An OUYA Story

Adventures on the Ground Floor

In the summer of 2012, I was down the pub after an Android meetup, talking to this guy who reckoned OUYA was a big deal. This was two or three weeks into their kickstarter campaign and whilst I’d read about it, it had kinda passed me by up till that point. Next day, I gave it a lot of thought, properly checked out their kickstarter campaign and decided to give it a shot.

Back then, I’d already been an indie game developer for over a year, struggling away making a game for Android in my own home-built java/openGL engine. Yes you may laugh, but I’d effectively come straight out of university to do this, driven by the narrative that the industry had come round full cycle, back once again to the days of bedroom coders. The app store meant anyone could make a million with the right game. Recently though, that faith had started to be tested. Going to Android conventions, talking with a lot of people, seeing the statistics. I was just a drop in the app store ocean.

OUYA was a chance to get in on the ground floor with a new platform, and if it took off, ride that rocket. It was a calculated risk for sure (as people at the time kept reminding me). A sort of all-or-nothing strategy, but better than the app store lottery. Plus my family, especially my Dad, were on my back about how I’d wasted over a year of my life doing the indie thing without success, and how I should quit and get a real job (which I’ve still not done!) OUYA was the last chance. If it didn’t work out, then I could at least say I’d given it my best shot and move with my head high.

I backed at the $700 “devkit” level, ditched the previous game I was working on (after 18 months! Though that’s a story for another day), and decided to make a new game just for the OUYA. I polished up my existing Android-based engine and set about crafting this new project.

By new year 2013, everything had gone a bit quiet. The buzz and hype had dissipated and the OUYA was for most, out of sight and out of mind. This was slightly alarming, since the devkits were due to be delivered imminently. I decided to throw myself into changing that. I joined twitter, started following and messaging anyone and everyone I could find about OUYA. Over a couple of months, I organised two meetups in London, with over 50 people at each one! With developers bringing along their little see-through plastic boxes, talking about and demoing their games. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was hugely exciting and rewarding to see all the hard work come together and be a success!

In fact I organised a third meetup in Leeds, but only a handful of people turned up. It was an exhausting experience, trying to drum up support both online and through repeatedly driving round an unfamiliar Leeds city centre late at night, going to meetups, finding a venue and so on.

I changed tack and started instead going to conventions and shows. I demoed my in-development game at an anime convention. At the time, I was the only indie there, in amongst all the comic book and t-shirt stalls with my basic stall and home-made setup, right opposite the shiny professionally constructed booths of Nintendo and Crytek.

I went to the enormous Gadget Show convention and was picked up by one of the researchers for the TV show of the same name. I went to their studios, told them all about it and my OUYA got on TV! I walked into a branch of the retailer, GAME, after talking to them via twitter, and arranged for myself and several other indie developers to demo their games in store!

The OUYA was my secret weapon. I used it to open doors and squeeze every opportunity I could from it, and it was a thrill to be able to do that. To take something and run with it, since the small startup that was OUYA Inc. was based in the US, with almost no presence in the UK what so ever.

I was even invited to do a couple of weeks contract work for OUYA, helping squash bugs in the time before the first wave of consoles were released to general backers. But I’d not really worked in that sort of SCRUM, daily-standups, team environment before. I’d just been doing my own thing as an indie, and found myself a bit out of my depth most of the time.

There were also a few own goals. I was approached by a company who did hardware benchmarking, and naively agreed to help them get their software running on my “devkit”. The results were not exactly cutting edge, and the fallout helped feed into the very negative narrative that surrounded the OUYA at the time.

As for my game, I had a very clear, immoveable deadline. The OUYA would launch in stores on this date and missing that would negate the whole point of making an OUYA game, which was to be a launch title on a new platform. I hit that deadline with a few days to spare, something I’m still immensely proud of.

 

The Hate Awakens

It’s hard to pinpoint where the hate for OUYA first started. The internet always has its garden variety trolls who will pick on whatever, but even to this day, people who never even used an OUYA still seem to take a measure of delight in hammering down on it. I think a couple of things in particular did for it.

Playstation 4 was announced with much fanfare just a month or so before the OUYA was due to be delivered to the bulk of those who backed it at the reward $100 tier. PS4 was everything that OUYA wasn’t. Big, powerful, shiny and polished. This was the real deal, was what gamers, tired of the ageing previous generation really wanted. More of the same, but faster, better looking, and with all the mod-cons: Friends lists, leaderboards and video sharing etc.

PS4 and later Xbox One’s appearances also reignited the age-old console wars, and OUYA was a convenient target to which both sides could be unified in deriding.

The other big factor was in part of OUYA’s own making. On the kickstarter page, there was a due date for the console to be delivered. Backers expected their OUYA’s to drop through the letterbox on that day. OUYA, for whatever operational reasons, took that day to be the day when the first batch of several hundred units would leave the factory and start the long process of winding their way to people’s homes.

The alternative – delaying delivery – would have doubtless caused an almighty furore, However, the communication was not handled well at all. OUYA’s customer support melted under the pressure of 60,000 people all asking why their OUYA hadn’t arrived, all at the same time. The lack of response that resulted lead people to further complain, and so compound the issue. And then shortly, take their complaints online to find they were not alone.

There were some other factors as well. The bombastic claims about “The Revolution will be Televised” probably did more to hinder than help in the long term, feeding the perception of over-promise and under-deliver that turned many off from OUYA. The company, in my opinion, was also not able to separate the messages it sent to the investor community, from those it sent to the consumers. OUYA was trying to be a disruptive force, and needed to hype itself up to attract investors. But such was the intensity of the spotlight on the company, that those interviews on Bloomberg or Forbes aimed at securing further funds would get repeated by gaming sites and thrown into the internet echo chamber.

