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Jim Ying of 6waves explores OUYA: What’s its potential?

October 3, 2012 — by Mike Griffin

Jim Ying is SVP of Publishing at independent developer 6waves. Prior to this, he spent five years at Microsoft as manager in the Xbox division, working on major franchises such as Halo and Age of Empires. Like so many of us, Jim has been carefully monitoring the progress of the forthcoming Ouya console, and his considerable experience in both console and mobile development provides a wide spectrum analysis of the potential challenges in store for the device and its digital services.


Gamesauce: Considering your current position at 6waves and an extensive console background in the Xbox business, you must have a pretty informed perspective on the Ouya. What’s the first question that popped into your head when you saw the Kickstarter console?

Jim: My first question back then was: are they really going to be able to get it out there for $99 bucks?

GS: You know all about the console ecosystem and how tough it can be to introduce new business models.

I saw plenty of models in my past when I worked in the Xbox division at Microsoft for five years, specifically on big first-party titles. I managed games like the Halo and Age of Empires franchises, and was project lead on partner games like Shadowrun and Too Human. So I’ve assembled quite a bit of console experience to compare this to.

GS: Do you think the Ouya needs to look to current consoles, in terms of following an established service model?

I think there are challenges unique to the console space, regardless of console. For the manufacturer, you start by selling the box at a loss, and you make that up through royalties on the games. The idea that the Ouya people will charge $99 for the device, and then take a 30% portion of the games to generate revenue, I kind of understand the choices there.

GS: The public seems to have a handle on the model, if you look at the tens of thousands of folks that have plunked down their cash for a console at launch.

I think generally, among gamers and fanboys, the Ouya has become this compilation of potential. Like, “Wow, it’s ninety-nine dollars. It’s Android, it’s Tegra 3, it looks great …” etcetera. Granted, things like the dual stick controller and touchpad do look pretty great – awesome design. And they’re saying the console could end up being about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, which could be pretty amazing.

They’re saying the console could end up being about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, which could be pretty amazing.

GS: That tiny size should make it easy to move around the house, and these days most households have several screens. But is there room for this console in the market?

My overall impression is still a bit skeptical, but as a player always looking for new experiences, I’d love to see this device happen. Right now, the console space is still fairly exclusionary, which is why to some extent guys like Apple have been able to snag such interest and market share. Anyone can jump right in; there’s some curation and preparation, but you don’t need to go through a rigorous process to get games on there. On the other hand, you have Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo still holding the keys in terms of which games get through to their devices and which don’t.

GS: Not to mention, strict checklists and compliance rules, and all that fun stuff we associate with developing in the console space. Presumably with Ouya, a lot of that baggage is going to disappear.

We’d love to see that happen. The reality is that it comes down to execution: can they get the box made with solid, stable hardware? Can they get a broad enough audience to sign on, and can they curate the games wisely? Even if you look at Apple right now: Hundreds of people are building content for them, but the discovery rate still remains a huge problem.

A lot of people have started to spend a lot of money on user acquisition, instead of relying on all sorts of unproven vendors that are often a little sketchy. So the right developers could jump on Ouya and start pumping out high quality titles, but the question remains: how easy will it be to actually find that content?

A lot of people have started to spend a lot of money on user acquisition, instead of relying on all sorts of unproven vendors that are often a little sketchy.

GS: There’s also a concern that you might see a glut of low-end Android titles rapidly ported to Ouya, as many developers won’t be in a position to risk funding an exclusive title, or dedicating meaningful resources to an Ouya version.

Agreed, we’ll probably see that, and we’ll probably see a lot of high end phone and tablet games coming over. I know there’s one or two studios committed to exclusive launch titles optimized for Ouya. I’d love to see more of that happen, because it’s really going to need those unique designs that show what the console is all about.

GS: We probably won’t see more than a handful of games on Ouya at first that actually exploit the console. When do you foresee developers putting serious effort into Ouya games, versus, say, simply porting high end iPad and tablet titles?

You could look at it this way: When the Xbox 360 and PS3 came along, the PS3, at least functionally and technically, did have higher capabilities. Other than the first-party side, nobody really exploited that at first because most developers wanted a game that played on both platforms. So if I’m a developer investing my time and money into an exclusive console game, even if it’s a high end game, and the Ouya becomes a viable platform, I’m still going to be looking into the lowest common denominator – the mass market Android player – early on. Some teams won’t have a choice.

GS: That’s a pretty sensible response, but I’ve been asking people: choosing a low risk title, maybe an existing phone or tablet project, and slapping on some gamepad support and 1080p resolution – doesn’t this compromise the purity of making an Ouya game?

It’s where we run into the chicken and egg problem. Imagine if they were launching a brand new console? The barrier would be even greater. At least now, this is for a well known platform in Android. But if I were developing for it, unless I had ridiculous amounts of money or maybe big co-funding from the Ouya backers, I simply can’t bet my studio’s fortunes on an exclusive for an unproven console.

But if I were developing for it, unless I had ridiculous amounts of money or maybe big co-funding from the Ouya backers, I simply can’t bet my studio’s fortunes on an exclusive for an unproven console.

GS: With the potential for so many slipshod conversions of phone and tablet games to Ouya, could “bad ports” become an early stigma associated with the console?

I think the reality is we’re going to see plenty of games early on, and the majority of the ones that succeed will probably be regular Android games. If the console is successful, suddenly a lot of people, and maybe those same established Android developers, will look to really harness the Ouya. On the other hand, if we aren’t seeing a meaningful amount of new, unique content for it near the beginning, right away that’s going to get consumers asking, “Why do I need this in the first place?”

GS: The fact that it will stream Netflix is a nice bonus, but services like OnLive could make a difference. For a gamer, having a bunch of casual and core Android titles is great, but being able to play high end PC games could be the cherry on top. 

I think the whole OnLive element brings up a bigger question: if OnLive-type services become really successful and more widespread, do you even need a dedicated console with its own software? In theory, OnLive can provide game content that is far more advanced than what the Ouya can offer – or at this stage, more advanced than the current consoles.

So the people interested in that kind of feature are the hardcore gamers, guys that aren’t satisfied by smaller phone-style games. If they have that experience to compare to on Ouya, the console’s native games might not get as much play.

In theory, OnLive can provide game content that is far more advanced than what the Ouya can offer – or at this stage, more advanced than the current consoles.

GS: Most OnLive users tend to be players who don’t have the computer spec required to play the latest, most sophisticated titles. There’s already that built-in expectation, so I don’t think having OnLive on Ouya will result in a direct comparison to the console’s own capabilities. Not to mention, the PC developers…

…They’re still making money when you stream their game on Ouya.

GS: Right, so it’s not exactly cannibalizing the console’s native games market.

That brings up another question: selling the actual Android console. With current consoles, your goal is to have a major presence in big box stores like Best Buy, and with that you understand you can handle a margin of loss because you know the stores will be stocked with software as well. So you’re making money back right away. Whereas the Ouya, they don’t have all those games to sell with the box and offset the hardware costs.

GS: Right, but unlike a new Xbox or PlayStation, where they’re swallowing huge initial losses on cutting edge hardware, this Android box could drop real fast in terms of manufacturing costs. Heck, it’s dropping as we speak.

Just like the current generation. You can pick up an Xbox 360 today for $99 with an Xbox Live contract, but it’s taken years for us to get here. Even with mainstream parts, realistically it’s going to be another year, year-and-a-half before the Ouya people have their manufacturing situation streamlined and cost-effective.

GS: To your point about software sales at retail: the Ouya will be the first home game console in thirty-plus years that doesn’t use physical media to ship games. No discs, no flash media; it’s just pure download. Could bandwidth for the storefront and services end up becoming a cost issue?

Right now, that figures more into internet service providers and less into actual connected users, numbers of megabytes, or simultaneous downloads. But we’re seeing a major shift there on the mobile side, with proprietary markets, streaming, cloud sharing and storage. If that becomes a dominant model on Ouya, then we may begin to see more costs filtering down to the consumer, and that may be a tough sell.

GS: It needs to be wrapped-up in a high quality user experience, where the service itself is top notch. It’s likely going to be more streamlined than buying digital goods on current consoles. Even the console itself apparently boots up lightning fast.

