The developer Phosphor is working on a new game called Horn which was developed with Unreal Engine 3 and runs on Tegra 3 hardware. While Unreal Engine 4 is still in development such that it isn't ready for deployment on mobile devices just yet, I've been told from credible sources that we could see a scaled-down version of Unreal Engine 4 running on a Tegra-3 processor and a gig of RAM at some point in the future. Considering how ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3 has become in game development, the prospect of Ouya games running on the engine suggests that AAA-quality, core games are perfectly reasonable to expect from the system.
I did get a statement on the record from Chris Allen, the CEO of Brass Monkey. His company is developing a system that he describes as "pretty much Ouya without the hardware," a game console that "uses smartphones as controllers and any screen with a web browser as the main display." I asked Allen whether this conflation of console games and indie games that Ouya is presenting made any sense, considering those are two worlds that typically do not mesh.
I think that's a fair assessment; however the real question is why? Why do indies steer away from the hardcore graphics, and to game consoles in general? Traditionally the big reason for this is the large amount of money it takes to develop a rich 3D game. With tools like Unity 3D at a relatively low cost this isn't as much of a barrier anymore. I believe that the biggest reason that indies aren't making high end console games is that there's a huge upfront cost for a licenses and dev kit from the major manufacturers. That combined with strict approval processes make it very difficult to justify building games for these platforms. People can't afford to shell out $30k for that with the possibility that their game won't even be accepted as approved content for the system.
Allen observed that people didn't think the big publishers would get involved in the iPhone, but now AAA studios are in the mix. The Ouya could be a huge opportunity for new game developers to become huge successes on an emerging platform, like the way Rovio hit it big with Angry Birds. Those are reasonable points, but what about the Ouya hardware?
The proposed hardware is very much comparable to an iPad 3. The graphics that you can draw on that device are pretty impressive. When you take a look at games like Shadowgun and Dead Trigger they are as good from what we saw on the last generation consoles, and it's quickly approaching what we see on the latest consoles.
I do see [the Ouya's] more limited hardware sort of forcing a certain style of game, and that's actually probably a really good thing. On Brass Monkey for instance, we are getting a lot of these sort of retro platform, 80s style games. People love playing these, and they are more about the core game mechanics rather than graphics.
Josh Tsui, President of Robomodo and a developer with PC and console development experience, had this to say about the Ouya's horsepower:
It's not so much that the chipset isn't powerful enough, [in my opinion] it's really about the budget and time developers will have to make games for Ouya. Games on XBLA and PSN are good examples of the level of polish to expect on the Ouya, which to me is pretty darn good. I'd even say that our latest game Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD would run on it.
The biggest difference between Ouya and mobile devices is the screen. Games on a 60 inch Hi Def screen demand more details. There will be certain expectations of quality and that will drive up costs. What this means is that games that you thought looked and felt great on the phone or tablet will completely fall apart on a big screen if not designed right. This means more people working on these games and that would initially lead to a lot of ports and shorter original games until Ouya has a larger audience. This is nothing new but the difference is that MS and Sony can subsidize a lot of BIG games for initial launch whereas I don't see that with Ouya (if I'm wrong, please sign me up!).
As for the chipset, smart designers can always work around power limitations. The Tegra is pretty powerful and it's really up to good coders and smart artists to squeeze every last drop out of it. Again it really comes down to how much time they are allowed to do that. XBLA/PSN sized games are perfect for this format and in many ways that's what they're striving for. I know many retail games are just bloated to justify a $60 price tag.
The last time I checked the Kickstarter page the Ouya had raised over $5.5 million with two weeks left to go. I'm not willing to dismiss the console out of hand, and based on the answers I received to my inquiry, I'm beginning to think that no one else should, either, not if the potential for AAA-quality, core titles is there, and if it's true that indie developers have avoided console development largely on account of the hidden costs.
If we can't even dismiss the potential visual quality we might see on a high end Ouya game, core gamers can't reasonably dismiss the potential for AAA console gaming experiences like we're used to appearing on the Ouya. That does not automatically justify hype which suggests the Ouya could become a counterpart to The Big Three, but it certainly makes it sound possible that the Ouya could at least carve an appreciable space for itself in the console market. At this point, then, I think a wait-and-see approach makes sense. Let's neither hype nor dismiss, but remain open to giving the Ouya its fair day in the only court that really matters: the marketplace.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.