Stateside: Does Ouya risk being this generation's N-Gage?

Is it the right product, launched at the wrong time?

Stateside: Does Ouya risk being this generation's N-Gage?
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.

The Ouya's impending retail launch in the US has been surrounded with familiar mantras: that it's "interesting" and that it's a "good idea."

One thing no-one will say, however, is that it's perfect, though as an open-access console that takes indies seriously, it's certainly "got promise!"

That's just the thing though. Much of the anticipation that's built up in the run up to Ouya's launch is centred on the fact that it's the flagship of the 'unconsole' ideal – the first machine leading the charge for the coming wave of devices.

But, being first to market isn't necessarily a selling point in and of itself. It certainly doesn't guarantee success.

In fact, there's every possibility Ouya could end up as the next N-Gage: a flawed piece of hardware that failed to capture the market, despite being in hindsight being a really good idea - just one executed before its proper time.

Two of a kind?

There are three key areas where Ouya appears to be mimicking Nokia's long-forgotten handheld.

First, the hardware. Ouya's soft launch with Kickstarter backers, developers, and pre-order customers has not gone smoothly. The controller in particular has been reviled as shoddy, with various issues including crucial Bluetooth connectivity problems.

The system software has not had much good ink spilled about it, either. While many of these issues have been reportedly fixed in the retail version, it's not exactly led to a lot of goodwill towards the system.

As well, Ouya will be running a chipset that'll essentially be a generation behind once Nvidia's Shield hit the shelves two days later.

While the Tegra 3 will run more efficiently inside an Ouya than it would be a mobile device (thanks to a lack of battery life concerns), it's still a potential problem that those behind Ouya will have to contend with until a new, refreshed model emerges.

Nokia's N-Gage was certainly a flawed piece of hardware as well: Game switching couldn't be done unless the battery was taken out.

The number pad proved unwieldy for gameplay, thanks in part to too many face buttons. There was also the infamous 'sidetalkin' internet meme, which – though popular at the time – did little to enhance N-Gage's reputation as a piece of design.

Indeed, the later N-Gage QD revision helped fix a lot of these issues, but the damage had essentially been done.

Software speaking

There's also the second big issue that afflicted N-Gage back in the day, and threatens to do the same to Ouya right now: software.

Ouya will launch with over 170 titles on offer, including exclusives like Towerfall, and with more inbound such as Kim Swift's Soul Fjord. But Ouya's success or failure won't be determined by individual titles, but rather the strength of the unconsole's entire library.

When people buy a system, they want to know there's not going to be a dearth of compelling titles to enjoy. Sure, developers are excited about the idea behind Ouya, but how many will be willing to actually port over and support their titles on the system?

That's all before you consider that those behind Ouya have placed hurdles in the way of any Android developer looking to make the leap.

The decision to build Ouya around its own app marketplace rather than those already establish, the decision to use an input largely unfamiliar to mobile gaming, and the move to focus on a unique gamepad API instead of established HID protocols all threaten to derail attempts by developers to bolster the machine with ports.

Likewise, N-Gage's failure was also in part down to the fact it lacked compelling content of its own.

It had some hidden gems, but - in comparison to what Nintendo and later Sony was offering – it was a no brainer that consumers opted to support established handhelds rather than Nokia's newcomer.

A matter of time

Which leads nicely to the third issue: it's possible to enter a new market too early.

The idea that mobile's can serve as a serious gaming system makes a lot of sense now, in 2013, but a decade previously, N-Gage appeared to be coming from left field.

Apple's iPhone and Android have both dramatically changed the public's perception of what a mobile is and what it can do.

On that basis, Nokia's N-Gage was arguably way ahead of its time – a product with the right vision but, owing to technical limitations at the time, wasn't able to deliver on it in the eyes of consumer.

Ouya's take on the 'unconsole', too, risks beigd ahead of its time.

Launching a new type of system just as two of the industry's established console players prepare to embark on their biggest transition in seven or more years might prove to be ill-advised – once again, a case of the right idea delivered at the wrong time.

It's also quite possible that, down the road, the unconsole model may be perfected by Apple and the sleeping giant that is Apple TV. It may also be the case GameStick or GamePop or one of the other unconsole upstarts has the real secret to success, and Ouya has just had better PR so far.

Maybe smart TVs will wind up making the whole unconsole model a moot point.

Maybe Sony's indie-friendly approach will ramp up and the firm will provide open developer access to the PS4. On the flip side, maybe Microsoft's vision of a connected Xbox platform across Xbox One, Windows 8 and Windows Phone will also bear fruit.

All of these businesses risk treading on Ouya's toes in one respect or another.

The only definite is, Ouya is an imperfect product launching in imperfect circumstances. Much like the N-Gage, history may look back on it and realise it was a device before its time, and that its failure was all too apparent.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!


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James Coote
Just got to pick you up on one point:

"...and the move to focus on a unique gamepad API instead of established HID protocols"

When I implemented the OUYA Controller API, I found that without modification, it worked perfectly with other controllers (namely PS3 and wired xbox360)

I helped some friends port their cocos2d game to OUYA. They had already implemented android controller support using the standard android controller API. Without any code modification, we sideloaded the game onto the OUYA, and it worked perfectly with the OUYA controller, and again, with the PS3 and wired xbox360 controller

Basically, hardware/peripherals wise, if it works with android, it'll probably work with the OUYA. I got a wiimote to work using an app I sideloaded from Google Play. There's even a couple of games that let you use your smartphone/tablet as a second screen or extra controller

I've also found the OUYA staff to be very flexible. If the OUYA is missing drivers or something, if I ask nicely enough there is a good chance OUYA will put them in.
jon jordan
I was pretty skeptical about Ouya, but having spoken to them, their vision is clear - it's about developers and games, not the hardware.

So if they can persuade consumers to update yearly and do the hard supply side operations to support the price, I think they have a good chance of getting an c 10 million install base.
Phil M
Over many years, certain manufactures have made the same mistake again and again which is not to truly understand the environment in which they were launching their new product.

They tend to get focused on one particular aspect which they seem to think will set the world on fire and forget some of the most basic premises which you need for a product to succeed.

Add to this the hardware in importance is a distance 2nd place to the software the platform will have, and I don't mean software in a general sense, but what specific titles will make the target audience drop whatever device they are currently spending all their time using and pick up something else.

The OUYA is meant to appeal (I presume) to a mass market, in the sense that it's a very cheap device for the public to use to play games (again this is what the F2P points to) but indie developers are exactly the kind of developers who tend to shy away from F2P and no dev's = no software = no success.

I wish them the best, but the very concept on which the whole OUYA platform is built on looks flawed to me.
Paul Smithsonian
Great article thanks Carter. The right vision in the wrong environment equals predictable failure.