There’s a lot of cool potential there, like the fact that Ouya is going to be in an Android ecosystem where instant in-app purchases are the norm – unlike the current consoles in this area, where it surprises me how slow they still are in many ways.

GS: Could the Ouya become a champion of smaller, casual, shorter-session games in the living room? Maybe something that appeals to Mom and Dad for quick plays on the big screen?

Just knowing that I would have to come back to my living room to continue a casual game would immediately make it less casual.

In theory, sure it could. I think the wave that they’re maybe fighting against is the rapid adoption of the smartphone, iPad and tablet as gaming platforms. Granted, it’s really nice to play games in the living room on the big screen, but for most casual games you really don’t need that big screen to play. And if I had to trade-off between playing casual games in my living room versus carrying the game wherever I want to go, I would choose portability.        

GS: Do you see a trend happening where developers create shorter-session game experiences on Ouya, but they include some form of extended gameplay for mobile devices that people can take with them?

The reason why most casual gamers are more comfortable with their smartphones, to some degree, is the interface.

Overall, for those casual players and games, I have to wonder if the controller will be the right device. The reason why most casual gamers are more comfortable with their smartphones, to some degree, is the interface. Especially for folks that don’t have the deep console background to draw from.

GS: The kind of players, when you put an analog stick controller in their hands, they start waving it around to move their character – even when there’s no motion-based gameplay involved?

[Laughs] Yeah, like: “This is too much! How do I move? What button should I press? Oh forget it, it’s too intimidating. I don’t even want to play now.”

GS: I suppose good developers will find ways to use the controller’s front touchpad. You could figure out some pretty accessible control schemes for casual games that use the touchpad and – let’s say – just a single analog stick, or a couple of buttons.

But I think at the end of the day, instead of fitting into that, what they’re going for with this console is the console demographic and the console business. And despite what the doomsayers talk about, I think there’s always going to be a place for consoles and dedicated console gameplay. There’s always going to be hardcore fans and players who want the latest and cutting edge, in terms of graphics, story, and immersive play.

GS: Do you think it’s that type of player that will speak up and say, “Hey, why should I buy this when I can pick up an Xbox 360 for $99 plus contract, and it’s actually X amount more powerful than the Ouya?”

Right, if the game quality is still that much better on a dedicated console than it is on this, people are probably going to go for the dedicated console option – especially as the price range tips over.

GS: That brings us back to the software scenario. Some people are simply burnt-out on spending big bucks for premium games on traditional consoles. They might be genuinely excited about having another way to get their games.

I agree, and if anything, the Ouya serves as a forcing function: to force Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to get their shit together and do the things that people are clamoring for. Clearly people want in-app purchases and a variety of digitally downloaded games at varying price points.

Obviously we’re moving in that direction, with more free and upgradeable games on Xbox and other console app stores, but it’s only a matter of time before they figure out: look at social, look at mobile, look what’s going on in Asia – all the stuff happening there. You can make a lot of money with in-app purchases, and yet still price your games sensibly.

If anything, the Ouya serves as a forcing function: to force Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to get their shit together and do the things that people are clamoring for.

GS: So if you were working with Ouya developers, you’d be encouraging Freemium across the board?

Oh, definitely. From what I’ve heard, all the games are going to be, at minimum, free to try, or with significant free gameplay. There are so many smart ways to do that without compromising your game.

GS: There’s also open pricing on Ouya. Let’s say studios start doing larger, more premium experiences. It’s console, so people are used to paying fifty dollars for a major game. What becomes the high price point for those premium games on Ouya?

Well, the nice thing about cutting out the physical retailer is that they can also cut out that margin completely. So a totally AAA game could potentially get away with being $30 on Ouya. I think the idea of opening up to in-app purchases could make a huge difference there. By the time it comes out, once some developers are actually building larger games for it, the console’s marketplace will begin to carve out those prices and settle into a model.

GS: A lot of mobile guys have told me that they think the Ouya’s controller has the potential to be a big seller as a general purpose Android gaming accessory. With Google pushing controller-based gaming now, and the controller’s slick design and approachable price, why not?

Yeah, why not? If you’re going to spend that much effort on the design and making a beautiful controller that works well, and if I’m going to use the controller for some of my favorite Android games, then yeah, I’d definitely go ahead and pick one up.

GS: But how convenient is it, spatially speaking, to prop up your tablet and find a way to comfortably play a game with a controller?

Granted, it would be kind of strange to be playing a tablet or phone game using a controller. In that case, I’d probably just boot up the Xbox 360 or PS3 instead.

GS: Or you might just go ahead and connect your tablet or phone to the TV via HDMI, and off you go. Where’s the Ouya in that equation?

That makes me think of the Phantom console. At first it was meant to be this whole set top box thing, and then bit by bit it was reduced, until all of a sudden it was just narrowed down to this keyboard accessory.

GS: Hopefully a year from now the Ouya console hasn’t been reduced to the Ouya controller. Realistically, I think the Ouya has more going for it than the Phantom ever did – not to mention great timing.

It has multiple elements going for it.

The fact that it’s a new digital-only console and they embrace in-app purchases already opens the doors for new possibilities.

The big question about Kickstarter campaigns is that they tend to build a ton of excitement early on, but the actual follow-through hasn’t performed. There are no guarantees. You’re often asking, “OK, what happened to all this money?”

Eight million dollars is a lot of money, and while it seems to be going forward, if they’re not able to produce the console for whatever reason, it’s going to raise a lot of questions about Kickstarter.

GS: I guess they’re legitimized by high-profile early backers and board members, but even the Phantom had some of that. Big name investment is no guarantee.

Yeah, just look at 38 Studios. A lot of big money there, and unfortunately we see what can happen.

GS: This type of venture is all about early adopters and pre-sales. Do you see yourself as one of the early guys taking an Ouya home as soon as it’s available?

Me, personally? Yeah. It’s because of my background in console, and I’m also interested in in-app purchase games and where that’s taking us. Also, I’m just a fan of interesting gadgets like this. My bigger question, though: The current audience that’s interested in console, will they be on board?

GS: Regardless, is it going to come too late? I think if something like this, a very cheap new game console and media streaming box, was available right now –

— If it was out right now, I’d probably buy it in a second. I’m not sure it’s going to be too late, though. Right now there are a lot of transitions and trends happening that could help push its adoption. We’re pushing the adoption of smartphones and tablets for gaming, shifting away from a sharp console focus with the traditional hardware vendors.

I think a lot of the Ouya’s functionality, by the time it comes out, will have been adopted by a lot of other mediums – whether it’s new Smart TVs, OnLive, or progressive digital sales on console. So people are currently being exposed to the kind of trends that Ouya is pushing, which absolutely benefits them.

People are currently being exposed to the kind of trends that Ouya is pushing, which absolutely benefits them.

GS: It’s interesting because it gives developers time to work on an Android game for a designated spec. You look at the fragmentation on Android today, and it’s difficult to tell what device can run a particular title. The Ouya is sort of like a unified Android spec in a sea of fragmentation.

That’s very true. As a player, it could be interesting to experience the full range of Android games out there, but also have those games that were built primarily to exploit the console.

GS: Plus, how many of us own multiple consoles? A lot of people. An inexpensive Android console might find a place by the TV alongside your “main” game console.

But is it ever going to replace my full console experience? Like, I’m probably going to want to play Call of Duty and Halo on whatever the latest platform is. Not just because I’m a gamer, but because it’s going to provide the superior overall experience for those types of games.

GS: Something that seems to be trending in consoles is the second screen device. It’s obviously a key feature for the Wii U, Sony’s been poking around with it on portables, and Microsoft has the Glass technology. Do you see any pressure to mimic such features on Ouya?

Potentially, I could see maybe a handful of games being able to really, truly take advantage of that. Fundamentally, I wouldn’t be playing a console game just because it has two screens going. It’s one of those things, at the end of the day, it adds to the experience, but it doesn’t crucially alter it. Not yet.

