Ouya runs on Android, and ships with its own controller
Ouya raised $8.6m on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund its Android-powered games console: a device that it hoped would provide an affordable alternative to Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s big guns of the gaming world.
Now it’s available to buy as a console that’s less about playing games like Call of Duty, FIFA and Halo, and more about taking the kind of quirky, independent games that have proliferated on smartphones and tablets and bringing them to the television.
There’s a market out there to be targeted. Mojang’s Minecraft game has sold more than 22m copies across all platforms; Rovio’s Angry Birds ended 2012 with 263m active players; and King’s Candy Crush Saga has helped the publisher reach 70m daily players.
Ouya’s mission: to persuade a decent proportion of these people that they a.) want to play these kinds of games on their televisions, and b.) that they should buy a £99 console to do it. Does it stand a chance? Read on.
Setup and hardware
Ouya is a doddle to set up. Plug it into a power socket, connect it to your TV using the supplied HDMI cable, stick a pair of AA batteries (also supplied) in its controller, and turn it on. Once you’ve connected it to your Wi-Fi network and downloaded a brief software update, you’re up and running.
The hardware? It’s small – a three-inch cube – and looks stylish, with its looks the work of industrial designer Yves Béhar, who’s best known for his work on Jawbone’s Jambox speakers. It sits neatly alongside your more-expensive under-TV gadgets.
There’s a USB port on the back, which can be expanded using a USB hub if you’re planning to use several peripherals (a mouse and keyboard, for example). The console also uses standard screws, if you need to open it up for repairs or want to do so for hacking and upgrading.
The controller? It needs work. Pairing it via Bluetooth with the Ouya is no problem, but its D-pad is too soft and its trackpad too sensitive. Its shoulder buttons, triggers and two analogue sticks are better, and the button-sticking issues reported on early developer units appear to have been solved, but it’s still middling overall.
Ouya’s Discover store menu
System and software
Ouya may be Android-powered, but you wouldn’t know it from its menu system, which has been thoroughly reskinned. It’s clean and clear, with the console’s workings divided into four sub-menus: Play, Discover, Make and Manage.
Make is for developers working to put their own games on Ouya, while Manage is the system settings. Play brings up a list of the games you’ve downloaded, sorted by how recently you played each, while Discover is Ouya’s app store.
The latter has some nice touches in the way it’s organised, despite the initially-daunting rows of thumbnail-images and titles. One row includes “VIP” games exclusive to Ouya, another highlights trending (currently popular) games, and another directs you to specific genres.
But there are also rows for games picked by individual curators – the Penny Arcade website and the developer of Ouya game Towerfall this week – as well as a “Sandbox” row to sample the latest releases.
Ouya says it’s ordering games within the Discover store’s rows by how much they’re played, rather than their total downloads. The aim is to ensure the best, most engaging games bubble up to the top.
What’s missing, for now, is an Xbox Live-style unified gaming network for Ouya: you sign in with a username, but there are no social features: high-score tables, achievements, the ability to find and challenge friends. Ouya says this is coming at a later date.
Ouya isn’t just for games. An “Apps” category includes other forms of digital entertainment, including radio service TuneIn and personal-media streamer Plex. As yet there’s no sign of music videos service Vevo, which has been promised, or apps from the likes of Netflix and YouTube.
There’s a built-in web browser too, although I found it frustrating to use thanks partly to the sensitive trackpad. A few minutes wrestling with Facebook’s website was useful mainly for remembering why I use the social network on phones, tablets and computers rather than televisions.
Ice Rage on Ouya
Ouya launched with more than 150 games last week, the vast majority from independent developers, although Square Enix (with Final Fantasy III) and Sega (with some Sonic the Hedgehog games) are both supporting the platform.
The quality of the games is variable, as you’d expect: a few killers but lots of filler. There’s also a skew towards retro-style, pixel-arty RPG games, some of which are very good (Saturday Morning RPG and Deep Dungeons of Doom for example, as well as Final Fantasy III if you haven’t played the original to death).
There are also solid ports of indie hits (Super Crate Box, Puddle), a smattering of fun new titles (demo game A Bit of a Fist of Awesome and archery platformer Towerfall) and some action games hampered by a just-noticeable-enough lag between controller and on-screen action (Chronoblade and Shadowgun).
