The industry catches Ouya fever | 10 Years Ago This Month

AKDSEO

A decade ago, the console industry was desperate for a shake-up.

By July of 2012, the Xbox 360 had been on shelves for almost seven years and its successor still hadn’t been announced. The PS3 was six years old and similarly feeling a bit stale. The feeling that the console industry was stuck in a rut wasn’t about to be challenged by a holiday lineup spearheaded by largely unremarkable entries in long-in-the-tooth franchises like Gears of War Judgment, Halo 4, and God of War Ascension. The Vita had flopped at launch early in the year, and between a lack of killer apps and/or horsepower, the soon-to-be-released Wii U was struggling to build excitement as well.

Executives like Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot were publicly complaining about how the extended console cycle was hurting business. We were even pieces like this staff roundtable on whether or not the console cycle was too long.

It was the perfect environment for the unveiling of Ouya.

Ouya was a crowdfunded Android-based console promising something that seemed impossible to many at the time (including myself). With a funding goal of just $950,000, Ouya was going to launch a new hardware platform complete with dedicated controller and sell it for just $99.

With a funding goal of just $950,000, Ouya was going to launch a new hardware platform for just $99

It was also going to be more open than most consoles, with every system doubling as a dev kit and the company only saying it would mandate that games have some gameplay available for free. The company understood that independent developers wanted to get their work on living room TV screens, but the existing console platform holders were frustratingly closed and controlling, embracing mercurial or even antagonistic practices when it came to indie developers.

(That same month, Phil Fish publicly said he was refusing to fix a bug on the hit Fez because it was affecting a small number of people and Microsoft was demanding tens of thousands of dollars to put the fix through the certification process. Other indies were quick to follow with their own cert complaints.)

That openness helped Ouya attract testimonials from established developers like Mojang, Brian Fargo, Jordan Mechner, Jenova Chen, and Adam Saltsman, among others.

Ouya was even fostering a tinkerer community, not just encouraging customers to take a peek under the hood but designing it with standard screws to make it easier for them to do so.

More than 63,000 people wound up backing the Kickstarter to the tune of almost $8.6 million, which remains the most funded video game project ever on the crowdfunding site.

Barely a week after the Kickstarter launched, Ouya also had its first announced exclusive title, a prequel installment for Human Element, the debut episodic title from the indie studio of former Infinity Ward creative strategist Robert Bowling. It was even moving beyond the limitation of being based on Android, as a deal to have streaming service OnLive available for Ouya’s launch would bring more traditional AAA console and PC experiences to players.

Ouya promised a revolution, and many people believed in the vision. Some perhaps a bit too much.

“A freight train plowed into the console games business on July 11th, forever changing the console games landscape, unleashing user democracy and elevating Kickstarter to the new kingmaker of the games business,” wrote GameDaily founder and CEO Mark Friedler in a guest editorial on our site with the headline “Ouya will be ‘as big as iPhone'”.

(One red flag that might have stood out for Friedler was when he referred to the Ouya as “a descendant of the Sega Dreamcast and much maligned Phantom console,” a never-launched digital distribution-driven console for which he served on the company’s advisory board.)

There was also skepticism, with our own Rob Fahey acknowledging that Ouya was ideally positioned at the intersection of several trends in the market, but would have problems attracting the top-tier developers that would make the games justifying a purchase for a broad audience.

“Ouya is going to be judged a failure,” Fahey declared at the time. “Those creating huge expectations for the console are going to be disappointed; the internet opinion machine will take that disappointment and turn it into failure. Ouya will do some great stuff, but it’s not going to disrupt the console business (which is already pretty disrupted already) or initiate a revolution against closed platforms. I fear that the hype will make it impossible to enjoy the platform for what it is: an idea that’s simply too lovely to survive in the real world.”

You probably don’t need to be told which prediction wound up closest to the truth.

The first Ouya systems started shipping to backers in late March of 2013, and the early reviews were not particularly kind, with The Verge declaring it “a million miles away from something worth spending your money on,” while Engadget declared it “simply not ready for retail.”

Months after the first units went out, CEO Julie Uhrman was calling the monetization “better than we expected,” even though only 27% of people who bought the system had actually paid for anything in any of its games.

The standout game of Ouya’s early days — the Alien vs. Predator to its Atari Jaguar, if you will — was Maddy Thorson’s Towerfall, which only sold about 7,000 copies on the platform in the better part of a year.

A screen from Towerfall on Ouya

Towerfall was Ouya’s signature hit in the early days

A series of PR missteps followed, including an easily manipulated Free the Games Fund that attempted to buy timed exclusivity, and a widely derided commercial featuring a pants-less gamer so upset at paying $60 for the latest military shooter that he fills his room ankle-deep with vomit before ripping out his jaw and spine and beating himself about the head and face with them.

