News, Views, and Reviews
Nearly a year ago, a start up company called “Boxer8” ran a Kickstarter campaign for a new video game console. They met their goal for $900,000 in eight hours, and went on to raise $8.5 million. Named the OUYA, this console’s primary focus is to bring the hard work of many independent studios to TVs, instead of mobile devices. The system is designed with the Tegra 3 processor found in high end smart phones and tablets and runs on the latest Android operating system, which should make it familiar to mobile game developers. For pledging $99, the Kickstarter backers were guaranteed a system before it becomes available at retail. The console doubles as a development kit, so those interested in making games got their consoles as early as last December. Hopefully, that means there should be a decent number of games before the end of next month, when the OUYA will be available to everyone else. I immediately pledged my $99 and I’ve been getting regular updates via email from Boxer8 ever since. Although I’m not a game developer myself, I see the appeal of a company reaching out to developers with a cheap alternative to consoles OR mobile devices. Those interested in developing games will now have a very cheap, very easy way of pursuing those dreams. Boxer8 encourages developers and modders to modify the operating system and the console itself, if they want, and develop games and apps to their heart’s content. They also went on to promise yearly updates to the hardware – as anyone trying to keep up with smart phones probably knows, newer and better hardware is becoming available all the time. Since it is so small and so cheap, I don’t see any problems with buying a new OUYA for $99 every year.
The console itself is slightly larger than a Rubik’s Cube, and rather heavy for such a small device. The case has metallic sides, so that probably helps. Noticeable features are the big “U” inside an “O” or circle power button on the top, the vents for the fan on the bottom, the ports on the back, and the names of the high-end backers etched on one side. (Like other Kickstarter campaigns, backers could choose a range of amounts to pledge, with higher pledges getting better rewards such as getting their systems sooner, custom colors, or having their names etched on the first batch of consoles made.) By removing four tiny screws, I could take the console apart and mess with the innards. The ports on the back include: an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, a USB port, a mini-USB port, and a port for the power supply. The console also has a built in WiFi receiver for wireless internet. I believe the mini-USB port is actually an “out” port, intended to connect the device to a PC for game developers. Remarkably, the OUYA came packaged with an HDMI cable, along with the AC adapter/power supply, and batteries for the controller.
The controller is pretty fascinating. The analog sticks, d-pad, and face buttons layout resembles the Xbox 360 controller, but the overall shape of the controller has some strange curves to it. The triggers and bumper buttons on the front are also oddly shaped. At first glance, the controller might seem too angular, as if they were trying to make it match the cube shape of the console. Now that I can hold one, I have to say it feels a lot better than it looks. The bottom is completely smooth, and provides the ergo-dynamics for comfort. I find that my hands are more evenly spaced, pointing more straight forward and parallel to each other with the OUYA controller, versus the rounded, reaching for each other hand placement I experience with the Xbox controller. It will be interesting to see how the shape of the OUYA controller will feel after long playing sessions. The analog sticks are convex, like the PlayStation’s Dual Shock controllers. There are no start or select buttons, but there is a circle button between the d-pad and left analog stick, with the same “U” inside an “O” logo that’s on the console’s power button. In the center of the controller is a touch panel. One of the main benefits of the OUYA is that game developers don’t have to adjust their games to work on touch-input devices and can use a traditional controller, but it’s nice that there is this touch panel, just in case. I find it interesting that Sony has already revealed that the PS4 controller will also have a touch pad in the center, and they are also courting indie-developers. The left and right panels of the top of the controller pop off, and the batteries are placed, one on each side, underneath those panels. This has got to be the weirdest thing I’ve seen, but it works. As a result, the weight of the controller is evenly distributed front and back, side to side.
After connecting it to a TV and powering up the OUYA, I was greeted with the option to create a user profile or use an existing profile. As an early backer, I got to create my profile months ago on the OUYA website, so I picked the second option. Having signed in, the main screen loaded with four options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. Having not downloaded any games yet, I had to select the second option “Discover” which brought up another menu of games to choose from. After picking games and downloading them, they appear in that “Play” section, which makes them much easier to find later. “Make” is what it sounds like; the game development section, and “Manage” gives system options like finding a new WiFi network or pairing more controllers or Bluetooth devices.
I should point out that Boxer8 has placed one restriction on developers: games have to have at least one type of “free” option. This can be a demo of some sort, or the ability to play the beginning levels and then pay to “unlock” the game later, but everything on this menu is readily available to me, for free. There does seem to be a good number of games available, and the “Discover” menu screen gave me several options on how I want them sorted: Check It, Staffpicks, Fresh, Favs, Genres, or Sandbox. Of these, “Genres” seems to be the most useful, as that brought up a third menu, organizing the games into their appropriate genres: Adventure, All Ages, App (which already includes twitch.tv), Arcade/Pinball, Card/Casino, Dual Stick, Fight!, FPS/Shooter, Meditative, Platformer, Play w/Friends, Puzzle/Trivia, Racing, Retro, Role-Playing, Short on Time?, Sim/Strategy, and Sports. Many games fit into several categories, so there is some overlap. Overall, the interface is really streamlined and intuitive. During game play, pressing that circle button in the center of the controller closes the game and brings up the main menu.
Is the OUYA for You?
Even though I’m not a game developer, I’m excited about the OUYA. Will it be a system that is only used by indie-game developers? Maybe, but even if it is, that could be enough people to support it. I imagine many people will buy it to use as a gateway to creating and/or playing indie games, and find games that they really like. I will play around with it some more, and see what I can find. I already found a game that boasts 8 (eight!?) players, with a combination of OUYA, Xbox, or PS3 controllers, or even smart phones. That’s crazy! Final Fantasy III is already a well known game, and it’s available for download. “Notch” is one of the supporters with his name etched on the side, so hopefully we’ll see games like Minecraft soon. For only $99, the OUYA could make a cheap family console. I’m surprised that apps like Netflix aren’t on the OUYA, yet, but they could be. With some “killer apps” like that, OUYA could even give set-top boxes like Roku some competition. As I said in my preview blog, I like the opportunity to play mobile games without having to buy a $499 smart phone or signing up for a 2 year contract. It’s a TV console, and I like that. The games will be small and therefore cheap, and maybe they’ll start out as mobile-phone quality games, but the quality will improve as more developers get used to the hardware. That alone is a benefit compared to trying to program for the diverse mobile market, as the OUYA has a set hardware configuration, like a console. Stay tuned for more news and reviews about the OUYA!
The OUYA is available for pre-order at OUYA’s website for $99, additional controllers are $49, with an expected release date of June 25th.