The gaming status quo has been shaken in recent years by the indie revolution. Returning to the garage-programmer roots of video games, indies have shown that it doesn’t take millions of dollars and the might of a huge corporation to connect with your audience and turn a dollar at the same time. Small teams of one or two programmers produce blockbusters like Braid and Super Meat Boy, Mojang self publishes Minecraft and makes millions, and Tim Schafer raises a small fortune on Kickstarter, to revive classic adventure games. The indie incursion into the software space has been largely successful, but the major players could relax in the knowledge that such talent couldn’t produce the hardware. Until now. Enter the OUYA.
OUYA was revealed to the public on Wednesday, in a Kickstarter project with the aim of raising 950K to produce and distribute a brand new open-source TV game console. Based on the Android platform, OUYA is designed to leverage off the indie revolution and provide small-time developers a cheap and easy way to access gamers’ living rooms. Selling with a controller for a mere $99, the price seemed right, but would it connect with the target audience? Within less than 24 hours there was an answer. It took mere hours for the Kickstarter to reach its goal, and over $2.5 million was made on the first day. OUYA is obviously a resounding success. Or was it?
There are a number of questions unresolved about the OUYA, not least of which is what games will be available. The pledge video mentions two games specifically by name, Canabalt and Minecraft. Inspect the video and accompanying pitch however, and some things become a little clearer. Firstly, the makers of OUYA are extremely careful not to definitively claim that either of these games will come to OUYA. Rather it is mentioned that there are Android versions of each game, with the implication that they will be easily available on their new console. It is unclear whether OUYA will provide unfiltered access to the entirety of the Android store, or whether OUYA-specific versions of games will need to be created. It is probably worth noting that a game created for a mobile phone screen will look rather rough when blown up on your High-Definition television.
If OUYA specific versions of games need to be created, then it will make sense for developers to start thinking about prosaic things such as install base. There is potentially a greater cause for concern here for prospective OUYA developers. Whilst $2.5 million is indeed a rather large number, it translates to a rather smaller number of users. At the time of writing, this translated to a little over 18,000 consoles being sent to customers. There are serious questions over whether the makers can ramp up production to keep up with demand. The official Twitter account for OUYA responded to a question over the limited numbers available, stating “Just trying to figure out how many we can make — and shocked by demand. We can’t do “unlimited” because we need to deliver.”
Conservatively estimating, let us assume that after the initial excitement and rush on the first day of the Kickstarter that they double current numbers and manage to sell 40,000 units. Let us also assume that they have the appropriate manufacturing capacity. 40,000 units is not a lot of customers to sell your game to, especially when OUYA has a requirement that all games have a free to play component, even if this is just a trial period. The jury is out on conversion rates from free to paid apps, but most analysts agree that the numbers aren’t pretty. Looking at the sales for some of the least successful consoles of all time makes an estimate of 40,000 even more sobering.
The Nintendo Virtual Boy sold 770,000 units, and the Atari Jaguar sold 125,000. Even the Apple Pippin managed 42,000 units. What all these consoles had in common was an inability to shift consoles after launch, coupled with a dearth of quality games being available. For success, OUYA will need a strong lineup of quality games early in its lifecycle as well as an ability to meet demand for new consoles. The ray of sunshine here for OUYA is that 40,000 units IS probably a conservative estimate considering the level of enthusiasm displayed with gamers. Manufacturing capacity is likely to be the major stumbling block.
So, questions remain. What games will be available? How many units can be manufactured in time for launch? Will OUYA-specific versions of Android games need to be produced? Will this be economically feasible for developers? Hopefully the answers to these questions will become apparent in the coming days. Whilst $2.5 million is a lot of money, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo don’t need to quake in their boots just yet. OUYA is a glorious experiment however, and one that all gamers should watch with interest.