At retail, Ouya comes out quietly

The Ouya people like to talk about how "different" this retail console launch is, compared to those other ones, by the likes of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

For one thing, it's a whole lot quieter.

Polygon visited a number of retail outlets today and found scant evidence of a brand new console hitting the streets. At one Best Buy, a helpful assistant said he was sure there was one in the back-room, but returned empty-handed. Another store had six in stock, but had not sold any as yet.

A GameStop offered a single Ouya poster at its entrance, but the guy behind the counter said "no-one has ever asked me about Ouya, not once". Another GameStop we visited had delivered its two pre-orders and did not expect to get any more in stock, unless attached to an order.

We did not see any demo units. One store manager at a Best Buy said he reckoned there would be a demo unit arriving in a few weeks.

We called five more GameStops around the country. None of them had any Ouyas in stock. None of them had demo units, or knew of any plans for such.

Four stores said they had received enough Ouyas to fulfill pre-orders and suggested we come down to the store and order online for free shipping. "Bring trades," said one employee. At the fifth store, an employee said, "Oowa? Never heard of it." There didn't seem any point in continuing. The message was always the same.

Target is also listed an official retailer. Its online retail site says the console is not available in-store or online via its website. It is selling the controller and gift-cards.

Ouya

This is not the kind of console launch where jolly, wooly-wrapped people line-up in the street for midnight openings. It's not the sort where your TV screens are filled with commercials for the new machine, weeks in advance, where marketing machines are churning messages at a ferocious din. This retail launch has all the impact of a new carry-case.

To be fair to Ouya, the company never pretended to out-gun the entrenched console powers. Doing things differently, for Ouya, has become both a mantra and a necessity. The machine was crowd-funded and — delivery foul-ups aside — built around online dispatch of the console and digital downloads of the games. Ouya does not have much money to spend on snazzy entrances.

Retail and Ouya always was a matter of convenience, a short-term thing that both parties thought might yield benefits.

For Ouya, getting retail presence, no matter how flimsy, bestows a measure of credibility. It's another route to market, a way to get people who might not have heard of Ouya to be exposed to the message. "Success is selling more units this month than last month," said Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman in an email interview with Polygon.


The message is that Ouya's difference is in its price. $99 is a great price for a cute, new console. It comes with the reality of 170 games (of differing quality) that offer free-to-play access, and the promise of lots more to come. As a product, it has its charms.

For retail, the equation is less easy to see. If Ouya's model were to become dominant, retailers would be out of business. But the likes of GameStop are nothing if not pragmatic. All Ouya's gamers are sold via online transactions. Retailers make excellent margins on those gift cards for online purchases, sold to minors without access to credit cards.

Retailers also see, on one very particular aspect of Ouya's strategy, a possibility for profits; the second controller.

Both Ouya and the retailers know that when people buy consoles, they generally spend extra money on peripherals. Ouya is pushing its multiplayer games, like Towerfall, very hard, because it wants and hopes to sell more controllers.

The UI includes a section dedicated to muliplayer 'couch games'. If you order an Ouya at retail, or from Amazon, you can be sure that the suggestion of an extra controller will not be far behind. In this regard, Ouya's launch is not so very different from the other consoles. Still, set against Ouya's $99 console price, the $49 second controller looks expensive.

Ouya_photos_002

When Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launch, they will be supported by something in the region of $100 million each in marketing budgets, plus wall-to-wall promotional activity in stores.

Ouya is a small startup. It does not have anything like those resources. Its method of marketing is derived from its KickStarter success and from a modish faith in word-of-mouth, most particularly via social media. Start-ups must rely heavily on so-called viral marketing, because they can't afford the brute force of paid-for marketing.

The failure to deliver Ouya units to people who had previously supported the launch via Kickstarter cannot be doing this social messaging a whole lot of good. Julie Uhrman says she is "pissed" that her most loyal customers have been let down, and placed the blame on a third-party delivery company.

Utimately, it's Ouya's own fault if units were delivered late. Lukewarm reception to the sticky controller and lag in the system placed delays and strains on production and delivery. Certainly, unhappy customers have been making use of social media to make their feelings known. Ouya's Facebook page is festooned with irate messages today.

Ouya's success or failure won't come down to its retail performance, and it won't be known for weeks or months to come. "It's going to be difficult to gauge whether Ouya is going to be successful right out of the gate," said Jesse Divnich, an analyst at EEDAR, which sells statistical and quantitative research to games companies and investors. "It's going to take some time to build its audience. Ouya's success will be determined over a long period of time. It is innovative and has strong support from the independent development community, so everyone wants it to succeed."

According to Uhrman, the open platform roster of Android games, from the likes of DoubleFine, Square, Sega, Phil Fish and Kim Swift, will be the console's biggest draw, while the price and free-to-try enables a large number of people to come on board as they hear about this new product. But while the retail-marketing nexus has been the central hub of all console launches in the past, for Ouya, it must be a non-essential component.

"We've always done things differently," said Uhrman. "Ouya was introduced, built, and now is launching differently."

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