After the debacle with delivering to backers, it was all downhill. The circle of toxic negativity became infectious, spiralling into one big hate-fest. Even I was caught up a little by it. Spending all day trying to defend the OUYA and reason with people, you pick up on a lot of their grievances. A month or two after OUYA’s retail launch, I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution is Dead“. In it I argued OUYA had lost the core gamer market and should pivot towards more casual consumers. Of course people just read the first half or even just the title, and I think a number of people at OUYA who I’d previously got on quite well with felt hurt and a touch betrayed by the article. I managed to undo an awful lot of that good will that I’d worked so hard and enthusiastically to build up.

 

The Lean Startup

I’m convinced OUYA were following the Lean Startup by the book. Release a minimum viable product (MVP), find a product-market fit, and build from there. It failed for three reasons:

1). Gamers weren’t expecting an MVP – Look at the history of video games consoles. It’s only really in the last couple of generations that consoles have been online, and liable to get occasional updates and patches. Before that, and still to this day, consoles and games are judged as they are found on day 1, and that perception sticks for the lifetime of the product. They don’t magically get better after you’ve bought them.

Most consumers looked at the OUYA, especially in marked contrast to the PS4, and decided “this looks a bit shitty”. And that was that. End of story, as far as that consumer was concerned. When it first started turning up in the wild, the interface was nowhere near complete. It was being tested and tweaked and underwent a number of major revisions in the months after release.

You could argue that OUYA was a bit before its time, and that gamers are slowly getting more used to the idea of games and platforms as services, rather than products. Or equally, you could argue OUYA simply misread their audience. Either way, once they started getting 3/10 reviews, there was little hope of coming back from that.

2). The Anti-Fit - The nature of an MVP is that it’s not necessarily released with a specific solution or target audience in mind. It’s a product looking for a solution. This was one of the criticisms levelled at OUYA at the time of its launch. Actually that’s fine, because, with the right attitude / setup, the idea is to let the market and the real users help guide development to eventually find that fit. That point where it clicks and starts gaining traction. (Or so goes the Lean Startup theory).

Most companies start off with a few customers / users and grow from there. OUYA on the other hand went from zero to 60k customers overnight. They almost certainly weren’t expecting more than a few thousand early adopters if you look at their initial kickstarter target amount. They were left trying to do the whole process backwards. To work out what exactly their newly found customers were expecting from a product that mostly existed just on paper.

The problem was, different people had read different things into what the limited and slightly vague campaign material had said. It was an indie games box, it was a TV/media streaming box, it was a device for tinkerers and android modders. Or it was just something that seemed cool and was an impulse purchase, made in a rush of excitement.

OUYA had to narrow that down over time, as it couldn’t be all those things, and with each turn, instead of getting closer to product-market-fit, it lost another group of users, who in turn became disgruntled complainers on social media.

3). Scaling and Kickstarter – The other problem with going from zero to 60k customers in an instant is in scaling the business correspondingly. In OUYA’s case, this hit home when their customer support system was overwhelmed in the days after they started shipping to backers. When a business grows slowly, you can see when the customer support department is starting to struggle. When their KPI’s begin to drop, take action. Or anticipate when they’ll no longer be able to cope given current growth in customer numbers. And so train up more support staff in advance.

Not in OUYA’s case, where their growth was represented by a single big step, both in terms of numbers, but also in terms of how much support they needed. When backers were waiting for the delivery deadline to arrive, they had no reason to contact OUYA. So to have hired a bunch of staff, sitting doing nothing, would have been pointless. Equally, if they had have hired large numbers, and the anticipated demand had failed to materialise, they would have faced accusations of wasting money, ironically from the backers/customers who fronted that money.

Ultaimtely, all these things fed into the perception of the console, which in turn fed into sales and developer support (or lack thereof).

 

A Legacy of Sorts

OUYA may live on in name as the western publishing arm of Razer Forge TV, it’s staff and technology integrated into that product, but the box, and in many ways, the dream it represented, are no longer.

It’ll always retain at least an odd place in video games history. A sort of “do you remember that!? Hah!”. How much it contributed to the big 3 console makers opening up their platforms to indies, versus how much it just rode the existing wave of indie games popularity is open to debate. And wherever you stand on the issue of quality control and which games are or aren’t allowed onto a platform, the OUYA certainly delivered when it came to making life easy for developers.

OUYA probably can claim credit at least for, if not inventing, then certainly popularising the notion of microconsoles. Those that came after it, the FireTV’s and AppleTV’s of this world, probably would have happened anyway, but undoubtedly the makers of those took a long hard look at the OUYA to see what practical and technical lessons it could teach.

For myself, my OUYA game didn’t sell well at all. It was a great achievement to have both hit the deadline, and in doing so, release my first commercial game. But between OUYA’s own issues and some fairly fundamental game design flaws, it never really stood a chance. In hitting that deadline, I kinda skipped out on all the usual testing and prototyping, instead going for a reskinned clone of an existing board game, which I falsely believed would translate over to the console format. It didn’t, and to say I was a bit foolish would be an understatement, going from being a lifelong PC gamer, having never owned a console myself, to trying to make a console game solo in 9 months.

In the aftermath, I attended a talk where each of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo laid out their respective “we’re indie friendly” stalls. I now do console porting, and make games for the Wii U, with plans to expand into PS4 later this year.

I learned a lot in my year of OUYA. Experiencing the internet hate, seeing a tech startup go from boom to bust at close quarters, project management and hitting deadlines, experiments in marketing. Above all I learned from OUYA that perception is everything.

A Year of OUYA

Exactly one year ago, I got my hands on a shiny clear plastic OUYA devkit. Through making a game for the new console, I learned a lot about game development and the wider games industry.

In the Beginning…

In fact, my OUYA journey started in November of 2012. I’d gone indie straight off the back of a computer science degree a couple of years before, but the game I’d been working on in that time was a master class in how not to design a game. (Hopelessly large scope and flawed core mechanic).

I’d backed OUYA on kickstarter at the developer tier, quite late in the campaign, and in doing so, set myself a target of the end of October to finish the current game or otherwise move on. OUYA was a fresh start, a mandate to give myself a new project/game with a narrow, well defined scope. And a fixed deadline (OUYA’s release date), that unlike previous self-imposed deadlines, I couldn’t simply move when it became clear I wouldn’t hit it.

