OUYA: Dead on arrival
The game industry is currently abuzz with the Kickstarter success of OUYA, “a new kind of video game console” as described by its creators. It reminds me a lot of how Apple started out in the early days – rebels in the world of Orwellian corporations. What it fails to do in my eyes, however, is convince me of being able to reach its lofty goals – revolutionizing the suffering console market. When you take a split-second glance at it, you see disruptive innovation written all over it. Look harder, though, and the mask starts to fall apart piece by piece. Here’s why.
Open platform, no gatekeepers = anarchy at its best
The company says it will let developers release whatever their hearts will desire. That means there will be no curation and ill-intentioned developers will be able flood the store with drivel, no questions asked. Want to make a quick buck and sell trash to consumers? Go ahead, there’s nobody stopping you! Yes, each game (or app) will require developers to give away a sequence for free, but what if that sequence is not indicative of the final product? What if the whole thing is orchestrated so as to mislead the consumer? Potential voting systems, you say? Those can easily be abused. Lack of curation is clearly not the answer.
This also begs the question: How will gamers find the good games in the midst of a sea of apps? Don’t forget, the sea which includes trash that other platforms ditch at first sight (or at least aim to do that).
And then there is piracy which will likely be a big problem from the get-go. Android is known to have a high level of piracy as it is and OUYA seems like it will only take it a step further.
This bring us to the most troubling hole I personally see in OUYA’s strategy – its target audience.
Target audience not interested
Clearly, the core gamer is the voluptuous woman (or man, whatever floats your boat) OUYA is wooing here. And, as we are all well aware, core gamers are not the biggest fans of social/mobile games, especially those associated in any kind of way with the three dreaded letters – F2P (free-to-play) (Edit: There are some F2P exceptions, such as League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, but the success of these has a lot to do with accessibility which I talk about later on). The company makes a big mistake describing their games as “free to play” right on their introductory Kickstarter page, even though this definition of theirs also includes paid titles with demos and subscription-based games.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a much bigger problem for F2P games on OUYA. It is said that around 10% of the total user base consists of paying users when it comes to F2P titles. That’s if you are GREE or DeNA which most companies aren’t. Not even Zynga can get that number. Zynga, the Facebook dominator, enjoys “only” 1.2% of paying users from its dropping number of MAU (monthly active users) which, at the time of writing, sits at 235 million users. Here’s the catch – the majority of these users consists of the casual users who don’t mind paying up to refill their energy bar.
Don’t forget, core gamers don’t like the F2P rule book. Even if a developer, say, decided to make a AAA F2P which would respect the user and would focus on fun first, monetization later, it still wouldn’t be viable, as such a project would cost a lot of dineros. Therefore, to even consider the option of going big in the F2P space, the developer would first need an established audience of large proportions which I don’t see materializing due to the open, free-for-all nature of the platform touched upon earlier.
Yet another problem with the core market, the kind which supports the traditional business model, is that they already own either an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, both of which offer a plethora of fantastic indie games available from closed, but heavily curated digital stores. Of course, that’s in addition to the more popular high-budget retail titles and supplementary entertainment media services, like Netflix. And let’s not forget that both of these consoles are heavily rumoured to soon go down in price, given the disappointing sales numbers in 2012.
And that’s not all. Also threatening is the eventual arrival of next-gen successors which are rumoured to be unleashed in Fall 2013, at the earliest. You can bet your bottom dollar that quite a few core gamers are heavily anticipating the arrival of this eight console generation and have no problem waiting until they hit store shelves.
Accessibility plays a crucial role too
All throughout the post so far I intentionally ignored the core PC audience. PC gamers are known to be heavy supporters of indie titles, especially the Steam community. They were the ones who gave rise to the incredible success of Minecraft. One might point to them and say they are THE target audience for OUYA, but that would be wrong. PC offers something which OUYA doesn’t and that’s accessibility. Desktops and laptops are EVERYWHERE. People buy them to do indispensable tasks, such as watching cats doing all sorts of crazy shit and, duh, watching porn. That and play video games. Housewives seek relief in going on shopping sprees in FarmVille and core gamers immerse themselves in recreating Westeros in Minecraft. There’s a reason why many of these gamers don’t want consoles – they don’t need one, because PC serves all of their needs, gaming-related or not.
The same goes for iOS and Android platforms. They are mobile phone platforms and their primary use is communication. The games that are available in the app stores are just a (big) plus, nothing more. Mobile phone buyers don’t go “It has Angry Birds, GOTTA get one of those!” prior to purchasing the device. Therefore, equating the iOS/Android user base and potential with OUYA’s Android-based platform in any kind of way is a HUGE no-no.
In short, games available for PC and mobile are highly accessible, because these two consumer electronic devices are so damn wide-spread. EVERYBODY has them. And their primary/sole functions are not gaming. In contrast, OUYA is a dedicated game console.
My conclusion is that OUYA will not enjoy anywhere near the level of success expected by so many people. It will cater to a really small niche of consumers, offering nothing more than a hacker-friendly platform filled to the brim with a plethora of futile games/apps. The capital-lettered console clearly got the attention of the industry, but don’t hold your breath for it to get anything more than that.
Edit: I addressed a comment regarding the success of core-centered F2P titles, such as League of Legends and Team Fortress 2. Thanks Ben.