Compared to – let’s say – motion control like Kinect: that can fundamentally change the experience and expand the console’s demographic of players. I think the kind of people that would be nerding-out on a second screen – “Wow, I’m pressing buttons on my phone and it’s doing stuff on the other screen, but I’m still using my controller, cool!” – are still the same demographic happy to play with a controller.

GS: Let’s suppose the Ouya really explodes, and one of the major firms in the industry looks to acquire it. Who do you think would be an ideal suitor for the Ouya?

That’s funny, I was talking about this with some folks recently. We were thinking Google and Amazon.

GS: My first pick was Google as well. How about Nvidia? It might be surprising, but the console could be a vessel for them to propagate the Tegra 3 chipset – or possibly Tegra 4 – into the TV console market.

That might be a cool idea, and probably great on a tech level, but from my experience it seems Nvidia is more about driving their technology, whether it’s physical tech or engineering, into other devices. If they really needed a more key product to help push the rest of their line-up, then maybe, but the PC essentially serves as that function.

GS: It’s a stretch, but the Ouya would sort of be a way to showcase their mobile chipset on a very inexpensive, download-only game console.

I’m sure there are already plenty of mobile devices being made and largely targeted towards core gamers out there looking for a deeper, richer experience on their phone or tablet. So I think it’s a bit of a reach for Nvidia.

GS: You’re probably right, and Nvidia already gains from the exposure their hardware is receiving without betting the farm on the device. Google is a safer bet, and Amazon seems to be jumping into the gaming space significantly on Kindle. That Amazon model could work just as well on Ouya.

Absolutely; this could represent – similar to Microsoft’s play with the Xbox – a way for Amazon to get into the living room. Amazon has all these media delivery services, whether its books, music, or games, so this type of device could only benefit them. I think everyone agrees at this point that the strategy Microsoft took with the Xbox, especially with Live and getting so many people to subscribe, it’s been very effective for them. It’s especially true now, with being able to have all these channels and streaming services on the TV. So if that’s a strategy that Google and Amazon are aiming for…

GS: And if they don’t want to start from scratch –

— Right, here’s a real opportunity for them to do something. Especially if they have an OnLive-type service rolled up into the product, here’s an opportunity to play the latest and greatest PC and console games, plus all of Amazon’s other services, with a sophisticated in-app purchase system.

GS: It may be pretty compelling for families: a simple little box with high-definition capabilities and large quantities of media available for every person in the household, plus games you can’t get elsewhere.

If nothing else, I think it could push the big console players to act faster and do what people are asking for.

If nothing else, I think it could push the big console players to act faster and do what people are asking for. Things like comprehensive in-app purchases, opening up the console demographic and environment so there’s not so many hoops to jump through, tweaking and re-balancing the way revenue shares work, and taking a fundamentally different approach to developer relations.

GS: For the old school gamers, you hear a lot of excitement about emulation on Ouya. Besides all the other content, the idea that people could run retro console emulators on an open console is pretty compelling.

The first time I heard that, it started to make sense pretty fast. You know there are companies in China that sell these all-in-one boxes equipped with emulators and games? Apparently there’s a big fan base, globally, that wants that.

GS: If you look at how well retro re-releases do on iOS and Android, it makes sense. People seem to accept playing smaller, retro-style games on their phones and tablets, even when elements like the control scheme are inferior to a console experience.

Often on phones and tablets, the reason why people are willing to accept a lower quality bar is because they assume, hey, I’m not playing a full-on console so I need to make compromises when I’m on the go. But if there’s an option to play sitting in front of my TV in high-fidelity on an Xbox 720, is that acceptance for compromise still going to be there?

GS: I think expectations scale with the games. If you’re expecting a smaller, simpler experience, you aren’t necessarily shopping for the next Gears of War, and nothing less.

True – but again, there’s nothing stopping a Microsoft or Sony from also opening that up on a larger scale, with larger collections of smaller, free games and expanded services.

GS: The idea of a low-cost HD console with cheap downloadable games might be well-suited to regions of the world that lag behind more industrialized nations. Look at South America: up to a few years ago, the PS2 was still considered a leading console.

If bandwidth is an issue in the US for a download-only console, it might be even tougher for that model to work in developing nations with limited broadband reach and speeds. At this point in a lot of the developing world, mobile penetration is now increasing at a faster rate than PC or console penetration – and so is the support. So a lot of games that here, in North America, may still be aimed at PCs, you find they’re actually being targeted to mobile now in those other nations.

GS: It’s certainly moving with mobile infrastructure. Look at India: they recently jumped from basically 2G speeds to 4G speeds overnight in several urban sectors, and it’s spreading quickly. Other rising nations are in the process of similar, country-wide mobile infrastructure upgrades.

For the regions that don’t necessarily have the experience of moving through several cycles and generations of consoles, and their first experience with something resembling a core game experience is on mobile, it’s going to be difficult for them to go back, or to the side. Especially as they become accustomed to gaming on those widespread devices and services.

GS: I suppose in that regard, the mobile gaming experience – stuff like smaller downloads, in-app purchases – may help to groom those users for similar features on new consoles.

Yeah, but it’s mainly the console guys that are tracking the Ouya at this point. The reason it isn’t on the mobile radar just yet? It’s probably because so many people are moving with this shift to social and mobile gaming.

People are stepping out of the console world, not because they think that market is going to disappear, but because it’s definitely going to get smaller.

As the mobile devices get more sophisticated and gaming experiences get more complex, the subset of people looking elsewhere for a more core gaming experience is dwindling.

GS: I’ll bring up the hobbyist argument there: when somebody takes an interest in a hobby or past-time, you’ll always find a subset of people for whom casual interaction eventually isn’t enough. It’s the graduation effect. When people recognize that their hobby provides richer, more complex options, a portion of those users will seek a way to graduate to a deeper experience.

That’s an interesting one that everybody likes to talk about. So let’s look at Zynga games: say you’re starting out with something like Farmville, and you move to Cityville, then you work your way into Empires & Allies. There’s an increase there in gaming complexity, a path you can measure. You could envision eventually graduating to a StarCraft complexity, let’s say. Now take your typical mid-West mom. She’s playing Farmville and Cityville, maybe she’s trying out Empires & Allies. Do you think that interest level is ever going to leap to something like a StarCraft? There’s a hurdle there.

GS: I’m thinking about the massive wave of younger users that make up the majority of casual game players right now. Users in their teens and twenties are more likely to seek greater complexity or challenges, and are more interested in developing their skills. 

But that’s kind of assuming that right now the younger generation in their teens and twenties all play games. Right now there are young people who just don’t play games. Granted, it’s pretty tough to find people in that age group that didn’t grow up playing video games in some capacity, like with an Xbox or PlayStation in the house.

But I think in this case it’s more about the older generation of gamers, the folks who grew up with Atari, the ones who have been through that whole spectrum of increased interest. I think the people in our generation that were raised on that, we’ll probably still be playing hardcore console games when we’re 60 or 70.

GS: You’re right. It’s kind of what we love playing, and we can’t necessarily go backwards.

And there’s this huge potential audience out there that didn’t grow up with games like we did.

GS: Think about walking into a store back then: we had very little knowledge of the consoles, but a fondness for the idea of playing video games. We didn’t obsess over specs; it was often games in their simplest form that attracted us. Isn’t that analogous to the current situation – not for the mid-West mom, but an influx of younger players?

Potentially, yes, but if they’ve moved on to graduate to the next step, they’re likely to choose the dedicated console out there. The devices made for those types of more advanced experiences. At the end of the day, if you look at the Ouya and its capabilities, a lot of it is really catering to the existing hardcore fanboys and gamers who are maybe looking for another community or a new, different library.

GS: Certainly if you look at the Ouya demos, you see a dashboard loaded with stuff like Minecraft, Madden, Torchlight 2, shooters. Obviously the initial pitch is a shout-out to hardcore gamers.

But if you think about it from the perspective of a more hardcore, mass-market gamer, are they going to want to deal with things like constant downloads? If there’s the alternative to use an easier-to-play console, something you can optionally just drop a game into, it might be a preferred choice.

GS: That loops back into the concept of owning multiple consoles. It may be more prevalent than any other generation: today you find so many gamers that own both a PS3 and Xbox 360, or more likely a Wii and one of the HD consoles.

