Along with the Wii U, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, there is another console released this cycle. And far from the DRM drama and closed architecture of the mainstream systems, this one is $99 and designed to be fully hackable.
It is called the Ouya, and it is an ambitious little Android-based machine that struggles to live up to expectations.
It began as a Kickstarter project, crowdsourcing funding for the console in exchange for early supporter consoles for donors when the project was completed. They raised close to $10 million that way. Their pitch: a cheap open-source console where all the games are cheap or free, and hackers and game developers have full reign.
The hype has been high for the last year, as have expectations. This guy is convinced that Ouya is going to raise a new generation of super-hacker kids who will change the world. Ouya CEO Julie Urhman stated that the console is "definitely disrupting the console market" with its business model. The company adopted the Wikipedia page for "disruptive innovation" as their own in their marketing efforts.
The promise is there. Making a game console that allows anyone to create games and that features such an open market for indie developers, sounds like a great thing for innovation. Isn't it that entrepreneurial spirit that made America great?
Still, you need a consumer support for any disruption to be possible; and, when you're a new console, you need a highly functional product with a great games catalogue in order to gain widespread consumer support.
Unfortunately, according to the online review consensus, Ouya fails to live up to expectations on either of those fronts. First, the early supporter copies of the console had lag issues, and they weren't entirely ironed out before retail launch. The entire system has an unpolished, unfinished feel to it. The controllers handle like cheap toys, and break in days. And, most damningly, the game library of tiny underdeveloped indie titles can't even compete with an iPad.
Indie developers have made some great stuff in the past, but I'm sorry, the vast majority of their games are worthless. That is why game design is a professional field, full of professional studios with lots of experience and funding. It is very difficult. I'll prove it. Take out your smartphone, go to the game marketplace, and start counting. How many great gems like Angry Birds or Flow Free do you see, compared to how many off-brand, cheap-looking garbage-ware titles? According to the reviews I've read, there are only a few exceptions to this rule on the Ouya so far.
So while the Ouya sold out quickly online (perhaps due to a relatively minuscule budget with which to actually manufacture consoles), that is mostly from buzz over the last year. As soon as word of mouth takes effect, the hopes and dreams of those that wanted Ouya to be a revolution that will change our world will be crushed.
While I am sure that the next generation of kids is going to think differently about the world, and that game design is a great way to think about fixing the world's problems, Ouya isn't going to be a part of it. My hope is that its lofty ambitions will inspire someone else to take their business model and run with it, someone else with more funding and better execution.