Introduction, Hardware and Controller
"Today I’m going to show you that we have delivered on that promise, and on that dream, of developing an accessible, open game console for gamers and developers." That’s how Julie Uhrman, Founder & CEO of Ouya, began our demonstration of her company’s new console.
The fact that our demo was taking place in a warehouse a dozen blocks away from the bustle of GDC 2013, the Game Developers Conference, only added to the Ouya’s outsider mystique.
After an explosive Kickstarter debut that raised more than $8 million dollars, nearly 10 times what the Ouya folks set as their goal, the race was on to get this Android 4.1: Jelly Bean-based console to market.
Now that the Ouya’s official release date has been set for June 4, with early versions of the system going out to Kickstarter backers as early as this Thursday, all eyes are on Ouya to see if it can really shake up the video game market.
While it’s doubtful that the Ouya will become the third superpower in the PlayStation 4 versus Xbox 720 console war, it has a good shot at carving out its own niche market amongst atypical systems like the Wii U and Nvidia’s Project Shield.
It should be noted that our early look at the Ouya opened with the caveat that everything we saw has the potential to not be final. The Ouya team has reserved the right to go back to the drawing board on pretty much everything.
While big changes seem highly unlikely with the June release only a few months away, it adds to the rather unknowable nature of this bold new project. With the Ouya, we have the feeling that consumers won’t know what they have until they have it, but here nonetheless are our cautiously optimistic impressions of the Ouya.
The box, and what’s in it
The Ouya console is smaller than you’d think. About the size of an orange, we’d say. It’s sleek, not flashy, but definitely going for style. Its brushed aluminum body is slick and we imagine it’ll look nice sitting on your average entertainment center.
On its backside it has five basic ports: Ethernet, micro-USB, HDMI, USB and a port for an AC adapter. Uhrman mentioned that the USB port would allow users to add external storage to the device.
The first wave of Ouya consoles will have the names of the $10,000 Kickstarter backers etched into the side, as well as their backer numbers. At the top of the list is Notch, creator of the indie phenomenon Minecraft.
With its dual analog sticks and two sets of shoulder buttons, the Ouya controller doesn’t stray far from the Xbox and PS3 examples, and why would it? In fact, it even proved to be somewhat prescient; that black space in the middle of the controller is a touchpad, much like the one we’ve seen on Sony’s recently unveiled DualShock 4.
Like the Ouya itself, the controller has aluminum panels. They were smooth and cold to the touch, and we were surprised to see that the plates on either side were removable, each hiding a AA battery.
The controllers sync to the console with Bluetooth, and Uhrman noted that pairing other accessories would be possible. The Ouya team has been testing other peripherals, and plans to publish a list of accessories that "work really well."
The twin sticks and four-button layout were immediately familiar. The sticks were grippy and accurate, and the buttons felt like the kind of quality jobs you’d find on any first-party console controller.
It was the triggers that disappointed us. A trigger pull on the Ouya controllers we used didn’t feel smooth. Instead it was sticky, offering uneven resistant that didn’t feel nearly as nice as the rest of the build. Not what we’d expect from a $50 controller.
Given the tentative nature of the demo units we sampled, we’re not sure if this will be an issue with the final Ouya controllers, but we’ll be watching for it when we write a complete review of the system.
Games, Menu and Early verdict
Our demo featured eight games selected by the Ouya team as ready for prime time. A mix of old school rereleases, PC ports, Android titles and original games, they were: Final Fantasy III, Saturday Morning RPG, The Ball, Puddle, Wizorb, Gunslugs, Fist of Awesome and Stalagfight.
It was an eclectic line-up to say the least, a mix of clever indies and tongue-in-cheek faux-retro fare. The games would have seemed more at home on the show floor of PAX East than in any console launch line-up.
But it should be said that these titles are not necessarily all that will be playable when the Ouya is officially on sale in June. When pressed, Uhrman was unable to offer a specific number. It seems the ball is in the developer’s courts when it comes to what makes it to launch.
The Ouya is not your typical console, and with systems shipping to early backers in late March before the real launch in June, it won’t have a typical debut. Still, as we sat there punching, jumping, running and shooting our way through the handful of oddball titles, we had to wonder what would become Ouya’s killer app.
Still, every game we tried controlled very well, and looked great on an HDTV. Even the purposely blocky, eight-bit-esque Fist of Awesome benefited by a 720p presentation. And after experiencing the Contra-like chaos of Gunslugs on a 36-inch TV, we weren’t sure we could ever play it on a little Galaxy S3 screen again.
