Post-mortem – The Ouya

Welcome to a new series (maybe?) on DisCONNECT – Post-mortem, where we conduct an autopsy and find a cause of death for some of the tech world’s failed products. In today’s episode: The Ouya. Coroner Soldant’s findings below. (Sort of. I can’t really med-speak my way through this one)

Physical Description

Type: Android-powered ‘microconsole’

Company: Ouya, Inc (headed by Julie Uhrman) – Kickstarter Success

Released: Commenced 2012, released 25 June 2013 (retail channels)

Time of Death: 27 July, 2015 (acquired by Razer Inc)

Status: Discontinued, but still active and supported. Commercial failure.

The Ouya was a ‘microconsole’ – a tiny little games console that consisted of an Android-powered cube and a controller (and that was about it). A less charitable person might have labelled it as “an Android phone, except without a screen or a phone.” The Ouya was the dream of Julie Uhrman, who launched a Kickstarter on 10 July 2012, which reached its funding goal within 8 hours of appearing on the site – by 9th of August it had raised $8.5 million USD – 904% of its funding goal. The original idea for the Ouya was that it would be an unrestricted, indie-focused console – one that anyone could develop for without many restrictions, save for the fact that games must be free to trial. 

Physical Description:  The unit itself is a 75mm plastic cube, weighs 300g, coloured silver and black, with the following ports: DC power, 1x USB 2.0, 1x microUSB, 1x HDMI 1.4, and 1x Ethernet. It is powered by NVIDIA Tegra 3. Its CPU is a quad core 1.7Ghz ARM Cortex A9. Its GPU is a NVIDIA GeFroce ULP 520MHz. It has 1GB DDR3-1600 SD RAM (shared with GPU). Internal storage: 8GB eMMC. The CPU has HSF attached. The OS is Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with a custom Ouya Launcher.

The controller is plastic, coloured silver and black, with a layout similar to the Xbox controller. It has two analogue sticks, a D-Pad, and four face buttons labelled OUYA – coloured green, blue, yellow and red (clockwise from 6 o’clock position). It has two pairs of bumpers and triggers – one set on each side where the index fingers naturally fall. The centre of the controller has a touch pad. It is powered by 2x AA batteries. The faceplate is interchangeable. Overall build quality feels cheap. Buttons occasionally stick.

Autopsy

Hardware: At its heart, the Ouya is an Android device – and it makes very little attempt to hide this. While the Tegra 3 SoC isn’t a slouch, it’s no match for a PS4 or Xbox One – although it isn’t clear if the Ouya was ever trying to compete for these markets (which begs the question: who wanted this, anyway?). There’s very little to hate about the hardware itself – except for the controller build quality, which is absolutely awful. The controller is a plastic piece of junk, with buttons that regularly stick under the plastic face plate, and early iterations would lose connectivity easily. Probably the biggest criticism is that the Ouya is basically mobile hardware shoved into a static platform. It brings all of the compromises of mobile technology, except it isn’t mobile! The Ouya is a static device, and thus when compared with other, similar devices, it’s woefully underpowered. Yes, you can root it easily enough – but it’s still an awful bit of hardware considering its intended use.

Included Software: The Ouya software overlay is a bit of a mess – it’s functional but it’s not appealing in the slightest. Start to dig into the settings and you’ll quickly expose the raw Android options running underneath it – which looks messy and exposes the Ouya for what it really is (phone/tablet hardware attempting to be a console). The UI is laggy and the entire experience of using the Ouya feels sluggish considering what it’s doing. The OS/Ouya software is effectively dead now – Razer have no real interest in supporting it.

Released Software: The Ouya is a wasteland devoid of redeeming software. While most platforms have ‘killer apps’ or ‘anchor games’ (read: exclusives) that pull people towards the platform, Ouya has nothing. What content does exist falls into one of two categories: games you could get on literally any other platform, and awful abortions written by inexperienced developers looking to make a quick buck. The Ouya, being an open platform, has attracted the very worst of developers. Think of all the sludge you could scrape off the bottom of Steam Greenlight – or the iOS App Store – and it’s still a step above what the average Ouya game is like to play. Many of them are titles that failed to make it onto any other platform (because they’re awful), and were designed for mobile platforms or for web browsers. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that would be worth playing for more than a few minutes. The platform was supposed to be for all of the celebrated indies to release their games on – except hardly any of them did, and pretty much all of those titles were released on other platforms, making the Ouya an expensive console nobody needed or wanted. This is one of the major reasons why the Ouya died – its intended developer audience never materialised.

