it’ll be a bandwagon I’d be willing to hitch onto. It’s combining the versatility of a PC with one of the most adaptable Linux-based OSes, opening it up to hackers and programmers, and putting it in the living room—like an open-source XBMC. Heck, as a piece of modifiable hardware, every technologist should be gunning for this thing; the promise to open up the gaming arena to indie developers is a glorious one to boot. I’ll happily lay down $150 to pick one up once it releases, provided it gets decent support at launch. Especially if it beats out the next-gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft by 18 months or more; edging out the serious competitors for couch space, and supporting the indie/casual/small-pub game companies might give it enough time to carve out its own niche.

But I’m too leery about the OUYA to drop $99 for one via the Kickstarter: the product is hype and speculation, with very little nailed down yet. Performance can’t be gauged without working models; support can’t be predicted without companies knowing how the dev tools and app store/distribution will work. If the company was closer along to its release date (finalized designs would help); if they had working models; if they had asked for a more realistic amount as the Kickstarter goal—these are all things that would quell us skeptics. Never mind that people funding the Kickstarter seem to think they’re getting an Xbox 720 (I assume, from that list of hopeful titles) and not a device that’s more on-par with a PS2 or original Xbox.

Wondrous dreams are only wondrous in the ether; without tangible, physical form, they’re just colored smoke. I want the OUYA to succeed even if it’s just a casual/retro-game device and not the top-of-the-line console its backers think it will be. It has a ton of nifty potential if you’re a computer person open to modding or customization. Maybe some new development in the next 25 days will convince me to fund the Kickstarter. But I’ll believe it when I see it: that’s when they get my money.

Update 7/15: To ram home my point on “hacking,” here’s a fear-mongering article from Kotaku that manages to point out some great real benefits of hack-based-access (hackcess?) in the second-to-last paragraph buried under the rest of the article’s inanity. It’s essentially a glorified console-tablet, which is just a miniaturized, less-powerful computer, and somehow those manage to remain solvent means of entertainment and productivity. Meanwhile, a very optimistic PCMag article makes a great point about the device:

Don’t think about what games could be put on the Ouya. Think about what smartphone and tablet apps could be put on the Ouya. Web browsers, chat clients, social networking apps, and tons of home entertainment apps could fill up the console with content that outshines any Android game. Since it has built-in Bluetooth, a wireless mouse and keyboard could turn it into the simple, powerful, full-featured Google TV box we’ve been waiting for, without Google TV or the clunkiness that comes with it.

Some great points. As much as I love my Roku, existing set-top-boxes only reach a fraction of their possibility, a stepping stone in our technological development; they’re just limited app stores that can only access streaming services (and, in the case of the higher-tier ones like Boxee and Google TV, mediocre internet access). Give them a USB port, Bluetooth support for mice, keyboards, and gamepads, and imagine the power of everything on the Android Marketplace attached to your TV. The OUYA has that potential, and adds open-ended programmer flexibility and indie-game developer support. Consoles have, for years, been trying to become less “game systems” and more “computers turned into easy-access appliances you plug into your TV.” Look at the X360 and the many entertainment venues it supports: Netflix, Last.FM, Hulu Plus, But we’ve never seen the perfect device for that job. Bluetooth support with wireless keyboards/mice solves a lot of problems of accessing internet and social media sites while lounging on your couch.

For all the talk of “bringing games back to the living room,” I think OUYA has more realistic potential as a media-consumption device for the masses—the kind of device people have wanted for years, hence the development of things like the Xbox Media Center to make cracked Xboxes into a home media system—with support for low-end games like, say, Minecraft, Braid, Angry Birds, and Words With Friends. I wouldn’t mind if it could play Skyrim, Mass Effect, or Call of Duty, but I know my hardware (and OSes) enough to know that’s never going to happen.

One thought on “Shine On You Console Dreamers

  1. (Copied/amended from a reply I made on Facebook)

    I’m [also] leery of joining the Kickstarter for the same reason – sure, the ‘Shadowrun Returns’ game (which was also on Kickstarter) had it’s release date pushed back, but they at least explained that since they met their stretch goals for additional content, it was going to take extra time to code it, test it and implement it – they didn’t want to rush it. Whereas with the OUYA, there’s no ‘road map’, just a supposed release date.

    I’d rather wait for a mass-market version – one that’ll have game and tech support at release and would have been thoroughly tested for hardware and soft/firmware bugs – after all, if I was to get a OUYA on the Kickstarter, and it’s bugged to hell, how do I return it for repairs? Or get a refund? Have they indicated what steps they’d take, in that kind of situation?

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