OUYA and the Rise of the Once-a-Year Game Console

What if instead of paying $400-$500 for whatever new tricked-out game box comes along every six or seven years, you could pay just $99 once a year for a scrappy, customizable, upgrade-minded game system?

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What if instead of paying $400-$500 for whatever new tricked-out game box comes along every six or seven years, you could pay just $99 once a year for a scrappy, customizable, upgrade-minded game system? What if instead of paying $60 or more for a game, you could pay just a few bucks, or flat-out nothing?

This is the smartphone/tablet-like future OUYA CEO Julie Uhrman apparently envisions for her nearly-here, Android-based game console, a sort of gray-on-black cube that fits in the palm of your hand and owes its existence to some $8.5 million and change raised last August via Kickstarter — roughly eight times what the campaign had lobbied for (and the second-highest funded Kickstarter project in the site’s history). Despite legions of naysayers (because hey, The Phantom), it looks like it’s really going to happen: Kickstarter supporters take receipt of the system in March, followed by the rest of the world sometime this summer.

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In a speech at the D.I.C.E. summit currently underway in Las Vegas, Uhrman trotted out a couple of modestly interesting new OUYA partnerships: one with Double Fine studios (The Cave), another with Paul Bettner (Words with Friends). My colleague Jared Newman thought well enough of The Cave, and who hasn’t heard of Zynga phenom Words with Friends? (Even if it is four years old.) OUYA needs all the help it can get at this point, especially since none of the native games announced so far rise to the headline-grabbing, everyone-wants-a-copy level of, say, a new Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. I don’t care as much about that stuff these days, and you may not care, but then we’re not the flood of cash propping up the games industry revenue engine.

In any event, OUYA’s more intriguing news actually came a bit later, when, speaking to Engadget, Uhrman compared her company’s strategy to what’s been happening in mobile (smartphones, tablets) over the past several years, laying out a long-term trajectory for her little-console-that-could:

There will be a new OUYA every year. There will be an OUYA 2 and an OUYA 3 … We’ll take advantage of faster, better processors, take advantage of prices falling. So if we can get more than 8GB of Flash in our box, we will.

I would have assumed OUYA wouldn’t stop at OUYA (equally assuming that it’s successful enough to warrant sequels). But once a year? Isn’t that kind of pushing it?

Not when you look at it as the first serious, ready-for-market attempt at creating a sort of mobile/family room amalgam — the answer to the question “Why can’t I play iOS or Android marketplace games on my TV with a gamepad?”

Check out Bettner’s OUYA blurb from the press release:

OUYA and Verse [Bettner’s studio] are nothing less than The Return Of Console Gaming. The last big wave was mobile … Words With Friends is the most played game across all mobile platforms (and the With Friends franchise dominates 5 of the top 25 spots of all mobile games played today.). And yet I believe we’re about to see another disruption even bigger than this last. Gamers want the App Store in their living room. OUYA will be the first to deliver it, and it’s going to change everything. Again.

The first part of Bettner’s statement sounds conventionally breathless: You have to leave to return, and anyone who thinks console gaming’s out to lunch after years of record-breaking sales (and high recent figures, still, in view of what’s been happening economically) is just being foolish. But yes, I think Bettner’s exactly right when he says gamers (and why stop there?) want the App Store in their living rooms. That an unexpected upstart like OUYA looks to beat Apple to the punch is kind of astonishing.

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Unless Cupertino has something truly dazzling in the offing — this fabled “code-cracking” Apple TV set we keep hearing about or maybe something else altogether — a system like OUYA could, given sufficient time, do serious damage to Apple’s living room strategy. And I don’t just mean in the living room: If OUYA takes off and this notion of inexpensive, once-a-year upgrades takes hold around our entertainment centers, consider its potential to ripple back through the Android-verse and increase the attractiveness of Google‘s rival platform in mobile form as gamers look for ways to bridge or extend their TV-centric play experience.

Of course while there’s some overlap, phone and tablet games aren’t console games. You can’t play a gamepad-driven shooter like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 on a flat, haptically simplistic tablet (nor should we expect to — it’s an interface thing). I’m also not sure how enthused I’ll be about playing games like Temple Run 2 or Angry Birds: Star Wars on my big-screen if they eventually show up in OUYA’s wilds. Sure, you might sell a bunch of these things on the basis of those kinds of games to a mostly curious, casual-angled crowd up front, but if you want to sustain interest — especially annual interest — you’re going to have to appeal more to the enthusiast class. They’re going to be your dependable repeat buyers and unpaid proselytizers when it comes to generating elusive, sales-spurring social cachet, after all.

And this notion of a once-a-year game console is far from foolproof: Part of Apple’s success in the mobile space, specifically with the iPhone, has been this idea that you need a phone, and oh-by-the-way, it’s a GPS/email/weather/camera/scheduling center times hundreds of thousands of instantly downloadable ultra-cheap or flat-out free apps, too. The iPad might have been a success in its own right had it preempted the iPhone, but the iPhone was indispensable toward popularizing the idea of iOS. OUYA has the Android-verse, but that’s a different animal (or entire zoo of animals) than Apple’s dependably consistent mobile operating system.

That, and tablets are only fractionally game machines, more liable to supplant a PC outright for many buyers these days — buyers who might fiddle with a game like Words with Friends once in a blue moon. OUYA’s going to be more than a game machine, it’s true, with the option to stream music or watch videos, but it’s still stuck in your living room. It’s not a GPS/email/weather/camera/scheduling center. It’s not a phone. It’s missing the sort of popular video and music playback services you’ll find on Apple’s hockey-puck-style TV box or your garden variety Roku.

I’d love for something like OUYA to succeed; it’s arguably an indie game developer’s dream come true. I don’t really care if it’s called OUYA or Project Shield or Gamestick or something-yet-to-be-revealed, either. What these devices stand to do for content creators alone in terms of a truly open development environment could revolutionize the games industry…or it could open the floodgates for a deluge of tedious shovelware, which — let’s be honest — is mostly what we’re talking about when Apple trots out those headline-grabbing crazy-big App Store figures.

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