State of Play 2013: Ouya falls flat, so where next for alt consoles? Valve could have the answer

The Ouya sold well on a promise, smashing its Kickstarter goal by more than $7 million. But its reception by backers, early adopters and press has been mixed.

Only a cynic could look at something like Ouya and not be impressed by its pluck. There it was, lacing up its tiny gloves and boots and throwing itself into the ring just as Sony and Microsoft’s heavyweight prizefighters were about to start knocking bells out of each other. The Ouya was the little console that could; Kickstarter’s 8.6 million dollar gaming baby.

At least, that was the Ouya’s promise. The reality of 2013′s first ‘alternative’ console was confused. The Ouya sold well as a concept, bringing new and existing indie titles to the living room with a try-before-you-buy system that sounded like a boon for consumers. No handing over cash to an unscrupulous publisher only to find you’ve bought a half-broken howler of a game; the Ouya was cheap, cheerful and on the side of the consumer rather than big business – a console for the masses. Unfortunately, the masses just didn’t seem that impressed with the Ouya or its developer’s promise of a budget game “revolution”.

With such a small install base, games on the Ouya sold poorly. Small studios with Android games ready to launch or already available on mobiles and tablets could port a version over very easily and perhaps net a tidy four-figure bonus for themselves, but developing exclusively for the Ouya (which is what the company wanted with its Free The Games programme, wherein it would match any Kickstarter donations for a game above $50,000 in return for a whopping six months of exclusivity) just didn’t make sense.

Nor did it get better from a consumer perspective. No matter how good the marketing bumf around the Ouya, what you were buying was an underpowered console running games on an outdated Tegra 3 chip. Early reviews reported sluggishness just in navigating its menu screens and lack of responsiveness in some games that made them frustrating to control. Had the Ouya launched two or three years ago that would have mattered less, but it launched in a year dominated by the impending arrival of PS4 and Xbox One. With both of those consoles plastered over every flat surface reachable with a step ladder, and Sony and Microsoft compensating for a lack of killer launch titles by talking up their power and graphics, Ouya looked more and more like a toy. How were people supposed to get excited about playing a port of Sonic The Hedgehog when Microsoft and Sony were showing endless loops of near-photorealistic sports cars sliding around tracks in Forza and Driveclub?

Towerfall has been one of the Ouya’s few success stories, while other indie developers for the console reported disappointing sales figures.

Then there were mobile games that sought to emulate console successes in the first place. ‘Serious’ games like Killing Floor and Shadowgun still sit in Ouya’s top ten titles list, but it’s an oddly roundabout way to play a first-person shooter, if that’s the sort of game you’re into. A mobile game aping the style of a console game that you can now play as a port on a console? It might be the best way to play Shadowgun, but it’s hardly going to be the FPS purist’s first choice.

Finally, there’s the uncomfortable question of how big the intersecting segment on the Venn diagram is of ‘people who like games enough to have heard of the Ouya’ and ‘people who don’t already own anything to play them on’. The Ouya sells in the UK for £99, and of games devices released in 2013, it’s one of the cheapest options (barring other Android consoles like that other damp squib, GameStick). But if it’s games you’re after first and graphical fidelity second, Amazon sellers will do you a second-hand PS2 for about £40, and games for pennies plus postage.

Where does this leave the future of ‘alternative’ consoles, then? Pretty squarely with Valve and its Steam Box.

No-one quite knows how the Steam Machines will work yet – we know there will be multiple versions made by different companies all running the SteamOS, but how different models will differ in price and power still hasn’t been laid out. Assuming the lower-spec machines launch at a similar price point to the PS4 and the Xbox One, Valve’s own next-gen consoles could have two significant advantages over both. Not fringe interest, technically-yes-it’s-better-on-paper advantages like the Xbox One handling eight controllers at once to the PS4′s four. But proper, game-changing, who-can-I-sell-my-console-to advantages.

Valve’s Steam Machines could skewer the Xbox One and PS4 with a wider back catalogue and the promise of Steam Sales.

Firstly, there’s the Steam back catalogue. Even if cheaper versions the box were to turn out less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One, so what? The launch titles for both consoles range from OK to pretty good. But even if they were the best games ever committed to disk, delivered on the wing by an angelic host, there’s no way they could go toe-to-toe with the three thousand games Valve are promising for their Steam Machines. With neither the Xbox One or PS4 offering backwards compatibility, the pickings for early adopters aren’t just slim, they’re skeletal.

The second advantage will deal damage over time: Steam Sales. Sony and Microsoft’s current pricing structures for digital distribution are, bluntly, a joke – EA’s PS4 games were selling on the PSN for £62.99 at launch, a full £13 over the disc version’s RRP (and almost double what you can pick a new game up for with some deft Googling). The reason for these prices is speculated to be that high street retailers have enough sway with the companies to keep them artificially high – ‘don’t undercut us, or we won’t stock your game’.

Valve doesn’t have that problem. Not only could they theoretically sell Steam copies of new releases for PC prices (currently about £29.99 compared to £49.99 on the Xbox One or PS4) as they do now, but they’d be able to bring the prices even lower with sales. Suddenly a game that’s still £40 on Xbox One and PS4 is £5 on the Steam Box. Even Sony’s excellent PlayStation Plus service, with its Instant Game Collection, couldn’t compete with that.

The Ouya and its ilk have identified the problem of console gaming: that it’s expensive. But their model for tackling it is flawed; cheap consoles and cheap games aren’t a challenge to Sony and Microsoft, they’re a concession.

So we’re left with Valve. Bringing the current Steam experience to the living room won’t just challenge the PS4 and Xbox One – if Steam Machines can come close to matching them on specs and price, it would put them both, in terms of long-term investment and player experience, in second place.