Friday, July 13, 2012

The OUYA – Open Source Console: What it is, and what it isn't.

Video game news sites, blogs and discussion boards are all talking about the OUYA, and it really is a story that is too big to ignore.  Crowdsourced for its initial funding by Kickstarter (which deserves its own article here, soon) in only four days, people have pledged $4.5 million to see this thing happen.  The concept behind the console is that the Big Three are hard and expensive to develop for, and the companies that manufacture them lock down the hardware and software so the user can't modify the units themselves after purchase.  Many talented developers have stopped even trying to create games for consoles, focusing on PC or moblie markets instead, where it is cheaper and easier to get going. The OUYA will run on a version of the Android OS, have HDMI output to a TV and will be moddable and hackable out of the box. The SDK (Software Development Toolkit) will be designed to make it easy and cheap to get games onto the platform, which should attract developers who don't want to deal with the hassle of breaking into console gaming's current walled gardens.

Controller will have analog sticks, triggers, and a touchpad, but doesn't actually exist yet.

I've read a lot of reaction to the Kickstarter campaign, and the vast majority of folks who are participating in either the hype-bandwagon or the hipster-backlash for or against the OUYA seem to have some of the details wrong.  They don't know what the OUYA is, but they either think it is the second coming, destined to immediately take out the Playstation, XBox and Wii platforms... or they have a laundry list of criticisms that are only partially grounded in reality. There are a lot more invalid assumptions and just plain wrong assertions coming from critics of the OUYA, but in order to get to the bottom of this, I need to talk a little bit about what the OUYA is, and more importantly, what it isn't.

Anyone dropping $100 today because they believe they are buying a piece of hardware that is comparable to even current-generation consoles is misinformed. The technical specifications of the unit are a little bit better than a bleeding-edge expensive smartphone. That said, a phone with those specs is $650 with a 2-year contract and has some serious limitations on what it can deliver as a gaming platform.  There currently are no final designs for the console or its controller, and it won't launch with AAA-style titles, the hardware won't support it, and the type of developer that is capable of delivering that sort of game is already inside the existing walled gardens, and doesn't need what the OUYA is selling.  All games that release for the system will be required to have a free component, like a smartphone app, with subscription or microtransactions in place, emulating the Free2Play model. Let that sink in. All games are free, but will likely feature a "cash shop" or something similar.

That said, without any 100% confirmed titles at launch (though Mojang has strongly suggested that Minecraft will be made available), and games that are more likely to have design influenced by the existence of microtransactions, the OUYA doesn't look a lot like an XBox. Critics have seized on this, and the Android platform as proof that the console will primarily support the sorts of games currently found on the Android Market (Google Play) and iTunes.  A $100 console that plays Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja doesn't sound as much like a game changer.  However, it is short-sighted to believe that developers won't line up to make games for this with over 30,000 pre-orders in a few days from customers, and the Developer's Kit console pre-orders (400+ of them) sold out in that same time. It is a fair assumption that while we'll see some shovelware, at least a few games that manage to make a subscription or microtransaction model work will be available at launch.
I like Canabalt, love Minecraft, but they will need a solid launch library that consists of new titles that are hits, or
that can be hits on their platform.

A common complaint I've seen online is that the technical specifications are weak for a console and that they won't be able to produce units in order to retail the console at $100.  These statements come from comparing specs to existing consoles and price to smartphone components. The test of the OUYA as a concept is what sort of performance they can get out of their advertised hardware once full games are running on the system. I'm not worried about the hardware price, as there is no reasonable comparison between phones and PCs or consoles, dispersing heat in a small handheld and making components tiny enough to fit inside is pricey, mass-producing dedicated boxes to run Android... not so much. Downloadable games in a console which is basically a PC with a GUI and a controller evokes a negative comparison to the Phantom Console from 2004 that nearly ruined Infinium Labs. In the last 8 years, however, many of the technical limitations that made the Phantom famous vaporware have worked themselves out, most notably massively improved bandwidth speeds making streaming content, even games, possible.

I've talked a lot about what the OUYA isn't... but there are a few things that it is, or could be, that folks are missing out on.  A moddable/rootable box can be a 1-stop console for emulation of everything from the NES to the Playstation 2, with all the legally grey caveats that emulators and ROMs have dealt with.  It can be yet another box for streaming Netflix or any number of music services with nothing but existing apps on the Google Play store today.  It may not be able to challenge even this generation's consoles on day one, but it could absolutely take on the Xbox Live Marketplace, PSN and Wii Points stores if enough developers with fresh ideas back the idea, letting their best games rise to the top naturally. Even without a massive launch lineup, the confidence that comes with the number of people behind this project makes $99 a more than fair price.

Investing in the OUYA today is supporting a group of established industry professionals who are rolling the dice on coming out with something that could really change the console market. Even if it doesn't deliver on the best of its promises, what you could have today is fairly reasonable... and with the right software, and if the hardware is stable and relatively quick given its limitations, what could be there tomorrow sounds plausible, all hype put to the side.

Best Blogger Tips
  • Stumble This Post
  • Save Tis Post To Delicious
  • Share On Reddit
  • Fave On Technorati
  • Buzz This Post
  • Tweet This Post
  • Digg This Post
  • Share On Facebook
Blog Gadgets


Post a Comment