I also decided to thoroughly involve myself in the community. Test whether all those hours spent on social media, reddit and forums were a viable, cost-effective alternative to other forms of marketing.

Eventing

By late 2012, that community had gone a bit flat. The initial excitement from the kickstarter campaign had dissipated, and there was very little new information coming out from OUYA themselves.

Realising that come the new year, I would be one of just a small number of developers with the console in hand, I set about using that to my advantage. In particular, I organised a meetup bringing together other developers and OUYA enthusiasts. The idea being that developers could show off the games they were making for OUYA, and fans of the console could get to try one out early, before they got their own later in the year.

OUYA claimed to be open and transparent: No NDAs or problems with showing off the new bits of hardware. So in setting this up, I was very much taking their word and putting it to the test. To my delight, they got behind the idea, even sending their sole UK-based developer to give a talk and answer questions.

There was so much demand that I even ran a follow-up event a month later. In hindsight though, there were a number of things that came up which foreshadowed later problems with the console.

In particular, a number of people commented on why the games and system weren’t as polished and finished as they expected, considering release date was just two months time at this point.

Distractions

The other problem I had was that all this extra stuff was distracting from my actual game development. I ran a competition on one of the big OUYA forums to give away a spare devkit OUYA had kindly donated. The problem was the way I’d structured the competition. People could submit their game designs within a two week period, then members of the forum would vote for their favourite.

Of course, people went and got all their friends and family and any random passer by in their apartment block to sign up for the forums one time and vote for them (rather than the best game design / proposal winning). We disqualified one team for doing exactly this, who in turn kicked up a huge stink about the whole thing.

At the same time, OUYA were running a game jam of their own, which actually worked out to be one of their most successful enterprises for drumming up developer and fans support for the now soon to be released little box. I entered the jam with a couple of others I’d met through forums and twitter, thinking I could do it just in my spare time / on the side. Instead of being an added extra, it sucked up an inordinate amount of time and energy, and in the end came to nought anyway, as our team were unable to complete our game in time.

In fact, at the developers vs fans meetups, I had needed to get games from somewhere, and since there was no store or central repository for games being targeted for OUYA at the time, I opted to gather together as many of the game jam games as possible. This probably added to the perception that the OUYA was more unfinished than in reality.

As for my own game, it was probably never likely to be finished in time for OUYA’s big March release anyway. The old rule of take how much time you think you need, and double it, proved scarily accurate in the end. As it transpired, when OUYA started shipping to kickstarter backers, it didn’t matter that my game hadn’t made it onto the store in time.

Lift Off!

A couple of things scuppered the OUYA’s kickstarter launch, but you need to take a step back from the details about shipping and teething problems with the hardware to see the real reasons why it proved so disastrous.

The root of the problem can be traced back to another event, in New York on February 20th. Sony is generally accepted to have smashed it out of the park with their PS4 reveal event. The stale, old, console generation was coming to an end, and imminently. Despite their protestations on Neogaf and in the comment sections of gaming websites about how the endless cycles of big AAA games like Call of Duty and Halo, were getting same y and uninspiring, a few super-shiny promo videos for PS4 later, and that sentiment evaporated.

Sony also made a canny move to stake out the indie ground, and court indie developers in the following days and weeks after the PS4 was announced. I’d argue OUYA’s appearance on the scene the previous year helped Sony make that decision, but that’s a debate for another day.

Upshot was that OUYA’s reason d’etre had disappeared overnight, and with it, the fan base of gamers and developers for whom it originally existed.

Far more subtle, yet important, was the succession of slickly produced showreels with which the PS4 was announced; eye candy polished to the nth degree. This was a highly refined and finished consumer product.

That sat in marked contrast to OUYA’s minimum viable product. A bare bones, unvarnished offering. Born of the crowd, and, so the theory went, would evolve and improve over time in tune to the needs and demands of that crowd.

People just were not prepared for that idea. OUYA failed to anywhere near adequately communicate that this was very much just the start, the beta from which things would grow over the course of a number of years. The internet has a tendency to make snap judgements, and taken on face value, OUYA just couldn’t compete with the promise of next-gen.

OUYA also failed to communicate the logistics of making a console. Sixty thousand people simultaneously expected an OUYA to pop through their letter box on March 31st. Unrealistic as that may have been, OUYA didn’t pick up on that gap in expectations, and so were on the back foot when people began to complain.

It was made worse because OUYA were stuck in this horrible half-way position between being totally open and transparent, and closed and secretive. OUYA eventually began giving a lot more frequent and detailed updates about their manufacturing, and shipping process, and all the hiccups encountered along the way.

It’s easy from the outside to say they should have just stuck to their principles of being totally open about everything from the start. However, in the run up to launch, OUYA had been, hyped up far beyond what was reasonable by the gaming and tech press (and in fairness, OUYA were probably tacitly complicit in this). Subsequently, post-launch to be mercilessly ripped apart by those same media outlets for the sake of a few page views.

The environment OUYA found themselves in during that spring launch period was hostile on all fronts: Not conducive to being open and upfront about every little detail. That in turn really soured relations with developers, who were already frustrated by their regular $99 OUYAs arriving much later than expected and so throwing off their development plans / schedules.

Back on the Road

Meanwhile, I was already committed to developing for OUYA. I organised follow-up OUYA meetup in Leeds, a smallish city in the north of the UK. While not a complete disaster, only a fraction of the people who came to the London events turned up. In fact, the numbers were almost a direct proportion to the city size. Even when trying to tap into existing communities of developers in the area (and practically killing myself driving home down the motorway at 2am from the local gamedev meetup), I can’t honestly recommend anyone attempt to run a (UK) event outside of London. Especially for anything that could be considered a minority interest.

By this point, I’d decided to use my OUYA, of which there were still desperately few in the wild, on a different tack. I had been researching gaming conventions and shows, and decided they were all ruinously expensive for an indie sized budget. Instead, I took my OUYA to an anime convention. The theory was sound in that it really was the precise demographic who were interested in gaming. I snagged a basic table stand right opposite Nintendo and Crytek in the gaming area, and with a few black tablecloths, my two desktop screens and a TV borrowed from my parents, I was able to cheaply create a very presentable setup.

