There’s something inherently appealing about the idea of an open game console. Whether you’re talking from a developer or consumer perspective, an open, well-supported ecosystem has a number of advantages, theoretically.
But with the Ouya, one of the most-hyped products in the history of open game platforms, that initial burning-hot enthusiasm wasn’t great enough to overcome the practical challenges of chasing the idea of an “open” platform (scare quotes because it’s easy to argue Ouya was never truly open).
Ouya hype fizzled since its launch in 2013. Recently, game hardware company Razer essentially acqui-hired Ouya’s game and tech relations talent—teams that will be working on Razer’s own Android microconsole efforts. While the Ouya name will exist as a publishing label at Razer, the deal effectively ends the brand's original positioning as an open, TV-connected console with standardized hardware.
But does the demise of Ouya mean that open microconsoles ("microconsoles" here defined as low cost TV-connected game devices with standardized hardware and a mobile OS) are doomed now and forever? Can there ever be a successful, truly open microconsole?
The viability and success of the Ouya and other such devices is complicated. Even the idea of “success” for a microconsole needs some re-imagining if the concept of such a device is to live on.
Ryan “icculus” Gordon, a prominent computer programmer, Linux expert, and open source advocate, says in an email, “I think [an open Android-based console] can be successful, but it can't be successful in the way that, say, a PlayStation or Xbox console would be. Not everything has have profits like Microsoft or Sony to be a success. So let's avoid that metric right from the start."
"In [Ouya's] best case scenario, they were going to be a shitty imitation of Xbox Live Arcade."
Gordon points out that Ouya was founded upon a couple of ideas: that a platform could be home to a flourishing ecosystem where any entity can develop and publish games; and that there is an audience for an inexpensive, “good enough” game console.
Those are fine ideas, but, Gordon says, Ouya’s execution was lacking. The final product was an Android console that was built on open systems, but was too walled off to fulfill the original pitch of an open platform.
“In practice, [Ouya] was meant to be something Not Android,” says Gordon.
Game designer and consultant Tadhg Kelly got up close and personal with Ouya’s operations, serving in developer relations and free-to-play advising at the company for nine months. He says that no, open microconsoles aren’t necessarily doomed, but companies exploring the space need to apply important lessons learned from Ouya's failure as a device.
Kelly explained in an email:
“The four things that I think the microconsoles struggled against were:
(1) an ironic lack of openness,
(2) a player culture that never really connected with the idea,
(3) a large degree of skepticism from the gaming media and many high-profile indie developers and
(4) a product class trying to launch into the headwind on oncoming big consoles that were much more powerful and had much deeper pockets to fund game productions and secure exclusives.”
Of these factors, Kelly says, the first two—openness and a disconnect with players—were the most notable.
“Getting players into the idea in the first place is a big challenge, and the key to doing so is in radical openness,” says Kelly. “At the start that spirit did exist. Ouya raised that massive Kickstarter after all, so the will to see change was there. However in retrospect the huge mistake that Ouya (and all the rest) made was then trying to be too slick, professional and console-like.
"It needed to be a kind of Raspberry Pi for console game development but instead acted more like a wee PlayStation."
“It was managed and glossy when what it needed was dirty and messy,” he adds. “It needed to be a kind of Raspberry Pi for console game development but instead acted more like a wee PlayStation, which was a pitch that had no chance of succeeding.”
As Kelly notes, there was also a large degree of skepticism from game developers. Fredrik Wester is CEO of Paradox, the company best known for PC-based grand strategy games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. He’s also an outspoken proponent of open game platforms, which he (like many) argue are fertile grounds for innovation.
“The Ouya wasn’t that interesting to us, and we didn’t make any games for it,” he says. “The main reason was the install base never reached any numbers that were close to what we were looking for. To even break even on a game, we’d need to reach every single Ouya owner, basically.”
Wester, who has argued in the past that the game landscape might simply become four OSes fighting against one another, said it’s hard for him to picture a third-party (i.e. non-OS holder) like Ouya jump in and become a success. “[A successful microconsole] needs to be from a company that has global reach, and a company with experience in hardware or hardware relations,” he says.
“The hardcore gamers who’re still paying $400 for a console and $60 games, we know the size of that market. We have no idea about the market for a $100 console,” Wester adds. “But I guess that a lot of players who would buy a [$100 console] are today playing on their iPads or their cell phones.”
So with the serious challenges of open game consoles established, what are the possible paths to success? Gordon says companies taking on the microconsole challenge have two options: to control the marketplace and not the hardware, or to control the hardware and not the marketplace.
Ecosystems like SteamOS and Android both feature a controlled marketplace (with varying degrees of openness), and can appear on any kind of hardware. The latter ecosystem we can see does work in practice (though Android’s openness does cause some headaches for developers--that's a topic of discussion within itself).
"Yeah, 'open' stuff can work, but it has to actually be open somewhere."
The other approach – controlling the hardware and not the marketplace – is the other option, says Gordon. In this case, developers would target a standard platform, but consumers would be able to buy their software wherever they want, “without any significant obligations...like how we used to walk into a big box retailer and buy a Commodore 64 disk in the 1980s. Commodore didn't get a cut of that, and the retailer only got the sales of a game that other retailers didn't get first.”
Android actually has an example of this approach as well. Even though the Google Play store is the marketplace that many Android users buy from by default, they can also download alternative storefronts and run them on Android, such as Amazon’s App Store.
Says Gordon, “So yeah, ‘open’ stuff can work, but it has to actually be open somewhere.” To him and others, Ouya really wasn’t open at all, outside of Ouya being based on the open Android OS. Ouya required developers to target their hardware and to sell through their proprietary marketplace -- the definition of a walled garden.
“In [Ouya's] best case scenario, they were going to be a shitty imitation of Xbox Live Arcade,” he says.
Controlling both the marketplace and the hardware only works when a company uses massive amounts of resources to leverage its way into the market--i.e., if you've got the resources of Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, or Apple, sure, try building walls around your garden.
An open game console might work. But such devices, depending on how they’re positioned, could see overwhelming competition from the mobile phone market.
“Where are all the people that would own a small console and play small games?” asks Gordon. “That market already exists and is flourishing. These people are walking around with a console capable of playing Unreal Engine 4 games in their pocket, and occasionally do [play games] when not using the hardware to check Facebook. Maybe path no. 3 to success is ‘have AT&T subsidize your console hardware with a two-year contract.'"
In the end, says Kelly, microconsoles need to offer something new--to not ape the big console market: "To be different rather than smaller, chaotic rather than managed and ultimately very, very geeky. That's how the open console will eventually succeed."