Stateside

Stateside: Ouya's sombre start proves microconsoles need a major player

Stateside: Ouya's sombre start proves microconsoles need a major player

Ouya pivoting from a hardware company to one focused on software isn't a good sign for the future of microconsoles.

Even to the sceptics – of which I appear to be one –Ouya was in the best position to succeed with its hardware. The device launched on the back of a Kickstarter wave, benefitting from the kind of hype few crowdfunded projects enjoy today.

However, that hyped cooled after 2012 as flaws became apparent and compelling software failed to materialise. What we're left with is a platform desperately trying to justify its existence and stay aloft, chasing the smart TV money that, likewise, is missing in action.

The long and short of it is, microconsoles are in a bad shape. Ouya, the sector's virtual flagbearer, now realises any success that's to be had lies beyond its current hardware-focused model, with Ouya instead looking to operate more as a platform, building its service into other devices.

In my view, however, this isn't the solution. Microconsoles can work in their current form, but only if pushed at the right time by the right players.

Rise and (Tower)fall

The news of Ouya's transition is ironically-timed because it comes on the heels of Towerfall's PC and PS4 release.

Until now, it has been the only really good reason to own an Ouya. There are few compelling exclusives of note (the most recent high-profile game, Soul Fjord, was not well-received critically), and the Android library is only a fraction of what is available on Google Play or even the Amazon Appstore.

Similarly, weeks after its launch on Ouya, the web was aflutter with talk that Towerfall's run on rival platforms would come with extra bits and bobs leaving the Ouya version outdated. Why would anyone rush to pick it up after that kind of press?

Towerfall's Ouya version was soon superseded

Interested in That Dragon, Cancer? Just wait for the inevitable PC version when its Ouya exclusivity expires.

Indeed, as of 11 March, any real reasons to buy the Ouya will have dissipated and, when Ouya boasts such mediocre software support, why should any of us have any faith in the firm's forthcoming transition?

Poor management

Ouya's relationship with developers has also been somewhat strained.

To attract them in the first place, Ouya needed to treat them well and convince them it was a viable platform. Problem was, its "everything will have a free download" promise was not popular with developers, and there's evidence it hurt sales.

Similarly, Ouya's "Free the Games Fund" was poorly managed and developers have given mixed takes on their relations with the people behind the platform – some have even pulled their titles.

But the recurring thread is that no one has got rich off of Ouya, and launching a game on the platform still represents a risk. That's not exactly an appealing prospect.

Of course, optimists may say that Ouya's experience isn't necessarily evidence that microconsoles as a model are doom. It's possible that Ouya has just been the victim of a deadly cocktail of incompetence, bad luck, and poor market conditions.

Android is still treated as the second platform by mobile developers (even in this era of multiplatform development ) and Ouya represents but a small slice of that pie. It makes it hard for developers to justify the additional time, especially if Android at large is not part of the plans.

As well, while Ouya seemed like a great idea during its Kickstarter in August 2012, its hardware was a year behind by the time it released the following summer - and with the new consoles on the horizon, that interest gap in TV-friendly gaming suddenly shrunk by a large margin.

Follow the leader?

The problem is, if we accept my argument that Ouya had the brightest start of any microconsole to date, it begs the question of whether anyone else should dare to follow it.

In my view, however, much of the problems that maligned Ouya post launch were simply the result of bad timing.

There's reason to believe that there are brighter times ahead – PS4 and Xbox One may have flown out of the starting blocks at one hell of a pace, but chances are sales will slow in the months ahead.

There are also companies out there that have the resources and sheer power to succeed in the microconsole market where Ouya failed – namely two plucky startups called Apple and Google.

Coming up for six years since the App Store launched, iOS remains mobile gaming's big daddy, and the prospect of it making the move on the TV (in a more game-focused form than the current half-hearted Apple TV) is one not to be ignored, despite the somewhat nuted impact the first run of gamepads for iPhone have amassed so far.

Perhaps more importantly, developers – for better or worse – are still loyal to Apple and, almost by default, will follow the Cupertino giant wherever it may go.

Even Vita TV (if and when it reaches the west) is an interesting prospect given it comes with a healthy library of console-quality and, more importantly, TV friendly games.

PS Vita TV could make a real mark in the west

Google is another notable potential player that I can't ignore – even if, personally speaking, I think they'd be better off making Android a TV platform for others to deliver hardware for.

Nevertheless, as long as Apple and Sony are sniffing around the seen, the prospect of a successful microconsole remains high. The question is whether either party really wants to give it a go.

In my view, we just need to give it time. In a couple of years, Xbox One and PS4 will have lost their sheen and, like every console generation before, will be less razmatazz and more run-of-the-mill.

At that point, there's a chance microconsoles may pick up steam and, with a few more years of hardware advancement, could foster a future for themselves.

Right now, however, the ground looks especially shaky for anyone looking to follow in Ouya's footsteps.

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Stateside columnist

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

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