I suppose I’m on a bit of a Kickstarter “kick” (har har) lately, but that’s mostly a good thing. After the extremely prominent (and successful) Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter earlier this year, crowdfunding has really blown up in a huge way, giving indies a solid platform for promotion and fundraising. It’s no surprise that pretty much everyone and their dog has attempted a Kickstarter after Double Fine made over three million dollars simply by asking for it, but at least the ideas are out there, even if not all of them are good.
I never thought I’d see any Kickstarter shatter the records set by Double Fine, but with almost $4.5 million in pledges with 26 days to go, the OUYA Kickstarter is truly something else. If anything, it shows that the current long console generation has people desperate for a new console, despite the fact that the OUYA is far from a traditional video game box. At a suggested retail price of $99, the thing is incredibly affordable, being less expensive than the freaking cell phone I just bought. Their console and controller prototypes are damn sexy, with the console itself taking cues from the Wii’s sleek, compact design, while the controller itself is a typical, 360-like gamepad. The latter will reportedly have an additional touch-screen interface that should make porting Android mobile games a breeze, something that the OUYA developers are banking on in terms of attracting developer support. Finally, the console is meant to be 100% digital download (yep, no disc tray) and fully hackable. The former is a good move in this day and age, and in that respect, the console could succeed where the PSP Go failed; the latter, however, is a huge risk.
To be honest, most of the stuff surrounding the console seems risky. While I’m excited by the prospect of a new, niche console and may even buy one if the team delivers on their promises, I do have a number of concerns. First and foremost is that, as Kotaku pointed out, you can’t throw a stone in hell without hitting the corpse of a dead console. Because my interest in the video game industry only really took off at the turn of the century, I’m most familiar with the Nokia N-Gage (felled by a lackluster mobile gaming scene at the time, and sidetalkin’, of course), the Gizmondo (felled by corporate scandal), and the Phantom (felled by financial mismanagement). But given the kind of high-profile media attention the OUYA has been receiving this past week, I think marketing won’t be the issue here that it was for the Gizmondo and the Phantom, both of which mostly languished in obscurity from the moment they were announced.
I understand that the notion of an “open console” will be of particular interest to homebrew aficionados, but let’s be perfectly honest: it’s gonna attract the pirates more than anything. Up until now, pirating games has been way tougher on a console than on a PC, which could be part of the reason why the PC market was left for dead from 1999 to roughly 2007. For a studio that can’t take absorb the revenue lost from PC pirating, a console release is an undoubtedly safer path. How many developers take the risk of designing a game from the ground-up for an unproven console with such potential for rampant piracy? My guess is not many, which is why most of the developer opinions we’ve seen so far are supportive, but noncommital from a business standpoint.
Of course, the ultimate question is whether there will be any games worth playing on the OUYA. Being an Android console, it’s highly likely that we’ll see tons of mobile game ports, of which the Android Market has very few that approach AAA quality. It’s being marketed as a console for indie developers, but to truly be that console, it has to give indie developers a better platform than Steam, which is…unlikely. For all the flak Xbox Live Indie Games has been receiving lately about being a terrible platform for indies, Steam has been collecting accolades left, right, and centre, and the upcoming Steam Greenlight feature looks to only improve the marketing experience for the indie developer. The system’s kind-of-underpowered Tegra 3 chip ensures that we’ll never see graphics-intensive blockbusters like Mass Effect or Skyrim on the console, but it’s certainly powerful enough to run stuff like Braid or Minecraft. The OUYA has the potential to be a great console for indies, but it’s going to have to draw developers away from Steam first. As a consumer, they’ll have to draw me away from Steam too, which will be no small feat given how much I love the service. Their promise of “all games will be free-to-play in some form” is misleading, since apparently having a demo satisfies this requirement. The mobile model of having an ad-supported “free” version and a fully paid, non-ad-supported version might be a tougher sell to the console crowd; ditto for the PC-centric free-to-play with microtransactions model. Although, as we’ve seen from the Kickstarter, consumer demand may not be that much of an issue.
I’m interested to see where this whole thing goes. Now that some of the initial fervor has subsided, some are critical of the OUYA, like the Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera (read his scathing report here). I remain intrigued by this strange upstart console, and if this thing actually ends up carving out a comfortable niche for itself (I highly doubt it will compete directly with the Big Three), I might buy one. But I’ve got to see some great Android games for it first. Playing Angry Birds ports on my TV ain’t gonna cut it; they’ve got to be new games on the level of Super Meat Boy, Limbo, or Bastion, and they’ve got to be Android exclusive. There can’t be a reason for me to play them on Steam or my iPhone, because I will invariably play them there instead (Steam if I want to get them cheap and play them in HD, iPhone if it demands a touch-screen interface, like Angry Birds or Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery). So I’ll remain slightly skeptical for now, if optimistic, because I’d love to see the OUYA succeed.