By early 2014, Ouya was ready to change its business model. Instead of simply selling dedicated consoles, it was re-envisioning Ouya as an app that could appear on other companies’ smart devices and give users access to Ouya’s storefront. That might have provided a significant boost if those smart devices were something like Apple TV, but Ouya had to settle for Mad Catz’s similarly struggling MOJO console.

The company limped along for another year before calling it quits, with peripheral maker Razer eventually acquiring its software assets and team while leaving the hardware side of things (and on paper, the company itself) to rot. Razer incorporated Ouya into its Forge TV microconsole, but pulled the plug on both in 2019.

It was — and remains — incredibly impressive that Ouya was not only able to get a new console out the door, but to do so while hitting the release window originally targeted in its Kickstarter campaign. But looking from the outside, the operation was just a bit too scrappy. If you want to put a less positive spin on it, it never seemed to have its act together.

Ouya was illegal?

Here’s a side note for a relatively minor story in the grand scheme of things, but it provides a bit of supporting evidence for that above assertion about Ouya not having its act together, and gives me an excuse to make use of some work I did a long time ago that never made it onto the site.

In 2008, the state of New York adopted a law that required all game consoles sold at retail to include content- or ratings-based parental controls. While the ESA released a statement calling the law an unnecessary and unconstitutional government intrusion, the trade group did not ultimately contest the matter in court.

After all, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo consoles all had ratings-based parental controls, and the law carved out an exception for handhelds that lacked controls, like the original Nintendo DS. It was the perfect bit of post-Hot Coffee political posturing, very concerned legislators making a big show out of a law that was in effect, entirely unnecessary and changed nothing.

In July of 2013, I wrote a story about the lobbying tactics of the Entertainment Software Association and the National Rifle Association, and had been thinking a lot about the way they handle criticisms and legislation against their respective industries. That one instance in which the gaming trade group didn’t put up a fight stuck in my mind.

It was about this same time I was reading up on Ouya for a different story when I came across a forum thread asking when parental controls would be added to the system. From there, I confirmed the New York law was still on the books using the state’s websites, and called a few brick-and-mortar GameStop and Best Buy outlets in New York to make sure the Ouya was available for sale.

I had almost everything I needed to write a story about an upstart platform holder and one of Kickstarter’s biggest success stories to date actively breaking the law. What I didn’t have was a comment from the company.

I reached out to Ouya — and only Ouya — for comment on a Wednesday, thinking they would quickly come back with something that either explained away the issue or at least give me their argument for why they weren’t actually breaking the law.

A representative responded, saying, “Okay – so we DO have parental controls in fact. Immediately we have PIN capabilities that limit in-app purchasing, and we are working on adding further restrictions to aid with controls in the future.”

They ignored the fact that purchase restrictions were clearly not the content-based parental controls the law required.

Here’s where I think I screwed up. Rather than running the story with the text of the law and Ouya’s clearly disingenuous/ignorant defense, I responded to the PR person to point out the problem with the response, essentially giving the company a mulligan on the comment.

Ouya had been kicked around in the press for months by that point, and I think I felt sorry for them. They seemed to be on thin ice already, and I hesitated in seeking comment from their retail partners for fear that if my interpretation of the law had been in error — I’m not a lawyer, after all — it would sour their relationships. I also hesitated to reach out to the New York Attorney General’s office, reluctant to pile legal woes on top of the company’s financial ones.

After giving Ouya representatives another day to come back with a better response, I reached out to the company’s retail partners — who were also seemingly breaking the law — on Friday. None of them replied. The following Monday, as I was in the process of getting input from a handful of game industry lawyers, Ouya rolled out its parental control system, essentially making the whole thing a bit of a non-story. After some deliberation with my editor, the story was shelved.

I hesitated to write a story that would put an already struggling company in a negative light, but it might have served readers to know what kind of an operation Ouya was, and what level of diligence could be expected of it. It might have been particularly helpful for studios that participated in the Free the Games Fund promotion, as Ouya attempted to back out of payments to developers in the midst of its deal with Razer. (Fortunately, after a news cycle or two about how Ouya and Razer were stiffing indie developers, Razer promised to make good on Ouya’s obligations after all.)

In retrospect, I think I got that one wrong. My apologies to any developers who could have used a bit more insight into how much (or how little) Ouya had its act together, and to anyone on the Ouya team who had to panic crunch that weekend because some game journalist pulled out an obscure law nobody seemed to know about, much less care if it was enforced.

What else happened in July 2012

● With Vivendi in need of cash, it was reported the French media giant was considering selling off Activision Blizzard. One of the rumored companies looking at an acquisition was Microsoft, with Vivendi hoping to raise about $10 billion in any such deal.

That proved more than anyone was willing to pay, and a year later Vivendi wound up selling the company to a group led by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and co-chairman Brian Kelly for $8.2 billion.