That’s a credit to the consoles themselves this generation, and people seeking fundamentally different experiences offered by each console. Someone with a PS3 and 360, usually it’s because they want the killer exclusive or a type of gameplay unique to the console. Someone with a Wii and an Xbox, it’s because they wanted to experience the Wii’s unique type of content.

Whereas with the Ouya, what’s going to be the fundamental differentiator there, compared to – let’s say – an Xbox 720? Especially when, presuming they get their shit together, the big console guys move into in-app purchases more aggressively and intelligently.

GS: Until the Ouya really establishes those key differentiators, it may have to rely on a low cost of entry and optional services – like getting consumers to buy the box as an extra streaming device for a TV in the house. The games will have to sort themselves out, right?

You need people – users, developers – to ask: does it make sense for this Android game to be played on the TV?

You need people – users, developers – to ask: does it make sense for this Android game to be played on the TV? If anything, the control schemes will have their basis in touch gameplay. The majority of mobile games that I play which use a touch joystick, honestly I’m left feeling that clearly they didn’t think this one through. If developers really spend the time to come up with something that plays properly, naturally, using actual control sticks, it’s going to feel a lot better than those experiences. That’s what it’s going to take.

GS: Right, you don’t want to see a dozen games built for something like a high end tablet, where they’ve tacked-on substandard gamepad support at the end of production, and presto: It’s an Ouya game, but with merely average gameplay.

That’s a good point. The reality of porting over to Ouya is that you’ll have to consider dedicated peripheral support from the start, with a completely different control mechanism from the mobile version.

GS: To be fair, some developers have come up with pretty tight control schemes on phones and tablets for hardcore genres. You can even find shooters with fairly decent interfaces. Ideally, these are the studios that will know how to work with the Ouya’s spec.

But would I want to play that ported game on my big screen TV, when I can play a major Halo or Call of Duty title – games fully optimized for the console space? I’ll play those hardcore games on my phone when I want to check out something on the go, but when it comes to spending ten, fifteen, twenty hours of my time to sit down with an experience, I’m probably looking to my dedicated console.

GS: Maybe what’s needed is the “medium-session” game? No multi-gigabyte, 100-hour beasts, and no mobile-style two minute time-killers, but instead, a happy medium. There’s a fertile middle-ground on console between monolithic Skyrim epics and accessible PopCap-style experiences.

With the quality levels in smaller games today, and you can see where we are right now with XBLA and PSN games, I really think there’s an opportunity on Ouya similar to Xbox Live.

Why can’t the Ouya free up some of those developers and maybe welcome them with more open opportunities?

The advantage of the Ouya spec is that you could potentially see indies and smaller teams making games for both dedicated console digital storefronts and the Ouya.

GS: I think the OnLive element is going to play a role there. It sort of allows the Ouya people to say, look, obviously we’re not Xbox 720 or PS4, but here’s access to the latest AAA masterpiece, and here’s a proper controller to play it. Even basic consumer knowledge tells the average buyer that a $99 console couldn’t possibly be as powerful as the new Xbox or PlayStation.

Yeah, and if it’s able to smoothly stream the latest high end multi-platform releases, it could provide a similar gameplay environment and still satisfy those users.

GS: It’s interesting, as you mentioned earlier, how that plays into the popular notion that all gaming will be done by proxy or via the cloud going forward. Funny how the Ouya loops back into so many hot topics, huh?

I like how it gets us talking about the game industry as a whole. As I said earlier, it has become this big compilation of features and trends that everyone is talking about. Whether Ouya manages to find an audience or goes on to fade away, it’s getting people to talk about stuff that matters.

Whether Ouya manages to find an audience or goes on to fade away, it’s getting people to talk about stuff that matters.

GS: Agreed, and I’d say it’s the most tangible piece of vaporware we’ve seen in a long time. Thanks so much for a great round of observations, Jim.

My pleasure!

 

 

 

Video Coverage

Luis Ongil of GameDuell talks OUYA: Can Android prosper on your TV?

August 30, 2012 — by Mike Griffin

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In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.

Part 3: Luis Ongil – Managing Director, Americas, GameDuell

 What GameDuell does: Driven by over 170 employees and game enthusiasts stationed in Berlin and San Francisco, GameDuell has been figuring out ways to monetize high quality social and casual games since 2003. With games released globally in seven languages and over 12 million user plays each month, GameDuell offers its own in-house development in addition to harnessing over 200 distribution partners across its network.

Why OUYA could matter to GameDuell: The Android console’s M.O. seems well-aligned with GameDuell’s own development efforts, as the firm continues to assemble a powerful network of developers, targeting key markets of growth – as evidenced by the company’s current push into Amazon’s Android gaming expansion to Kindle Fire.

GameDuell excels at helping developers optimize for different devices and specs, getting games prepared to publish on major digital marketplaces, and accelerating their adoption and monetization. As they asses all new potentially viable platforms, GameDuell is keeping a careful eye on Ouya’s progress.


Gamesauce: What advantages do you see in an Android home console that offers a single hardware spec for developers, versus what’s typically offered on smartphones and tablets?

Luis: Well, there are many smartphone players that just aren’t pushing the devices to the level that they should be, or want to. Same goes for developers. A lot of users are comfortable with having a device they can bring home, then pass it over to the kids, let them have some fun – and that’s almost the extent of their relationship with games on the device.

GS: The Ouya could become a simple device you could let the kids play. It’s around the size of a Rubik’s Cube, and comes with a familiar twin stick controller that has a touchpad.

Right, so it’s a device that can probably be understood and used by a lot of people in the house. That’s a smart design.

GS: It should encourage a wide range of play preferences, but when you check out the Ouya promos, you see stuff like shooters, racing games, Madden, Minecraft, etcetera – pretty much all core-type games. Is it wise to focus on the expected core titles, when it’s also ripe for casual opportunities?

Right away you know it’s going to be a good match for core games, and that’s good. We play casual games very easily on the phones we own, and the target player has a need and desire to play those games, since he has a phone he already knows how to use. When you have a specific device to play certain types of games, introducing the other end of the spectrum may not be so easy.

Could I see people playing casual games on this Android console? Sure. If it’s there, part of your entertainment center, I can see mom coming in to play a quick game, or a father and son playing a game together. But you need to establish if you’re making a game for a phone, or this device.

GS: Right, you have important details like a twin stick analog controller to consider…

Exactly, so you test your games with gamepad support, you tweak the gameplay. You make sure the game is highly adapted for the household if it’s going to this device. Of course it’s very tough to devote those resources when the device hasn’t become large enough to be a focal point yet. It’s like the Kindle Fire wasn’t originally a focal point for game developers, and now it’s suddenly starting to be a great place for games.

GS: The Kindle Fire is a good example, actually, in terms of it being a unifying force in the Android environment – a target spec. Would you agree that one of the issues with Android game development tends to be fragmentation across varying device specs?

Absolutely – when it’s one device and one spec, it takes a lot of pressure off the team on different levels. One of the biggest advantages for us, using Kindle as an example, is the payment system. As developers, we can do the same experience that we do on iOS with payments, and it’s a great system for users, for payment security, and so forth.

Absolutely – when it’s one device and one spec, it takes a lot of pressure off the team on different levels.

GS: So you guys are actually starting to back a specific Android experience like the Fire.

We’re right in the process of Kindle Fire implementation and developing games for it, truly optimizing for Kindle Fire. We want to start moving more heavily into Android, and this is the platform with a fantastic payment scenario. So a lot of our QA and bug testing is going to focus purely on that device. The users of that device are precisely the target for casual games, so it makes a lot of sense.

GS: From your perspective, then, this is becoming your unified development environment for Android. And obviously a lot of other people are hopping onto the Kindle Fire platform. Can the Ouya assemble its own circle of dedicated third-party studios?

Certainly, if the Ouya reaches a very wide level of distribution, it will quickly become a platform that makes sense.

GS: The Kindle Fire is a good environment to facilitate in-app buys. The experience is designed to gravitate towards store purchases, whether books, media or games. It’s a little different for a very games-focused device. Do you think today’s console gamers are prepared to buy all their games digitally, thanks to XBLA and PSN?

