In the lead up to the release of OUYA, and through my time testing it for my review, the one question that kept popping into my head was, "who is this for?" It's fair to ask the same question of the other consoles that are either on the market, or soon to be, but those consoles have dedicated fanbases, a portion of which will by anything with the right logo on it. OUYA is an entirely new machine, and subsequently, it's for an entirely new audience. Sure, there were all those Kickstarter supporters, but even with 63,416 fans, that's not enough to sustain a console in perpetuity.
In fact, when I was given the opportunity to speak with Julie Uhrman, OUYA's Founder, on June 25, the day that the console launched, that was one of the first thing I asked her.
"Core gamers are going to love OUYA. There's games that are exclusive to OUYA, that you can't find anywhere else. We've found that college kids and young adults that are money conscious love OUYA, because it's $99, and all the games are free to try. Also it's great for the family. As far as the people that are going to buy OUYA day one, it's the core gamers."
So that's who the company thinks (hopes) is going to be out their buying their new console, but after spending quite a bit of time that broad sentiment might be a little bit off. Sure, everyone can find something they'll like on the console, since there are some pretty solid games out there, but a much more specific group of video game aficionados are the ones that are likely to enjoy the console the most.
OUYA is a really interesting entry into the console market. As an entirely new console, it doesn't serve any longstanding, multinational, media conglomerates, and it can carve out its own path in the world. OUYA launched with a fraction of the marketing budget that the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One will have later this year, and it doesn't have publisher support from some of the biggest names in the business. However, that doesn't means it's destined to fail. In fact, in many ways, OUYA is already a success:
- It's the first video game console to be crowdfunded.
- At launch it boasted the largest library of games developed specifically for that platform ever.
- Every console can serve as a development kit.
These are things that have never happened before in the industry, and the fact that OUYA has done them is, by no means, a bad thing. Competition drives innovation, and whether they like it or not, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have to recognize that there is a new kid in town and he's got some interesting ideas.
Whether or not OUYA is ultimately going to be a long term success remains to be seen. In fact, for everything that the console has going for it, it still has a huge uphill battle. The biggest thing that the console needs right now is exposure, because, for everyone that doesn't know that there is a "new" Wii on the market, at least those people knew there was a Wii to begin with.
So, here's the thing, OUYA doesn't need that much exposure. Which brings me back to my original question: "Who is OUYA for?" The answer is simple: the cool kids. In this case, "the cool kids" are indie developers.
Right now, OUYA is the video game equivalent of Sub Pop Records in the early 1990s. Back before the internet rattled the music industry to the bone, there was a clear division between independent artists and acts signed to a major label. Anything on a major was polished, perfected, focus grouped, and, more importantly safe. While the same can still be said about artists on major labels today, back in the 90s, the industry was on the cusp of a wild schism.
The artists on Sub Pop (and other like-minded labels like Matador, Domino, 4AD, etc.) were all forging their own sound, openly defiant of the major labels, and all of their money. Amazing bands like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sonic Youth, and the ultimate indie band, Nirvana, all cut their teeth on the music industry at Sub Pop. While it might have been a case of being in the right place at the right time, many of Sub Pop's bands graduated to rock star success at major labels, and have gone on to be some of the most well-known and respected artists of that era.
Now, what if OUYA is Sub Pop, and the bands are indie developers who are getting their first taste of exposure? Right now, OUYA gives developers and gamers alike a chance to experience new and wonderful things on a traditionally closed platform - the console. Uhrman and her team clearly recognize this potential, noting that they "want content from all different kinds of developers," and, as if to demonstrate the variety they are hoping for, she went on to say that "one-fifth of their developers have never built a game before." That's a bold statement, especially for a new console.
While the video game industry as a whole is finally waking up to the potential of independent developers (coincidentally in part to Kickstarter), OUYA is the easiest way for a small development team to get their game in front of a lot of people... ones that aren't sitting in front of a PC.
Yes, indies have created a wonderful community on PCs, and that isn't going anywhere, but OUYA offers access to the most sacred of gaming hardware and, as Uhrman put it, "the best screen in our lives, the television." Some might scoff at this (PC gamers), but there is something fundamentally different about sitting on your couch, playing a game on your big screen TV with a controller, than when you play a game at a desk, on a computer monitor with a mouse and a keyboard.
"We opened up the last closed platform in gaming, which was the television. We said that any game developer could develop a game for the television. And they're excited to do so."
If the indie game development community latches on to OUYA as their platform of choice, and seemingly many of them are already leaning in that direction, from Terry Cavanagh to Tim Schaefer, this little cube has a lot of potential. Every time OUYA exclusives like "Towerfall," "Polarity," and "ChronoBlade" make their way into conversations about "good" games, the console takes another step in the right direction.
Uhrman stated that OUYA "started with an idea, and we said if you want this, we will build it." It turns out a lot of people wanted it. The team at OUYA is going out of their way to help developers and gamers alike up and running, creating interesting and new games on their console by making it minimally risky and increasingly appealing, with a low barrier of entry.
Right now, OUYA is best in the hands of indie game developers, but Uhrman recognizes the next step of that equation, describing the OUYA as "the independent gamers' console."
*It's worth noting that in 1995, major label Warner Bros. Records purchased 49% of Sub Pop, therein absorbing them into "the machine" while still retailing some of their indie cred ... 51% of it to be exact. I think it's pretty unlikely that will happen for OUYA, but you never know what the future holds.