It’s probably nothing revelatory to come out and say that the slow death and sale of portions of Ouya has been a fair disaster.
The writing was on the wall for a while. If I was feeling less generous than I am, you might well say from the start, but y’know, I don’t think a lot of how Ouya approached things had to happen, I don’t think a lot of how the console sank itself had to happen and y’know, ever the optimist that maybe there would be someone interested in pulling it around. But as we all now know, that never happened. And now things are a bigger mess than before, which you wouldn’t really think possible but here we are.
In recent months, the store itself has been clearly running on the bare minimum to keep it up and online, the market agreement changed at the beginning of the year to include some atrociously vague language as Ouya moved from selling the home microconsole dream into trying to sell Ouya as a storefront anywhere they could. To the point of calling this new initiative "Ouya Anywhere" just in case it wasn’t obvious enough.
The benefits, in theory, of moving towards this model should be fairly obvious. You end up with a store that can be integrated and embedded alongside other apps on hardware, televisions, other microconsoles and other app stores. The store itself carrying and able to deliver the same set of working games across a multitude of devices, presumably on the understanding that if something can play alright with the Ouya controller, you could embed a game into a banana and it’d run similar. Of course the licensing and payments from deals like this aren’t going to be uniform but hey, we can worry about that some other time or something.
Anyway, Ouya is no more. Unsurprisingly running into financial trouble after failing to really do much beyond light a fire under a thousand other Android microconsoles that nobody wants but everyone insists that theirs will be the one that makes it, especially if it’s the one that runs Doom 3 and no, I don’t understand that either.
Enter Razer to pick up the pieces and within a short while of the confirmation that yes, they have picked up parts of Ouya but not the company. They announce their plans which are pretty much Ouya Anywhere plus their own microconsole and I’m not sure if it runs Doom 3 but probably. Doom 3 is clearly the "does it run Doom" of the Android microconsole or something. Anyway.
So the hardware is dead, Razer aren’t interested in picking it up and frankly, why would they? Who needs a few years old piece of Android hardware held together with sticky tape and with pound shop special controllers as part of the deal? What would they do with it? OUYA couldn’t even sell the console when it was new-ish, 3 years on or whatever? Useless.
Razer are interested in a couple of things. They acquire the staff from Ouyawho already have the experience in building an embeddable store andk whilst the Ouya store is far from the best store you’ll come across, it’s fairly stand out in microconsole store terms. Or at least, it is when it’s running on more than fumes. They get the name for whatever that’s worth and as far as they’re concerned, a large software library to do with what they please.
OK, so the last one is the kind of thought that worries me because what they’ve bought is the rights to distribute the software, same that Ouya had. So far, they don’t appear much interested in acknowledging that they don’t actually own any of the games but hey, business. Also, and with no offense meant as I enjoy a lot of the stuff that sits there on the Ouya, they’ve acquired the rights to distribute a load of hobbyist games in the main.
Obviously, I like that stuff, it’s my bag and all that. No one’s going to get rich here from Razer’s plans to put this library of games everywhere though, right?
So the library, assuming few people have the arse to pull their work, fills out Cortex to make it look kinda impressive from the off. If you’re concerned about getting any dev traction for your platform, fuck it, buy it. To be fair, were I launching a microconsole in 2015, I’d be concerned about getting any dev traction too because who thinks "ooh, microconsoles, they’re a thing I’ll work on" now? Ouya had the advantage of pulling off, somehow, a sort of folksy ‘we’re your mate’ homebrew vibe despite their every public announcement and proclamation being ‘we’re going to slay the big console beast.' Which, of course, they never did. The PS4 is massive, the Xbox 360 sells more in a week than Ouya do in a lifetime and oh my.
Of course now it’s not really about that, it’s about footholds in emerging markets, cheap games in cheap tech and all the tech. Whatever ideas of there being a folksy alternative to the big two pretty much gone.
Which leaves us with the other big news in that Ouya didn’t manage to cough up a fair bit of cash before joining the choir invisible. On the hobbyist end of the scale you have folks who didn’t sell enough games for Ouya to pay out on. Whilst it’s not Desura levels of sitting on the money, that’s a few small slabs of cash that folks who could probably do with a few small slabs of cash won’t see.
This is, of course, why ‘you don’t get paid until you earn x dollars’ is really bad in the hobbyist space, hobbyists are likely to sell the least but also, aren’t generally rolling around in floods of cash and the extra money would be very nice indeed. But still, it persists and I’ll never quite understand why people put their games on stores that have more oppressive limits.
Seriously, that people kept putting their games on Desura when it made fuck all for most people boggles. When trawling through the bankruptcy claims, it was kinda embarrassing all round to see just how low the amounts owed were and you kinda know those are the upper bounds of earners too.
