Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ouya: The Indie Console

For those of you who haven't heard, this is Ouya:

Its Kickstarter started the other day with the seemingly lofty goal of raising nearly $1 million. As of this writing, it is nearing $3 million and I don't doubt that it will blow past that by the end of the day. I haven't the slightest clue where it will end, but I think it's probably bound to be the most successful Kickstarter in the history of the site.

A lot of people seem skeptical about the idea. Myself included, at least to a degree. I myself haven't actually contributed to the Kickstarter, and I doubt that I will. Not that I don't think this is a good idea, I just don't like contributing to Kickstarters that have already reached their goals.

I understand the skepticism. The platform is cheap, costing only $99. Its hardware is basically about as powerful as a decent tablet PC. The company producing it will only make profits from the sale of the hardware and presumably a cut of whatever monetization scheme developers come up with for their games.

It all seems very pie-in-the-sky and risky.

If mismanaged, this can easily go the way of the Wii. Excited consumers will buy it, but developers will lose interest primarily due to the underwhelming technical capabilities of the platform.

However, it doesn't appear that Ouya is going to make the same mistakes as the Wii.

First of all, they're sticking with a very simple control scheme. Given the open nature of the platform, motion-capable input systems could be developed for it, but this is less than likely to happen anytime soon. Regardless, this will provide a comfortable environment for developers to work in and it won't put off gamers either.

Also, whereas Nintendo's inexplicable desire to make everything licensed and proprietary deterred indie developers from taking full advantage of WiiWare, Ouya's game publishing system will presumably be completely open, much like the Google Play service for Android, and the SDK for the system is completely free.

For the past few years, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have been fighting the trends in gaming. People don't want to pay full retail prices for games. With the advent of Steam, more and more gamers are returning to the PC, since that's where all the indie developers are. The new casual gaming market brought on by the Wii has largely found a new home in mobile gaming, particularly on the iOS and Android.

They've been trying their best to ride the waves of the shifting paradigm, but they don't want to change the way they do business. They like being the gate-keepers. Right now, if you want to develop for one of the major consoles, you need to purchase their SDKs, create the game according to their specifications and standards, get their approval, pay for the licensing, and pay for the publishing. If you want to develop a game for XBLA, for example, all of these costs go straight to Microsoft. On top of that, the process in lengthy, taking several months. Additionally, releasing game patches or DLC often takes just as long. The Big Three act as middle-men and that's the way it has always been.

This is primarily why most indie games these days come out for Steam first. Steam doesn't have any specific hardware specifications or standards, SDK integration is easy, and they basically just take money directly from the sale of the game.

In a way, Ouya is taking the Steam approach, but applying it to consoles. It costs nothing to develop for and once you have a game ready, you just submit it and Ouya adds it to their store. Their only requirement is that your game functions on the hardware and that it has at least some element of free play, either through a demo or a microtransaction system or just by making the entire game free. If your game has a cost, Ouya will take a cut of it.

Ouya may lack the technical power and connections with the industry that the Big Three have, but they make up for it by offering console development without the cost and red tape. Even AAA developers might look at that and think, "Hey, maybe we can dedicate a small team to make something for it, just to try it out." But I guarantee, indie developers will be all over this. If you were so inclined, you could make a game by yourself in your basement and

Does it have problems? Probably. Like Android and iOS, the idea of an open store has two possible paths. Either they allow just about every single app through, making it difficult for anyone to stand out in the sea of garbage, or they pick and choose what they allow in the store, which is time-consuming and subject to criticism. With the amount of publicity Ouya is getting, there will be a lot of developers making terrible games very quickly to try and get an early foothold on the market, and this may put off a lot of gamers.

Obviously, its limited technical capabilities mean that we won't see major AAA titles for this system.

The idea of encouraging hackers and modders to play around with the system is very bold, but it may make developers nervous and it may make fragmentation a problem.

Even with these problems, however, this system could change everything. If new and struggling console developers start focusing on Ouya, it puts the Big Three in an awkward position. They would be able to retain their AAA developers, but that market has been stagnating for a while and hasn't had much growth. They will have to adapt to survive, which may mean a serious shift in the way the entire industry does business. XBLA and PSN might go the way of WiiWare as fewer and fewer developers will want to put up with their high costs and standards.

Additionally, if Ouya continues on its current trajectory and captures a huge market, there's no reason why the Ouya 2 (or whatever) couldn't match the technical capabilities of its competitors in time, eventually capturing the AAA market as well.

This could be the first step to the future of console gaming. I guess we'll know for sure in March 2013.