Will the Ouya save horror gaming?

A lot of fuss has been raised recently about the Ouya, a concept console that recently raised 8.5 million dollars on Kickstarter. Essentially, the console looks to be an interface that allows play of Android games on the t.v. And that concept seems to have a lot of people excited. Some folks are even calling it the savior of gaming.

I’m willing to bet it won’t be.

An Android platform isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Tablets and smartphones have existed for some time, raking in millions of dollars with short, simple games like Angry Birds. In fact their entire business model is centered around charging extremely low prices for small games. This works for folks who just want to have a go at flinging birds into pigs while they ride the subway into work every morning, but console gamers are used to experiences that are more fleshed-out and deliver significantly more content, so most Android games won’t be able to make the jump from the iPhone to the living room t.v. due to that lack of substance.

But it looks like there is more going on here than Android games being ported to the Ouya- it seems the Ouya may be reaping many of its real games from the PC. Both Minecraft and League Of Legends have been discussed in context with the Ouya, with the former being all but confirmed by developer Notch to be appearing on the system. Square-Enix has also confirmed that Final Fantasy 3 will be appearing on the console, an elderly SNES title.

This begs the question- what, exactly, does the Ouya do that can’t already be done by essentially anyone with a PC? Of course most Android games are unavailable on PC, but as mentioned, the majority of those wouldn’t have sufficient content to make them really playable outside the Android marketplace anyway. League of Legends and Minecraft are already both accessible to PC gamers, and Final Fantasy 3 is available to anyone with a SNES.

The Ouya promises access to the Onlive game streaming service as well- a feat that, once again, is possible for almost anyone with a PC.

Bearing all this in mind, it seems clear that the Ouya has no killer app like Nintendo’s Mario or Microsoft’s Halo, the major sellers that really move a system out the door. But historically, systems that have launched without a killer app have floundered and died. Gamers with a sense of history will recall the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO– systems that had more than enough horsepower under the hood (respective to their competitors), but no real mascot for the public to flock to. Both of those systems wilted on the vine.

Apparently gamers are willing to gamble their money on an unproven console regardless of the lessons of history. The gaming community provided 8.5 million dollars worth of funding to the Ouya project on Kickstarter- despite the fact that essentially no one outside the developers has even held an Ouya controller in their hands yet. Maybe it’s because the Ouya promises a ‘free’ gaming experience- indeed, one of the large pictures on the Ouya Kickstarter page displays the text ‘All games free-to-play’. But in actuality, all the Ouya requires is that a portion of the game be provided free to consumers. This is nothing special- all of the big three console manufacturers provide the option to download demos of games to their respective consoles. Any really good content is likely to be locked behind paywalls- essentially, you might have a Mario-style platformer where you get to play the first few levels for free, and then you would have to pay to ‘unlock’ the remainder of the game. Furthermore, the ‘always-connected’ nature of the Ouya would make it extremely simple for developers to initiate a business model that allows for microtransactions. Imagine a shooting game where, when you run out of bullets in your rifle, you are asked to approve a 99 cent charge to your credit card to reload your clip of bullets. Think that sounds extreme, or like something that would ‘never happen’? John Riccitiello, the CEO of EA, has already suggested exactly that scenario in a stockholder meeting.

Always-online games could have other issues, as well. The recent launch of Diablo 3 was marred by the game’s always-online requirement, even in single player mode, when the servers were immediately overloaded and the game was unplayable at launch for a number of customers. If Blizzard, a company with vast amounts of experience in the MMO field, was susceptible to these issues with a game that was known to be anticipated, how will a smaller company like Ouya deal with issues like this?

Gamers should also bear in mind that the Ouya’s digital distribution model means that there will be no physical games available for the system, which is perhaps not a concern for those in that subset of the gaming community who purchase all their games new. But gamers who enjoy the heavily-discounted rates that come from buying their games secondhand will have that option locked away from them with the Ouya. Furthermore, if the Ouya is an incredible success and as a result the digital distribution model is adopted by the wider industry, it could spell the end of the used game resale industry entirely. In the worst case scenario the ‘local video game store’ could vanish almost overnight as the industry ceases making games for them to sell, and later accept in trade and re-sell.

A lot of folks believe the rapidly-encroaching end of the AAA model of game development is probably a good thing. For the biggest hits of the industry, the modern military-style shooters and the football games, developers are forced to spend millions of dollars to make them into the blockbuster releases that their fans have become accustomed to- but many of us who have been gaming for years would probably prefer that developers devote the majority of a game’s budget to producing the actual game, not on marketing and advertising. But having an always-online console with games that are not on physical media and supported entirely by credit-card transactions may not be the best way to move the industry forward, and it certainly may not be the best business model for those of us who enjoy this hobby.

I don’t mean to suggest the Ouya is an intentional trojan horse designed to destroy the physical media model of gaming- far from it. The development team behind the Ouya seems to be composed of decent, earnest folks who honestly enjoy video games. What’s more, I do believe that digital distribution does have its place in the gaming industry, as it presents an excellent option for smaller, new developers who want to present full games on the PC at an extremely low price point. But gamers need to be wary of the possible consequences of the wider game industry adopting the digital distribution business model, particularly on consoles, and particularly when they excise the physical media option.

Oddly, just as I was penning this article, rumors began swirling that Valve is displaying an interest in creating a console as well- one that, presumably, would also include no physical media option, as Valve’s current business model revolves around providing digital games to customers via the PC.

A lot of folks in the industry seem to be intent on moving toward a digital-only future. The only thing that remains to be seen is how much willingness consumers will display to follow their lead.

Thanks to Big Joe for the question that inspired this article!

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~ by Redgoateerob on September 3, 2012.

One Response to “Will the Ouya save horror gaming?”

  1. […] and storing it there. We’re already seeing a console go that route with the Ouya, and while I slammed the system a while back for being a download-only device, at least the Ouya is up-front as a console that only plays downloaded content. A consumer […]

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