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Ouya, the $99, Android-powered, Kickstarter-funded, hackable game console explained

"It's time we brought back innovation, experimentation, and creativity to the big screen." Ouya

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

First details on Ouya, the Android-powered video game console that hope to upend the console business.

The developers of the Ouya won't try to compete with the billion dollar corporations battling for console dominance with the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U. The makers of the protoype console powered by Google's Android OS are looking to play their own game, focusing on downloadable, free-to-play video games that can be experienced on a low-cost, high-power device.

Details first leaked about Ouya last week, when a project overview and concept renders were posted to the online startup directory AngelList. While it wasn't long before the page was removed, the Ouya has reemerged as a Kickstarter project with a funding goal of $950,000 and backer benefits ranging from early access, free first-run systems, a free trip to spend a day with the console's designers, and more.

"We are bringing the openness of mobile and internet platforms to consoles for the first time," says Julie Uhrman, CEO and founder of Ouya. The startup's goal is to adapt the mobile app business model for the TV, which Uhrman believes is still the best screen for playing games.

"We think this is an audacious challenge – delivering a product for gamers that's attainable and affordable."

Boxer8, the company behind Ouya, hopes to capitalize on the console business "brain drain" that has seen developers of big budget, large scope video games flock to mobile development. Ouya – a "battlecry" that rhymes with "Booyah!" – will allow any developer with an Ouya and the system's SDK to create games for the Android console, set their own price, and sell them via the system's marketplace.

"All of the games will be free-to-play," Uhrman promises, explaining that games released through the Ouya marketplace will feature some form of trial content. It will be up to individual developers to determine how they would like to monetize their titles, either through in-game microtransactions, recurring subscriptions, or a set price to unlock the full version of the game. Ouya games could range from $1.99 to $59.99 – or more, depending on your spending habits – for the full experience.


The Console

The Ouya platform is delivered to the living room via a small set-top box, which as we learned last week, was designed by none other than Yves Behar and fuseproject — the talent behind the Herman Miller SAYL chair, Jawbone Jambox, and the $100 One Laptop Per Child XO laptop. While the company is committed to keeping the overall cost of the unit down to foster wider adoption by developers and consumers alike, it isn't cutting corners in terms of industrial design and specs. The Ouya features a small, cube-like design, which houses an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor with support for 1080p HD output via HDMI, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of on-board flash storage, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and 802.11b/g/n wireless chips. The company's designers even found room for a USB 2.0 port, allowing users to utilize a variety of external storage options as well.

While the company assures that the Ouya will be capable of delivering "real power" by default, developers and consumers will have the freedom to augment the software and hardware as they see fit. The platform was "built to be hacked," according to company executives. The system's Android 4.0-based OS can be rooted without voiding a user's warranty, and the company has designed the hardware to provide easy access to the unit's PCB. Each unit will also ship with tools to restore a rooted unit to its factory state, as well as a copy of the system's software development kit.


The Controller

The system is controlled by a wireless controller built from the ground up by the company's engineers, which includes the standard array of video game console controls: two analog sticks, a directional pad, eight action buttons (four on the front face, four on the shoulders) and one dedicated system button. It will also feature a touchpad designed to make touchscreen-controlled games more easily playable on the system.

What the controller won't have is an accelerometer or force feedback rumble. "We've stripped out the frills," Uhrman says, explaining that Ouya's controller is focused on "responsiveness and precision." Internally, Uhrman says, the developer calls it their "Stradivarius controller." Ouya's founders are consulting with game developers on its design, company reps say.

"It's really critical to playing really immersive, suck-you-in-games."

Like the console itself, the Ouya controller is designed to be opened up and toyed with. Creative hardware hacks are not just tolerated, they're encouraged by Ouya's creators, who see the value in hobbyist tinkering and experimentation.

"We'll publish the hardware designs, if enough people are curious about it," Uhrman said.


The Games

Ouya's creators boast support from outspoken indies, including Minecraft developer Marcus "Notch" Persson, Canabalt developer Adam Saltsman, and Brian Fargo, who is currently working on the Kickstarter-funded Wasteland 2. Ed Fries, part of the original Xbox team, has also thrown his console-launching credibility behind the Ouya. The console's Kickstarter page shows additional interest from thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, and more.

Those developers haven't officially committed any announced games for the platform, however. Saltsman's addictive one-button platformer Canabalt is featured in demos for the console, in part because its creator tells Polygon "there is a lot about the idea of the Ouya that is very exciting to me."

"The first point in the Ouya's corner is I think it could actually exist and work," Saltsman says. "That's nothing to scoff at it; many have tried as much and failed miserably. The second really positive point for the Ouya is a dedicated stance toward open hardware standards and open software submissions. Those things are both potentially big deals for independent developers. Third, the thing will come with a controller.

"The idea of making games for a viable and open console that could be controller-driven games is just a total joy to me. I would be super happy."

Ouya also promises features non-interactive content squarely targeted at appealing to gamers, like Twitch.TV integration for watching competitive matches of StarCraft 2 and League of Legends.

Ouya's Kickstarter fundraising begins today, seeking nearly a million dollars in consumer and developer investment.

Scott Lowe contributed to this report.

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