Despite only having what amounted to a barely playable demo, I had a great time and everyone who I spoke to responded really positively. However, it also became clear that the maths simply didn’t stack up. Even if the theoretical maximum number of people who might pass by my stand in a day, all bought the game, and told all their friends to buy it, I still would not have broken even on the whole venture. And in this case, it wasn’t a finished game and they couldn’t buy it anyway. I’ve concluded the only reason to demo at conventions is the chance to get press interest in your game, and there were no games journalists at the anime convention.

On TV

Having said all that, I ended up doing another convention not long after. This one, I was determined to cut the cost by teaming up with another company called Game Wagon. They have a couple of vans kitted out with TVs and games consoles that they then hire out to kids’ birthday parties.

They were interested in the OUYA because it was small and easy to fit in as another console in their van. Plus they were looking for opportunities to use the vans at conventions in conjunction with indie developers. They would have everything set up and indies could just turn up and plug their laptops or OUYAs or whatever else into the screens on the van and demo their games.

Specifically, they were at The Gadget Show, which is both a large consumer electronics show. But also a popular weekly TV show about gadgets and technology, produced under the same branding.

As it happened, Game Wagon had previously been on the TV show. One of the researchers from the show passed by the van, and took an interest in the OUYA. Turns out the show were looking to do a short section on the OUYA, but had been struggling to get hold of one, so asked if I could bring mine into their studios for a day. While I didn’t get to be on the show in-person, my OUYA did, and more importantly, I was able to get an insight into how, at least this one particular production company went about researching, presenting and then recording their take on various bits of tech.

This was all done without any input from OUYA, who although I told them what I was up to, I think were at the time madly rushing around putting out fires and trying to make sure everything was set for the next big milestone, which was launching in retail/shops in June.

Own Goals

By this point, OUYA had raised a round of venture capital to the tune of $15mil and sensibly pushed back their initially over-ambitious retail release date. Usually, businesses need to up-front capital firstly to research and develop their product, then to pay for stock to be manufactured and kept in warehouses and finally try to claw all that back at the end by selling it all.

OUYA conversely, took receipt of sixty thousand pre-orders six months before they had to start handing over any cash to manufacturers. From a cash-flow standpoint, they were in the perfect position, getting the money first, and only having to spend it much later.

Clearly though, once all the kickstarter and pre-ordered consoles were delivered, they’d be back in the usual position of needing a large chunk of working capital for all the consoles at various stages from the factory floor to the moment they are exchanged for cash with either retailers or directly with the consumer. And that money had to come from VC.

Having the CEO talk on Bloomberg TV or ring the NASDAQ opening bell are obvious ways to promote your business to those potential investors. However, those messages ended up also hitting the wrong target audience, being picked up by fans and developers. The world of finance really jars with the concept of “indie”, and while not a deal breaker, it acted to make the company seem more corporate and distant. In sharp contrast to the supposed strength of small, nimble startups like OUYA, in being to talk directly to customers and seem more personal and intimate.

Other specifics of OUYA’s situation further fed into this narrative. OUYA went from having a few hundred indie developers to worry about (who are generally more forgiving of technical and logistical hitches). To overnight, having sixty thousand consumers, with all the expectations of the ultra-refined console image Sony and Microsoft had whipped up.

OUYA’s customer support system soon fell behind, and a snowball effect ensued: Whereby when a customer’s support ticket (typically “where’s my OUYA / why hasn’t it turned up on March 31st?”) went unanswered, it would be followed up by another ticket asking why the first hadn’t been answered. Followed by more when the user went online to discover a multitude of similarly unsatisfied customers. The whole system melted under the pressure, and for months, social media, reddit, forums and other channels that should have been getting excited and hyping up the console in the lead up to its retail launch, were instead flooded with irate customers feeding off each other’s complaints and getting angrier and angrier as a result.

Whether you can extrapolate the lessons to other large, crowdfunded projects is questionable, but for OUYA, the business definitely did not follow a normal smooth scaling. It jumped in big steps, and that causes problems in of itself.

At the same time as all this was happening, I managed to inflict a problem of my own making on OUYA. Again, seeking to leverage my developer kit, I came across Futuremark, a company that benchmarks hardware devices. No one had yet run their benchmarking software on an OUYA, so with a bit of help from their engineers, I was able to output some results from the Android version of their software.

Those results fitted with what could be expected. Marginally higher performance than otherwise identical chipsets on equivalent mobile devices. By this point though, it simply added fuel to the existing anti-OUYA narrative being put out by most gaming publications. The OUYA was already out-of-date, slow and old before it had even been released (no mention of that being in comparison to devices 5 or 10 times the price).

Chalk that one up to my own naivety. Once the message got out that people wanted to hear, my own voice was drowned out and lost somewhere deep in the comments section on whatever website.

Indies vs Retail

Unfortunately, this came right around the same time I had got in contact with OUYA about another exciting experiment that I’d been lining up with their console. It had been announced that GAME would be the sole retailer stocking OUYAs in the UK. However, while they were taking pre-orders for the OUYA, they didn’t actually have any of the units themselves to demo to the public.

After talking to one branch of GAME on twitter who were excited by the OUYA’s imminent launch (each store has its own twitter account, run by the store manager and staff), I arranged to go down to the shop and show them mine.

I then pitched to them the idea of me coming back in and demoing the OUYA for a day to people in store. GAME had gone into administration the previous year, and it seemed the management there were willing to try anything that could help revive the fortunes of the company. They do events to coincide with the launch of big AAA games, and turned out, they were also amenable to the idea of experimenting with indie developers also demoing their games in store. (Full write up here)

I did three different shops on three different occasions, and even organised for some other indie developers to demo their games, on the OUYA, at their local branches of GAME.

