I should probably be restraining some of my excitement, but there’s no way around it: I’m very anxious to get my hands on my Limited Edition, Kickstarter-Backer-Only version of the Ouya. There is as much to be worried about as there is to be excited over. Ouya is the first serious competitor Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony have seen in over a decade. The previous generation of consoles knocked the once-great Sega completely out of the hardware business. The current generation has seen numerous publishers and developers fold. Publishers are beginning to insist that the only way to make a profit is to trick people into paying more than $60 per game. Android and iOS devices are stealing the thunder of portable consoles.
The video game industry is in a state of flux, but this isn’t the first time. Almost as soon as they appeared, arcades began to fall out of favor. Even before they started to become hotbeds of gang activity, they were stricken with a seedy reputation that led to many a young gamer being banned from their hallowed halls by protective parents. Arcade games were considered addictive, and playing games was compared to gambling.
The proliferation of home consoles started arcades on a slow decline, with the final nail in the coffin of the traditional arcade being struck early in the turn of the century. Now, arcade machines are largely relegated to being a sideshow or diversion at another entertainment venue. Even then, the varieties seem limited to 1980’s classics, racing, or dancing games. It is rare to see any sort of gaming innovation come from the arcade space.
Home gaming hasn’t been without its own ups and downs. The market crashed in the US due to a market flooded with cheap, low-quality games. By 1983, Atari had become synonymous with video games, and their brand so tainted by a lack of quality control that video games were written off as a fad that had come and gone. The market was revitalized by Nintendo, who shackled third party game developers with incredibly arduous limitations.
The restrictions Nintendo placed served two functions: it made them extra money, and it kept the market from overflowing with junk(which helped them keep making money). Since the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the US, these restrictions have existed in some form or another. Over time, they have not subsided much. Some of the biggest, like restricting the number of titles a given company can release in a year, have been lifted. Still, third-party publishers have to jump through both financial and logistical hoops to get their titles on a game console, and programmers need special(and expensive) console development kits for each platform.
Mobile computing is changing this trend. Rather than pay up-front fees, platform owners take a cut from each game sold. There is typically little-to-no cost to getting started on development, because it can be done on a standard PC or Mac. While each game still goes through some sort of testing before being allowed in a marketplace, that testing is far less strenuous. By lightening the burdens on third-party shoulders, the mobile gaming market has exploded.
Enter the Ouya: a home console built on mobile hardware, and following the mobile model. While it is less powerful than its competitors, the tiny $99 is a third the price and capable of graphics equivalent to or greater than the PS2 and Xbox era of game consoles at a higher resolution. One of the few requirements for distribution via Ouya’s platform is there must be a way to sample the game. This can be achieved by offering a demo or by following the currently-in-vogue “freemium” model of charging for in-game feature while making the core game free.
I’m wary of the freemium model, as it tends to lead to games that become less fun over time, but the idea of a demo mode for every game is fantastic. Ouya could also be a haven for episodic gaming, which I think is the likely real future of gaming. I’ll expand upon that in another article. As gaming budgets skyrocket and we enter a world where million-sellers can’t break even, it seems inevitable that existing industry models will change. Ouya will be, at the very least, a testing ground for some of these models.
The future of the Ouya is still shrouded in mystery. As it begins shipping to Kickstarter backers, we can expect to get a better idea of how well it stands up to the hype surrounding it. So far, the only review I’ve seen paints it in a mediocre light. Still, there is time for the hardware and software to improve: the official launch of the console will be June 4th. I’ll share more thoughts on it when my own little cube arrives.