Oh yeah! Owyah! Ooh err, missus. I'm still not entirely sure how to pronounce it - wait, it's "OOO-yah" - but there's a new console on the block. Julie Uhrman, Yves Behar, Muffi Ghadiali and Ed Fries have loosed the OUYA on an unsuspecting world, and it doesn't play by any of the rules.
It's cheap: so affordable that a console will cost less than a boxed game special edition. All of its games will be free in some capacity, whether freemium or providing a substantial free trial. It's targeting the living room while AAA publishers scramble to jump ship from their "burning platforms," fleeing out of the lounge into the mobile space. It's designed to be easy to hack and homebrew, a fully-open device surrounded by closed ecosystems. Even its genesis, buoyed up from the beginning by a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign, is so recklessly avant-garde that other platform holders must be green with envy. The OUYA plans to turn console gaming on its head, willing to face up to the big boys and do its own totally unexpected thing.
Indeed, the OUYA is an unprecedented and wildly exciting beast, but it comes with a unique set of potential problems and pitfalls along with a huge amount of barely-constrained potential. To this end, we're going to explore what the OUYA could mean for gaming, and discover why the only question facing Uhrman's new platform is: "why not?"
The Elevator Pitch
For less than $100, you'll get a full living room console powered by a Tegra3 quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM and an Android-based operating system (full specs here). Anyone can design and publish games on the OUYA, with only a standard 30% fee going to the company. Wonderfully, the only major requirement is that every game needs to include some free elements - either by providing a lengthy trial & unlock version, advert support or adopting a freemium model. These titles will be delivered digitally, and the idea of bringing F2P into the lounge alongside more traditional game experiences is tremendously exciting.
The controller, from veteran designer Yves Behar, appears to be a thing of ergonomic beauty. A touchpad will allow us to engage with traditional mobile games, while the analogue and digital inputs will cater for traditional console-style gaming. And hey, if you don't like it, you can go make your own or find a way to make other Bluetooth controllers compatible with the OUYA.
That's the beauty of the whole thing. The OUYA is designed to be a truly open platform: easy to hack, root and create custom firmware for. Instead of demonizing the homebrew and hacking community, the OUYA embraces them, encouraging them to do their very best to subvert and expand on the core framework, potentially creating new software and hardware applications that push the boundaries of what a living room console can offer. As far as developers are concerned, the OUYA is a self-contained dev kit, allowing them to test and optimise their games without having to pay inordinate amounts of money (a key concern for cash-strapped garage devs and indie upstarts). There will be no barriers to entry, no blockers to progress and no limits to imagination beyond the hardware specifications... which can itself be accessed and potentially upgraded by simply turning a couple of screws.
As an open console, the OUYA could usher in the sort of flourishing console homebrew, indie and experimental golden age that we arguably last saw with the Amiga (something similar has been happening on PC for some time, I warrant you)... but with the freedom, community and distribution that the internet can provide. Indie and boutique developers will be able to create games in a language they already understand, setting their own pricing models and potentially pushing the envelope with exciting new concepts - free from grasping publishers and only having to part with the 30% industry standard. Homebrew coders can freely set about crafting custom firmware and applications we'll never see on current-gen consoles, supported by architecture and software that's designed to be easy to root. Hardware hackers can even design new peripherals and tinker with the architecture to evolve the console into something entirely new. Whereas other Sony and Microsoft slap down end-user creativity, the OUYA encourages it by design.
This, of course, will also make the OUYA a uniquely consumer-centric console. It's ours. Indisputably, brilliantly ours. We'll be free to do whatever we want with it, from downloading non-standard firmware to experimenting with all manner of innovative apps and games - or unscrewing it just to see what makes it tick. Small third party peripheral (even hardware) manufacturers will doubtlessly start to spring up and offer us a huge amount of choice and competition in what's usually a fairly closed environment. After getting used to being restricted, being treated like brainless untrustworthy cattle, throughout this generation, this amount of consumer choice might potentially be a little bit scary. In a good way.
Besides all that, though, we'll be able to play a bunch of free and cheap games on our telly. Not bad for something that will cost around £65. For me, this makes the OUYA an attractive second console, one that supplements and complements your core gaming experience rather than going head-to-head with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Even if you don't plan on getting involved with the homebrew crowd.
