The Kickstarter darling comes home: hands on with the Ouya

And that's the Ouya. It's an early product full of potential energy.
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On July 10, just one week after announcing the project and less than eight hours after putting it on Kickstarter, Ouya reached its $950,000 goal.

A few minutes later it broke the million dollar mark, only the eighth project in Kickstarter history, not to mention the quickest to do so. In that short window, it introduced more than just a interesting device; it introduced the world to the idea that mobile hardware and mobile software can be used to create something that isn't mobile, but rather something closer to what we'd call a video game console. And it could be yours for just $99.

Now, just a little over seven months from the end of its record-breaking Kickstarter tear, the team behind the Ouya is ready to share the diminutive device with the world, bringing it to the Game Developers Conference just ahead of shipping units to Kickstarter backers.

The hardware

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"They'll get a first look at Ouya, including the UI, the storefront and games," Ouya creator Julie Uhrman told Polygon earlier this week, discussing the early backers who will receive these first units. "They will be with us as we continue to evolve the software in Ouya leading up to our launch on June 4."

Like most software platforms we use today, from phones to game consoles, the Ouya is designed to be updated. The hardware, however, is finished.

"Our hardware is baked, it's complete, it's done," she said. "But the software will continue to evolve. It'll get better every single day, week, month and year. We'll get more games every single day."

"Our hardware is baked, it's complete, it's done."

The Ouya is an impressive box. The diminutive device was designed by Yves Béhar, the founder of design concern Fuseproject, and it strikes an impressive profile. Equipped with micro USB, ethernet, USB and HDMI ports, the Ouya is well equipped.

During its PlayStation 4 reveal last month, Sony now famously shared its latest DualShock controller and not the actual PS4 box. "The console is just a box," Sony's Shuhei Yoshida said. Ouya, on the other hand, has always put the focus on its tiny console while the controller underwent a series of public revisions based on backer feedback.

"You'll see a lot of changes to it that came from our early developer backers," she said. "The d-pad has changed from a disc to a cross; the buttons have OUYA on them; the triggers will feel a little bit different from the developer console based on feedback."

Uhrman calls the controller a "love letter to gamers" and says the team wanted to create "the most precise, accurate, responsive controller out there." Unfortunately, what we played failed to live up to those goals.

While the shape of the controller feels good in the hand, the wireless Bluetooth gamepad — extras sell separately for a not insignificant $49.99 — has a few design decisions that could be improved upon. The Ouya controller's shoulder buttons, for example, are constructed of a glossy black plastic that matches its top panel, but doesn't feel great to rest fingers upon.

The controller's analog sticks have a good feel in their movement, with the right amount of tension — they're neither too loose nor too tight. The d-pad and face buttons, on the other hand, feel mushy, giving the sensation that they require too much force to move.

The most worrisome aspect of the Ouya controller, however, is the current state of its input lag. Playing a game of Canabalt or Stalagflight, arcade-style games that demand split-second accuracy, the controller's delayed response does a disservice to the experience. It's less noticeable in games like Wizorb or Save the Puppies, and could be addressed in future software updates, but stood out as a glaring problem during our hands-on time with the device.

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Using the controller's touchpad will take some getting used to. It was a welcome optional means of navigating menu screens. Speaking of, a double tap of the Ouya "Home" button below the touchpad serves as a shortcut to the system's main menu.

Despite some quirks, the overall feel of the controller is solid, in part due to the fact that there are no inputs and no headphone/headset jack. Everything's enclosed. Getting to the controller's batteries requires popping off a plastic panel on each side of the controller. They're a bit challenging to pull off, but snap right back into place, thanks to magnetized pegs.

Ouya's controller, at this stage, feels less refined than a gamepad commanding its price point really should. It's not yet at the level of similar controllers from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo — who have obviously had more time to iterate on their offerings — but hopefully its creators can work out some of these kinks in software. As for the hardware issues? "There are always opportunities to improve it and roll it into production," Uhrman said. "But for right now it is baked. It's done."

The Interface

The Ouya's menus are "simple, direct, minimalistic," Uhrman says, and she's not wrong. After booting, users are greeted with just four options: Play, Discover, Make and Manage.

