I described the OUYA as a "punt" in our exhaustive launch review. It's an ugly and unsubtle word, but the slipper fits Boxer8's cubic console like a... glove? No, that doesn't work. A sock, perhaps. Regardless, the OUYA simply didn't justify its admittedly affordable expense at launch, instead learning on its potential for Android homebrew applications and the promise of incoming software as its sole selling point. Indeed, drawing on the great Eric Clapton, I suggested it was "running on faith" ever since those heady Kickstarter days.
Three months on, and I'm disappointed to report that this faith hasn't yet been justified. Indeed, what was hailed as an indie revolution is actually more difficult to recommend now.
That's not to say nothing has changed. Far from it, since some new software, more games and UI updates have made their way to the OUYA over the last few weeks. It's therefore time to take an in-depth look at some of the new features and stand-out applications... and why, sadly, you probably shouldn't buy one. At least, not yet.
Updates: Good Start, But Just A Start
I'm delighted to inform you that the latest OUYA firmware updates iron out two of my major criticisms of the original user interface. Firstly, the unused space on the splash screen has now been dedicated to a big friendly icon for your most recently-played game, along with some hotlinks to the store for trending software. This is a nice touch, and improves accessibility all round. I daresay that being featured on the front page will help sales for many lucky games. Better yet, queued downloads are now visible on the 'Play' menu, which finally lets us keep an eye on the situation without resorting go guesswork or jotting down every download on a notepad. On the marketplace side of things, themed playlists are updated fairly regularly and often feature more niche titles along with the scant list of heavy-hitters.
However, there's still plenty of work to do. Beyond implementing those mythical achievements and friends lists that were promised in the original Kickstarter pitch - and still aren't anywhere to be seen - the OUYA faces some major problems in terms of its marketplace.
The first major issue, in this pundit's opinion, is the fact that IAPs (in-app purchases) aren't listed on the marketplace, meaning that every piece of software you download comes with a free Russian Roulette minigame. Some games are completely free. Others simply stop dead after 45 minutes and demand that you pay $11.99 to progress. Freemium games harass you for credits or extra content. The fact that OUYA supports so many business models is wonderful, but horribly, there's absolutely no way to know which is which until you've installed the game and started playing. The App Store already lists IAPs, and OUYA needs to follow suit quickly.
Then there's the lack of a browser marketplace. I'm going to be talking about some fairly impressive games and apps later in this review, and I'd love to link to them, but the OUYA website won't let you buy games directly. This is ridiculous - it's not as if OUYA coverage is particularly strong right now even on more niche gaming outlets. Word of mouth is all you have, OUYA, so why make it more difficult to get the word out?!
New Games & Apps... Well, So, XBMC Is Out
There are several brand new games on OUYA. Like Sine Mora and Sonic CD. Wow! Erm, and, so, yes.
Facetiousness aside, there are a few. VeloCity and Bombball provide fantastically fun local multiplayer experiences, proving that the little cube does still manage to fulfil its niche as a portable couch multiplayer machine. Ittle Dew is well worth playing for Zelda fans, but the "OUYA exclusive" has already released on PC, and is much cheaper to buy there. Otherwise, the console is chugging along with a few cross-platform games and forgettable first attempts, with practically no incentive for newcomers to get involved since most games are available on other platforms, usually cheaper, and more conveniently to boot. While many are simply not worth playing in the first place.
XBMC has also finally released, and it works as brilliantly as you'd expect, at least depending on your Wi-Fi network and if you're willing to faff around for a while. Speaking of Wi-Fi network, you can also run a functional version of Kainy that lets you remotely access a PC desktop from your television. I've personally found it impossible to stream games at playable quality, but again, it's a useful novelty that could well develop into an interesting new use for the device.
That said, is the OUYA worth buying just to install two apps that would work equally well on your PC, laptop or Android Phone? For some, possibly, but it simply isn't enough for the majority of consumers.
Free The Games Fiasco
In an effort to secure more games, OUYA pledged to match timed-exclusive Kickstarters with extra funds. In my opinion, it was actually a lovely idea... in fantasy land. Gosh, fantasy land is a nice place. People don't take advantage of Kickstarter loopholes in fantasy land. The OUYA already has loads of exclusives in fantasy land.
But wait, this isn't fantasy land. Numerous developers weighed in on the scheme and a subsequent facetious non-apology from Julie Uhrman, yet consumers didn't care one way or the other. OUYA riled up the only community that really matters to it right now: developers willing to make games for the ailing console. There are less of those now, even seeing one exclusive developer taking her wares off the marketplace.
Worse, it's such a waste of a Million Dollars - even if Kickstarter couldn't be exploited. OUYA should be using this money to set up an incubator or pub fund, find exciting exclusives and prototype concepts that could work well on the platform, and then do some PROPER A&R. Not waiting for developers to jump through hoops or exploit the system. Actually going out, finding exclusives and developers, listening to pitches, testing prototypes, then giving them a tight budget to get the job done. We're talking about small games and a million Dollar budget here. There's easily enough to split the risk.
The New Problem
It turns out that OUYA was designed to solve a problem that doesn't exist any more. No, not playing Android games on television. We already have HDMI dongles for that, while native mobile streaming and Google Play-enabled smart TVs already exist.
No, the OUYA was simply designed to satisfy one single demand: being something new.
Back in 2012, we were desperate for something to shake up the console generation as it languished, desperately, for anything remotely innovative. We needed a new challenger, a new spark of creativity, a breath of fresh air. Along came a console so indie-centric and exciting that it even crowd-funded its startup capital. We were so ready for it.
We're sorted for new now, though. The PS4 and Xbox One gave us as much new as we could safely handle, and then the OUYA released both too early and too late. Too early to secure a decent games lineup and competent UI design. Too late to make its impact. And once the rose-tinted backer spectacles cracked, we saw an underpowered Tegra 3-equipped phone-in-a-box with no applications or use for all but hardcore Android homebrew aficionados.
Potential vs Punt
I want the OUYA to succeed, so badly. As a backer, I was and still am genuinely proud to have been a part of this revolutionary venture. But right now, it's impossible to recommend what is ultimately a borderline-useless machine for most consumers, and a device that might have more use as a novelty bookend for your next-gen games collection.
Does the OUYA still have potential? Possibly. That's the thing about potential: it's, well, potential. With better public relations (step it up: some glib tweets and marketing spiel is not relating to the public, Uhrman) and a concerted effort to secure more games, the silver cube could well find its niche as a little fun factory.
But as the weeks chug on, and the next-gen consoles loom menacingly on the horizon -- and Valve's living room PCs stand firmly behind those with the best of both worlds -- this potential seems more and more like a complete and total punt, the equivalent of throwing £99.99 at a homeless person on the street in the hopes that they're actually a millionaire criminal who'll repay the favour in spades several years later (a bit of Dickensian parody for you there).
There's still time, but the window is closing, and the company's image is souring by the day. The gap between punt and potential has never been wider, and tough love and tough decisions are going to be necessary to turn it around now.