Pick of the bunch for me was Ice Rage, a one-on-one ice hockey game with bags of character (and, indeed, characters) whose retro aspects are in its feel rather than its looks.
A key part of Ouya’s ethos is the demand that every game is free to play, at least initially. Most launch titles seem to have opted for a free demo, then a paid unlock for the full game – although there’s scope for in-app purchases of virtual items, and even donation-based pay-what-you-want games.
Payment works well: you register your credit or debit card when setting up Ouya, and the console then stores your payment details – sending you a receipt via email whenever you spend money.
One improvement that could be made would be showing you what games will charge for and how much within their store listings – currently, you don’t know until you click to pay within a game.
Ouya’s open nature brings a couple more possibilities for gaming. You can sideload Android APK files with a bit of fiddling in the Make and Manage menus – apps and games alike – although performance varies according to how well their controls map to a joypad (or not).
This thread on the Ouya forum is a good place to start: Netflix is proving a popular sideload at launch, for example.
Then there are the emulators. Ouya has plenty of emulators available to run game files (ROMs) from pretty much any well-known old console you can think of. Casual gamers may not want the bother of finding and sideloading games in this way, but experienced ROM-hunters, Ouya’s emulation features may be the main reason to buy the console.
You can swap Ouya’s controller out for another
Ouya as a concept – an open, hackable console sticking it to the established consoles – excited a lot of people on Kickstarter, but how good is it as a product?
It’s flawed, but not irretrievably so. The controller isn’t great, and while I’ve seen some early reviews forgiving this on the grounds of Ouya’s low price, note that official UK distributor Game sells a standalone Ouya controller for £39.99, and PS3 Sixaxis controllers for up to £10 less.
Yet Ouya’s openness means you can use other controllers with it – there are already instructions online for pairing a Sixaxis or Xbox 360 controller for example.
Regular software updates will improve its store; a few more apps could turn it into a very handy set-top box; and doing something interesting with social gaming could be truly disruptive. Remember all those rumours about “the Facebook Phone”? What if Ouya could become “the Facebook console”?
And the games… This is what’s going to define Ouya as a success or a flop: whether it gets a good flow of high-quality games designed for the television screen, rather than merely (and hurriedly) ported from touchscreen devices.
Well-ported games would be a start though. Looking at the Google Play charts, imagine Ouya with these games: Minecraft, Plants vs. Zombies, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Cut the Rope, Temple Run 2, New Star Soccer, World of Goo, any or all of the Angry Birds games, The Room, Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled Blitz, Jetpack Joyride, Doodle Jump and…
I know, I know. The point is that all these games ARE available on Android smartphones and tablets already. What Ouya sees as an opportunity – a demand to bring back awesome indie games from touchscreens to televisions – may be its biggest challenge if that demand turns out to be weaker than expected.
In 2013, tens (or even hundreds) of millions more people play games than did just a few years ago. But their play patterns are very different: their games go with them whether they’re sitting on a train, on a smoking break at work, or curled up on the sofa playing while watching TV (or at least while someone else is watching TV).
The hardcore Call of Duty crowd won’t want an Ouya: why should they, when an Xbox 360 or PS3 can be had for under £150? That’s not a problem: they’re not the crowd Ouya needs to win over.
Ouya did alienate some of its Kickstarter backers by failing to deliver their units before its commercial release, as promised. The loss of goodwill is more than just a minor PR bump for the company: it needs more willing evangelists, not less.
But the biggest question facing Ouya is whether the newer breed of gamers want a console that takes over the TV screen and whose games don’t (yet) synchronise with what they’re playing on their mobile devices.
If not, it’s toast. Or at least it needs to change.
But there’s still something powerful in the idea of an open, affordable console stocked by the most talented independent developers. Ouya is just first out of the blocks in the race to fully realise this potential.
The coming months will see the launch of direct rivals GamePop, GameStick and Project M.O.J.O. as well as Nvidia’s Project Shield handheld. Valve’s Steam Box is coming from the PC gaming space, while Google is reportedly working on its own Android console too.
But Ouya’s bold, brave launch is an important step along this path, with scope to improve over future software and hardware updates, if funds allow. It’s far from the finished article, but also far from a flop.
Note: This is a separate review of Ouya to the one that appeared in the Observer on 30 June, the online version of which can be found here.
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