The new, Kickstarter-funded Ouya console has gone from unknown project to red-hot popularity over the past few days and has already blown past its $950,000 (£614,000) fundraiser goal — it's actually the fastest-funded Kickstarter project of all time, beating out Double Fine Adventure and the Pebble watch. The goal of Ouya's project leader Julie Uhrman reads like a love letter to hackers, makers, and open-source enthusiasts: Build a $99 (£64) game console that's explicitly designed for hacking, modding, and development. All of the platform's games will be offered with demo versions or will use a freemium price structure, rooting the console won't void your warranty, and the Tegra 3 SoC, HDMI output, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of flash storage are a pretty good deal at that price.
Ouya is being built by industry veterans, including Uhrman herself, Ed Fries (former vice-president of game publishing for Microsoft during the original Xbox's early days), and product designer Yves Behar. According to Uhrman, the surging popularity of tablets and smartphones has led to an industry brain drain, with numerous talented developers departing the console space to focus on mobile products. The high licensing costs, huge teams, and multi-million dollar budgets that dominate console games today have created huge barriers to entry that discourage innovation and create tension between studios and publishers. Mobile games are simple, small scale, and often just as addictive as their big-screen counterparts.
What Uhrman wants to do is take that small-scale, user-friendly business model and bring it back to the big screen. "Deep down," the Kickstarter page reminds you, "you know your best gaming memories happened in the living room." It's a good point — but can Ouya leverage those memories into a successful business model? It's hard to be optimistic.
Like bringing a knife to a nuclear war
The home entertainment industry is currently in the greatest state of flux since the invention of the VCR. Netflix and Hulu have changed how and where we watch content,cloud gaming could revolutionise the console market, while ad-supported and freemium games have shifted both payment structures and user expectations. Fifteen years ago, the idea that net neutrality and bandwidth metering could impact your console gaming experience would've been ludicrous — today these issues are being argued in the world's highest courts. Microsoft has already partnered with Comcast to launch a TV-on-demand service that flagrantly violates Comcast's agreement with the FCC regarding prioritised content.
The Ouya is strolling into this turmoil on the strength of an idea Apple, Microsoft, and a great many game publishers scoff at. In the conventional world and in the minds of many game developers, root access leads to piracy, and piracy leads to death. That's an institutional mindset that's not going to be easy to overcome. Even if the Ouya team manages it, it's squaring off in a market where Microsoft, at the very least, is reportedly considering a $99-$149 (£64 - £96) Xbox system that would function as a home entertainment portal as well. True, the Ouya offers a very different set of features than an Xbox, but game developers will always want to maximise profit by supporting the widest number of platforms. That means Sony, Nintendo, Apple, and Microsoft are going to come well before anyone else — and if Ouya doesn't rack up some truly staggering launch figures, it may never be popular enough to close that gap.
The list of logistical challenges is daunting. If quality control is good, and the company can keep up with orders, if there are no major hardware flaws found six months after launch, if developers are willing to take chances on such an open platform, if Nvidia throws some Tegra-fueled weight behind it (a distinct possibility), and if Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo don't collectively take action to nip the console's popularity in the bud through a combination of steep hardware discounts and/or specifically targeted programs, then the Ouya might have a chance. A slim one.
Personally, I'd really like to see the Ouya succeed. Its design inherently challenges a huge number of assumptions the established players have bought into, from the types of games people want to play, to the way those games should be distributed and monetised. A profitable Ouya would give teeth to the argument that DRM hurts sales more than it helps them, or that piracy destroys gaming by making it unprofitable.
It could change everything, but first it has to sell. The huge number of failed consoles and handhelds launched by major companies with deep pockets over the past 20 years speaks for itself. Much as I'd like to say otherwise, the chances of Ouya establishing itself in the market are a million to one.