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Developers cautiously optimistic about the Ouya's ambitious promise

Developers cautiously optimistic about the Ouya's ambitious promise Exclusive

July 17, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

July 17, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

It's far too early to declare it a success, but the crowdfunded Ouya console is at least trying something new. The $99, Android-based device has reached its goal and raised almost $5 million dollars on Kickstarter, and promises to break away from traditional consoles by offering a platform that's cheap, accessible, and open to anyone who wants to make games. It's an exciting promise, but many developers admit that there are still plenty of questions still left unanswered.

Gamasutra recently spoke to a number of major independent developers -- Ouya's target content creators -- to get their thoughts on the console, and the general consensus was one of cautious optimism.

The small-scale development community is excited to see a platform that's appealing directly to them, but with so many details still up in the air, no one knows how it's really going to turn out.

Adam Saltsman, for instance, was one of the first developers to show support for the Ouya (his game, Canabalt, was included in the Ouya promotional materials), but even he is unsure of the console's future. He really wants to see the device embrace some of the values of the mobile space -- namely, it's open nature -- but he's not sure whether its prepared to handle the discoverability and quality control issues that plague mobile platforms.

"As far as I know, [the Ouya] is basically identical to existing platforms like Google Play and the iTunes App Store. Those platforms have obvious discovery problems due to the open submissions, but there are lots of ways a proprietary storefront could mitigate problems like that," Saltsman said. "Whether or not the Ouya store will mitigate those problems, I have no idea! And whether or not they will be truly open or more Apple-style 'open' -- with some editorial vetoing of content -- I have no idea either."

Like Saltsman, Owlchemy Labs' Alex Schwartz (Snuggle Truck) likes the idea of a console that allows developers to succeed without a publisher. Of course, mobile platforms like iOS and Android have proven this model can work, and he also hopes the Ouya will follow in their footsteps.

"To me, openness means that as a developer, I don't need to partner with a major publisher solely to buy a 'slot' on the storefront. The current console development process is pretty broken right now, and if Ouya turns into something akin to the App Store or Google Play, I think they'll find success," he said.

While he's too busy making Wasteland 2 to think of creating games for the Ouya, InXile's Brian Fargo was particularly hopeful for the Ouya's success, and said he's fully behind the console's ideals. Granted, it's quite another thing to put those ideals into practice, but from where he's standing, he thinks the platform is on the right track, and if all goes well, it could become a real alternative to the mainstream, traditional console.

"There are pluses and minuses to open systems [like the Ouya], but when the television is closed to smaller developers they can't succeed... I believe Ouya represents a far better option for accessing the TV than what exists for smaller developers today. I'll take conversations about what the best way to handle discoverability over talks about why only the big publishers get to be on a TV in any meaningful way."

Like the other developers we spoke to, Happion Laboratories' Jamie Fristrom (Energy Hook) is crossing his fingers for the Ouya's success, and noted that if it takes off, it could give his experimental, small-scale games a real shot at finding success on the TV.

"There are plenty of closed platforms out there already," Fristrom said "I'd like to be able to play my own game -- Energy Hook -- on my TV once I finish it, and who knows if I'll be able to get a slot on one of the big three consoles!"

What makes the Ouya so unique?

Given that it's embracing an open marketplace, and even taking a 30 percent cut from app sales (like on iOS), the Ouya is clearly borrowing many ideas from the mobile realm, so the question remains -- why would developers choose that device over one that's... actually mobile? After all, Android tablets can support TV out and Bluetooth controllers already, so what makes this Android console so different?

For Brian Fargo, it's not important that the Ouya's a console, but it's important that it offers a unified platform for the TV. He believes smaller teams need that accessible, centralized marketplace for TV-based games -- otherwise, it wouldn't be a market worth pursuing.

"To me, the semantics of what something is called is somewhat irrelevant," Fargo said. "I am focused on what screen the user is experiencing and so far the smaller groups have innovated some incredible work on PC, iOS and tablet. I don't think we have seen the same level of innovation happening on the television. And while there are tablets that can talk to the television, they lack that unified approach and store."

For Adam Saltsman, it's about creating a comfortable user experience. While he says its perfectly viable to plug your tablet into a television, that experience is "subtly but critically different" from just picking up a controller and getting right into a game.

"When it comes to player experience, I think every little obstacle you remove between players and the thing their device is supposed to do is a big help, and dedicated devices definitely have a head start in that department," Adam Saltsman said.

"Also, it's hard to find tablets for $100 -- and developers typically aren't going to make games for tablets that use separate controllers, because they don't come standard," added Happion Laboratories' Jamie Fristrom.

All in all, the developers agreed that the Ouya's standardized, accessible platform could prove to be a great opportunity for the small and indie developer -- if it delivers on its promise.

When it comes to developing games for the Ouya, none of the developers we spoke to said they'd want to develop original games for the platform. Instead, they're hedging their bets, and eyeing the platform as a new venue for their multiplatform titles for now. Perhaps that's a safe strategy, since despite its ambition and lofty goals, we don't how the final product will turn out.

There are some creative, ambitious ideas there, but the Ouya still has to make good on its word.

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