So every game controlled well, except for one. The Ball, a first-person puzzle solving title with an air of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" mashed up with Portal, had serious control stick lag. As the most graphically pronounced game in our demo, it felt pushed out the door to show the Ouya’s rendering capabilities.
And the Ouya did perform in those regards. While The Ball and other titles were far from visually advanced compared to PC and mainstream console titles, the Ouya managed smooth frame rates throughout.
The Ouya’s main menu is pretty reigned in compared to the Xbox 360’s dashboard. Play, Discover, Make and Manage are the four basic options. Play lets you access everything that’s already on your system, such as games and the Flixster app we were shown.
Discover is the store, which the Ouya team will curate. Besides the typical breakdown by genre, there will be themed categories like Now Hear This, a selection of games with stand out sound design.
Games that achieve a high level of engagement, determined by hours played by gamers as well as user ratings, will earn featured spots. This is Ouya’s way of ensuring the cream rises to the top, and no good title ends up buried.
Make is the developer channel. This wasn’t ready for our eyes, but we were told that it would be different, depending on whether a user had a gamer or developer account.
Manage contains your system diagnostics, and lets you manage settings.
Stream a little stream for me
Uhrman has previously dropped hints about the possibility of streaming video content on the Ouya. This should come as no surprise, since everything short of your blender seems to have a Netflix app these days.
On-demand video and the near $100 price tag could make the Ouya a real competitor to the Apple TV. Even so, Uhrman couldn’t offer anything concrete during our meeting as far as big names such as YouTube, HBO Go or the aforementioned big red N are concerned.
However, she did load up Flixster, the movie rating and trailer watching service, and streamed a little bit of the "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" trailer in glorious 1080p. We also saw the game spectating service TwitchTV on the play menu.
Obviously, the Ouya is capable as a streamer, and it’s just a matter of time (and perhaps the console’s ability to achieve mainstream relevancy) before it becomes yet another Netflix and Amazon-enabled device.
Even more open than you thought
In its Kickstarter days, the Ouya was pitched as an open console. For developers, there would be no expensive licensing fees to make games. Each $99 Ouya would be a developer kit. This would be a way of designing games playable on the television with all the expensive paywalls torn down.
But the Ouya looks to be even more open than we thought. During our demo, the question of video game ratings came up, and we were surprised to learn that the ESRB and PEGI would not label the Ouya’s titles.
When questioned, the Ouya team expressed plans to police themselves. We silently wondered how this would go over with retailers; the Ouya is going to be sold by the likes of Best Buy, Target, GameStop and Amazon.
Then we brought up "donutgate," where an eight-year-old unwittingly blew $1,500 on micro-transactions in The Simpson: Tapped Out for the iPad.
The Ouya team members at our demo were unfamiliar with the incident, which has motivated Apple to change the way it handles games with in-app purchases. When pressed as to a plan for such situations, the team’s plan was essentially to come up with a plan.
While we don’t think the Ouya will become a lair of mature games and titles panhandling for change, we do think that without ratings and the like the Ouya may have a tough time earning the trust of parents.
This could be an unfortunate stumbling block. The Ouya’s affordable price will make it an attractive alternative to the next wave of expensive next-gen systems, especially for parents with kids too young to care about cutting edge visuals or big name franchises. But will they be comfortable plunking children down in front of this thing?
Despite having actually seen, touched and played an Ouya, the console still feels pretty enigmatic. Like any video game system, it’s going to live or die by its games, and we’re still not sure what those will be. While we found the titles from our demo to be well adapted to the console and charmingly odd, none of them struck us as system sellers.
Of course, this was not the final launch line-up. Team Ouya could blow us all away next week with an amazing, must-have title. In fact, next week would be great timing, because with the launch scheduled for June, the Ouya is running out of time to garner true mainstream appeal.
Great games could be coming. Ouya says it has enlisted the support of Kim Swift of Portal fame and the developers of Papo and Yo, but again, those are arty, atypical titles.
The Ouya needs a Halo. Not a first-person shooter necessarily, but something appealing and highly replayable to make people really feel that they need this system. It needs a blockbuster to bankroll its more artistic endeavors.
If the Ouya were to launch in the state that we saw – with no true streaming video service, a smattering of dark-horse titles and games already available elsewhere – we’d say that team Ouya has sold all the systems it’s going to sell through its Kickstarter campaign.
But we doubt that’s going to happen. If there’s one thing that the Ouya has proven to be good at, time and time again, it’s surprises. We just wish that we’d seen enough to throw more than our cautious optimism behind it.