It was huge news when the Ouya Kickstarter project set a new record by raising three million dollars in 24 hours by offering a $99, open source videogame console that will promote users hacking the hardware, offer free games or at least playable demos for every game on the system, and will be the most indie-friendly console on the market, if not ever.
This stunning fundraising success sparked a round of enthusiastic commentary including speculation that Ouya could potentially be a threat to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and that the speed with which Ouya raised money on Kickstarter demonstrated how hungry the audience was for a new game console.
This was followed swiftly by a round of anti-hype about how there's no way in hell the Ouya developers could possibly deliver a console with the advertised specs for $99; how the amount of money donated to the Kickstarter so far didn't translate into a large enough install base for developers to want to get on board early which could lead to an early death for the system; dire predictions about a ton of Ouya garbageware hitting the sort of completely open, unregulated marketplace that the Ouya developers were promising; and questions as to why indie devs wouldn't just develop games for Steam where a huge userbase was already present.
All of that is decidedly inside baseball for someone who just plays videogames, and even as someone who writes about videogames professionally I haven't had more than a passing interest in questions of the Ouya's industry relevance or whether the business plan makes any sense. I'm still looking at the Ouya the way I imagine an average gamer of any stripe (core, mobile, social, indie enthusiast) might look at the Ouya right now. If I have to speculate about something, I want to know what kind of games we might see on this thing.
Under the hood, the Ouya has specs that resemble a Nexus 7 tablet. It uses the Tegra 3 integrated CPU/GPU chip that was designed specifically for mobile devices. It only has 1 gig of RAM, which if you do any PC gaming sounds like a joke. 4 gigs of RAM is pretty standard by my experience and 8 gigs is preferable for a proper gaming rig. Ouya also runs on Android, which is an operating system designed for mobile devices.
At first glance, then, the Ouya looks like a mobile device stuffed into a little box that comes with a gamepad and hooks up to your television, and the reasonable assumption is that we're going to see the types of games on Ouya that we see on iPads and iPhones and Android smartphones and tablets. If you read the Ouya Kickstarter page, however, this doesn't seem as clear.
The project invokes a console gamer's nostalgia very early:
We love console games.
There's something about a big HD TV and digital surround sound that fills up a living room. Shooters, platformers, sports games, arcade classics and experimental indie games just feel bigger on a TV screen. It's how most of us grew up gaming.
Okay, so Ouya wants to be a platform for the kinds of games we've been playing on consoles for years, with an indie marketplace attached. That could be cool ...
But maybe people are missing out.
We get it - smartphones and tablets are getting all the new titles - they're "what's hot." The console market is pushing developers away. We've seen a brain drain: some of the best, most creative game makers are focused on mobile and social games because those platforms are more developer-friendly. And the ones who remain focused on console games can't be as creative as they'd like.
... oh. Ouya is going to be less about console games and more of a platform for smartphone and tablet-type games that are displayed on the television? This is a pretty important differentiation. Smartphone and tablet games are usually quitedifferent from console games in the way they function mechanically, but this could still be cool ...
Deep down, you know your best gaming memories happened in the living room.
You busted your ass just to find out the princess was "in another castle." You fought bosses that told you repeatedly how much "you suck." You taped a blanket to half of your screen so your friend couldn't see where you were. You traded the best players onto your team just so you could have the perfect season. And you did it all on the TV.
... um, okay? A reference to Super Mario Bros. followed by a reference to Mortal Kombat 3 followed by a reference to any and every console first person shooter since Halo that has split-screen display. These are not the kind of games I go to my iPhone or iPad looking for, and not what my friends who have Android devices tell me they're playing. These are not games I look for from the social and mobile developers at whom the Ouya seems aimed.
No one seems to have any idea what the hell to expect from Ouya in terms of the games. In a recent Q&A session on Kotaku, Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman was evasive in the face of questions about the console's launch slate of titles. I've seen people citing games like Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and Battlefield as what they want to see on Ouya, and all of that sounds ridiculous considering the hardware we're talking about. I'm not a hardware expert or a game developer, however, so I spoke to a bunch of people who were in an attempt to get their assessments of what the Ouya was capable of.
Many people were reticent to go on the record about Ouya, which I think is fair considering the hype around the machine. Anyone predicting a dire end to the console stands to look pretty foolish if it becomes a smash hit, but anyone talking about Ouya as a possible competitor to The Big Three is going to have egg on their face if the console crashes and burns or, worse yet, never actually materializes.
Some of the hardware experts I spoke to said that a four-core Tegra/Android machine was a far cry from current generation consoles, let alone what we're speculating on as the next generation, i.e. the Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4, and certainly wasn't close to any modern gaming PC. This suggests that the Ouya won't be able to provide satisfying core gaming experiences. Others said that trying to compare the Ouya's hardware to a console generation might not be entirely fair to begin with because mobile chip technologies specifically incorporate a bevy of improvements that are less tangible than raw speed or power, which is how we usually assess PCs and game consoles.