Absolutely, since they’re already doing it. Not just there, but everywhere else too. It’s across all entertainment now, like digital delivery on TV where you can get a movie with a couple of clicks. People are consuming all range of digital content now and it’s come to the point where they’re really comfortable with it, whether it’s clicking to get a movie or a game.

GS: Excellent point, and we’re seeing more attempts at convergence. Look at the new generation of Smart TVs coming along, loaded with both multimedia and game offerings. When the TV itself becomes the delivery unit, does it make ideas like an Android game console somewhat trivial?

There’s the catch: The experience with Smart TVs won’t be as game-centric as the Ouya. The Ouya considers games its primary focus and business. When you’re doing a complex device designed for all kinds of entertainment and not games primarily, you’re going to see some flaws in the gaming experience. So in that way, I see some opportunity for core games on Ouya to help define what it is.

GS: Core games, at least in today’s AAA console ecosystem, tend to rely more on device specs and pushing technology trends. Many people have suggested the Ouya’s base specs, a Tegra 3 chipset and 1-gig of RAM, will age quickly between now and the proposed spring 2013 release. Do you think it has enough power to last?

Yeah, maybe it’s going to be tight. It’s good technology right now and not fading yet, but it’s going to become a tougher race next year. But remember, the world is a very big place and you have a lot of early adopters, but just as many potential late adopters, for everything.

GS: On a global level, one of the big hooks for Ouya adoption could become price. With a new round of consoles coming in the $300 and higher price range, this $99 alternative could represent an affordable path to HD gaming in the living room.

It’s true, $99 is a good price. What I like about the device is that the games will be cheaper too. So you have access to a cheap device, the games definitely won’t be priced like full console games, so the content and games are now cheap too. I can see low income families finding another choice there. Or any type of household.

GS: Do you think enough mainstream buyers are aware of the Android name, such that it carries extra weight to have an affordable console that runs on the OS?

No, I don’t think that’s really relevant up front. People aren’t familiar enough with it that it would influence the buy.  Maybe later on it becomes a nice bonus.  What I can see is a family finding out the device is cheap and the content is cheap, and deciding to get a console for the house. It might be because I don’t want the kids to use, let’s say, my Kindle Fire, because maybe I travel with it. There, the Ouya is a different game device for them to play.

There’s room for several devices in our lives. We have this mentality that everything will be in the phone, but that’s not true, because the phone goes with you wherever you go. When you have family-centric living room entertainment that is needed, you need a device better suited to that.

We have this mentality that everything will be in the phone, but that’s not true, because the phone goes with you wherever you go.

GS: For game studios, diversifying to multiple platforms and services can be a wise move, so I imagine the Ouya is being cautiously observed by many Android developers across the world.

Well, there’s a lot of hype since it’s trying something new, but I think it’s kind of a no brainer: You have a cheap HD console with a popular OS, and consoles still manage to sell tens of millions across the world every generation. People still want new and different consoles.

GS: Right, and there are parts of the world, developing nations, where people are still playing old consoles and the notion of an expensive HD console is out of reach for a lot of people.

The idea of very expensive new devices, like phones, tablets, consoles – that’s still a very first world idea.  Developing nations, we have a few billion people in the world there, and they’re all going to have access to entertainment on a large scale soon. Can a cheap new console find a niche in that rising market, a device made for gamers by people that know games and demographics? Sure.

GS: Consider the small indie teams all over the world with dreams of developing for console, but nowhere near the resources to pull it off. Ouya could be a gateway to console game development for them.

If you’re ready to develop for console, and prepared to make something more hardcore, for sure. I don’t know about purely casual games, but that depends on who ends up buying the console. It’s certainly a disruption from what console gamers and developers are used to, so maybe that disruption opens the door for different types of console games.

GS: Will the Ouya become a real console development environment, or because of the mobile hardware and OS, the lack of physical game media, does it operate in a mobile development environment?

Mobile and console game development are really the same environment. To me, the Ouya may be a little closer to mobile. The difference between the two is that in console development you finish the product and ship it. Here, you don’t ship it. You put it live, you iterate, and you service it. So you’ll still be developing a console game, but thinking of it more like games as a service, not games as a product. So you can push the content and improve it as you go.

The console game developer will probably love to be able to do games that are cheaper, or free, with in-app purchases. You don’t factor in shipped software. Of course a lot of people are already doing that, and if you’re connected to Xbox Live, you’ve probably experienced it. With Ouya you have to be connected, so I think it’s going to give developers a lot of different ways to distribute their games.

GS: Given that console buyers are accustomed to paying higher prices for games, and have expectations for bigger experiences, do you think Ouya developers can get away with significantly higher pricing than typical mobile titles?

It’s different from both traditional console and mobile, but I don’t foresee any games priced above the $29.99 range. That would be the highest range. People are probably going to compare game prices to what they are on tablet, so a lot of buyers will be expecting up to $9.99 at most, or $14.99 for a very premium game. Remember, you’ll be seeing different price tiers, and that market will have to decide on its prices. It’s up to the developer to create the model, and the developer can choose his upfront fee or in-app purchases to support the game service.

GS: Do you think developers may feel obliged to include add-on features in Ouya games that also work on your mobile device?

Some will be happy to just release and support their [Ouya] game, and others may decide if you purchase the game for console, you get access to extra features you can use on another device. Play it on your console, and then take something with you on the phone.

We’re doing something similar with our new Android games. We’re creating one version with optimizations towards Samsung and Kindle devices, and we have to tweak the game for both. On both devices the experience is beautiful. We have to actually go in and make adjustments to graphics, tweak it for screen sizes, make sure the gameplay is perfectly consistent.

So there would be nothing to stop us, or other developers, from approaching Ouya the same way.

GS: We’re talking mobile, touch-based experiences versus sitting in front of the TV in the living room with a game controller-in-hand. So there’s going to be more involved than mobile-to-mobile adaptations.

Well, you need an adaptive design and flexibility. I remember doing an iOS game for iPhone and iPad, and having to take care of very specific tweaks for each version. It’s going to take some focus to adapt for the console. Sometimes it takes a main team on the game, working with specialized people assigned to making the game excel on other devices, as we do.

GS: Do you see yourself as an early adopter of the Ouya?

No, not me [laughs]. I don’t play enough games. But I see a lot of people giving it a shot. Look at the success of the fundraising, the traction it has there; a lot of the people that have invested in the company are actually consumers with an intention to own the product. That says a lot.

Ultimately, it’s really cheap to be a part of it for a consumer or developer, and in the end you simply can’t know how it’s going to perform – so maybe you want to be onboard now, beta testing, and ready to go if it really starts rolling. I think a lot of the money came after that breaking point – like when it broke about $1 million, suddenly a ton of money and interest starting coming in, and developers said: “Hey, it looks like there’s something here.”

It’s impressive when your potential customers are ready to pay for the device to be built. They’re paying for something that doesn’t exist, but they believe it is cool, and they want it as soon as it’s done. Having that type of installed base is a good start for anyone.

GS: It’s all based on uncertainty, but a lot of people would love to be the focus of this much uncertainty. Cheers for your superb insight, Luis.

 

Video Coverage

Laura Andros of WildTangent discusses OUYA: A new console demographic?

August 29, 2012 — by Mike Griffin

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In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.

Part 2: Laura Andros – Content Integration Specialist, WildTangent

What WildTangent does well: As one of the industry’s venerable digital media service platforms, WildTangent provides a full cross-device gaming service alongside robust advertising and a huge portfolio of third-party titles and developers. Players can engage in premium games at no cost thanks to intelligent brand advertisers, or simply rent games at a minimal fee and have every rental contribute towards ultimately purchasing their game outright.

Thanks to its flexible digital currency, WildCoins, and a vast network of brand partners helping to serve 175 million consumers monthly, WildTangent provides one of the industry’s best value propositions – and with rewards that players actually want.

Why OUYA could matter to WildTangent: Through the company’s ever-expanding Games App, varied in-app purchasing system, and a renewed push into the Android gaming space, a well-positioned portal on the Ouya’s digital marketplace would serve to expand WildTangent’s foothold as a cross-device Android games service. As with many of the biggest players in casual and social games, WildTangent is cautiously monitoring the progress and adoption of the Ouya console before committing to the platform.


