It was huge news when the Ouya Kickstarter project set a new record by raising three million dollars in 24 hours by offering a $99, open source videogame console that will promote users hacking the hardware, offer free games or at least playable demos for every game on the system, and will be the most indie-friendly console on the market, if not ever.
This stunning fundraising success sparked a round of enthusiastic commentary including speculation that Ouya could potentially be a threat to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and that the speed with which Ouya raised money on Kickstarter demonstrated how hungry the audience was for a new game console.
This was followed swiftly by a round of anti-hype about how there’s no way in hell the Ouya developers could possibly deliver a console with the advertised specs for $99; how the amount of money donated to the Kickstarter so far didn’t translate into a large enough install base for developers to want to get on board early which could lead to an early death for the system; dire predictions about a ton of Ouya garbageware hitting the sort of completely open, unregulated marketplace that the Ouya developers were promising; and questions as to why indie devs wouldn’t just develop games for Steam where a huge userbase was already present.
All of that is decidedly inside baseball for someone who just plays videogames, and even as someone who writes about videogames professionally I haven’t had more than a passing interest in questions of the Ouya’s industry relevance or whether the business plan makes any sense. I’m still looking at the Ouya the way I imagine an average gamer of any stripe (core, mobile, social, indie enthusiast) might look at the Ouya right now. If I have to speculate about something, I want to know what kind of games we might see on this thing.
Under the hood, the Ouya has specs that resemble a Nexus 7 tablet. It uses the Tegra 3 integrated CPU/GPU chip that was designed specifically for mobile devices. It only has 1 gig of RAM, which if you do any PC gaming sounds like a joke. 4 gigs of RAM is pretty standard by my experience and 8 gigs is preferable for a proper gaming rig. Ouya also runs on Android, which is an operating system designed for mobile devices.
At first glance, then, the Ouya looks like a mobile device stuffed into a little box that comes with a gamepad and hooks up to your television, and the reasonable assumption is that we’re going to see the types of games on Ouya that we see on iPads and iPhones and Android smartphones and tablets. If you read the Ouya Kickstarter page, however, this doesn’t seem as clear.
The project invokes a console gamer’s nostalgia very early:
We love console games.
There’s something about a big HD TV and digital surround sound that fills up a living room. Shooters, platformers, sports games, arcade classics and experimental indie games just feel bigger on a TV screen. It’s how most of us grew up gaming.
Okay, so Ouya wants to be a platform for the kinds of games we’ve been playing on consoles for years, with an indie marketplace attached. That could be cool …
But maybe people are missing out.
We get it – smartphones and tablets are getting all the new titles – they’re “what’s hot.” The console market is pushing developers away. We’ve seen a brain drain: some of the best, most creative game makers are focused on mobile and social games because those platforms are more developer-friendly. And the ones who remain focused on console games can’t be as creative as they’d like.
… oh. Ouya is going to be less about console games and more of a platform for smartphone and tablet-type games that are displayed on the television? This is a pretty important differentiation. Smartphone and tablet games are usually quitedifferent from console games in the way they function mechanically, but this could still be cool …
Deep down, you know your best gaming memories happened in the living room.
You busted your ass just to find out the princess was “in another castle.” You fought bosses that told you repeatedly how much “you suck.” You taped a blanket to half of your screen so your friend couldn’t see where you were. You traded the best players onto your team just so you could have the perfect season. And you did it all on the TV.
… um, okay? A reference to Super Mario Bros. followed by a reference to Mortal Kombat 3 followed by a reference to any and every console first person shooter since Halo that has split-screen display. These are not the kind of games I go to my iPhone or iPad looking for, and not what my friends who have Android devices tell me they’re playing. These are not games I look for from the social and mobile developers at whom the Ouya seems aimed.
No one seems to have any idea what the hell to expect from Ouya in terms of the games. In a recent Q&A session on Kotaku, Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman was evasive in the face of questions about the console’s launch slate of titles. I’ve seen people citing games like Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield as what they want to see on Ouya, and all of that sounds ridiculous considering the hardware we’re talking about. I’m not a hardware expert or a game developer, however, so I spoke to a bunch of people who were in an attempt to get their assessments of what the Ouya was capable of.
Many people were reticent to go on the record about Ouya, which I think is fair considering the hype around the machine. Anyone predicting a dire end to the console stands to look pretty foolish if it becomes a smash hit, but anyone talking about Ouya as a possible competitor to The Big Three is going to have egg on their face if the console crashes and burns or, worse yet, never actually materializes.
Some of the hardware experts I spoke to said that a four-core Tegra/Android machine was a far cry from current generation consoles, let alone what we’re speculating on as the next generation, i.e. the Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4, and certainly wasn’t close to any modern gaming PC. This suggests that the Ouya won’t be able to provide satisfying core gaming experiences. Others said that trying to compare the Ouya’s hardware to a console generation might not be entirely fair to begin with because mobile chip technologies specifically incorporate a bevy of improvements that are less tangible than raw speed or power, which is how we usually assess PCs and game consoles.
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.