I still believe the broader concept has credence, but in this specific case, it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped (at least going by the number of people who actually pre-ordered the console after having a go on it). It was obvious that the average man (or mum and kids) on the street had no idea what the OUYA was. Clearly, the marketing messages just weren’t getting through. Many people would engage and come away really positive about the console. Even if they weren’t ready to put an order down on the spot, having it there for people to play and discover in the store would undoubtedly over time, have resulted in significant sales. I could also tell that after I packed up and went home for the day, the OUYA stand would be put in the store room, and only a few boxes would remain hidden on shelves in some corner of the store.

Home stretch

Another thing I had already surmised from my convention expeditions, but which was confirmed on the shop floor of GAME, was that my own game was not a good candidate for live demos. As a slow paced, turn-based local multiplayer game, somewhat akin to a board game, it really isn’t the sort of game you can pick up for 30 seconds and get really into.

Fortunately, it was coming along nicely, and when I did show people, the reaction to the graphics and the high production values was heartening. With a final crunch, I was able to land my first commercial game on the OUYA store two days ahead of the console’s retail debut.

It was a wonderful feeling to think I had achieved my target, and even though that target was moved back twice, this time it wasn’t due to my own ineptitude. The game was finished on-time and only fractionally over budget.

The other side of the finish line

Sadly, we’re only up to June in the story, and the rest of the year isn’t quite happily ever after.

I hadn’t done nearly enough play testing of the game in the race to finish it. The feedback coming in from those social media channels I had been nurturing all told me something was amiss with the game design (though frustratingly, no one was able to put their finger on it).

I had early on recognised there was a gap in the market for local multiplayer gaming, and OUYA was the perfect place to test that theory. I feel vindicated in that assessment by the subsequent success of local multiplayer games like Towerfall, Bombsquad and Hidden in Plain Sight.

I myself was looking to board game design for inspiration, but without friends willing to sit down and engage with the game repeatedly over an extended period of time, the game was launched with some serious flaws. (Specifically, it took 3 hours to finish rather than the expected <1. A post-launch update pumped up the resource amounts collected per turn in a bid to speed things up, but instead ruined the balance of the game.)

Prior to launch, I felt dissatisfied with the game lacking certain features I had previously cut to make the release deadline. So I made the game free, but with an option to pre-order the future expansion pack with those missing features included.

The combination of niche game in an already small market, plus the flawed design and my pricing, it’s surprising how well the game sold for the three weeks before numbers fell off a cliff.

Nudge the Needle

About a month after release, I made a concerted effort on forums and the OUYA sub-reddit to promote the game. I submitted it to a “feedback Friday”, and over the course of the next week managed to significantly shift the needle download numbers wise.

It was heartening to find I had some control over my game’s destiny, and wasn’t merely locked onto the usual rollercoaster sales graph of large initial spike, followed by long low tail.

The feedback I got in the process though, was decidedly discouraging. People liked the idea of the game, and what it was trying to do, but invariably it failed to deliver. Worse, there was no consensus on exactly what was the problem. After much soul searching and analysis, and talking to other game developers, I concluded the real problem was the UI and way data is displayed to the player. It was making an already complex game decidedly cumbersome.

In the race to finish the game earlier in the summer, the UI code had become bloated and spaghetti like. Fixing it would mean tearing it down and re-writing it from scratch, and after 9 months of intensive game dev’ing, I was thoroughly burned out.

Gold Standard

I went to the “Indie Collective” event in London in September, where Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo laid out their respective stalls and be seen as the most “indie friendly”. Since then, I’ve been working on a new game while pursuing development on the newly (supposedly) open, next-gen consoles.

So the controversy about OUYA’s well-intentioned but miss-stepping Free The Games Fund largely went over my head. (If OUYA wants to throw good money after bad, that’s their prerogative). I was irritated by the reaction of many indie game developers piling in to hate on the console that, to my mind, still represents the gold standard for ease of development.

When OUYA launched on kickstarter, they threw out a lot of things to see what would stick: Touchpad on the controller, some sort of hackable raspberry pi like device, both of which have largely fallen by the wayside. Another thing they promised was to bring the mobile revolution to the console space. From the development side, they certainly delivered.

That word, “Android” may have done a lot of damage to OUYA in terms of confusing consumers and bringing with it misconceptions about the sort of content people could expect on what at the end of the day is a console first and foremost. However, the sheer variety of routes for getting a game onto the OUYA has been a huge boon. From cross-platform tools like Unity and Monogame, right through to Gamemaker, and beyond that, more exotic things like Adobe Air.

There are no NDA’s to sign, no fees to pay, the “devkit” is the retail unit you buy off the shelf at your local game store. At $99, it’s a bargain compared even to the mac+iPhone bare minimum needed for iOS development.

OUYA’s marketplace is just as wide open as the mobile stores from the submission side, while at the user end, OUYA have made a point to take discovery problems seriously. In a world where getting lost in a sea of apps has raced to the top of many developer’s list of concerns, OUYA have taken a lot of steps to pro-actively address the issue head on.

Still No love

Despite all that, and continuing to evolve and improve the system since launch, OUYA continues to be shunned by the majority of developers. It would be easy to pin the blame for that on clumsy marketing, or more cynically, that developers are ultimately making platform decisions based on cold, hard, economic facts.

Instead I’d posit that cross-platform tools, (particularly Unity3d), have allowed developers to create games for their existing favourite platform, and then if needs be, port in pursuit of the money.

From a consumer perspective, indie games fans are really just a subset of hardcore/enthusiast/gamer, or whatever label you choose to attach to those who consider playing games their hobby of choice. They really do like shiny things and are willing to wait and buy a $500 Xbox One/PS4, or have an expensive PC gaming rig. OUYA doesn’t fit into that.

There are probably more subtle things going on as well. In many ways, indie games is as much about the personalities as it is the games. Yes, a few big names made OUYA ports of their already-hit games, but none really got behind OUYA and made a big thing of attaching their name to it.

