6 Months With Ouya
Released in late June 2013, the Ouya video game console was going copy the Apple App Store business model, tweak it slightly (try Apps for free for a limited time), be ‘Indie-Developer Friendly’, and they would be poised to be the casual/social, less-high-powered, alternative to Playstation and X-Box. But, as is often the case, plans are one thing, reality is another…
For those who are unfamiliar, the Ouya is an interesting and attractive little game console. But it doesn’t have a lot of horsepower. Think, maybe a Nexus tablets worth. A quad-core Tegra 3 SoC, running quad-cores at 1.7GHz, 1 GB of RAM and 8GB internal storage, it is way more like a mobile device than a traditional console. Running a custom version of Android, theoretically, as the Tegra chipsets were to be widely deployed in Android tablets, all these decisions make sense on paper.
Hardware-wise, things are mostly solid for the Ouya. The controller is well balanced and feels sturdy, but is not as responsive as most gamers will be accustomed to, and that can be frustrating. The touch-area on the controller sits at the top-center, positioned in a completely awkward place for use in-game. As a mouse-pad in the build-in web browser, it’s okay, but really not any easier than navigating with the thumbsticks. The real issues with Oyua isn’t with the controllers or with the horsepower, it has enough for some good looking games. The problem, familiar to Android fans, is the lack of quality software. Take, for example, two driving games on the Ouya, each with different, yet predictable, problems.
The first is Destruction Derby Reloaded, meant – I believe – to be an homage to the classic Psygnosis game Destruction Derby. This game looks passable, although it does suffers from some really bad pop-up. The physics engine, on the other hand, is pretty good, cars corner and spin in a mostly realistic way. The second game is Highway Rally, which is a standard arcade-racer. This game looks really good, with nice rendering of distant objects, good modeling and nice use of lighting and reflections. But the physics and controls are terrible, with cars bouncing between guardrails at the lightest touch. In my experience, the Oyua Store suffers like most Android app stores – there are talented programmers out there, but it’s really rare to find someone, let alone 3-4 someones, talented enough to pull together all of the things that make a great game.
That’s not to say there aren’t good games on the Ouya, it’s just that there’s very, very few of them. I think Bombsquad is lots of fun, and Skiing Fred is too. It’s too bad these are the exception, rather than the rule. Still, when you find a good one, prices are reasonable – usually $5-10. The real upside to the Ouya, unfortunately for Ouya, isn’t the strength of it’s exclusive-titles line-up, it’s emulation. I say unfortunate for Ouya because emulation apps are almost always free, so there is no revenue-stream there. Ouya hopes that retro-gamers will be open to buying some original games to go with their emulators, so their ’embrace’ of emulation seems more strategic than philosophical. Regardless, it should be said that there is simply no easier or cheaper way to play emulators on your TV than with Ouya.
So, after 6 months with Ouya, would I do it again? I think the answer is “probably”, since I got it primarily for emulation. With that strong caveat, were it not for retro gaming I believe I would regret the purchase. $100 for the system and a controller is not a big loss, but, outside of emulation, it just does not do anything particularly well yet. It has versions of Plex, VLC and XMBC, and can be an inexpensive way to access media for anyone not committed to iTunes. It’s got a weather and a clock app, but I’m not turning it on to check the forecast or the time. The Ouya is a nice little system, and, for some folks, it should be ideal. But, the number of those folks is pretty small, limited to – retro-gamers, people looking to replace a hulking HTPC with a low-energy streamer, and those interested in learning how to program for the Ouya. Unfortunately for Ouya, until some higher quality software comes along, that’s going to be the limit of its appeal.