Gamesauce: When we got to talking about the Ouya console, right away you mentioned the potential for core games. What’s the immediate advantage there?

Laura: Since core games can be a little tougher to play well, or to their full potential, on a phone or tablet, I think it would be really fun if you could try them there – on the Android console.

GS: The biggest successes on the platform are still in the casual or short session game genres, by a large margin. Do you think there’s a place for casual gaming in the living room on a $99 Android console?

We’re definitely seeing a wider range of games on [Android] now. I think as long as more core games are available for a console, there can be a place for it.

GS: Do you think the success of the Ouya may depend on those core titles?

I actually think it would. The kind of games, personally, that I would want to play – and I think a lot of other people – when the game is connected to my TV and not my phone, is a more core gameplay experience.

GS: Most people agree there’s an issue with hardware fragmentation on Android: What kind of Android device am I making my game for? The Ouya provides a defined target spec for an Android developer to fully harness the hardware.

It’s true, that’s something new for most Android developers.

GS: The console’s twin stick analog controller also has a touchpad on the front face, so making games for Ouya won’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of more casual, phone and tablet gesture-based gameplay. 

No, it certainly doesn’t, but the casual games available on Android are inherently the kind of experience I want to jump into real fast, get a quick burst of fun, and I’m happy with that. If I can actually sit down and dedicate a good deal of time to a game, I’ll be looking for a more complex experience.

If I can actually sit down and dedicate a good deal of time to a game, I’ll be looking for a more complex experience.

GS: That’s something we traditionally associate with home consoles. It’s been a little different this generation: Several surprising success stories for smaller, shorter, more casual games on digital storefronts. In that regard, casual games shouldn’t be out of place on the Ouya.

If you look at the fundraiser, that console is going crazy. There’s clearly something there that people really want. Android fans are definitely interested in all types of games being made for it.

GS: The theme for games on Ouya will be free-to-play and freemium – yet open pricing will be an option. Considering the hardware offers fairly sophisticated performance, the temptation is there to make larger-scale games. Do you foresee a market for games on the console at price tiers like $4.99 and $9.99, or maybe even $19.99?

It really depends on the type of gamer it pulls in, whether it’s the iOS player looking for an affordable way to see what’s on Android, a console gamer comfortable with console prices, or maybe it’s the casual player thinking about moving over to console, and this offers them something new that’s in between both extremes.

GS: It’s already a weaker spec when compared to an Xbox 360 or PS3, although it’s far more powerful than a Wii, and that console managed to move over 90 million units this generation despite being the inferior spec – thanks to novelty and lower pricing. Does the Ouya fit that mold, the unique and affordable alternate console?

It does kind of have that Wii quality to it, where it could do extremely well for those reasons and contrast with other consoles – at least when starting off.

GS: Do you think mainstream buyers will even associate the Android OS with the Ouya console, or will they simply view it as a newly introduced console?

Probably not? I don’t think most average users even consider “Android” when they look at their phone. They just think: That’s my smartphone or mobile device.

GS: There’s already a theme on forums where people ask, “Why bother with an Ouya, when I already have an Android tablet I can connect to my TV?”

Well, remember a lot of people used to say, “Why do I need a tablet when I have a computer?” And we see how that one turned out.

GS: It proved that a ton of people were waiting for an alternative to their computers for simple, day-to-day tasks like browsing and enjoying media. Let’s say Ouya experiences a similar phenomenon, co-existing with PCs and other consoles, and manages to move four or five million units early on. Could you see the console unifying the Android development world?

I hadn’t actually considered that before. It’s totally possible that people will rally around it and start focusing there, on that specific configuration. The lack of upgrades might become an issue, though.

GS: Right; the OS will upgrade, but apart from rooting and gutting the device, which won’t even be a consideration for casual users, the Ouya’s hardware probably won’t age particularly well. That being said, it’s still plenty powerful for a small indie team to work with.

Oh yeah, it might be a great opportunity for them. Teams that maybe really wanted to make a console game, but it’s always been too risky or costly. There are so many Android developers out there right now, from every background. A lot of them are still looking for the perfect platform.

GS: But let’s face it, there’s a lot of garbage and throwaway games on the OS right now.

[Laughs] Yeah, there kind of is. To be fair, that’s how things usually start out when a game platform is young and expanding: There’s a bigger gap between the great games. You’re even going to see a lot of stuff trying to be a game, that doesn’t really qualify as one.

GS: This is the first time a home console won’t be based on physical media like cartridges or discs. Storefronts like XBLA and PSN have been successful, so the concept of monetizing smaller, digitally-distributed games won’t come as a shock to console players, right?

At first, years ago, I thought the concept of in-app purchases and upgrades would be hard to swallow for average users, but it turns out that people are very comfortable with it. I had the same concerns with current consoles, but look at downloadable content on the Xbox now – it does extremely well. We’ve reached a point where the value can make sense and people are really OK with it.

At first, years ago, I thought the concept of in-app purchases and upgrades would be hard to swallow for average users, but it turns out that people are very comfortable with it.

GS: Do you think the Ouya can support every type of gamer in a household? Mom could fire it up and play a few minutes of her favorite casual title before diving into some chores, and her teenage son could take the console into his bedroom for some fun with the latest hardcore action game. Or – brace yourself! – Mom might play a game with her son in the living room.

Again, it might just have that Wii level of mass appeal, where the more affordable console also brings the family together to play it because it offers a wider range of game types and prices.

GS: Playing multiplayer Android games in the living room through a single device is a new concept. Until now, you’d be sitting around with a bunch of different Android phones and tablets, crossing your fingers that the multiplayer is going to work, and that the game is going to run on every device.

It’s true. And if people really want that to work well, the games will have to be built for console-style experiences in the living room, whether it’s single or multiplayer.

GS: Let’s hope developers working on the console carefully consider where and why the Ouya will be played. From WildTangent’s perspective, is the Ouya a platform you’re currently looking into supporting?

It’s not the easiest device to explain to people at first! But as you can probably tell, we’re watching it closely. Right now we’re working hard to build our overall Android games catalogue, which will only benefit Android players going forward, but we’re taking a wait and see attitude before becoming directly involved with Ouya. But who knows, right? I think everyone is waiting for new ideas to come to the console space, and we’re all looking for positive growth on Android.

GS: Thanks for the candid insight, Laura.

 

AudioExclusive InterviewsOnlineVideo Coverage

Carving Out a Career in Casual Game Audio, an Interview with Aaron Walz

August 28, 2012 — by Mike Griffin

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The game industry, much like Hollywood, is a wonderful melting pot of influences, creativity and talent. Just like film, inspiration to embark on a career in games typically finds its origin in a passionate appreciation for the work of veteran talent that came before you. Such is the case for Aaron Walz, co-founder, composer and sound designer at Game Audio Alliance. His work now spans close to 100 games – largely centered on the mobile, social and casual games space.

Getting Started Early

Aaron originally embraced composing game music at the tender age of 10, when he combined structured piano lessons with a love for game melodies: notably the work of classic Japanese game composers on the NES and Gameboy. He would meticulously learn the tunes by ear and teach himself the basics of MIDI sequencing in the years ahead. Although passionate and ever-expanding his skills, it wasn’t until college that Aaron truly seized upon the notion of making a living out of game music composition.

“I started composing as a freelancer for games while in college, around 1997-1998. I had made a website where I posted game tunes that I sequenced in MIDI by ear, as well as my own original game songs, and some indie companies started hiring me for work,” Aaron tells Gamesauce.

It’s all about the contacts and reputation you acquire along the way

Regarding his transition into the casual games space, Aaron essentially moved with the industry as it matured through the years – carving out his own niche in the process.  “Back then there were no Casual Games or Mobile games, so it was PC and Mac retail, or freeware and shareware. I followed the industry as it became Casual, Downloadable, Social, and Mobile. As far as transitioning, it’s all about the contacts and reputation you acquire along the way, and having constant marketing, web and social media presence, or public speaking and interviews.”