For me, I didn’t have an existing fan base or successful title under my belt to fall back on. OUYA was a chance to be more than just a drop in the mobile app store ocean. An opportunity to be a launch title on a console; something that doesn’t come around very often. A calculated risk that if the OUYA really took off, it’d have been worth it to get in on the ground floor.

Next!

It didn’t take off, but while I’d probably have taken the money given the option, I’ve gained a great deal of experience and had a lot of fun from my year of OUYA. Me and my little clear plastic box have been to conventions, on shop floors and even on TV! I’ve learned about social media, how to build a presence on the web, what makes an effective blogging campaign, and the limits of what you can do with a zero dollar marketing budget from your home office. I’ve finished a game, and released it!

I will undoubtedly put more games on the OUYA, but it just makes zero sense right now to not go cross-platform. (Exclusivity and the rise of cross-platform tools is something I think hasn’t fully played out yet and will yet come to bite the big three in years to come).

Last week, I took my OUYA to my cousins’ for Christmas. Despite blazing through the majority of its games library in a way only kids can (Too slow, next! Too fast, next! Too boring, next!) they were always bugging me to go back and play some more OUYA.

OUYA could have a future as a casual console, befitting it’s cheap price and existing library of games. Something between match three world of mobile and high end gaming machines. Hopefully 2014 will be the year OUYA captures that future

Devkits for All

Dedicated devkit devices are overkill, and their cost puts off many developers in a world where competing platform holders strive to attract content creators

I previously blogged about how even if you don’t play the games, owning a retail console or device for your target platform can have many benefits.

Now, consider a devkit and retail kit come as a single package, at a price that ordinary consumers can afford. That represent really good value for money for developers looking to see which console they want to target. Add in free software development tools such as Unity3d and it’s even better!


Devkits are usually more than just a retail box, and can include all sorts of extra diagnostic equipment and tools. For most small developers however, indies in particular, they are unlikely to really push the boundaries of the platform in a way that requires them to get close to the metal (code at a low level and use very specific hardware properties to gain maximum performance). Especially so for those who have delegated that task of having the most efficient, high performance engine, to the middleware providers like the teams behind CryEngine or Unity3d.

Having worked in mobile and on the OUYA, I really believe having retail units double up as devkits is the way forward. It is slightly intimidating approaching a big company like Microsoft or Sony to ask for a devkit, and devs aren’t known for being sociable and building business relationships

It also means there is less overload at the platform holder’s end, on those who would otherwise be in charge of handling dev relations. It means they don’t have to waste time answering the same questions over and over again. About process / procedure or getting started, or when is their devkit going to get shipped?

Furthermore, you will get people who start off only tinkering around with dev tools, only to later get really into development. Sometimes amazing games can result where before, the would-be dev was put off by the effort required just to see what this game making thing is all about.

Even having a (disabled?) set of developer options on the system menu, as is the case with the recently launched Xbox One, will make people curious and give them a feeling that development is for everyone, not just the elite with connections.

And there is also a marketing benefit. Developers can bring their incomplete or beta builds to trade shows or conventions to demo. Equally, developers can produce their own marketing material without having to worry about breaking NDA’s or revealing secrets. In an age where many indie developers make sharing the game development process a key component of their marketing, having to dance around what can and can’t be revealed adds time overhead and risk for both developers and platform holders

Mobile platforms (and microconsoles to a lesser extent) have a distinct advantage in that developers can pull their game out of their pocket at any time and do an impromptu pitch or get feedback, no matter where they are. While it’s difficult to lug an Xbox or Playstation around with you, at least being send your build to private beta testers over the internet and have them install the game on their own machine can be a massive boon.

The flip side is that the online stores for the platforms in question get overloaded with everyone’s “my first game”. Which leads onto the whole thing about discoverability, but that’s an entirely different debate altogether. It’d be a false economy to solve that by making development less easy.

The Revolution is Dead

The revolution is dead

OUYA was born out of the frustrations of gamers at the end of a console cycle that had grown particularly stale. Now the arrival of a new generation of consoles is imminent, and Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are collectively pushing to diversify their game portfolios by courting the quirky and colourful indie gaming scene.

The original reason for OUYA’s existence has largely evaporated. It has no future as a rebel console, indie champion or alternative to PS4/Xbox One.

Instead

But it does have a future as a console for kids and party gaming. Bar the novelty-feature motion controller, the OUYA has all the ingredients that made the Wii successful: Bright, colourful games you can play with your friends and parents at a cheap price.

As luck would have it, other consoles currently lack this: Local multiplayer games to play together with friends. Emulators on which parents can show their kids the games they grew up playing

Getting There

Fortunately, virtually no one knows the OUYA exists. Mums don’t browse reddit, they don’t read The Verge and they sure as hell don’t read Kotaku. Right now, if they google for OUYA, they will get back a whole bunch of negativity from those sites. OUYA needs to undergo a rebranding exercise. That can come in the form of OUYA 2, or even completely dropping the OUYA name (it’s become that toxic).

There is no need to rush it either. Go back to the lab, get the product right, let Sony and MS slog it out over Christmas. Come back in the new year with a fresh image and clear focus on who your customer is, why they should buy this product

OUYA, please stop trying to compete with global megacorporations for the tiny hardcore gaming market. Don’t be afraid to pivot!

Console Wars: The Battle for Indies

The big three console manufacturers have all been making lots of noise recently, espousing their indie credentials and how they are now open to all comers. Having just successfully released my first game on the OUYA, I was keen to find out how genuine a contender for title of “most indie friendly” they each were. Both in competing with OUYA, and as possible targets for my own game heading cross-platform.

So last Friday, I headed down to London, to the headquarters of UKIE, for the “Indie Collective” event, where each console maker set out their respective stalls and pitched their platform to the 100 or so assembled indie devs.

(I should make mention that Amazon and a number of other speakers were also at the event, but interesting as those talks were, my game is designed for console, so that was my main focus for the day).

Sony

This talk was less about the actual process of getting onto the PS4, which in a way was quite nice. There were some interesting points made by the Sony rep, Shahid, about (what I’d term) the stratification of game development into AAA on the one hand and indie on the other hand, with the hollowing out of the “double A” studios in-between.

