Dr. Geek: Ouya and the Spirit of Open Source

Dr Geek HeaderHere at Clearance Bin Review, we have been doing what we can to help and shed light on the segment of digital gaming that is indie gaming.  We’ve reviewed a variety of independent games and covered the Xbox Live Independent Games Uprisings.  And we’ve covered the more mainstream, “standard” games for the big three console companies of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.  So we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the latest tech to perhaps shake things up a bit.

When Nintendo released the Wii in November of 2006, they essentially shook up the video game console market by innovating on the interface — in a way that actually took hold.  They had tried to innovate in how we play games with the introduction of the Virtual Boy in 1995, but the technology and its implementation left much to be desired.  Console games plodded on with the standard controller, with only a brief blip from PlayStation’s Eye Toy.  Wii changed all of that, ushering in the more haptic and kinetic style interfaces that have changed the fundamentals of game design and play.  The Wii U released this past year added to this innovation by bringing touchscreen technology into console game play.

But, for the most part, video game consoles continue in the same model that has existed since Atari dominated the market over three decades ago.  A person buys a console, buys the games for the console, and uses the console to play the games.  Someone else, off somewhere else — even overseas — and usually funded by rather deep pockets.  There has been a separation between player and developer, user and producer, that has been the fundamental model of console games since its inception.  It is the fundamental model of mass media: producers produce, transmit and sell to us, the user.  The producer has the power to create, and we have the power to consume.

Now that fundamental model may be about to change.  Introducing Ouya.  (Pronounced “oo-yuh” or, what I prefer, “oo-yeah!”).  (See an earlier report on the system here.)  The Ouya is not innovating on the interface.  As can be seen in the picture below, the controller is your pretty standard console controller — although it does contain a basic touchpad to integrate some of the interface capabilities of the new Wii U controller.  What the console appears to be innovating is the whole nature of consoles and the nature of the relationship between developers and gamers.


If you have not heard of it before, the Ouya is an independently developed console from Boxer8 with such development head honchos as Julie Uhrman (IGN), Ed Fries (Microsoft Xbox) and Muffi Chadali (Amazon Kindle).  The system made a splash in the tech and gaming communities through its launch as a Kickstarter campaign.  The interest from the community was so high that the campaign reached its funding goal within 8 hours of launch, and would become Kickstarter’s second most successful campaign since the launch of the social funding site: with a goal of $950,000, it would eventually accrue $8.6 million in pledges.  Those who pledged $95 or more would receive a console once they were produced, and, thus far, that price range has stuck, with Ouya pledging to begin delivery of pre-ordered consoles in March for $99.

Compared to the other consoles currently on the market — and the rumors for the next gens coming from Sony and Microsoft — the Ouya does not have much under the chassis, which itself is small comparable to the other consoles (think Rubik’s compared to Simon in terms of bulk).  The Ouya will operate with a version of Android (current specs say it is Android 4.1 Jelly Bean).  It will have an Nvidia Tegra 3 integrated circuit with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9, which makes the processing capability of the Ouya better than Nintendo’s Wii or Wii U (potentially) but less than the PS3 or Xbox 360.  However, it only has a 1 GB RAM with an 8 GB internal flash memory, indicating a significant difference from other consoles that have more internal memory for game storage purposes.  However, because it utilizes an Android OS, that means Android apps can be used as plug-ins, essentially making this console a screenless Android device like the Nexus tablets and the Galaxy Notes.  If your game operates via an Android app, then you could potentially be using this console device to play it on television via an HDMI connection.


The reason the Ouya does not appear concerned about having internal memory is that it intends to operate as a mediating device to online games.  Instead of buying games on DVD or hard discs to insert into the console and play, the console would be accessing cloud-based games, from such offerings as the catalog at OnLive.  Boxer8 also plans to build its own online store for access to Ouya specific games.  The idea would be to entice developers from large and small firms to produce games that would be accessed only online, and would have some type of “free-to-play” aspect to them, even if it just means having a free trial period for the game.  This past December, Ouya began shipping consoles to developers so that they could become acquainted with the abilities of the console and thus able to start designing games to build this online catalog well ahead of the consoles widespread release.

However, this innovation is more than just creating a cheap console to access a cloud of games — many games that will undoubtedly be coming from indie developers in a way that will mirror what has been done with XBLIG.  But the device is intended to be more than that.  According to Ouya’s developers, people who buy the game to play will also have the ability to both modify the game and develop games for it in the comfort of their own homes.  The console has been designed to be easily opened, allowing access to the hardware inside that individual users could mod without voiding the device’s warranty.  In addition, the console is set to come with the basic equipment needed to help users produce games for the device.  While Microsoft belatedly accepted the premise of Kinect hacking and has been pushing XBLIG, this device would come designed to encourage user-generated content creation; enthusiasts, hobbyists, DIY, and makers could embrace this as much as schools who could teach game design and programming to future developers.


Julia Uhrman, in spearheading this project, said she wanted to bring the idea of openness, that has become a fundamental aspect of the Web 2.0 paradigm shift into social media, to video game consoles.  The ideal of being opened informed their desire to seek funding to start their project not through a venture capital firm but through the community of tech-heads and gamers.  Crowdfunding the project meant that it was more beholden to the end users than to the investors.  And that in turn meant it was beholden to the desires and ideals of those end users: chiefly, the ability to have indie game development and modding embraced by a console system.

This is the breakdown in the traditional business model that Uhrman and her partners have been working towards.  With the Ouya, they are giving people consoles that are intended to be modified, that are intended to be the source of production as much as consumption of games.  This is the first time we have heard of a console game system openly embracing the type of revolutionary thinking that has been leading to the dissolution of the power dynamics and identities of producers and users, leading to the rise of produsers or prosumers.  We have seen this shift due to blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and Second Life, and we will be seeing it continue with the home invasion of affordable 3D printers.  And now it appears the gaming industry is at the brink for joining these other forms of communication in having their traditions upended.

All that remains to be seen is will Boxer8 deliver on its March 2013 promises, and will enough people buy and endorse the type of revolution Uhrman and her partners are selling.


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