Saturday, April 27, 2013

$99 Game Console Ouya Will Launch June 4

After a remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $8 million last June, the startup will release its eponymous Ouya game console to retailers on June 4, it said on Thursday evening. The $99 box aims to disrupt the television gaming market the way that the iPhone upended the world of portable games, by allowing any developer to craft inexpensive games. Based on an Android chipset, Ouya aims to keep costs low and encourage innovation in a way that traditional competitors can’t.

Wired got its first hands-on time with a finished Ouya at the San Francisco offices of fuseproject, the design firm of Yves Behar, who created the tiny metal cube that houses Ouya. It’s still a little rough around the edges (there was a bit of controller lag and some crashes) but CEO Julie Uhrman seemed totally at peace with that. Ouya is going out to its “earliest backers” beginning today, and she says these early owners will be able to “watch the UI evolve to where it will be by June 4.”

As of right now, it’s just fun to hold an Ouya. One doesn’t expect a game console to come in such a tiny form factor. It’s deliberately underpowered, of course, but as of now that just seems to be leading developers to create pretty 2-D imagery or use simpler polygonal models, instead of trying to force the hardware to render things it wasn’t built for.

Ouya and its controller. 

The interface is simple, just a menu of four words: Play, Discover, Make and Manage. The latter lets you adjust the system settings; the first is a list of the games you own. It’s in the middle two options where things get interesting.

It’s common knowledge in the world of iOS apps that you get noticed in one of two ways: Get featured in the store via Apple’s secretive process of internal curation, or (by hook or by crook) get onto the top-grossing or most-downloaded charts.

“We don’t think downloads or revenue are good indicators of what a good game is,” Uhrman says. To that end, Ouya is crafting its own automatic algorithm that will determine whether or not a game is any good, based on other players’ behaviors. How many times have they played it? For how long are they playing it? When a player turns on their Ouya, is it the first game they immediately boot up? All of these factors will influence how prominently games are positioned in the Ouya marketplace when a player clicks on “Discover.”

There will also be an element of hand-picked curation on Ouya. That process, Uhrman says, will be led by Kellee Santiago, co-founder of Journey creator thatgamecompany and now Ouya’s head of developer relations. All new games will go into an area called the “Sandbox,” and will be pulled up into the “Recommended” feed after they hit the jackpot on the automated fun algorithm, or are selected by Santiago’s team.

Kickstarter backers’ names etched into the Ouya console.  

Ouya’s radical re-envisioning of television games doesn’t stop with just recreating the iPhone on the TV. There’s no difference, Uhrman says, between a developer kit and a retail console — all you need to make games is the Ouya and a PC. You can connect it to your PC and transfer your game builds directly to your Ouya, then upload them for all to play and test if you want. These will be listed under “Builds” in the “Make” menu.

Game designers are also free to try different methods of monetization, some that are allowed on the App Store and others that are not. For instance, a difficult action game called Stalagflight is free to play and offers no in-game item purchases, but simply allows you to donate money to the developers via an in-game menu that states that your purchase will not alter the game in any way.
Will a digital “tip jar” actually work? Who knows? Then again, you could say the same thing about Ouya. It’s true that the gaming landscape is shifting tectonically, and it seems like the ground is falling out from underneath the traditional, established models of the super-expensive console and $60 games. But just because Ouya’s philosophy seems sound doesn’t mean that this particular device will succeed.

Either way, we can certainly see Nintendo and Sony reacting to the new landscape with their presentations and booths at Game Developers Conference this week. Nintendo, in lieu of showing off its own new games, is demonstrating how small developers can create inexpensive games on Wii U by using HTML5 and Javascript. 

It was in jumping around the menu and playing the Ouya games, passing around the controller with Uhrman and other Ouya employees, that I realized how different this was from the other game console demos I’ve attended over the years: Nobody in the room knew what was going to happen. When I was playing a game, the crew was cheering me on because they wanted to see what the next level looked like. Now that it’s in the hands of developers, Ouya isn’t entirely Julie Uhrman’s baby anymore — it’s filling up with content at a rate faster than she and her co-workers can keep up with it.

And it hasn’t even launched yet.

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