What Games Are: The Reviewers Are Wrong About OUYA

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

So let’s be upfront about a couple of things.

First, I went to the OUYA party at GDC. Second, I also was invited to the pre-dinner beforehand. Third, OUYA gave me one of the machines at the party, along with a nice pair of wireless headphones and a bag. Fourth, I have subsequently set the machine up in our office at Jawfish and have been playing some games on it. Fifth, I am not, nor have ever claimed to be, any kind of professional journalist or reviewer. I’m a game designer most of the time and a blogger the rest.

I mention all of the above to be open before I start to talk about a review of the OUYA which appeared on The Verge this week, and more generally about a perception issue surrounding microconsoles. The Verge’s review was severe and (I felt) somewhat unfair. While I received my free OUYA gratefully and enjoyed playing with it, it does have its issues. I like the box and the UI but I’m not wild about the joypad, for example. I like some of the games, but some of them are admittedly very weak. None really stand out.

Why unfair though? Well because of this:

When considering a device like OUYA or GameStick, the phrase “Android console” conjures up two comparisons. On the one hand there is the temptation to look at them as Android phone-alikes and then start to wonder why they don’t have 100,000 games, or no Google Play store, or alternatively to get all huffy about how much Android is apparent (this was part of The Verge’s review – and it’s the sort of point that only a tech journalist would ever care about).

The second comparison is with consoles like Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. In this mould, OUYA and similar are underpowered and half-baked, the reviewer looks at them and asks “could you ever see Call of Duty on this?” To which, of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not for a while.

So what comes across is the idea that the “Android console” is a device falling between two stools. But that’s largely because the tech/game-journo-land concept of what these devices are about is wrong. They’re not “Android consoles.”

The Wrong Idea

Android is just the free operating system that most of these newfangled cheap gaming devices are being built upon. However but that’s not necessarily meant to be taken to mean that they are part of the Android platform story. It’s just convenient.

Similarly, these wee boxes are not intended to be competitors to the big consoles with all of their shiny awesomeness. They’re microconsoles. Micro-what? Well, if it helps, think of them as the netbooks of the console world. That is to say: deliberately small machines with a particular focus, a low cost and the capacity to disrupt the gaming market from below rather than above.

Microconsoles are the new, weird, not exactly set-in-stone thing to happen in gaming this year. What does that new thing look like? Well for one thing, not all microconsoles are supposed to be Android devices. Microconsoles are more a product category, much as “tablet” is a product category distinct from “PC,” or “ultrabook” is trying to be from “laptop.” A bunch of microconsoles currently are using Android of course, but Valve’s Steambox won’t. If/when the Apple TV gets around to games then it clearly won’t. All could probably be considered microconsoles.

For another, microconsoles are mostly aiming to be cheap – both in hardware and games – and so the expectation that they should be powerful is a stretch. Granted there is a further, very undecided, argument that gamers may ultimately consider low power to be a deal breaker, but still. A review of a netbook would never seriously rate it as 3.5/10 for not being able to run Photoshop well because the reviewer accepts the premise that the device is not meant for that sort of thing. Microconsoles should be reviewed in light of the same sort of premise.

For a third, microconsoles’ target market is not necessarily supposed to be the same as that for consoles. The PlayStation and Xbox are big vertical businesses focused all around selling premium games at premium prices. In that model the machine is expensive and locked-in, the cost of developing games is high and the conversation between game and player is highly moderated for the mass market. Microconsoles are horizontal, like app platforms, designed to let developers develop and see what comes of it.

For a fourth, microconsoles are meant to be upgraded frequently, like your phone. This is a very different model to that of the Wii U or PS Vita, where the all-in big launch and support has to be ready before going to market. In those businesses the hope is to hit on the right spec and sell 40 million units before you pump out an upgrade. Whereas in businesses where an upgrade cycle is intended, the first couple of iterations of the hardware try to find market fit. Remember when the App Store launched and it was beer and fart apps galore for the first few months before developers figured out what they could do? Microconsoles are kind of in that phase right now.

Perception Is All

However the big lesson for the emerging microconsole sector is not that The Verge is wrong. The people who’ve slaved away on bringing these devices to market might well think that, and feel that the fact that the review is based on Beta hardware is unfair. Yet from the standpoint of how The Verge or Engadget sees what these devices are supposed to be, the reviewers are right.

The lesson is that the microconsole marketing story is not yet hitting. The sense that they are a different category of device rather than the mangling of two other categories is not getting through. The notion that they are something new is not one that many journalists have latched onto. There’s a perception gap, and it’s a problem.

OUYA seems to spend a great deal of time courting a Linux-esque audience of console hackers, the sort of people for whom the idea of an XBMC box that plays games and can be retrofit with 3D-printed controller covers is fun. This is a great early adopter audience to talk to, but at some point it’s not enough. The message of OUYA as a little-box-that-could is perhaps lost between the tug-of-war of its Androidness or its Consoleness, and the plain-speaking message of its natural advantage (price) is not coming through. “Free games under your TV” should probably be the message, but it gets a bit garbled when you’re also talking about indieness, hackability and whatnot.

However it’s been less than a year since the original Kickstarter campaign sent the OUYA into the stratosphere, so all of this is what I’d have expected in context. The fact that it has become a reality, something that many people thought would be impossible, is impressive enough (although of course this does not give it a free pass). It may be scrappy, take a little while for some issues to resolve, and it may also take a couple of iterations to get it right. But put that in context with massive launch failures like Wii U or PS Vita and it looks interesting to me.

There’s still a vast opportunity to innovate in the microconsole space and define the category properly. The prospect of app-style gaming coming to a TV near you is one that has the power to completely disrupt the industry that we all think we know and replace it with something leaner. “Free games under your TV” is something we have never had before. But sure, it might take a little more time to get it right.