The Ouya has an uphill battle. A year ago, the idea of an Android microconsole seemed so novel -- but as CEO Julie Uhrman herself concedes, "making the hardware isn't hard. These aren't custom chips."
As it launches today -- in the U.S., Canada, and the UK -- she's optimistic about the Ouya's chances for success. Why? Because she thinks that players will buy the system because of its cheapness and its potential -- and indie developers will flock to it because of how unrestrictive the company is being about business models and creative oversight as compared to the competition.
Here's the pitch: "Between Xbox and Sony, well, yeah, you're not going to buy multiple consoles. But the nice thing about Ouya is that it's not an either/or decision," she says, of players plunking down the $100. "It's more like your Xbox and PlayStation -- the only difference is that it's incredibly accessible and incredibly affordable, and you're going to get great games from pretty much anyone and anywhere," she says.
The device itself is sleek, and even if the controller is a bit cut-rate, the whole package is certainly appealing and novel enough for the asking price. But you're mostly paying for potential.
The strategy the company has formed -- openness for developers, connecting them directly with their audience, and living room friendliness -- does have its appeal.
When I asked Uhrman what the "guiding star" of the platform is, she replied that it is "unique creative content from anybody." Ouya is a platform "about building the relationship between gamers and developers."
While the platform does have gatekeeping, it's about making sure the games work right and that there's no inappropriate content (hate speech, pornography). Any game that meets the technical and content requirements will be published. Then they're shoved into a "sandbox," from which they can bubble up into the curated content slots if they prove to be hits with the Ouya's audience -- and not just in terms of downloads, but in terms of engagement (play duration and play sessions) in a formula Uhrman calls an "O-rank." She's hoping the audience will help drive games into the upper echelons; the cream will rise to the top.
No Mobile, Please
Crucially, I think, she doesn't want to see vanilla mobile ports -- despite the console's Tegra and Android core. "The majority of our developers are console and PC game developers. They aren't mobile guys. The guys who are really good on mobile have built games that are good for touch."
"We want to have specific content that is optimized for the platform, that is specific and for our community of gamers," she says. "There's no better response than buttons and sticks for accuracy and precision. We're not about mobile ports. They're building games that are optimized for the television and the controller."
She recognizes that vanilla mobile ports would instantly result in "thousands of games" for the device -- but at launch, it has around 150. So while we can ding Ouya for a library lacking a killer app, we can at the same time laud the company's focus on getting the right titles.
The Directness of Your Relationship with Your Audience
One big advantage the Ouya has over other consoles is that its "Make" channel will allow developers to get creative with how they promote their games. It's "a place where developers can have a direct relationship with gamers," says Uhrman. "They can get behind the scenes footage... They can show five prototypes and have people vote for the game that they want... They can run a Kickstarter campaign through here."
"You can test games and ideas," she says, and expand them as they find their audience (or don't.)
-style updates are also "totally possible" on the console, because there's no patch fee or lengthy certification process, putting it on a closer footing with PCs than its console competition.
"We give you iconic symbols to know that it's ready and it doesn't cost any money to do it, and it's low effort for the gamers to download the right version," Urhman says.
The Argument for Ouya
In the end, her argument for developing for Ouya is this: "This is the platform they're going to come to. This is the easiest platform to build for the way they want to play. They have an audience of gamers that accept and want the type of content. They know that people are going to try it."
It comes down to potential. With big console launches around the bend for the fall and Steam looming in the background, with Apple adding controller support to iOS 7 and other microconsoles and controller solutions knocking at Ouya's door, it's anyone's guess what really
But the Ouya is cheap enough, powerful enough, and hopefully its alliance with developers shows that it's savvy enough to carve out a niche for the future.