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22 September, 2016

Why Did the OUYA Fail? Reflecting on the Little Console That Couldn’t

Despite the initial groundswell of support, the OUYA microconsole faded from the limelight just as quickly as it sprang up. So why did the OUYA fail to connect with gamers?

Though there were doubters, the excitement was palpable. A new microconsole was poised to enter the market, ushering in a new way to game with the spectacular promise of “upending console gaming”. With brash confidence and even greater ambition, the stylish OUYA was born. Running on the Android operating system and priced at just US$99, many people felt that the OUYA’s lofty goal of breaking into living rooms dominated by traditional console manufacturers was in the realm of possibility.

Fast forward several years and the only remaining legacy of the OUYA is the dust-covered units either packed away in disgruntled early adopters’ cupboards or jamming up eBay’s auction listings. The company itself is no more, with the leftover scraps bought by Razer Inc. RIP OUYA, 2013-2015.

With such momentum behind it, how could the OUYA fall from grace so spectacularly in only a few short years? Now that the dust has well and truly settled – even if the bitterness still lingers – we thought it might be a good chance to reflect on the little console that couldn't. Sorry, OUYA owners – our condolescences.

Size Matters: Big Ambition, Small Package

On 3 July 2012, the gaming world raised its collective eyebrow with intrigue. Entrepreneur and visionary Julie Uhrman (then CEO of Boxer8) announced that a new kind of video game console was in the works. That console, or rather microconsole, was the OUYA – an open-design unit powered by the Android 4.1 (Jellybean) operating system. With heavyweight designers sitting on the creative team like Yves Behar (designer of the Jambox), there was good reason to throw support behind the company.

Measuring as a 75mm cube and weighing 300gm, the OUYA managed to pack a lot into its sleek design. With a Tegra3 quad-core processor, 1GB Ram and 8GB of internal flash storage, the unit may not have been a beast by any stretch of the imagination but it was still impressive especially for its price point of US$99. The unit also shipped with an HDMI cable (with support for up to 1080p HD) and a wireless controller (though Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii controllers could also be used). Games would be available via digital distribution or by sideloading.

While the OUYA would not set any benchmarks for graphical grunt, that was not the selling point of the console. Instead, the OUYA was poised to straddle the divide between console and mobile gaming, coining the cute phrase “it’s time we brought back innovation, experimentation and creativity to the big screen”. In particular, the brains behind OUYA were concerned that the traditional console market was turning developers away because of the high costs and increasing complexity in making games. For anyone that’s been around the traps for some time, this was certainly a valid concern with the industry slowly but surely fragmenting along AAA developer vs indie developer fault lines.

The big revolution OUYA had in mind was to literally open up the platform, throwing the doors wide open to developers. On the hardware side hackers were encouraged, with the console being easy to root without voiding warranty. Hackers could literally open up every part of the console and create custom peripherals, which could be connected via USB or Bluetooth.

On the software side all units could be used as development kits, allowing any owner to develop games without licensing fees. The only stipulation was that developers were required to make at least some portion of their game free, such as a free trial or in-game purchasable upgrades.

Like a seductive siren call, this big pitch certainly caught people’s attention. Many, many people in fact. On 10 July 2012, the OUYA crept its way on to Kickstarter. Even today – 4 years later - the OUYA console remains the seventh highest funded project on Kickstarter, with 63,416 backers pledging just shy of US$8.6 million. This was 9 times the project’s goal of US$950,000 (which was reached in just 8 hours.) At the time, the Kickstarter project boasted other impressive statistics like being the fastest ever project to $1 million, and attracting 1 backer every 6 seconds over the first day.

With people excited and money in the bank, the OUYA’s fortunes were certainly looking rosy. However, it didn’t take long for the honeymoon period to wear off with OUYA’s lofty ambitions and reality set for a collision course.

The Downward Spiral: Is it about my cube?

The OUYA hit retail shelves on 25 June 2013, with Kickstarter backers’ units having shipped three months earlier. Though hard sales data is difficult to source, by all accounts the numbers were less than impressive. In the month following the console’s release, the NPD Group described OUYA sales as “relatively light”. A remark which Uhrman did not take kindly to, releasing a tersely worded statement:

“Nobody thinks much about NPD numbers since we all know they miss critical data including reporting from digital retailers or company sites. OUYA sold every unit available launch week and are currently still chasing demand”.

Unnamed and unverified sources put OUYA’s sales in the first month at around 13,000 – 19,000 units. Though this should be taken with a massive grain of salt, if true, it certainly tracks in line with the NPD Group’s comments.

From a pure design perspective, the OUYA certainly seemed to be lacking. Many gaming and technological outlets gave lukewarm reviews to the console citing issues such as a sub-par controller, deficiencies in performance (like input lag and poor framerates) and a poorly designed user interface. But perhaps the kicker was that the console had a very limited library of games. And of those games, most were considered “mobile/casual games" (shudders involuntarily). In most cases, review outlets cited the console as having loads of potential which it had yet to live up to.

