We talk to the people behind the hackable console and ask why they've taken to crowdfunding

Kickstarting Ouya – Was it right?

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about the $99 hackable console Ouya taking the industry by storm thanks to a cash-rich Kickstarter campaign.

The new platform pledges to open up the console space for developers. Traditionally hardware manufacturers rule closed systems, so anyone who tampers with them instantly voids their warranty, while rigid, expensive and time consuming approval processes are the bane of many a developer’s life.

The device will be powered by a Tegra 3 Quad core processor, typically found in mobiles and tablets, and will feature HDMI compatibility, 8GB on-board Flash and 1GB of RAM.

The controller has been built, much like Ouya itself, to be mixture of the console and mobile markets, featuring the typical analogue and button layout, right down to the shape of the pad, with an added touch screen slightly similar to Nintendo’s own ambitions with the Wii U.

Ouya will even require developers to make a portion of their games free, whether that be using a free-to-play model or demos of each title on the store.

“We have a lot of support from the investor and entrepreneur community,” Ouya founder Julie Uhrman told Develop. “We raised money initially from individual investors.

“I love playing games on the TV, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the console gaming industry has faced a brain drain in recent years from both gamers and developers.

“They’re switching focus from TV to mobile platforms. Gamers find hardware and software still to be super expensive and developers feel that it is still complicated and expensive to bring games to the living room.

“A lot more of the creative, exciting and innovative games are coming to the mobile platform and not the TV. We think that’s a shame, there is no better screen for playing games than the television.

“We think that the core gamer is really going to like this. We think they’re going to find this as something cool. And there are going to be games on this platform that don’t make this to other consoles because at the end of the day they’re closed.

"They’re entrenched in just basically running a business and we think this is an audacious challenge to the status quo of traditional console gaming.”

But despite lofty and noble ambitions to break down the walls constructed by the likes of Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft in the console space, was it ethical to use the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter to gain funding the project?

Ouya already has high-profile support. The console is backed by Xbox co-creator Ed Fries and Jambox designer Yves Behar, working with former IGN VP of business development Uhrman.

The system’s endorsement list also offers impressive reading, with the likes of Mojang’s Markus Persson, Brian Fargo, Jenova Chen and Jordan Mechner pledging either their support or excitement over the idea.

So you would think that with such support and well-known, experienced backers and industry luminaries promoting the platform, money for Ouya is far from an issue. When Develop spoke to Uhrman, we asked why it felt the need to go to Kickstarter.

“This is a really big undertaking and it’s going to be expensive,” said Uhrman.

“We’re looking for additional funds of money but more importantly we wanted to take it to Kickstarter regardless. Because Kickstarter will give us the support we need from the gamers and developers to get additional content on the devices and bring additional partners to us.

"It is unbelievable validation where gamers really demonstrate their enthusiasm with for what we’re doing with dollars, and those numbers demonstrate that there is a market."

Revealing that Ouya would have taken the project to Kickstarter regardless means that, without a doubt, the crowdfunding site has been used as a promotional tool to gather awareness in an incredibly hard to break into market.

But when pushed again on the issue, and with a watchful PR suggesting Uhrman explain Ouya’s attempts to secure venture capitalist attention, the focus remained on the hype for the device.

“We’ve had some unbelievable early support from developers and game veterans, from Indies all the way to traditional triple-A publishers, there’s way too much momentum and support for us to stop,” she said.

Again, the matter is still unclear. Ouya’s PR team say this platform was a huge undertaking and that Kickstarter had a proven track record in the games space with gamers and enthusiasts.

“Everyone believes there is a product market fit here,” she said.

“The idea of bringing an open game console that’s affordable to gamers that can really bring new types of gaming to television that have never been able to make it there before because of the challenges of getting games into the living room.

“Developers love console gaming but they’re just incredibly frustrated by the process. We are creating a solution that has been incredibly well received with Notch, Brian, Adam and a handful of other developers already signed up.

“Developers are introducing us to other devs and some of the top studios out there have offered to work with us to make sure our platform is compatible with what they do, in some cases with cross-platform gaming or studying game engines to make sure we were responsible about how we built this so it is easy to leverage those engines for our platforms. So there is just an unbelievable amount of support.

“We were thoughtful about our path to market and this is really about openness. It’s really about the gamer and the developer. At the end of the day, we have screws on our controls so someone can get into it if they want. We will allow people to get inside our box without voiding the warranty.

“We have USB ports that allow a hobbyist or a hardware hacker to build peripherals. We really believe in this idea of openness and the best way to show that and get support for something that is really a bold move considering console gaming and how closed it is is to take it to Kickstarter.”

It’s unfair to paint a completely negative picture of Ouya and the ambitions of its creators.

As Uhrman says, the team behind it is looking bring the openness to consoles that has been missing for a long time, referring to it as ‘the people’s console’. This is something that is sorely needed.

And it is also not the only company to take on Kickstarter without really needing the attention of crowd-funders.

But being such a big project, and with so many developers looking to crowdfunding after failing to gain traction with investors, Ouya’s decision to take to Kickstarter will be seen by some as disappointing.

The backlash has already begun, in spite of what is undoubtedly a major success as the console continues to shatter records on Kickstarter.

However many will look at the crowdfunding campaign as $4.4m and counting not just going to a new console – but money lost that could have gone to other Kickstarter-using developers, too.

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