So there’s that and then there’s Free The Games. A fund where Ouya claimed to have set aside a million dollars to give to developers, used as match funding for Kickstarters to buy periods of exclusivity. Or more precisely, every 10k you get from Free The Games, that’s a month of Ouya exclusivity in the bag. There’s a lot to be said for how mismanaged and ill-advised a lot of Free The Games was from the off but y’know, devs gotta eat and if there’s a pool of money sitting there I don’t blame anyone for aiming for it. I’m not sure I’d have contemplated it myself but then I subscribe to the school of ‘if you want devs to do good work, don’t piss them around, just give them time and money to work,' it’s not a good universal rule but it’ll pay off in the right hands. You want an exclusive? Give them the money to make you one and stop being faffy.
I could never see how Free The Games was supposed to work for anyone long-term but eh, what can you do, right?
As it is, turns out at OUYA shuffled off this mortal coil before the vast majority of the fund could be paid out to anyone, leaving devs who’d signed contracts and budgeted around that money landing when they hit milestones magically out-of-pocket.
As it was, Free The Games was a gamble. The size of the OUYA audience is small. The size of the OUYA paying audience was only a subset of that. In taking Free The Games money in exchange for exclusivity you’re essentially either buying a soft launch for a few months to work through last-minute stuff before launching elsewhere or writing off any earnings for the period. It’s a gamble but whilst OUYA were up and functioning, a calculated one. You can plot and plan around it. But as we all now know, OUYA are not around to pay out anymore so what now?
Enter Razer with their very public provisional offer. The match funding for exclusivity is gone and whilst the public pronouncement is all very ‘we’re doing it for the gamers, here we come to save the day,' the actual deal proposed is very different from what OUYA offered and is a way more traditional (in the ‘uhhhh’ sense of traditional) deal.
What’s on the table now, at least publicly and behind closed doors may yet result in something different/better isn’t a company rushing in all Mighty Mouse like to throw money at indie devs, it’s an old publisher model/record company style advance. They slip you the cash, you make nowt from selling your game with them until you recoup. That’s all it is. Sort of.
Of course, it comes with the generous sounding caveat that you can sell your game elsewhere now and still make money from it and yeah, that’s OK. It also means that you’re probably going to be paying off that advance in free copies of your game for a long time to come. Unlike with the old deal where you’re free after a few months, now free copies of your game haunt you until all those copies are gone and that could be a while, right?
I’ve seen it compared to some of the modern subs services like PS+ and nope, you get a lump sum there after the development of the game is done, PS+ lasts a fixed term for people to pick up the game and really, it’s an extended rental. When folks stop paying for plus, if they want to keep videogame, they have to buy it from you. Not so with the Razer proposed deal, right?
Also, it would be much simpler were the store Razer were proposing something other than an embeddable one that could turn up anywhere and everywhere. It’s a massive loss of control over where your work appears unless they offer you a choice on which platforms you sell on, yeah? And given the model is reliant on the store being portable but with the same stuff for sale wherever, you can see how this gets complicated fast.
This isn’t a game sold by Razer on one device anymore, they’ve already announced plans to put their store on Google Play so if you have an android version planned, you’re potentially competing with a free version of your game on the same store and eh, this starts getting messier.
So I’m kinda befuddled at a lot of the reaction overnight claiming Razer as heroes for not leaving devs in the lurch. They’re not especially honoring OUYA’s deal or debts here but shifting to a traditional cash advance model with a kinda worrying way of them recouping that cash. From my own view, and this is obviously with the comfort of not needing to pay any staff and keep the lights on at a studio, this is a vastly scarier model than what OUYA were offering and it’s being offered to folks who were counting on having some money and need that money.
This isn’t a game sold by Razer on one device anymore
Changing the deal so substantially and with a lot of "what if" around the time period you’d be tied to the deal, where and how their store appears and the public being told that devs giving their game away will be good for word of mouth ("for exposure" in other, more blunt terms) sets off a lot of alarm bells for me.
But of course, ultimately I’m not the one that has to make a choice to keep the lights on over a project but if I were, I’d be hoping for help elsewhere before signing this deal off. And well, I wouldn’t rush to claim anyone as heroes just yet either until more details have been fixed because right now? An advance where you give your games away for the other party to recoup their cash is a deal but I’d find it difficult to argue it’s the better deal. Here’s hoping everyone can work towards a place where it really, genuinely can be the better deal.
And I kinda worry about the sort of place we’re in where we applaud someone for just showing up without first asking "well, is this the better deal?"
Rob Fearon is a game developer and writer. Fearon has been described in the past as "defiantly indie" by Edge, "The Godzilla Of Grumpiness" by Develop and "an effusive individual" by The Guardian. This post originally appeared on his personal blog.