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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!




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

August 27, 2012 — by Mike Griffin



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.