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Play: This is where your games live. Unfortunately, the list of games isn't organizable and, with the platform's "free to try" market, we can imagine this list becoming cluttered very quickly. "I like that idea," Uhrman said, when asked. "So that won't be ready for June 4, but it's something I'll talk to the team about."

Discover: This is the storefront, where you find new games to play. "You'll see categories that are merchandized and curated by us," Uhrman said. "You'll have your genre lists. You'll notice that our genres are a little bit different." Some of those channels will be curated by game designer Kellee Santiago, "but there's the potential to have anyone come in as a guest," Uhrman said.

Make: This is where games go before they make it to the Play section. "We want to be the most developer-friendly platform," Uhrman said. Before a game gets promoted to Play, it enters the Sandbox. "This is where you'll find the newest releases, the most recent games uploaded to Ouya," she said. Once a game is "liked enough" it "will come out of the Sandbox and will be discoverable through our genre categories."

Manage: This is where the settings live. If you're familiar with Android's settings menus, you know what to expect here.

"...the developers aren't finding many of the players who would love to play their games, and the gamers aren't aware those games exist."
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The Games

The handful of games on display included familiar names like Final Fantasy 3, the original "endless runner" Canabalt, the Unreal Engine-powered The Ball, and familiar indie names like Saturday Morning RPG and Wizorb. Everything in the store is "free to try" with various monetization strategies at play. "We've seen games with a demo and a fully paid version, like Final Fantasy 3," Uhrman said. "We've seen games that enable micro transactions." One of the team's favorites is Stalagflight, which has a "donation-based system" that asks users to buy the developers a slice of pizza for $0.99 while cautioning that doing so "won't change the gameplay in any way."

Being a self-described "open" platform based on Android, it should come as little surprise that users will be able to sideload apps and games onto the Ouya, bypassing the store entirely. Many of those apps probably aren't optimized for controller input, not to mention a 16:9 high definition television display. The team at Ouya is focused on native ports, and not on creating layers like button-mapping software to help facilitate the use of un-optimized apps.

"The games that are great are the ones that are optimized for Ouya," Uhrman said. "Most of the games that are on Ouya today are either TV exclusives or Ouya exclusives; people are really optimizing for Ouya."

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So while Minecraft will run as a sideloaded application, it's not an ideal solution. "We want all games to be optimized and designed for Ouya," she said. "Minecraft has our development kit. We've been talking with them, and we hope to know more about Minecraft coming to Ouya by the time our launch happens in June."

Perhaps more notably, the Ouya will also support emulators. "We will support emulators if they adhere to our content guidelines," Uhrman said. "You cannot submit an emulator with content." So Uhrman and company are taking a hands-off approach when it comes to using the Ouya to enable playing classic games on the television through an emulator.

"We're an open platform, and we'll accept content that adheres to our content guidelines," she said.

Turning an idea into a pitch and then that pitch into a product, in less than a year, is dizzying

That platform won't include Ouya-wide features like leaderboards, achievements, friend finding and matchmaking by the June launch, however. "That's something we're building now and will release this year," Uhrman said.

As the first Android-powered gaming console, one created by a Kickstarter-backed upstart no less, it's impressive that the Ouya even exists. Turning an idea into a pitch and then that pitch into a product, in less than a year, is dizzying. And what we played felt early because … well, because it is. User feedback will hopefully improve the console's software leading up to its June launch and the storefront will grow and the curation will help surface interesting games and …

Ouya-closer

And that's the Ouya. It's an early product full of potential energy. The same potential energy 63,416 backers saw during the project's month-long Kickstarter. It's a product at the intersection of cheap mobile hardware, a ubiquitous open-source mobile operating system, multi-platform development tools, and a new wave of independent game development.

But converting that potential energy into kinetic energy is elusive because it's hard to do. What if the console's software isn't improved? What if the developers don't show up? What if the controller is never improved and remains mushy and unresponsive, a deal-breaker in and of itself? The early backers bought into the vision and may well expect things to come in hot, but the team at Ouya only has a couple months before the official launch in June to answer those questions.

Additional reporting by Michael McWhertor.

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