(Earlier this year Microsoft had second thoughts about Activision Blizzard and agreed to buy the Call of Duty company for $68.7 billion.)

● The games industry was on pace for a record year of mergers and acquisitions, with acquisition services firm The Corum Group calling it a frenzy of M&A. A frenzy, I tell you! Corum reported that gaming M&A deals in 2011 totalled a stunning $3.5 billion!

If that was a frenzy, I have no clue what word to use to describe the situation right now, when games industry M&A deals hit $85.4 billion in January alone.

● Valve announced Greenlight in an attempt to outsource its Steam platform curation duties onto customers, saying “The community should be deciding what gets released. After all, it’s the community that will ultimately be the ones deciding which release they spend their money on.” The program had developers create pages to drum up interest in their titles which would then be used to judge which games were allowed on the storefront. It quickly ran into problems as users posted fake projects, and Valve responded by implementing a $100 fee “to cut down the noise in the system,” putting up a new barrier to entry that drew criticism.

Within two years, Steam was telling developers it wanted to move on from Greenlight, but it didn’t actually drop the program until 2017.

Catalog curation wasn’t the only function Valve had found someone else to do for it. In a keynote address at the Develop conference, Valve’s Jason Holtman talked about how the company was also using fans to do its Portal 2 marketing and Team Fortress 2 content creation for it. (That might be an interesting read for anyone deep down the rabbit hole of this month’s Nier: Automata community mystery.)

“This was a business and production problem,” Holtman said. “We had a real problem of if we need to make this and keep this game going what do I do? Do I hire 600 people to produce content? Because that’s what I would have had to do. You would have had to go outsource a bunch of content or contract somebody and instead we went with what we know about, which is talking with customers and seeing if we can organise it that way. This was a really elegant business solution to solve a business production problem.”

Despite Valve’s incredible financial success, it still likes to outsource work to volunteers whenever possible. It also has relied on volunteers to translate its games to a variety of languages and to moderate its online community. As of June 2, Valve had 13 people on staff who at least helped moderate its massive community (it’s unclear if any of them had moderation as a primary duty), and 13 volunteer moderators. I say “as of June 2” because that’s the most recent capture of the Steam moderator page on the Wayback Machine, and Valve has since taken the page down.

Good Call, Bad Call

GOOD CALL: In an editorial about the iPhone’s fifth anniversary, Johnny Minkley identifies a key part of this column’s raison dêtre, saying “It’s always fun to dig out old quotes from senior figures dissing a rival product that goes on to become wildly successful.” (In case you’re curious, he dug up a Microsoft senior marketing director’s 2007 quote questioning the hype and innovative qualities of the iPhone.)

BAD CALL: Lionhead creative director Gary Carr dug deep into a bag of nonsense to defend studio founder Peter Molyneux’s public assertion that the on-rails Kinect game Fable: The Journey was not on-rails, saying, “Every single game is on-rails. I can score a fantastic goal on FIFA if I press certain buttons in the right order at the right time, that’s the rails bit.”

GOOD CALL: Analyst Doug Creutz had seen enough and was ready to declare PC social gaming to be an “evolutionary dead end” and “in the process of being supplanted by gaming on mobile devices.” While social gaming still exists on PC in a variety of forms and is still seeing interesting offerings — especially if one were to argue viral hits like Wordle are social — the social gaming market and audience that Facebook once dominated has largely been swallowed up by mobile gaming.

BAD CALL: We ran an interview with Anita Sarkeesian about her successful Women vs. Tropes in Video Games Kickstarter under the headline “How Anita Sarkeesian beat the trolls,” when clearly this was (and is) an ongoing battle and the industry needed (and needs) to do more to make bigots and misogynists unwelcome in games.

GOOD CALL: Sony Santa Monica had seen the Tomb Raider reboot lead to headlines like “Sexual assault ‘categorically not a theme’ in new Tomb Raider” and decided it wanted nothing to do with that. So in an interview with IGN, God of War: Ascension game design manager David Hewitt made clear the game was going to be mindful of how its hyperviolence would play out.

“I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women – the team’s pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully,” he said. “There are certain things that carry a different kind of resonance that we don’t want to get into.”

BAD CALL: Naughty Dog’s Bruce Straley, in an interview on “Elevating the Interactive Medium,” reassures fans that even though the studio wants to “emphasize the reality of the situation,” players will still be able to derive sexual gratification from the game’s violence, saying, “We want to make sure that there are a lot of opportunities for action and a lot of opportunities to get your rocks off inside of this world, but at the same time, that has to do with how much you’ve invested in exploring the world.”

GOOD CALL: Bungie announced that it had secured the legendary Paul McCartney to write a song for its upcoming game Destiny. That creative union would bear fruit in late 2014, and it is, uh… let’s say remarkable. I want an oral history of this music video that’s at least 80% dedicated to the creative decisions around whatever Paul is doing with his hands.

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