Review: Ouya is the little gaming console that couldn't
At a Glance
In July of last year, Ouya became the eighth product to raise more than a million dollars on Kickstarter. It did so in just over 8 hours, outpacing star projects such as the Pebble smartwatch and Double Fine Adventure. Ouya went on to earn $2.5 million in its first day of funding and $8.5 million overall, making it the second-highest-funded Kickstarter campaign of all time (only the Pebble earned more).
So it's fair to say that the $100 video game console must do much more than deliver the experience it originally promised. Ouya is, for better or worse, a role model—and it has to knock one out of the park.
People’s confidence in Kickstarter is primarily influenced by a few enormously successful funding drives. This is particularly true for technology products, and if they launch as disappointments, people will begin to question the viability of all Kickstarter projects, and the party’s over for everyone. This is where the Ouya system fits in. It’s the poster child for an entirely new way to bring hardware to market. And it’s simply not ready.
What do you expect for $100?
The Ouya’s creators bill it as “a new kind of video game console.” It makes big promises: You get great games digitally delivered to your console at affordable prices. Everything is at least free to try. It supports open development, so nothing gets in between the developer and the player. The open hardware welcomes hackers. And best of all, the price tag lets anyone jump in.
For only $100, you get the Ouya console and a wireless controller. The attractive little box, about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, was designed by Yves Béhar, who designed the Jambox and the OLPC. Inside are a Tegra 3 processor running at 1.7GHz and 1GB of RAM, with 8GB of flash storage (a future update will let you expand storage via USB). In essence, it’s like a midtier tablet designed to work with your TV instead of a touchscreen.
The hardware isn’t particularly impressive, as game consoles go. Modern top-tier phones are more powerful, not to mention the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The next-generation consoles that Microsoft and Sony are launching this fall will handily outclass it. But those machines will also be priced far higher—for $100, this isn’t a bad little unit. The problems with Ouya—and there are many—lie elsewhere.
For starters, the controller is utterly average. Its overall shape and layout should be familiar to gamers, as it generally conforms to the popular design of the Xbox 360 controller. It has two sticks, a D-pad, four face buttons (labled O-U-Y-A), shoulder buttons, and triggers; if you’ve used a modern console, you’ll feel right at home. The layout is fine, but the quality is a little subpar. The sticks and triggers are just a bit too springy, the D-pad mushy and imprecise. Some games are plagued by horrible input latency, making the controller feel unresponsive, while others are snappy. The controller isn’t bad enough to suck all the fun out of your games, but it doesn’t stand up well next to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers, let alone those of the coming Xbox One and PS4.
In an impressive feat of bad design, the large utility button in the center of the controller has a U shape on it, similar to the leftmost of the four face buttons. So when a game prompts you to press the U button, it’s hard to tell which one. The title screen of The Bard’s Tale, for example, states “Press U to begin,” but the button doesn’t do much of anything throughout the rest of the game. In Universe Alpha, pressing the center U button brings up the inventory management and options screen. In Final Fantasy III, this button produces a system prompt asking if you wish to close the application. The big central U button is a clear example of how Ouya’s development platform might be a little too open, leading to chaos and unpredictable results.
Many games struggle to run at HD resolution, with fitfully uneven frame rates, while others are smooth as glass. The games that run best are those that rein in their ambition—deliberately retro games, or those with simple 3D graphics that don't tax the Ouya hardware, tend to be smooth and responsive. Ultimately, Ouya won’t win over any fans on the strength of its hardware. The design and performance of the system are merely okay. If Ouya is going to take the world by storm, it will need to do so on the strength of its software, and that’s where all the real problems are.
System software seems unfinished
The initial setup is simple enough. Join a Wi-Fi network (or plug in your network cable), create an account, download the latest update—it's just like contemporary consoles in this respect. Then you’re left at a fairly simple and unattractive menu, staring at four words: Play, Discover, Make, Manage. You just bought this thing, and naturally you want to play some games, so you select Play, only to find a friendly error message stating that you haven’t downloaded any games yet, and should head to the Discover section.
Discover, the weirdly named game store, is a bit of a mess. Games appear as little cards, without any titles shown unless you move your cursor over them. Most games—but not all—include their name in the title card, but some are hard to read. The store presents curated lists: Featured, VIP Room (games only on Ouya), maybe even a playlist from a well-known game developer, or a creative list like “Couch gaming with friends.” Did I mention that Ouya doesn’t have any systemwide online gaming? That’s coming later. A developer might incorporate its own friends list and online game modes, but nothing like that is part of the system yet. In most cases, Ouya multiplayer gaming means sharing the screen—and your couch—with other players.
At the bottom of the page is a list of traditional game genres, such as Action and RPG, that you can peruse if you don’t find what you’re looking for on the curated lists. Are these categories organized by release date? Popularity? No, they use a custom sorting algorithm called “O-Rank.” To generate a game’s O-Rank, the Ouya store takes into account how often the game is played, the number of thumbs-up votes it has received, how frequently a game is the first one launched when players turn their Ouya consoles on, and more. It’s a secret formula meant to get to the heart of which games are “best,” and that’s an admirable goal, but other sorting options would be welcome. Fortunately, the search function will quickly help you find a specific title.