Company Support: The Ouya was initially very well supported… until it came time to actually release it. Some Kickstarter backers still hadn’t received their units before it was dumped onto retail shelves (where it failed to move significant numbers). Julie Uhrman, effectively the public face of Ouya Inc, had bizarre conferences acting like the Ouya was the rebirth of TV gaming, attempting to cash in on the hype that ‘console gaming was dying’ (it wasn’t/isn’t). A key Kickstarter statement – that all games would be free to try – was quickly removed shortly after release. In pushing the Ouya as a platform anyone could develop for, they failed to secure some good anchor titles to draw other developers (and thus users in). The Network Effect is important here – the more people that use your system, the more people will be drawn into the platform – fail to attract users, and your system will fail. Ouya Inc never attracted important developers or system exclusives to promote the system. Instead, they let it become a wasteland of awful ‘games’ (using the term lightly here). Poor communication, mishandled distribution, and a total lack of real vision or target market meant the Ouya was doomed from the beginning. Since being acquired by Razer, the Ouya is effectively a dead platform.

Niche Market: A microconsole like the Ouya really needed a niche to fill, or to create a niche. Sometimes, consumers don’t know we wanted or needed something until we have it – see for example digital distribution and the rise of Steam, where it was initially hated but is now a demanded feature. The Ouya completely failed to either identify or carve out a niche for itself. None of the games released for the Ouya make it worthwhile to own the system. There is nothing about the system that makes it worth purchasing (even on the second hand market since it’s discontinued). There’s no reason you’d buy this over, say, a Raspberry Pi or a NVIDIA Shield TV.

Cause of Death

The Ouya has two major contributing causes of death that I can identify:

1: Lack of decent software. The Ouya never got any decent software. Its app store today is a mess of low-content, low-budget (no budget?), low-quality titles that have no redeeming factors. Anything worth playing on the Ouya has long since been released on other platforms. The Ouya never attracted the extensive attention of major indie developers. Such developers that did target the Ouya ultimately seem to have done so because no other platform would accept them. The abysmal quality of the average Ouya title is proof positive of this point. Developers of quality games have since ported to other platforms, or only treated the Ouya as an afterthought since it’s an Android box and wasn’t difficult to port to. The biggest contributing factor to the Ouya’s death was its lack of software.

2: No true niche or validating factors. From the outset, it seemed like the Ouya was pointless beyond giving indies yet another platform to push their wares… except the decent indie devs didn’t need the Ouya to survive. It was effectively an Android phone shoved into a cube with a HDMI port – Urhman herself said that there was “literally nothing special” about the Ouya as a device. The Ouya’s drawcard – that it was an open platform for indie devs – only demonstrates why free-for-all platforms inevitably fail when it comes to actually making money. The low quality rubbish that floods onto the platform drowns out anything actually worth playing – thus major devs turn away from the platform, and they produce quality content that can get released on bigger, stable platforms. In addition to this, the Ouya was mobile hardware in a static form factor. For better or worse, the nearest points of comparison are traditional consoles like the PS4 or Xbox One, and units like the NVIDIA Shield and the Raspberry Pi. Compared to the PS4/XBO, the Ouya is significantly underpowered and its $99 USD entry fee would be better spent on anything else. The ShieldTV has a niche of its own – it can stream games from a NVIDIA GPU powered PC. The Raspberry Pi is much more flexible and capable than the Ouya, and cheaper to boot. Basically, the Ouya has no real purpose.

Coroner’s Personal Notes

The Ouya failed, and if I’m honest, rightfully so. In retrospect perhaps it seems that the Ouya was destined to fail. It had no target market, it had no real developer support, it had no niche to fulfil or create, and continually failed to make money for Ouya Inc. What started as a hopeful utopian platform ended up being a quagmire of some of the worst examples of indie games ever made. How the Ouya expected to distinguish itself from other consoles, let alone give players a reason to own one, is sort of difficult to understanding from this point. Granted, optimism was high at the time – but perhaps optimism blinded some to the reality that open platforms usually result in a lot of awful, low quality content being shovelled onto the platform – and that big name indie titles usually earn their spot on the PS4 or Steam (or whatever) for good reasons.

What lessons can be learned from the Ouya? I don’t know if there are any lessons to be learned – because people have to try these sorts of things to see if they work or not. I think if there’s any real lesson in the Ouya, it’s that a free for all, poorly target product isn’t going to be a success – no matter how much you try to hype it up as being a paradigm shift for the industry. A totally open platform invites a flood of poor quality shovelware. Having no real target market beyond “TV gamers” means you don’t have any real way to market the console or identify good anchor games to drive interest to your platform. The Ouya just existed, and nobody seemed to know what to do with it. It failed.

“And so begins the revolution.” And thus dies the dream.

These findings handed down this 11th day of June, 2017, by Soldant.

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