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Heavily-marketed apps with mass appeal are for other consoles. Use Ouya to make the niche game you've always wanted.

Wesley Paugh, Blogger

December 7, 2012

5 Min Read

First things first: I'm biased. I make a modest software developer's living, and am buried in school debt. As excited as I was to know I was about to own my first console devkit, tossing $700 into the ring for a pre-release Ouya devkit hurt. It hurt a lot. So, not only was I a proponent of this console before I started writing this article, but I'm deeply invested in seeing it succeed. I don't think I'm alone.

There's over a thousand pre-release devkits shipping out later this month, behind each of which is a person that thought the extra $600 was worth a 3-month head start, but none know for certain. I suspect many will not release games at launch, despite their developer's best efforts. As often happens with console launches, I assume ports ( 100 Rogues, for a completely random example ) will comprise that lineup in no small part. While that may not be ideal, it would be far worse for developers and, I would argue, players, if one or two new games strike gold in a big, system-selling way.

There was recently an article on Gamasutra about the Ouya needing a killer app. I am inclined to disagree, not because I don't think a Halo for Ouya would guarantee its success like nothing else. I disagree on the grounds that this awfully cynical view for the future of independent game development may actually just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most consoles have launched at price tags 3-4 times higher than Ouya's, and players are accustomed to trusting gut instincts about a killer app, because the investment has always been so high. A $99 console could be, probably even should be, a chance for gamers to start spending the hundreds of dollars saved by taking risks on a wide range of games they never have even seen on a mobile market, for example. All the same, the dozens of hours a gamer might spend practicing headshots in a supposed Killer App because it got the most advertising, could instead be given as handfuls of hours with a variety of titles, learning more about why he likes games and which ones he really likes. 

I recognize the idealism and, perhaps, naiveté of the viewpoint; even a small investment in terms of time or money is still an investment, and customers invest in sure things rather than exploratory gambles. Even if that approach achieves a measure of success, it would probably be only a fraction of what its potential might be with more tried-and-true methods and marketing. Still, Ouya's 'all games free to play' approach just might give idealism a fighting chance.

Could this be an opportunity for gamers to appreciate well-crafted games in untamed, sometimes even hideous, unfamiliar forms? Maybe, *sniff*, maybe.

Ouya has come as far as it has while advertising itself as an independent-friendly platform. Most independent developers I've talked to (at least, the ones that have shipped games before) have a subdued resentment towards the celebrity culture of Indie gaming. There's more to us than Jon Blow and Notch.

However, an Indie hive-mind mentality exists much more fiercely outside that circle. Minecraft basked in ovation as it took award after award in the IGF two years ago but, when Desktop Dungeons clinched Best Design against it, applause was far outweighed by confused stares of nonrecognition. This is a serious problem for 1,000+ Ouya developers that might want to start a community where their work actually receives recognition (and, dare I say, financial success?) based on its unique quality, rather than its mass appeal.  No matter how good the competition, not everyone can have a slice of pie as big as Minecraft's.

Do I think Minecraft, or Angry Birds, or Farmville, were developed specifically for mass appeal, hoping to achieve the fame and fortune it did? Probably not entirely.  (ok, Farmville probably was). You've got to give the game credit for being well-designed, and having equally great timing. But, it ought to be the responsibility of the Ouya community and its Market's moderators to not let a success like that drastically change the playing field for the market as a whole, lest we be flooded with clones, knock-offs and cash-ins.

If Ouya gets branded a console of new ideas, and if the 1,000 developers actually are making games for it in ways that don't specifically strive for mass appeal, then the indie community just might be able to eek out a self-sustaining space to find support for all ideas. Good games, bad games, as long as they're interesting, Ouya could be the place for genuine artistic expression through game design to be nurtured and appreciated.

But all of this would be undone if one, or even two, truly headlining games attract a disproportionately huge audience. Even if these games are groundbreaking, well-designed games, the resulting influx of imitating gold-diggers would turn the platform into exactly what the Android, iOS and Facebook markets have become: places where developing as fast, cheap and often as possible can undercut those that strive to make interesting games with unique, if niche, appeal. Cashing in on the success of the first one or two big hits is standard practice for everyone, big and small. Who could even blame anyone, at this point?

Ouya is a lush, secluded hollow of creativity, at dangerous risk of being paved over to make way for marketable tourist traps. I'm genuinely curious whether Ouya's developers feel similarly, or if they'd let their sales slump to preserve such a hollow, say by handpicking games to publish or bury, or ensuring an equal distribution of promotion time (no "App of the Week" that recurs with each version / IAP / spinoff, or interminably self-sustaining status as 'best-selling' game).

Ouya's survival is what's important to the people behind Ouya, and achieving that end by any means ought to come first. But game development doesn't need another PS3 or Halo right now, because we all know those aren't going anywhere. What we need is a space for people who have new ideas to feel able to showcase those ideas before an audience that is open to appreciating them.

I strongly believe this would be the best use Ouya could be to gamers and game developers alike. However, I suspect the reality could best be described by quoting Douglas Adams. "This, many claim, is not merely impossible but clearly insane".

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