Always strive to better yourself

This spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship has clearly been a driving force for Aaron, but he’s also a firm believer in hard work, industry awareness, and mastering the tools of the trade. For sound design and audio engineering students on the cusp of launching a career in the field, Aaron outlines some very specific “self-help” tips and goals for aspiring pros.

“Knowing how to be a recording engineer, reading lots of industry books and articles, playing with new samples all the time, knowing your music theory, performing music – these are all general and vital. All-around computer chops are also a must. Your role as sound designer won’t involve much programming, though, not these days in this space. Of course Protools, and being familiar with Sonar, Cubase, etcetera, helps, and playing lots of games for all sorts of platforms, keeping up on the game charts, owning lots of devices – and knowing them well.”

As Aaron knows all too well, however, a winning personality is just as crucial to success in this industry as the most rigorous of formal education and training. Thanks to his previous work as a Human Resources Director and the associated expertise in leadership training and business law, Aaron is able to evoke a truly collaborative work ethic and company culture when managing relationships at Walz Music & Sound, and most recently at Game Audio Alliance.

Be creative, but stay true to yourself

Aaron values the versatility of an artist and their ability to remain open, fluid, and flexible in all stages of the development process, yet it’s also essential for a budding sound designer or composer to stay true to themselves when seeking employment opportunities in game audio – especially when pushing their own demo reels.

“You should always be yourself. Don’t submit something that isn’t who you are and what you can do. That being said, don’t limit yourself by thinking you can’t learn how to write in other styles as well. Do the work, practice, and produce something different that is quality. If you can’t do that, then don’t put sub-par stuff on your demo. It won’t pay off, and it isn’t representative of your sound.”

Aaron continues: “Keeping that unique sound that is yours is important, and I wouldn’t put anything non-game style on there. As far as foley and sound design, that’s most useful with images, otherwise don’t waste your audio time with much of it unless it is amazing and very much your strong suit. The same applies to voiceover demos.”

The allure of trendy gear

The better you know gear, software and samplers, the more you can pull out of it, and the more quickly you can create work

Historically, aspiring audio pros have never had as much access to affordable sound production software and gear as one can find now. The occasional pitfall of today’s splendid access to sound design tools is that new audio people sometimes surround themselves with stacks of trendy gear and devices without necessarily mastering any one of them. Would a hopeful audio professional be better off dabbling in a wide spectrum of tools, or isolating and mastering just a select handful?

“Both? The better you know gear, software and samplers, the more you can pull out of it, and the more quickly you can create work,” Aaron contends.

But I would not say to force yourself to learn tools you don’t like. Master the ones you love to use, and play with new ones all the time – don’t get stuck using the same ones over and over again.

“You don’t have to have the most expensive and most trendy gear to make something amazing. But that isn’t a reason not to try it and upgrade from time to time.”

A key topic at this year’s Casual Connect Audio track was the importance of open dialogue and peer feedback.

The importance of open dialogue and peer feedback

At this year’s Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Aaron provided an interesting revelation about the submission process at Game Audio Alliance: Aaron and his team will frequently work with composers who are wonderfully talented from a creative perspective, but may be – comparatively – lacking in proficiency when it comes to the nuts and bolts of polished end production. As opposed to “silently” repairing their work, perhaps avoiding confrontation with the artist, the GAA team is instead all about open dialogue, peer feedback, and helping to improve the all-around skillset of their artists.

Backbone and humility often go hand-in-hand in the games business

“The Game Audio Alliance is always interested in bettering people who work with us, and educating the gaming and music community at large,” says Aaron. “We’d much rather work with people while watching them grow and empowering them, than keeping them down. I’d suggest you always try to work with that kind of person, because I’ve certainly encountered a lot of the opposite, which is why we have structured GAA the way we have!”

Backbone and humility often go hand-in-hand in the games business.  “I can’t imagine that anyone should be offended by critique in this industry. If you are, you are not in the right industry. Turn off your ego. Seriously,” says Aaron.

No one wants to work with a big ego, and it will stop you from being as good as you can be.

The Game Audio Alliance produces almost all of its composition and production work internally and is looking to bring a couple more individuals into the fold.

The importance of maintaining a balance between quality and budget

The team at GAA currently produces almost all of its composition and production work internally in the interest of maintaining a high quality level, but Aaron is quick to note that they “always accept resumes and demos.” The intention is to engage in a bit more contract work and eventually “bring a couple more individuals into the fold” going forward. As is par for the course with any game audio shop, Game Audio Alliance also regularly contracts outside voiceover talent and hires skilled instrumentalists and vocalists whenever a project demands it.

A key differentiator in the GAA pipeline is the company’s current focus on the casual and mobile game space. Compared to work in the “core” or “AAA” game space, there are specific development conditions and mandates to consider when entering this region of the industry – and it’s a decidedly smokin’ hot area of growth right now.

“The audio footprint can be a lot smaller here, and keeping the quality high can be a challenge because the budgets are far lower than core games. The development cycle is also much faster, but it’s rewarding and fun to hear your work in a casual mobile game so quickly after starting work on a project, unlike a year later with other traditional cycles,” Aaron describes.

The appeal of casual games

Do not champion one tier of game audio work versus another, but appreciate the nature of your current workflow.

That compression of sound and time, both literal and esoteric, draws a fairly profound line in the sand between the world of large-scale game development, working with teams of dozens or hundreds, and the more intimate universe of sound design for smaller social and mobile titles. Aaron doesn’t necessarily seek to champion one tier of game audio work versus another, but he appreciates the nature of his current workflow.

“For me, I like being a big part of the process. There is more and more red tape and barriers the more people you add to it, yes, but usually the end product is more amazing too. Most casual, social, and mobile games, they don’t really involve that many people, and usually only one or just a couple of audio people,” he notes.

When is work becomes fun and fun becomes work

A career in pro audio within the entertainment industry is a dream for many aspiring musicians, and training for this role inevitably involves critical listening in a wide spectrum of different genres, eras, and styles of music. But is it still possible to listen to music for purely recreational purposes, to separate from one’s professionally-tuned ears and simply enjoy for the sake of enjoyment? For Aaron, it’s a dual-edged blade: inescapable critical analysis often trumps raw listening pleasure.

“When I listen to music, all I do is analyze chords, listen to production, editing, levels, mixing, panning, the quality of the players, etcetera – so it’s hard for me to enjoy music in a removed way,” he laments.

Thus, for enjoyment Aaron tends to seek music outside his realm of expertise. “I love world music because of this: I don’t know it as well, so African, Cuban, Greek, Arabic, Indian, and Brazilian Jazz are often played at my house for enjoyment. I do also like simple music with a nice beat for doing chores or working out. These sorts of pieces – like dance music – are very simple, so analyzing them really doesn’t take a lot away from enjoyment.”

Aaron Walz doesn’t have a great deal of free time these days, period, but it seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s always available – and often booked – to talk about the industry, give helpful advice to aspiring talent, accept and critique demos, and carefully listen to the opinion of other game industry professionals. He also makes time for a great interview, for which we kindly thank him.

If you’re curious about Aaron’s work or what goes on at Game Audio Alliance, feel free to email him at: aaron@gameaudioalliance.com

 

Exclusive InterviewsSpecialsThe Ouya EngimaVideo Coverage

Anil Dharni of GREE on the OUYA: Is this a shake-up of the console market?

August 27, 2012 — by Mike Griffin

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In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.

Part 1: Anil Dharni – SVP of Studio Operations, GREE


What GREE does well: Given the company’s enormous reach and user base, it would be an understatement to simply say that GREE is a leader in the mobile social gaming space. With a sprawling global network of over 230 million users and a truly open-minded company culture, where all genres, preferences and devices are welcomed, GREE’s world domination continues through an impressive push to bring developers and players together on its recently launched GREE Platform.

Why OUYA could matter to GREE: In a nutshell, GREE is wide open to any platform or device that develops a healthy audience of gamers in the social gaming space. Unlike the trepidation expressed by some social mobile gaming network operators, GREE appears to see a truly viable and untapped potential Android marketplace on Ouya: The inevitable transition to the connected TV and living room. GREE will continue to gauge the Ouya’s momentum and observe how its owners cope with console-related challenges, but if the TV space becomes as fertile as they predict, and if the games and services make sense, it would only be a positive to offer the GREE Platform to Ouya users and developers.


