Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Strange Brew - The niche market for the OUYA

The OUYA console is one of Kickstarter’s greatest success stories. After raising almost 9 times their initial goal, the OUYA had more than enough backing to ensure that it would see launch even when factoring in unexpected costs. Despite its massive initial push, the OUYA has met with fairly lukewarm reception since its official launch on June 25, 2013. Below I discuss the OUYA and the niche market it is serving.


The OUYA

For those out of the loop, the OUYA is an Android powered home console running on streamlined hardware. While comparisons can be difficult to make, the console clocks performance somewhere above a typical smart phone and below a tablet. While this, at first glance, may not seem all that great, factoring in the $99 price point (including a controller) I feel that the console packs pretty decent power per dollar. Ostensibly, the console can connect to the Android app store and is able to output anything found there through an HDMI port to a hi-def television. On a side note, the console itself is quite attractive while weighing practically nothing, drawing very little power, and taking up about as much space as a baseball. The OUYA is being marketed as an affordable and flexible home console alternative specifically aimed at the tech enthusiast and the casual gamer. Gamers who are already queuing for the next Playstation or Xbox are really not the target here.

I think the tepid response to the release of the OUYA is due to a few factors. First, the system itself isn’t capable of running most blockbuster games and has thus been criticized for a lack of compelling software titles. While I agree that software selection for the OUYA is currently a bit limited, I think it is unreasonable to expect huge performance for such a low price. Again, the OUYA isn’t being pushed to hard-core gamers. Second, due to its smash success on Kickstarter, I think some people were expecting something a bit more glamorous. Here  I think it is unfair to criticize the product for achieving exactly what it set out to do just because it had more money to do it (that extra money has mostly gone into broader production and advertising). Finally, and definitely a legitimate criticism of the OUYA, is that many pre-order promises to distribute the product to early backers have taken a long time to fulfil. While people are eventually getting the product, you can’t help but wonder if a bit more TLC should have been applied in ensuring that the extremely supportive Kickstarter community got theirs first.

Homebrew

While one of the biggest complaints against the OUYA is its lack of decent software, I think this will be ultimately solved through one of the systems biggest selling points: homebrew. The system is designed to be as accessible as possible from both a software and hardware perspective with an expectation that eager modders will find ways to squeeze the most out of console. As such, the out of the box Android setup only represents the most basic experience.  In this case, the software available through the Android app store is designed with a variety of devices in mind; once developers have had enough time to make OUYA specific software, I think that the overall perception of the quality of software will improve. The whole setup feels reminiscent of the niche homebrew market captured by the Sega Dreamcast. While Sega most likely didn’t set out to court this crowd, weak protection schemes in its console allowed for the hardware to be used in a myriad of clever, if unintended, ways. As such, the Dreamcast enjoyed a robust and active community long after Sega stopped officially supporting the system.

So What Can it Do?

The beauty of catering to the homebrew scene is that it can basically turn the OUYA into anything that the community desires. While this will undoubtedly mean some legally questionable software such as emulators and operating systems specifically designed to play pirated software, it also means much more. It is not hard to envisage the OUYA being modded into an agile media center capable of playing movies and music conveniently or a YouTube box for streaming directly to a television. On the more unconventional side, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone turn their OUYA into a nifty camera (with hardware modification) complete with a robust editing suite. All this, of course, is in addition to the independently developed games that are made available for free (or next to it) to showcase talent or on a lark. Truly, if the homebrew community takes flight, the sky is the limit for what the OUYA can do.

With this in mind, I think it is important to note that the OUYA can’t effectively take the place of a next gen console. While a surprise title like Braid or Fez is certainly possible on the OUYA hardware, there is nothing preventing you from getting these games on the big boy toys either. I imagine that most gamers will be turned off from the OUYA as a gaming device. That said, I think the OUYA is perfectly aware of this and smartly aren’t trying to advertise to a market they know they can’t capture. The OUYA was never touted to be a graphics powerhouse but is rather being pitched as a playground for indie developers and more casual gamers.

Long Term Outlook

Obviously, I feel that long term success for the OUYA is intrinsically tied to dedication of the community around it. Right now, enough OUYA consoles are hitting the market that sheer numbers shouldn’t be a problem. Further, all reports indicate that the system is, in fact, as easy to modify as the developers intended it to be. As elaborated above, pure gamers are unlikely to see a compelling reason to pick up the OUYA over a Playstation 4. Thus, I see the OUYA as serving niche market of tech enthusiasts; people who like to tinker and customize on a level that can't be done with the bigger names. I see the system potentially garnering a pretty decent following as creative software and inventive hardware hacks inspire people to tailor their OUYA to suit their own desires. All this said, I think the OUYA is meeting a stumbling block in that lightweight net books can offer a lot more processing power and nearly as much customization (this is certainly true in terms of software). The tech hobbyist is probably not going to have much difficulty in shelling out an extra hundred bucks for a full-fledged PC if it means they can do that much more with it. In this case, the OUYA might be trying to fill a niche market that is already filled. 

Ultimately, I think the OUYA is a unique product. Concerns about limited software will sort themselves out over time but don't expect the system to ever be on the cutting edge in terms of graphics. I am really excited for the homebrew capabilities of the system and hope that the community can showcase enough compelling modifications to justify the purchase of an OUYA over a more powerful device.