Since the days of the great Atari crash, the history of game consoles has been one of increasingly powerful walled gardens. Massive companies exercise tight control over what games can be released on their platform, how often, and at what price. But that model is starting to look a little outdated. We live in a world where iOS is succeeding as a game platform with thousands of lightly regulated titles, where even hardcore games like Team Fortress 2 are making the free-to-play model work, and where PC developers often make more money when they control the price of their own games.
Those are the kinds of business developments that are motivating the team behind Ouya, a $99, Android 4.0-based TV game console project launching on Kickstarter today. Ouya is promising to provide a more open, hackable, and flexible gaming environment than the console market has ever seen before.
Ouya founder Julie Uhrman—who’s had executive experience at GameFly, IGN, and Vivendi Universal—thinks it's about time the console market learned from the success other platforms have seen recently by opening up. “It’s ironic, all the growth in gaming is moving to mobile platforms, [and] we’re seeing a lot of AAA developers leaving their console shops to go to mobile, yet three out of every four dollars is still spent in the living room, a majority of gaming time is still spent on the TV, and if you survey any gamer they’ll tell you their No. 1 platform is the TV.”
The increasing expense and complications of getting a game on to a console are forcing developers onto other platforms, Uhrman said. It's leading to a situation where the consoles are “stuck with sequel after sequel versus new created games and IP because it’s too expensive and no one wants to take a risk as something new. … We just think the time is really right. Nothing new came out of E3 [hardware-wise], and everybody’s feeling a little tired. It’s interesting because around the time of E3, everyone was asking if consoles were dead. We don’t think consoles are dead, we just think it’s time to rethink the way we do business.”
The proposed hardware specs for the Ouya are about what you’d expect for a console that comes in at less than $100. The system uses the same kind of quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor that powers the Google Nexus 7 and Microsoft’s Surface tablets, along with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of built-in storage. That’ll let the system easily run decently complex 3D games at 1080p, but graphically it won’t hold a candle to the Xbox 360 or PS3 (much less their successors, which are expected as soon as late 2013).
What Ouya lacks in raw power, it makes up for with its low price and an open design that seems perfect for hackers and hobbyists. Ouya owners will be able to open the casing with a standard screwdriver to upgrade everything from the RAM to the memory chips, and even to solder additions onto the motherboard itself using “clearly documented test points,” according to a fact sheet. Basic consumers won’t be expected to regularly upgrade the internals like PC gamers, however—Uhrman said developers can be confident in developing for “one chipset that will be totally standard.”
On the software side, every console will come pre-loaded with a free SDK, letting anyone familiar with Android development become a potential Ouya developer without paying any additional fees. The operating system on the Ouya is fully rootable, as well, meaning we’re sure to see a Linux distro for the box roughly five microseconds after it’s available in the wild.
But Uhrman said Android was a preferable option over an open source environment like Linux for one key reason. “Familiarity is key,” she said. “Any time you want to launch something new, you want to remove as many reservations and hurdles as possible... there’s always opportunity cost, and you want to give the best value proposition. I looked at what was out there, and Android is well accepted by hundreds of developers, it’s easy to understand it is not expensive to start developing on, and we’re starting to see a huge movement of developers to the mobile space... It’s something that they know; they’re not learning something new.”
Android roots don’t mean a completely touch-based interface, though. Ouya will include a standard wireless controller with two analog sticks, a d-pad, and eight action buttons, along with a 2-to-3-inch touchpad set in the middle to allow for gesture-based controls. The dual-use controller allows for the accuracy and responsiveness required for standard, joystick-and-button-based console games, Uhrman said. It will also serve as a bridge to let existing Android games be ported to the system easily. She even suggested that the unique controller could lead to new games that use both the touchpad and the standard buttons, which “won’t be available anywhere else” (though we think the Wii U’s tablet GamePad could probably handle them).
Ouya’s Android architecture means most existing Android games and apps should work on the system with little to no modification. However, we imagine games designed for a 4-inch phone screen might need some graphical changes before being shown on an HDTV. Ouya owners won’t just be able to pluck any old app off the Google Play store, though—developers and customers will have to go through a proprietary Ouya store. This lets the company take a standard 30 percent fee from all content sold (the store will also provide an “extra layer of security” against piracy through online authentication, a representative told Ars). And while games will be the primary focus for the system, non-gaming apps will also be available on the store, including game-focused live video streaming service Twitch.TV.
The Ouya store will have a minimal approval process that allows a wide variety of titles, Uhrman said, but there will be one requirement that is non-negotiable: every game on Ouya will be free-to-play in some form. That might bring up visions of a system dominated by microtransactions and pay-to-win schemes, but Uhrman clarified that the “free-to-play” portion of an Ouya game could take any form a developer wants. An Ouya game could follow the popular PC and console demo model, for instance, offering a free feature or time-limited version gratis with the option to pay a one-time fee to unlock the full version. “Our only requirement is that the gamer have the opportunity to play some aspect of it for free,” Uhrman said. “We don’t like the idea that you pay $60 for a game and feel cheated. We want anybody to have the opportunity to try the game.”
Precisely what games those Ouya owners will be trying at the system’s planned launch early next year is still a mystery. Uhrman wasn’t ready to confirm which titles or developers would be represented at the system’s planned launch early next year, but a press sheet accompanying the announcement listed supportive quotes from developers including Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Jenova Chen (Flower, Flow), Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), and Markus “Notch” Persson (Minecraft). Images of a prototype menu system provided by Ouya also showed a prototype system with a menu highlightingMinecraft as an option, as well as titles with a more mobile heritage like Canabalt, Triple Town, Dead Trigger, and Shadowgun.
While it seems like Ouya won’t hurt for support from the indie and mobile sides of the industry, it remains to be seen whether the big-name, AAA console publishers will be willing to throw their weight behind an unproven new system (or whether a low-cost, hacker-friendly system can survive and thrive without them). Uhrman thinks the major publishers will come on board, though, because Ouya gives them easy access to an open digital distribution environment without the danger of lowering the value of their games. Unlike mobile phones and tablet platforms, she said, publishers will be able to sell downloadable titles on Ouya for $60, and “it’ll be accepted by gamers, because it’s a television-based game that’s leveraging a real controller and everything that comes along with it.”
Interplay founder Brian Fargo (Wasteland, A Bard’s Tale) told Ars he was skeptical of the idea behind Ouya when he first heard it pitched. But Fargo was convinced to become a minor investor in the project when the founders pointed out how well systems like the PlayStation 2 have continued to sell at the $99 price point. And while independent developers aren’t exactly hurting for opportunities to innovate on platforms like the PC and iOS, Fargo said he’s excited to see these developers get a crack at making games designed for the living room TV with a standard controller.
“I like to support anything that provides more opportunities for smaller developers,” Fargo told Ars. “No one company can compete with the crowd. This is, for the first time, giving the crowd a chance to see what they can do with a console television.”