When I go into a store, virtual or otherwise, I expect to see the cost of things. I want to quickly see what games were just released, too. The Ouya store gives you no such info. Every game on the Ouya platform is required to have some sort of free offering, whether it’s a free demo, a limited-time trial, or the game itself, entirely free-to-play. In an attempt to get gamers to download and try more games, the Ouya store lists no pricing or purchase details anywhere. In most cases, you have to get into a game and press some sort of ‘buy‘ button on something to figure out the price when the system prompts you to spend money. That’s insane. Ouya needs guidelines for developers to display the price of things; if not in the store, then in a clear and uniform way within each app.
You’re back in Android Land
The Ouya platform is based on Android 4.2, but at first blush, you’d never know it. The environment is customized with Ouya menus, stores, fonts, and prompts, all fit for use on a big TV with a controller instead of a 5-inch touchscreen. You can’t access the Google Play store—a smart move on the part of Ouya’s creators. By running its own store and creating its own interface, Ouya ensures that games made for small, vertically oriented touchscreens don’t get dumped on a controller-and-TV system.
Sometimes, however, you’ll find yourself back in Android Land, and it’s a jarring transition. Want to find out how much of your 8GB of internal storage is available? Want to learn if there’s a game you’ve downloaded a lot of content for, and how much space it’s taking up? Need to adjust the picture to disable TV overscan? You’ll have to go to the advanced settings menu, which is just the standard Android interface with a few options hidden. You’ll also find an option for screen orientation, I guess because it’s theoretically possible to turn your TV on its side. These pointless vestiges of stock Android were understandable when we first spotted them on prerelease hardware, but they should have been cleaned out before the Ouya console became available for sale at retail.
Every platform needs a killer app
Ouya’s biggest problem is that it represents the Wild West of game development, with no clear “killer app” that will make the average gamer want to fork over $100 just to play it. A few big names, like The Bard’s Tale and Final Fantasy III, are in the mix, but they’re mediocre ports of the mobile versions that don’t benefit from the transition to a 46-inch HDTV. Several games, such as Canabalt, have been floating around the mobile-app stores awhile, but if you wanted to play them you could just do so on your phone.
Then there are lots of quirky independent games, some of which are quite funny. Most of the ones I tried are, to put it charitably, rough around the edges. Ouya has some interesting exclusives on the way, including Soul Fjord from Airtight Games. If the platform is to thrive, one of them better be a breakout hit.
If Ouya does anything really well right now, it’s emulate older game systems. You can find emulators in the store for everything under the sun: NES, SNES, Genesis, Neo Geo, you name it. Of course, they’re of use only if you’re savvy enough to know where to download illegal copies of ROMs for old game cartridges and dump them on a properly formatted USB drive so that they can load into the emulators, which, for obvious legal reasons, come with no games. An entire subculture is devoted to emulators and ROMs, and for those enthusiasts the prospect of a simple, $100 box that plugs into your big TV and lets you play games with a wireless controller may be too good to pass up.
‘Thank you for believing’
The people behind Ouya are selling more than a game console. They’re selling a religion. It’s a cult devoted to the idea that the stifling Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii environments have inhibited developers. The notion is that there are too many rules and guidelines and hoops to jump through, and that costs are too high for both developers and gaming enthusiasts. The promise of Ouya is that it delivers “good enough” hardware on the cheap, with free development kits based on an operating system developers know (Android), and with few rules or regulations to get between a developer and its audience. Ouya’s Kickstarter backers opened up their Ouya boxes to be greeted by a big “Thank you for believing” note.
The Ouya platform is supposed to take everything good about mobile-app stores and mobile-app development, and put it in your living room on your HDTV. In theory, this approach will result in a creative explosion, similar to the way direct-to-consumer mobile-app stores have spurred a surge in new games and created a whole new market of gamers.
Right now, though, Ouya doesn’t have a lot to bank on aside from that promise. The potential is huge. The hardware isn’t fantastic, but it is slick enough to fit into your home entertainment center and powerful enough to deliver good, fun games—as long as developers don’t try to push it too hard. The community could be big, but the system software has no community-cultivating features yet. The store could help people find great new games, but it needs a handful of refinements first. The Ouya console could be a great streaming-media box, but it lacks a major streaming service such as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, or Spotify. Only the “watch other people play games” streaming service Twitch is available, and the Ouya client for it looks like a bad phone app running on your big TV.
Have you ever played with one of those “40 games in one!” consoles where you plug a controller into your TV and play terrible remakes of old Atari games? Well, right now Ouya is like the best version of that concept you will ever come across. For tech-savvy enthusiasts willing to deal with a lot of unfinished, unpolished games and somewhat confusing system software, noodling around with Ouya can be a lot of fun. For the average gamer walking into Best Buy, GameStop, or Target, Ouya is going to be a huge disappointment. That said, there’s nothing wrong with it that a dozen great, polished games and about six months of system software revisions can’t fix. Ouya was pushed out of the nest too soon, and that might kill an exciting product before it has a chance to fly.