A revolution on hold – why Ouya is struggling to meet its $8.5 million promise

Ouya

Visit the ghost of Ouya’s Kickstarter page and you’ll see its audacious mission statement: “It’s time to upend console gaming”. Below the bolded goal sits another eye-catching aim: “All games free to play”. But in the wake of its global rollout, Ouya has much to do before it meets backers’ and buyers’ expectations.

As promised, every game on Ouya does have some form of free component. However, the ways in which the console’s development partners have interpreted the core free-to-test tenet are damaging, with prices that vary from fair to misguided to those built on deceitful foundations.

Instead of a shopfront, Ouya’s Discover portal means buyers download games without any information about what they’re getting beyond a brief synopsis. Some games are totally free, others have a fixed price unlock, some – such as Hidden In Plain Sight – operate a pay-what-you-want unlock price point, and all games with premium components experiment with different methods. Canabalt HD, for instance, offers five lives per day for free, with unlimited gaming unlocked for a fee – and it clearly advertises its structure from the beginning. Not every game is as generous. Titles such as The Ball offer no mention of payment until they hit you with paywalls during the game.

Nobody expected developers to make their Ouya games for free, but the courtesy of informing gamers about their downloads – whether they’re demos or timed or full games – should have been a non-negotiable feature. The game library feels littered with honeytrap ventures: every download a mystery, every surprise paywall adding to the feeling that Ouya is just a £99 demo box.

Tangled truths are a problem dogging all aspects of the machine. External peripheral support works on a game-by-game basis with no indication given on either side; the Discover tab is a confused jumble of tiles where genre categories are more of a suggestion than a filing system; and questionable controller build quality is matched by questionable controller implementation, where few challenges are greater than trying to figure out how to invert the sticks.

Ouya has the potential to be much more than it currently is. It’s looking to make devices such as Roku and even Apple TV extinct once apps like XBMC and Netflix are optimised and available for the device, but with countless Android-based competitors due soon, Ouya can’t afford to wait long. This month sees the release of PlayJam’s cheaper and more portable GameStick, with XBMC support out of the box and popular streaming services not far behind. The upcoming subscription-based GamePop and GamePop Mini, meanwhile, are aiming to capitalise on Ouya’s free-to-play communication errors by ensuring that all their games are free for as long as you pay a monthly console subscription.

Of all the Android machines going through their final phases of iteration, it’s Mad Catz’s Mojo, a console still without a price or release date, that looks poised to make the biggest challenge. In stark contrast to Ouya’s closed shopfront, Mad Catz is promising access to Google Play and Amazon Appstore for an instantly available catalogue of thousands of titles, and the promise of your existing library of Android games accessible from the moment you turn it on. Despite Ouya’s open-arms policy for developers, the console is closed to end users without the knowledge to side-load software.

Whether there’s an appetite for any of these consoles remains to be seen. The wide range of Android devices without unified regulations has given rise to a minefield of titles unoptimised for different platforms, with buyers acting as bug-testers, and an unfriendly and prohibitive space for casual players lured by the promise of cheap and free games. Ouya’s failure to meet even its most fundamental promises and its insistence on a closed Android system is a deflating discovery, and one that casts a worrying shadow over consoles with greater, more open-ended ambitions.