One thing mentioned, when asked about Sony’s motivations for reaching out to indies was that Sony had always been a B-to-B type of business; somewhat implying that they viewed indies as closer to consumers than other businesses. Which is probably fair enough when you consider many indies don’t have teams of lawyers, marketeers and PR people, and in many cases, aren’t even incorporated.

Another area highlighted as of particular importance to Sony was the idea of “credibility” of a game developer. This idea that it isn’t necessarily the number of titles shipped or size of team, but how genuine and credible they think you are in terms of ultimately being able to come up with the goods. This extended to indies spending time networking, going to events, getting their face out there, so that Sony know of devs from more than just a few tweets and emails.

This point was extended when (somewhat controversially), it was suggested indies do their own PR, rather than rely on a company. Drawing on this idea that the indie game dev is the most important asset (after the game itself), when it comes to selling the game.

Other things included the emphasis on Vita (there were a couple of free Vita’s being given away during the talk). Presumably, since Sony have had some success reviving the Vita’s fortunes by turning it into a sort of indie platform, they want to continue that. And also perhaps might prefer unknown devs to start there and prove themselves, so as to reduce the number of “My first games” appearing on PS4.

Equally, there was a certain amount of sales pitch around Sony’s proprietary tools and SDKs, which again can be rationalised: They want you to ideally make exclusives for their platforms, and tieing you into their tech is part of that.

Overall though, the Sony talk comes from the same hymn sheet as what I’ve seen and read online coming out of the company over the last 6 to 9 months or so.

Microsoft

This was very much more about the process of getting onto Xbox One, and the speaker from Microsoft, Phil Waymouth, made the point a number of times that while him and his team heard this stuff every day, it was easy to forget not everyone else had heard about it. So his mission was very much to help educate people about that.

Microsoft have come under criticism that maybe their ID@Xbox campaign looks a bit rushed and “me too” ish. And reading between the lines about the above, you can see why Microsoft have been somewhat irked by that accusation.

Meantime, the process itself was presented as a simple 1. 2. 3. step affair: Initiate Contact -> Pitch Game -> Publish, though each step in itself appears to be complex and involved

The point was made that creating games was hard! And this was also reflected when I checked out the ID@Xbox site after the talk, which talks about professionalism and has a sign up form where you can list all the titles you’ve shipped, how many years experience you have in the industry etc.

As with Sony and the Vita, the hint from Microsoft is that Windows 8 apps are a good way to prove your self in terms of quality and the “credibility” factor that Sony spoke about. The idea that you’re a known quantity to Microsoft if there is an app or two that you can point to on the Windows 8 app store.

As if to push that home, there was quite a bit of talk about the Kinect and how developers could access the full HD camera and the array of microphones that allow the Xbox One to know where sound is coming from in the room (and/or from which player). All of which, without wanting to be too disparaging, is probably beyond the capabilities of the average indie.

Conversely, I was very excited to see Microsoft address the problem of discoverability head on (something I feel passionately about). Microsoft analogised themselves as providing the easel, paint brushes and gallery for the game dev “artist”, and the gallery seems to learn from the mistakes of app-stores past: Single store (no ghettoized XBLIG/XBLA marketplaces), and for curation, a mix of hand-picked “spotlight” featured section, and using technology in the form of trending and a recommendations engine.

Other mentions went to the fact they fully support IAP and f2p/freemium models, but they also use the wholesale model. As an indie, I wasn’t really aware of this before, but it was explained quite well, and makes a lot of sense when you think in terms of the legal and tax aspects of selling games.

Second screen also got a fleeting mention, though personally, I think second screen gaming has huge potential, so disappointed, but not entirely surprised it got glossed over.

Microsoft seem like they want to make a distinction between indie and Independent developers, with their preference very much for the latter. But that they can’t say that out loud

Nintendo

Arguably the most interesting of the three talks, it was prefaced by the event host describing how once upon a time, it was not uncommon to travel all the way to Kyoto in Japan and actually meet with Nintendo bosses in person. The point being, things had come along way since then and the company was changing. It was also noted that many of the things mentioned in the talk were not being discussed openly (or at least not under NDA) until very recently. While I appreciate it kinda sucks to then have someone like me splurge it all out over the internets, hopefully, this will assist other indie devs and Nintendo themselves in opening up.

In fact, I was lucky enough to have a chat with one of the Nintendo reps during lunch, and the way it was put to me, going back to the motivation behind companies doing these talks, was that in the last generation, Nintendo had broadened their customer base and the spread of demographics (casuals, women etc). Now the intention was to do a similar thing for their developer base.

Nintendo admitted that wiiware hadn’t exactly been perfect, but that they were really starting to get there with the current eShop. Off-device eShop browsing was mentioned as being in the pipeline, though like much in the talk, it was “when it happens / but I can’t talk about that”.

As for being featured on the eShop, there are no paid featured slots, with everything being selected by the editorial staff. The permanent indie feature slot on the store was highlighted. Interestingly, there was a suggestion that niche games were a favourite amongst editors

IAP and freemium / f2p were all fine, and unlike Microsoft, the eShop worked on the agency model. Too much manipulating of the prices though, and/or attempts to game the system were deemed “inadvisable”.

Another point raised was that there was no minimum threshold before developers get paid. That was interesting for me when comparing it to my experience on OUYA, where there is a $150 threshold before they pay up.

In fact, much of the Nintendo talk seemed to be aimed at clearing up what they had identified as common developer misconceptions. No exclusivity requirement, and no requirement to use specific bits of hardware. Working from home, they had recognised, was fine, so long as there were reasonable guarantees that you didn’t leave your door unlocked and wide open for anyone wandering down the street to poke their head in and knab your Wii U devkit.

On the subject of the devkit, Nintendo made the reasonable point that, as much as they were willing to make things financially easy and provide as great an assistance as possible for free, the devkit pricetag, represented a reciprocal serious committment on the behalf of the developer.