On the software side, things were looking pretty grim. One of the highest profile OUYA exclusive titles was Towerfall from developer Matt Thorson. In an interview with Eurogamer, Thorson commented that Towerfall had only moved around 7,000 units after a year. This was enough to land Towerfall the dubious prestige of being the OUYA’s best-selling game, which Thorson commented “…isn’t a  big deal, but it is nice”. By this time, Thorson had ported Towerfall to PC and PS4, where the game met with much greater success.

However you might cut the data, things were not looking particularly good for the OUYA. By this time, support for the so-called revolutionary platform was already waning despite the brash confidence exuded by OUYA executives. Could Team OUYA inject a much needed shot of enthusiasm into the market or would it slink away into the night?

The Twilight Zone

Not one to shy away from a challenge, the brains behind OUYA stepped up to the plate ready for a fight. In July 2013, OUYA announced a “Free the Games Fund” scheme, where the company would support developers to make games exclusively for the console. OUYA promised that it would match any Kickstarter project if a minimum target of $50,000 was reached and provided the game remained an OUYA exclusive title for at least six months. It was a good idea in theory but the execution remained a lot to be desired.

An analysis of the problems that dogged the Free the Games Fund is worthy of a feature piece by itself. Suffice to say, in short, the scheme was open to significant abuse. Suspicions were raised about the first few titles that qualified under the scheme, with allegations of “fake” backers artificially inflating their Kickstarter pledges so as to receive the support of OUYA. This was enough to turn away many legitimate developers citing that genuine backers had lost confidence in the veracity of the scheme. The long list of missteps and bruises was starting to take its toll on the company.

In October 2013, the company announced its intention to bring a new iteration of the console to market. It would have double the storage space (16GB), an improved controller and better wi-fi. The new and improved version of the OUYA hit shelves in January 2014 with a slightly heftier price tag of US$129. It is unclear how the new version of the console performed at retail.

Notwithstanding the growing problems, a silver lining was that the number of developers and games on the OUYA platform was continuing to grow. By the end of 2014, OUYA reported that more than 1,000 games were available, with many notable developers having brought titles to the platform. In total, around 40,000 developers were registered. However, it was too little too late.

Despite receiving an injection of capital to the tune of US$10 million from Chinese e-commerce group Alibaba in January 2015, the company was crippled by its mounting debts and inability to service those debts. Only several months later in April 2015, Uhrman sent a letter to investors informing them that OUYA had failed to satisfy its investors’ conditions and so was unable to renegotiate its debt. The only option left for OUYA was to put itself up for sale.

This sad and sorry tale finally came to an end in July 2015, when gaming company Razer announced it had purchased OUYA's software assets and staff, but not the hardware. On the same day the deal was finalised, Uhrman stepped down as CEO of OUYA to pursue other projects. 

Why Did the OUYA Fail to Connect With Gamers?

The OUYA is a fascinating case study: why did such a promising console with huge support fail to resonate with gamers? The problem was that the OUYA had a massive identity crisis: in trying to appeal to everyone, it appealed to no one.

The OUYA sought to occupy the perilous middle ground between traditional console gaming and mobile gaming, looking to connect the best of both worlds. It is no easy task to appeal to both audiences simultaneously, something which handheld consoles have done fairly well. But it takes something pretty special to exist and thrive in this middle ground. Case in point – Nintendo’s DS consoles continue to perform strongly while Sony’s PS Vita now languishes on the scrap heap. Unfortunately for the OUYA, it did not have that special X-factor needed to survive in this space.

The OUYA’s software library was described as mostly casual games targeted at a casual audience. And therein lies the problem. Unfortunately, the company found out the hard way that traditional console gamers have little appetite to play casual/mobile games in the comfort of their living room, while casual/mobile gamers did not want to play these games in anything less than in a mobile fashion. Attempting to leverage the mobile platform in the living room was a failure.

Unfortunately, the specs underpinning the OUYA meant that we were never going to see groundbreaking titles make their way to the little console. At the end of the day, what we typically saw was developers porting their already-released mobile games to the console due to the relatively light developmental effort involved. For games that were designed to be played on the go, why would gamers want to sacrifice the benefit of mobility? The living room space remains dominated by home console games.

Final Thoughts: An Interesting Experiment

Whatever your thoughts about the OUYA, it was an undeniably interesting experiment. The company gave it a red hot go, but unfortunately, were unable to make inroads into the deeply entrenched and disparate cultures of mobile vs console gaming. With its spectacular failure, don’t expect to see a deluge of new microconsoles flood the market anytime soon. But perhaps that’s for the best. Where there are true gaps in the market, someone will fill it. But for now, gamers don't seemingly want to play their mobile-based games in the living room. And fair enough too - mobile gaming is built on a pillar of, well, mobility. Sacrificing that mobility is not something we are ready to do.

Stephen Mitchell

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