What Games Are: The Perplexing OUYA Reflex

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Since microconsoles first surfaced, I’ve always been a big advocate. Why? Some of my reasons are to do with finally seeing digital-native distribution come to the TV, which is long overdue. Others are to do with watching how the world of apps has transformed the pricing structure of games, resulting in more games for more players. Some are to do with interesting game design challenges that they present, the possibilities of the new and the strange.

My primary reason, however, is the sense of developer democracy.

History

I am old enough to remember how designing and developing games used to be. I remember just how awkward working for consoles was, how there were endless hoops to jump through, and how it was universally accepted at the time that you had to personally deal with platforms to get your game to the public. You needed a publisher who knew a guy at SCEE and that was that.

At that time games had become a messy business of concept approvals, publisher milestones and licensed properties. Each platform used its own custom tech, which meant getting them to work properly was an exercise in dealing with provided tools that were often tortuous. More importantly there was the sense of lock-in and shut-out. It was impossible to get development kits unless you already knew people, and they cost $30,000 each. Even on the PC you still needed a lot of publisher help because there just weren’t many options for selling directly to the public.

It was a closed, complex and pretty corrupt business back in those days largely because of all the gatekeeping. It left many would-be indies out in the cold and discouraged innovation while breeding terrible working practises. “You should consider yourself lucky to work in games” was the overriding mantra while you worked 90 hour weeks on tatty versions of games that supported equally tatty movies. It was just how life was.

However cracks started to emerge. Many studios who were simply unable to function in the console business shut down, and this led to greater startup climates. Starting with venues like Steam and certain Flash sites, some on-the-ground momentum started to build. Then Facebook happened. iPhone happened. Steam got good, then great. And in the process a lot of power transferred over to developers.

Gaming became more chaotic and democratic, more innovative and far more investable. Where it had been the case for a generation that venture capital would never invest in games, suddenly it would. As the gatekeeping fell by the wayside we saw large studios emerge and excitement in the air. It was the age of Zynga and Mojang. And while there are certain signs that the cost of doing business in new channels is becoming more challenging, that sense of can-do still prevails. We’ve seen how changing the power relationship over to developers results in great companies, great innovation and the expansion of games as an art form.

Everywhere except in TV gaming, that is.

Console games largely remain a closed shop of mega-studios and expensive ambitions. Talking with people who work in that AAA world often feels a bit like stepping back in time. They’re still having the fight to be the biggest and the baddest, and spending $265 million on a single game to get there. The sense of you-should-be-so-lucky is alive and well. The reward for working on such mass teams is usually a pink slip, or failing that a small raise.

TV gaming is yet to be disrupted, to empower developers to run their own businesses direct with their customers as has happened everywhere else. So you would think that, for the legions of indies who want to make the next Canabalt but feel shut out by The Man, there would be overwhelming positivity for projects like the OUYA.

Not so much.

Where Microconsoles Fit

Consider the recent brouhaha over OUYA’s “Free The Games” project. It’s a fund that the company has established to match any Kickstarter game projects that opt to publish exclusively on OUYA for a time. If you raise $50k then OUYA will give you another $50k in exchange for a temporary lock-in. OUYA wins by gaining some cool exclusives and developers win by obtaining funding and making a game that will easily port to other formats over time. Implicitly the OUYA team would also probably talk up the game as a part of their platform story, which is essentially free marketing. Free money, high-profile marketing, a non-proprietary platform to develop for that could launch your business. Win-win right?

Well in fact the reaction to the FTG fund has been very negative in both the gaming press and developer community. The words “scam” and “controversial” appear in many headlines or copy covering it. The reaction has been so huge in fact that it caught up several developers, some of who had applied to the fund, others who had worked with OUYA directly. Most especially the story of Ryan Green’s game That Dragon, Cancer. He had to take to the pages of Gamasutra to patiently explain that, no, his game is not a cynical exploitation. It’s actually about his son who is dying of the big C.

My point is that there is a tendency to overreact when it comes to microconsoles. OUYA most especially because it tends to be at the forefront, trying a lot of experiments etc, but also in general. The world is falling down in people who want to believe the worst of these tiny little machines, and their reasons perplexing. Of course there are mistakes. And yes, it seems a couple of developers tried to massage their Kickstarters a bit to get access to the FTG fund. But still. Several mid-to-high profile indie devs have taken to Twitter demanding that public apologies and whatnot for amounts to an excellent way for indie projects to get funded. The horror.

Move Fast And Break Things

When people ask me about how microconsoles are doing so far, or declare them as dead, or how they feel betrayed, I always give the same answer: “You try funding, launching and building out a platform in 12 months with a tiny team, and see how perfectly you do it.” Set against watching vastly better funded companies like Microsoft with its campuses and its giant facilities, any new platform has to be scrappy. Or as Zuck said it, moving fast and breaking things.

Take one look at Facebook today and Facebook back when and you see exactly what it means. Microconsoles are young, weird and trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. They’ve moved very quickly to latch onto an opportunity enabled by affordable low-powered hardware. This means that some parts of that program will come out half-baked at first and then iterate, as happens with all new technology businesses.

But the gaming world doesn’t seem to understand that, and it’s a key difference between tech and gaming communities. Tech journalists are used to the new idea that shows promise, the device or service that might one day become something. They tend to be very forgiving of things being a bit broken as long as they have optimistic ambitions for the future. Sometimes perhaps they are too wide-eyed, but still.

