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Ouya searches for a niche in the shadow of the PS4 and Xbox One

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Conceived as a paradigm-shifting microconsole designed to fight the flood of mobile games by bringing them to the TV, one could assume that the Ouya faces its greatest challenge this holiday with the twin release of powerful, entertainment-centric gaming consoles PS4 and Xbox One.

But Ouya founder Julie Uhrman says that's not the case and is already looking ahead, not just past the latest next-gen consoles, but to the next half decade when the idea of needing to place a physical box under your TV to play games might become a thing of the past..

"I always feel that Ouya is a 'buy me too' product," Uhrman said. "It is a low cost console where all of the games are free to try. I don't think you'll buy an Xbox One or Ouya, you might buy an Xbox One and buy Ouya because you really want to play Fists of Awesome and it's the only place you can play it on the television. Same thing with Towerfall.

"I read a stat that in the first year Xbox One is looking for an average purchase of $1000 when you look at the price of buying it, plus Xbox Live plus one or two games. That's a major investment and there are people who are going to to do that, but that's a major investment."

The philosophy of the Ouya, Uhrman tells Polygon, is one driven by the content, not the system that content plays on. Their microconsole is meant to be a playground both for gamers and more importantly, for the developers making those games.

The idea, she says, is to lower the barrier to entry for game development so the people who make games are more willing to take risks; risks in what sort of game they make, how they release it, even how they sell it.

The Ouya could become a testplatform for games headed to next-gen.

"I think some of the challenges with some of the games that are coming to the traditional consoles are A: They are still incredibly expensive. B: They're sequels. C: They require a lot of time to go through them and we're all more short on time then we're long on time," she said. "It's very difficult to launch new IP because of the amount of money you have to push to it to gain the awareness. Whereas you can push it to Ouya, get the excitement, get gamers and then say now I know what I'm going to build and take it to the platform that may be of their choice.

Perhaps the best example of that is Towerfall, by far the most popular game on the relatively new console. Developed by Matt Thorson, the archery combat game was released as an Ouya exclusive in June. The early exclusivity left some wondering if Thorson missed the boat not releasing the title for a console with a much bigger audience, something he's doing next year with a PC version of the game.

"They're bringing their game to other platforms today," Uhrman said about Towerfall. "Whenever a game becomes popular you sort of have that what if moment. But the flip side of that is could they have brought the game to another platform day one? Do they have the relationships? Do they have funds? Did they believe in their idea enough to want to bet everything on it?

"That's what so great about Ouya, you build a game and it is immediate. It was obviously one of our best games. That's the promise of Ouya: Here's an independent game developer with his first big game that he's very excited about. He launches it: holy shit, like people love this game. Alright, how can I now grow it out? We're not preventing him in anyway from doing that."

Uhrman said she could even see the Ouya finding it's niche by becoming a testbed for developers who want to play around with their ideas before bringing the game to a major platform.

"I used to work at Vivendi Universal Games and there were a number of games that producers wanted to build. They would go through first playable, and they would build out the whole script, and they would have this whole plan, and ten times out of ten and it hits the cutting room floor," she said. "Because you say, ‘This is a great idea. There are great game mechanics. There is a great story.' And then you say, ‘Wait, this is a new IP and it's a character based IP so now it's going to compete with Super Mario Bros or now it's going to to compete with Zelda. How much do I need to put against this game? How much money do I have to market?' And the money never works out so great games fall to the cutting room floor."

"The money never works out so great games fall to the cutting room floor."

That's where mobile games came in. For a time they were the best place to play with new ideas for little money.

"But that was five years ago," Uhrman said. "Today the mobile platform is over half a million games. Discovery is next to impossible and the new IP and the new developers don't have the visibility that they once had to that audience. [Valve's] Steam is trying to fix that with Greenlight but you still need to get your audience to like your game first without them having played it yet.

"The cool thing with Ouya is because we give this creative freedom to all different types of developers, you can get your game out there and start talking to your audience, find out what the great game mechanic, find out what the great monetization is, yes, and make a shit load of money on Ouya and then take it somewhere else. That's OK."

The trick is Ouya firmly carving out its niche before platforms like the PS4 and Xbox One can establish the same sort of play space for developers. Both are already heavily courting indie game developers, but Ouya does have a marginal head start and a established approach.

"We all know that gamers like playing on different sorts of platforms," Uhrman said. "The great thing about Ouya is we're not restrictive in anyway. You can do any monetization you want outside of the fact that some element has to be free to try. Like any other platform, if we get really behind the game we're going to want some period of time where gamers can really enjoy it and find it first on Ouya. But we have a fraction of the 80 million units Microsoft has in the marketplace. In no way do we ever want to ever prevent a developers success. I do think we can play a big role in helping them find an audience. They can make real money in Ouya and then potentially grow it."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.