Gamesauce: After talking to you and some of the other GREE representatives at Casual Connect, it sounds like there’s already an internal discussion regarding the Ouya console. Is that just general buzz talk, like everyone, reacting to the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, or is there a real opportunity there for GREE?

Anil: I think a lot of our excitement is for the project itself, and we’re hoping the developers of Ouya can find a way to succeed, and of course make a great product, at the end of the day. Obviously there are a lot of challenges there. The Kickstarter campaign is definitely impressive – not just the numbers, but the enthusiasm around it. One thing we were trying to figure out: Is that a lot of game developers putting their money in initially, or the backers, or primarily consumers? Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.

Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.

GS: That’s a fairly common sentiment whenever we get close to a console generation transition, but you’re right, there seems to be a real movement for some kind of shake up in the console space. It’s hard to extrapolate whether that movement is consumer or developer driven…

Yeah, it’s hard to say without some hard data down the road. That will be enlightening, when we see how the backers and interest break down. That being said, regardless, they are going after the right market. TV connectivity is going to be an active space; we already know who a lot of the big players are going to be, and it’s absolutely coming. The timing, at least, could work out very well for Ouya.

The second big factor: I think they picked a good platform in Android. More and more games are launching on Android now. It’s a very fast rising platform, so we’re very bullish on Android. You see what Amazon has been able to do, taking the Android source code and then modifying it to their needs and their ecosystem. It can be done. So I think they picked a good platform.

GS: You might say Android is the most neutral gaming platform out there, so it fits the Ouya’s goals rather well as an open game console – as opposed to, let’s say, using their own proprietary OS.

Yes, they picked the right market and the right platform, but it’s still a kind of chicken and egg scenario. Will the developers come, given the model of the console? Can they succeed on the system, and what kind of games will do well? It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time: The TV question, and what kind of games we’ll see from Android developers for a TV experience.

GS: A huge slice of the active Android development community is made up of talented casual games studios. Do you think the Ouya could become a casual-friendly device with a mobile-style ecosystem of freemium titles, or will there be an expectation for larger, more expansive console-style experiences?

That’s another challenge, just finding out what people want out of an Android console.  From our perspective, we are free-to-play champions. We love free-to-play with great value. It’s really hard to know what can thrive on Ouya, but for us, we just make sure the content itself is great, and that’s for all players. The more people you can bring to the platform, the better it is in the long run. That’s how we look at it. And it won’t take long to figure out a really tight design that’s ideal for the console.

GS: So it’s going to be about existing and new Android developers incorporating features that support – specifically – the Ouya’s hardware specifications. That can be risky or costly, early on. 

But the hardware itself can help to keep game prices low, since you can also charge for things like extra controllers. It’s hard to say if developers will choose Ouya exclusively, or add console features to their existing tablet projects. If you look at developers right now, with a ton of studios working on iOS and Android, there’s a lot of movement towards iOS – but a lot of people are placing long term bets on Android.

GS: For smaller indie teams, short term returns might trump long term bets. But the prospect of being an early title on a new platform – especially one generating so much buzz – could be just as lucrative.

You basically have to prioritize as an indie developer. You only have ten, twenty, thirty people – max? – on your team, and running on a limited budget? Indie developers have to prioritize a platform, risks and all. But I think that’s where the chicken and egg issue comes in again, and it’s going to become important for developers to see successful business models emerge on Ouya.  Is it going to be freemium, subscription, or free-to-play?  We have to see.

GS: Let’s say you’re a tiny indie team: Six or seven guys working your butts off to produce polished games and carve a niche. Your collective dream is to make a cool console game, but XBLA and PSN are too cost-prohibitive to absorb. Does Ouya become the gateway device for a bunch of console dreamers, and can those guys charge XBLA and PSN-like prices?

Well, we do know that paid apps perform significantly lower on Android than they do on iOS. Having said that, they’re getting more and more used to it, and when they associate it with TV there’s a different kind of value perception there. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it could work; I think it’s an OK bet for people, especially those coming from the console side. I think we’ll see more trends from the console side than the social gaming side. For us, we want our games everywhere, on devices everywhere, so we think TV is going to be a great area.

GS: If you look at some of the Smart TV models coming soon, there’s going to be a renewed push towards all-in-one multimedia TVs. And that includes TVs with integrated game chipsets. Can the Ouya wiggle into that space as a game and media streaming device, maybe for consumers that bought their HDTVs three or four years ago and don’t plan on upgrading to newer connected TVs?

I think in that case, it may come down to how Google and Android actually propagates in the TV space and how people enjoy that experience. I don’t know all the technical details, but I know in the Ouya’s case they already have a prototype of the service; we just don’t know how it will compare to other Android experiences coming to TV.

GS: Let’s say the Ouya suddenly takes off and really validates itself a year from now, what’s stopping TV giants like Samsung from releasing their own spin on the Android console? They’re already entrenched in the Android device space, and dominant in connected TVs.

I think it’s true, they might do it if the model proved to be successful. My one caveat is that start-ups tend to be much faster, and a start-up with a real gaming background should have an edge there. We always thought Google could tap a lot of markets with Android, and Samsung is a great company with a ton of resources, but it helps to have a gaming DNA from the beginning like the Ouya people.

GS: Agreed, it helps to have that focus for a device. If you look at how the Kindle Fire is becoming its own Android-based ecosystem, you see the potential for specific game services on the OS.

Exactly – here’s Amazon making a big move into the gaming side, because they know how to operate, without really being tied to the gaming space. So I think the Ouya might have that advantage of background and know-how in the console gaming space, and I hope they can build on that.

GS: It will be good to see games like Minecraft on Ouya, but it needs a few impressive exclusives to really define itself. The issue for developers is risk: Are you prepared to place all bets on an intangible gaming device? So I think we’re going to see a lot of tablet ports with tacked-on Ouya features.

Without a doubt, that’s going to happen early on.

GS: Do you think this kind of compromises the “purity” of designing an Ouya game, in terms of the console’s features being a secondary consideration in design?

Yes it does, and that’s not really what you want to see developers doing. You want them to build for a particular console and context, and that’s when you really produce the stand-outs. Think of the first wave of Android games, where it was largely just porting titles: Besides a few exceptions, it just wasn’t working. Until developers decided: OK, we’re going to have a dedicated team and really understand the platform. Those are the teams that are thriving now. But it’s taken a while to reach this point.

GS: Do you think the Ouya’s price could have the ancillary effect of welcoming lower income families into the console gaming world, and thus expand Android’s presence in that demographic?

I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to how much a person wants to spend, although it’s certainly an interesting price option for a new console that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console. It will be more a function of that, and less about a specific spender.

I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console.

GS: There’s also this contention, and I don’t know if it’s due to mobile propagation or technologies like Microsoft’s SmartGlass, that Ouya games need to include post-Ouya gameplay on phones and tablets, so the user can resume gameplay on a mobile device. Wouldn’t this also compromise the design of an Ouya game, by attempting to satisfy both player types?

That’s a good question. I think the perfect example I can point to is the study that PopCap presented in their session at Casual Connect. They said that most people, when they actually get into a mobile game, they’re sitting at home playing on the couch. I just think it’s interesting that someone finally did a real survey, and it actually points to that fact.

GS: That kind of tells us that short-session games may have a place anywhere, but medium-to-core level experiences have always had a place in the living room, regardless of device. That’s built into our home entertainment culture. And those are the players more likely to put in that extra hour, buy that extra level pack, and so on.

Right, the longer-session players. From a console developer’s point of view, the Ouya is an opportunity to find a middle ground. A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely. So for a lot of these developers getting ready to push great mobile titles next year, they’re already prepared for Ouya. Whether it becomes a good marketplace for them, this remains the question. An [eight million] dollar Kickstarter is great, but will it require a twenty million selling console, or one hundred million, to really carve out a market?

A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely.

GS: That’s the big question. It’s the type of console shake-up we welcome, but there’s no way to tell if it’s the definitive disruption or merely a foundation. Thanks very much for your perspectives, Anil.

 

 

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