In the hardware messaging war, Ouya's playing the wrong notes
When a platform holder is careless about messaging, it dents its value proposition for developers, argues Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander.
You may have noticed that the Ouya's marketing has been a little... off. Its mouthy 90s-magazine slogan "GET SOME" is abrasive enough on its own, but when it was infamously paired with an announcement about a game based on the tragedy of pediatric cancer
"The powerfully-moving That Dragon, Cancer
is now an OUYA exclusive. GET SOME," blabbed the company in a now-deleted but unfortunately-memorable tweet.
Just yesterday, an ad circulated on the Android console maker's official YouTube channel where a grotesque, cartoonish man in his underpants ripped out his own spine and filled his living room to the brim with vomit over the price tag of a fictional console game.
After the ad raised a lot of eyebrows -- is a disruptive, lightweight and supposedly indie-friendly platform really marketing itself with a rage-spewing adult in underpants? -- the company distanced itself, first claiming the ad (professionally commissioned and on Ouya's own channel) was not official, before eventually relenting later in the day
and admitting it had been "experimenting... to get feedback from the community." [Video mirrored above on a YouTube user's personal site.]
If that had been the intent, why not release it to a limited focus group? Perhaps I'm not generous enough with my benefit of the doubt, but I've a sneaking suspicion lots of people saw the ad, loved it, posted it and were somehow fully shocked by the reception.
Out of step with the times
The multiple misfires create an odd conflict: the demographic available to game developers is clearly evolving as the traditional core matures and new hardware lets them reach new audiences with a wide, promising variety of content. Affordable so-called "microconsoles" like Ouya are part of the necessary (and exciting!) disruption of the traditional business.
But this vision of the traditional living-room market -- hysterical manchildren howling to have their faces melted and "GET SOME" -- is not only inauspicious messaging about games' future, but is puzzlingly out of step with the times.
Poor communication dents the value proposition for small and independent developers, who suddenly have a plentitude of platform choices in an age that sees console makers scrabbling desperately for their fealty in an attempt to distinguish themselves.
Ouya has the opportunity to position itself as a low-cost, consumer-friendly bastion of openness and independence for game creators, and the console's squandering that goodwill in an effort to match the brand proposition of some bygone-age AAA console. In conversations with the press it even resists the term "microconsole" at all, preferring "gaming system that offers exclusive content."
Even the company's voucher to apologize to backers for late delivery was $13.37
-- last-gen internet jargon favored by fans of competitive shooters. At best, this messy angling for a dated definition of the "core gamer" does a disservice to developers flocking to its platform in the hopes it will offer something different. At worst, Ouya's miscommunications border on the disrespectful: It announced a $1 million Free the Games fund by which it would offer funding matches for games that had successfully raised over $50,000 on their own on Kickstarter, in exchange for six months of Ouya exclusivity.
Sounds good, right? But when questioned by a colleague, the company struggled to answer questions on what would become of participating Free the Fund games that failed to meet the $50,000 self-funding goal. Were they still obligated to exclusivity, and to wait six months for possible revenue from other platforms, if they ultimately funded and finished the game on their own?
"No ... Of course, if you don't meet your Kickstarter goal at all, then maybe that means you can't afford to make a game," the company's Free the Games Fund FAQ states. "We'll be sad, of course, but we'll understand if the game you can't afford to make isn't on Ouya." Not the most tactful language when talking to people who want to support your console. Even still, as of right now, the fund's official website
says that eligibility for the program requires developers "commit that this game will be an Ouya exclusive for six months -- no matter what."
It's one thing to willingly undersell the opportunities in the current market by targeting history's constraining old "18-24 year-old male" demographic, but another thing entirely to misstep when it comes to demonstrating openness, enthusiasm and genuine respect for developers and their content. I've written before
and spoken last GDC
about how out-of-touch marketing damages games, but for a platform, it can be lethal.
The current hardware war is taking place on many fronts, and the extent to which it's a combat of messaging has never been clearer. It's the ideals of openness, flexibility, and friendliness to developers (particularly indies) and consumers that are winning the day in the traditional hardware market.
Even though John Carmack made headlines
by declaring the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One "essentially the same," Sony has the spiritual lead by far thanks to its decision to put indies at the forefront
-- and because of a series of Xbox One messaging missteps about used games, Kinect requirements, self-publishing (you name it) that made Microsoft look like it was unready for primetime at best -- and tone-deaf to consumers and developers at worst.
To some extent, we expect off notes from massive corporations, for whom building and refining strategy in the face of intense competition can often be like turning a barge around. It's unfortunate to see the same kind of mistakes come from a company we look to to be an agile little-guy, a champion alternative for developers seeking new routes in a market suddenly erupting with brand-new opportunities. For developers who hitched their star to that proposition (and legitimized the experimental platform with their attention), Ouya risks leaving the taste of a bait-and-switch.
Enthusiasm for Ouya is driven by hope among creators and players alike for something new, so let's hope the company stops alternately ignoring and insulting the spirit that's allowed it to get this far. If the company wants to take advantage of its chance to GET SOME -- success in the current hardware landscape, that is -- it's going to have to do something about its message.