My Week with the Ouya

I’ve been skeptical of the Ouya since the beginning. Who would want to play mobile games scaled up on a TV with a box that’s about as powerful as a mid-range Android phone? Last year’s smashing Kickstarter success and resultant investor stampede was a mystery to me. Criticism of Ouya’s launch has been harsh. For a mere $99, I had to see if this microconsole ‘revolution’ is going to take off.

My Ouya

My Ouya

The console itself is a nice piece of industrial design–except for the fact that the vent is on the bottom. There also are shielding issues forcing some users to lay the box on its side or position it away from cabling to prevent interference with Bluetooth and WiFi. Contrasting Ouya’s sleek form factor is a cheap looking controller with no obvious way to put batteries in. At $99, you have to cut corners somewhere.

Setting up the Ouya is easy. It requires the creation of an Ouya account and a credit card link before playing anything. Some are complaining about this, but there’s no point in getting users on the platform if they aren’t going to pay. Making sure every user is billable and ready to buy stuff is a top priority for Ouya.

Despite having to create user accounts, Ouya appears to have no social network based around them. There aren’t any friends lists, achievements, or leaderboards. This is a glaring omission. Ouya’s somewhat unwieldy catalog is organized by curated arrays of games from celebrity editors and lists sorted by genre. At the very least, I’d like to see what some of my friends are playing.

What about the games? Frankly, they are atrocious. With over 100 launch titles, this is to be expected. Ouya’s games include half-baked ports from mobile (some don’t even bother to change the screen to landscape!), suspect exclusives, and tragically hip indie games about abused children.

As I dove deep into the Ouya catalog, I actually began to enjoy the experience. The diversity of games is charming. Plus, I’m a big connoisseur of b-movies and the Ouya feels like the MST3k of consoles. Blowing up games originally built for a 4-inch screen on my 60-inch TV really magnifies polish issues and sub-par graphics. Seeing just how bad some of these games are can be hilarious. However, I’m not quite sure that’s what Ouya had in mind.

Where Ouya shines is playing mobile game ports that originally had virtual buttons and d-pads. Games like Gunslugs and the unusually polished Ice Rage play MUCH better with physical controls. My current obsession is Ravensword: Shadowlands. Despite having bought it on the iPad last year, I purchased the Ouya version and have been ironically enjoying it as a PS2-looking Roger Corman-esque Z-grade Skyrim. It’s hilariously unpolished, absurdly ambitious, and infinitely more playable with a joypad despite the game being somewhat incompetently designed.

Ouya’s biggest flaw is the business model. All games are a hybrid of premium and f2p with a timed demo period. I learned way back in the feature phone era that demos are death for casual games. With an constant stream of content and bite-sized gameplay, users get their fill of your title for free and move on to the next demo. Forcing this model on developers is a major mistake. It’s the hallmark of a team clueless as to how to build a thriving ecosystem. If your mantra is “free the games,” then free the business model too. Straight f2p and video previews for premium titles is a much better option.

A lot of these early problems are to be expected from a company launching its first consumer electronics product so quickly. Also, people seem to have unrealistic expectations for a $99 box. It remains to be seen if the emerging category of microconsoles will be a market of any significance. Perhaps Ouya can break off some of their war chest for quality exclusive titles, or else they are doomed to drown in a sea of similar devices.

Facebook’s Mobile Gaming Apocalypse

Crowdstar recently announced they are abandoning the Facebook platform to focus on mobile social games. After amazing success on iOS, they have discovered what many of us have known for years: Facebook games are dead.

In the wake of Farmville’s massive success in 2009, investment in social gaming hit a fever pitch. The Facebook audience grew to 500 million with the rising tide floating all boats. We went from “RIP Good Times” to a veritable all-you-can-snort coke buffet in the little over a year.

During this period, Facebook shut down viral channels making it more difficult to acquire ‘free’ customers and instituted a 30% tax on social gaming revenue in the form of Facebook Credits. By 2011, user growth flattened out and user acquisition costs skyrocketed as social gaming companies blew their war chests fighting over the same group of casual social gaming customers.

Apple, on the other hand, introduced In-App-Payments for free apps and created an entirely new genre of tablet games with the introduction of the iPad. News of new social gaming startups declined, but mobile gaming investments became white hot. The mobile social gaming gold rush was on.

Recent filings from Facebook show that Zynga, one of Facebook’s single biggest contributors of revenue, is now responsible for a shrinking portion of Facebook’s income. This may be due to a change of focus. New game releases on Facebook from Zynga have slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, Zynga has been feverishly acquiring mobile startups and barking up their stock price with social gambling chatter. While some companies stubbornly cling to the Facebook platform, in most cases social gaming companies are evacuating Facebook for mobile.

Facebook can’t earn a dime off of mobile social games despite their usage of the Facebook API because mobile billing is all controlled by Apple or Google (and now Amazon). There is no place for Facebook credits in the mobile ecosystem. If you try to use any alternative payment system in an iOS app, Apple won’t approve it.

This is why Facebook is making carrier billing agreements and beefing up their HTML5 platform. They can’t get a cut of native app revenue, but can position themselves as a premier destination for HTML5 mobile browser games with Facebook Credits as the billing system.

Even if buying Facebook Credits can be made as seamless as iTunes billing, Facebook still has to fix the fact that HTML5 sucks. This is a problem that is somewhat out of their control, as HTML5 performance is affected by features in mobile browsers developed by Apple and Google.

Facebook is desperately trying to figure out mobile–spending $1 billion on Instagram is an example of this. The unstoppable shift to mobile media consumption threatens Facebook’s core revenue streams from all angles. Facebook Credits have no use in native mobile games and Facebook can’t generate much ad revenue as ads are largely non-existent in their own mobile apps. Facebook’s walled garden is under attack from another walled garden of closed mobile devices. I guess it’s karma.