Problems & Pitfalls
By far the biggest problem facing the OUYA is obsolescence. The clock is ticking, folks, and the OUYA is arguably going to be a stopgap rather than a true solution to the perceived decline of home console gaming. See, most developers are agreed that the future lies with streaming games to your television via your Smartphone or Tablet, and hardware manufacturers are already working on this technology. "Of course, the great thing is that you’ll be able to play games on your TV, put down the controller, pick it up and play it on the train on the way to work. All of a sudden it’s always with you," Driver co-creator Gareth Edmondson recently told us, talking about the inevitable state of affairs in a few years' time. Once this happens, the OUYA suddenly becomes a novelty, a dinosaur even, and the meteorite is already screaming towards the Yucatan Peninsula. You know, since the game selection is likely to be broadly similar across the OUYA and Android tablets/phones. PC gamers have enjoyed access to a flourishing indie and homebrew scene for years. And what happens when Steam or Apple get their set-top box gaming act together?
While the OUYA rests in its hardware cycle, tablets and smartphones will be continually upping their specs. Though the new console promises to provide hardware broadly similar to a £400 ASUS Transformer Prime, mobile hardware is becoming faster and more affordable every year.
Piracy will potentially be a major concern for any developer planning on taking advantage of the OUYA. While Uhrman and the team have been rather canny in demanding that all games supply some free content or go Free-To-Play, piracy is already one of the biggest problems on the Android platform. And phones aren't actually designed to be easily rooted or hacked (though most are, in practice). It won't be long before some OUYA owners start to crack and distribute full versions of premium games. With luck, hopefully most of these skilled coders will actually decide to use their skills to create new homebrew software or even their own games, but you can't escape human nature. Plenty of emulators for other systems will doubtlessly start doing the rounds before too long, possibly getting the likes of Sony and Nintendo rather hot under the collar. If the platform is fully open, what can be done about the inevitable slew of copyright-infringing material/fan works? The OUYA is potentially ripe for exploitation, that's arguably the whole point, and strict policing will fly in the face of its creed.
A "hackable" console from a small developer can't be easy to provide aftermarket support for - how can you provide a warranty for something that's "built to be hacked?" In fairness, Uhrman and co have actually promised that "your warranty is safe," but in practice, I'm not entirely sure how realistic this will be (especially considering that funds may be tight at launch). How often will the team be able to issue firmware updates, Android being a fractious beast at best? Combined with the fact that the OUYA's coolest emergent applications will probably require some form of tinkering, rooting or even hardware modification, many mainstream consumers will probably balk at the idea of taking the matter into their own hands - much in the same way that most gamers don't buy a portable homebrew emulation device. PC owners may (rightfully) scoff at this, but having to get hands-on with your technology is a scary proposition for the casual masses.
Oh, and I hope that the finished article resembles a flat set-top box rather than that silver cube prototype. It's stylish and devastatingly handsome, but who has the room for it in their increasingly cluttered AV setup? Then again, I suppose that you'll be free to unscrew it and put the gubbins in a new case should you want to.
In many ways, you could argue that the OUYA embraces the worst parts of consoles and mobile platforms: you've got the fixed, inflexible hardware cycle of a home console mixed with the smaller scope of Android apps. It's beset by competition. The clock is ticking. And it's easy to ask: "why?"
But there's a more interesting question to ask.
For me, this seems to be the question that underpins the OUYA. Why not challenge the decline of home consoles? Why not empower and encourage homebrew coders and indie developers with a console that allows them to do their own thing, choose their own pricing models and create games in an ecosystem they already understand? Why not let us tinker with every aspect of the firmware and hardware, and see what the community can come up with? Why not let gamers play Android games on their televisions for well under £100, bringing free-to-play into the living room? Why not provide a gaming experience that will be driven by developers and gamers, not publishers or PR?
Why not provide a console for the masses?
That's why, despite often refusing to get involved with gaming Kickstarters (I have my reasons), I've gone all-in with the OUYA. Why not?
OUYA is slated to launch in 2013.