The gaming community, on the other hand, operates by a totally different set of criteria. Certain influential sites that lead tribes of players and build a community of fans (like Giant Bomb, Penny Arcade, Rock Paper Shotgun) in a way that is fundamentally different to the tech model. It’s mostly extended fandom, media critique, sometimes gossip and cheerleading. Games journalism is often obsessed with legitimacy and trying to establish a narrative of the medium. The community tends to look backward fondly and forward skeptically. It takes a lot to wow them, and it’s not just a matter of features.

While working on PS2 was very painful, for players it was arguably the greatest console ever. It had a huge catalog of diverse games and established many modern classics, such as Ico. The sense of polish, production values and a premium experience has long been the secret to the console industry (as compared to the PC, which has often been rougher) and it’s treasured. Gamers still rankle heavily about the need for patches in modern games, for example, remembering a better time when cartridges just worked.

With some exceptions, most of the gaming community is not used to “move fast and break things”. It remembers the platforms that failed, of which there were many. Systems like the Saturn, the 3DO, the CDi, the CD32 and many more only ever managed a handful games before dying. Failures have tended to fall into either the “principled end” model or the “shady bastard” model. In the former we see projects like the Dreamcast or the Indrema. In the latter it’s slapped-together formats like the Gizmondo (complete with links to the Swedish Mafia). There are many examples of both.

The memory of platform failures is strong, enough to make the gaming community wary of any newcomers. It doesn’t give its loyalty easily because it has been disappointed many times. Nobody wants to buy into a platform that will end up as a Dreamcast or a Gizmondo. So a key part of the reason why any platform gets short shrift unless it comes from a Sony or an Apple is that sense of reliability. And this (to me at least) explains why indie game developers in particular have reacted so curiously to microconsoles.

Indies Gamed

Both Sony and Microsoft have mixed histories when it comes to dealing with independent developers. That version of Xbox Live as seen in Indie Game: The Movie (for example) hasn’t been around for quite some time and the Xbox 360 felt like an indie ghost town for everyone bar Minecraft. Meanwhile Nintendo has almost no history with indies at all.

All three have recently started to change their tunes. They’ve worked to bring indie developers into their folds and – for Sony especially – this seems to be working. Between execs like Shahid Ahmad saying things will be better and indie heroes like Jonathan Blow bigging up the PS4, the mood for console is positive. Indies now consider platforms like the PS Vita to be desirable venues even though Sony has sold very few actual units.

An informal system has sprung up where console platforms look at what’s hot on Steam and then tap successful developers from there to publish with them. Platforms now offer increased support to these developers and are removing many of the old roadblocks, such as lowering the prices of dev kits. Consoles have become cool once more and the community has responded in kind. But I ‘m dubious.

A lot of the new generation of game makers are too young to know what a full console cycle feels like. The hype may be exciting but, historically at least, the troughs of disillusionment have been very deep. Young guns often don’t understand that the point of having a few Journeys is not to effect a big change in the platform, but to just have a few arty games that win awards. Also mobile is scary and full of people who want to talk monetization. Tablet is scary. Facebook is scary. Microconsole is scary. But everybody thinks Nintendo is cool, so it must be good to be on Wii U yeah? It’s like that.

Ahead of new console launches the industry tends to become exuberant even though the financial argument rarely makes sense. Consoles don’t sell a giant number of units (in their 8 years of operation Microsoft and Sony combined sold less consoles than Android phones now sell per quarter) and so their games tend to experience a lot of short-head downward pressure.

While the early phase may seem like virgin territory and breed a few key successes it’s usually only 2-3 years after that when conditions flip. Execs in charge feel they have enough arty games to tick that box and seem legitimate to journalists. They back away from support, refocusing their digital divisions to become profitable. They steward. They constrain. It doesn’t make sense to run an Apple-sized curation operation when they don’t sell Apple-sized numbers of units, so they rationalize.

It’s a similar story on Steam. Greenlight is flooded with wannabe games trying to get onto the Steam platform, and PC gaming has become such that if you’re not on Steam you’re probably screwed. Developers rarely have the power to chop and change their distribution to other PC stores (and Microsoft’s failure to make the Windows 8 Store work is a big problem here). Yet developers remain emotionally attached to those older paradigms, as do many players.

Overcoming The Skepticism

Some people can’t see past the fact that most microconsoles are built on Android and may in some former life have had similar guts to some mobile phones. It’s been a weird couple of years for the gaming community between tablets and Zynga and gestural controllers and TV TV TV. The community wants gaming to make sense again, like it used to. Microconsoles seem to be just one more thing that’s piling on some unspecified destruction of gaming as they know it.

The microconsole idea is fundamentally different to many of the failed platforms of yesteryear, but much of the gaming community does not yet see that. It’s seeing the past, the Gizmondos and the Dreamcasts, and assuming that the new is the same as the old. That kind of skepticism can be overcome but it takes time. I mean, sure, the first generation OUYA is a beachhead product (I say again, you see how well you’d do in that timeframe), but it was supposed to be. “Move fast and break things” means built to mess around with, to find the fun and help steer. So is the fund and the idea that the hardware will update every year so rather than every seven years. In a sense the whole platform is currently a big project between many companies trying to figure out this big new idea.

The community’s reaction is valid. It can’t be wished away, but it can be addressed. Yes there are some snafus to be resolved. But trust is earned over the long term by watching games like That Dragon, Cancer come out and more and more like them. With continued demonstration of good intent and ambition the gaming community will eventually be won around. As Valve showed with Steam, skepticism can be beaten by continuing to push and adapt, to listen and respond, game after game.

Over time the community will shift from saying “not as bad as I thought” to “quite good” to “actually pretty cool” if microconsoles’ course holds true. It may take a couple of years, but eventually the people will come around.