Process wise, Nintendo made no pretensions about their eight odd steps to get games from inception to sitting on the store. Sign up to their dev program, get a devkit. Then after that, quite some emphasis was put on getting an internal game code / id number for your game. Without having gone through the process myself, I interpret that as being the starting point for your game competing with others for internal marketing resources and attention within Nintendo. That it enabled the Nintendo rep championing your game to fight for its cause.

Now here, more than anywhere, I might be guilty of reading way too much into what the Nintendo guys were saying, but the message was that although you can get a game code any time, the earlier in the development cycle you can get your game on Nintendo’s internal radar, the better

Another strong signal I got was that after QA and Price Setting, came the point that localisation was highly recommended. Again, without wanting to over-emphasise things, it seems this step is one that corporate would in the past have insisted on. They might drop it for indies, but the impression I got was that if you want to work with, rather than against the system, it would be better not to skip it.

As for the “which flavour of the month bit of tech should your game use if you want to sell to us as platform holders”, the answer was Miiverse and off-TV gaming. Admittedly, I have never heard of the latter, but fortunately, the emphasis was on Miiverse. This was covered in quite some detail, with particular pride shown by the Nintendo guys about how developers could interact with their fan base, and customers/players could, through the miiverse, discover what was trending or what their friends were playing through a more organic feeling, human-face recommendations engine

A throwaway comment was made about local multiplayer gaming also being good, which I find interesting, since OUYA, more by luck than by design, seems to have ended up with a really good slew of local multiplayer games. (I really feel OUYA should be targeting the Nintendo, mum&kids end of the market, not the PS4/Xbox One hardcore segment).

Finally, if you really want to get Nintendo’s attention, in their words, make a game to “Surprise people and put a smile on their face”

Conclusion?

Realistically, these are commercial organisations, and are not entirely doing this out of a purely altruistic love for the art. However, if you have a game that you truly believe in the quality of, there’s probably never been a better time to get your game onto consoles

As for my self, I’ve sent off introductory emails and/or filled out the forms to apply for each of the three respective developer programs. It’ll be interesting to see what they all come back with. (Hopefully I won’t be able to tell you, if you catch my drift)

 

Indie vs Retail

Can indie developers breath new life into flagging video game retailers? I decided to try and find out

It should be obvious to all that bricks and mortar stores selling video games must adapt or die in the face of digital distribution. To make those physical spaces justify the overheads they generate, there need to be reasons for people to come into the store and spend their money in person, rather than simply going online and having their purchases delivered to their front door or downloaded straight to their gaming device of choice.

One possible avenue is to get indie game developers into the stores to demo their games. This gives indies a platform to showcase their work, get feedback from the general public on their games, and provide a new way of connecting with their audience. For the store, it means an added attraction to bring people through the doors.

It just so happens that I’m working on a game for the OUYA, which is being retailed through GAME here in the UK. Since OUYA have been pushing how ‘open’ their platform is to develop for, there haven’t been the NDA’s or legal issues one might usually expect with grabbing the devkit and publicly showing it off to everyone and anyone who cared. In fact, this was something I’d already taken it upon myself to do, organising a number of meetups of developers and fans prior to the console shipping to kickstarter backers, as well as taking it to the Gadget Show Exhibition and an Anime and Comic convention (MCM Expo) down at the NEC

While the cost/benefit equation of these events is somewhat questionable from a pure sales point of view, in terms of increasing exposure and the possibility of generating press interest, they are well worth it. Plus they are just fun to do for an indie developer working from home and not getting out enough.

The logical extension would be to demo the OUYA (and by proxy, my own game) in branches of GAME, and after approaching them about the idea, they proved receptive and willing to give it a go. So, last week I headed down to Northfield, a suburb of Birmingham, to the local branch of GAME to test drive the idea.

What went right?

Position / Setup
Full credit to the guys at the shop, who before I arrived, had collected together all the OUYA boxes in the store and arranged them on an old PS3 stand. While some people were a little confused as to what the OUYA was or mistook it as having something to do with playstation, the setup by and large looked the part.

The stand was also well positioned, so as not to get in the way of people moving around the store, whilst at the same time not being hidden in some dingy corner or away from where customers glancing around the store might notice

GAME Northfield OUYA

Engagement
People responded really positively to the live demonstration, whether they were just watching myself or others play, or actively trying it out themselves. Also, not only being able to respond to customer’s questions directly, but not being directly affiliated with OUYA, I was able to honestly address some of OUYA’s shortcomings, which helped build trust and a rapport with customers

Local Multiplayer
After a bit of experimenting with various games, I came across a couple that really let people jump in quickly and play with/against each other. This was a big bonus as lots of customers were out shopping with someone else (A husband and wife, or mother and child, or group of friends etc). Or alternatively, seeing one person play would often draw the interest of another unrelated customer, and being able to have them hop into the game was a big advantage in retaining their interest

OUYA
The small size of the OUYA made it easy to transport and get set up. The downside was that it wasn’t obvious until pointed it out to the customer, that the little box, tucked away in the corner, was actually running all the games. Also having the devkit, which is a different colour scheme to the version actually being sold, caused some confusion and questions about whether it was available in different colours (and why not?!)

No Internet
Although unfortunate from the perspective of being unable to demo the online multiplayer games, it meant there would be no issues with customers attempting (accidentally or otherwise) to make game purchases on my credit card. Having already downloading a good selection of games before hand, ensured that there was enough variety in the titles on show to make the console feel rich and varied content wise. The (online) store being unavailable had the added bonus of focusing customers’ (and my) attention on those pre-selected games. The OUYA has also been criticised for having a laggy UI, but since there was no need to exit the game library and navigate around the rest of the UI, that particular problem didn’t come up at all.

Furthermore, no one was exposed to the lower quality games lurking in the depths of the store, and no one asked for specific games to be downloaded on the spot (which would inevitably have meant hanging around ages for it to download, causing everyone to lose interest in the meantime).

What went wrong?

Footfall
The number of customers who actually came to the shop that day was disappointingly low. Far lower than expected according to staff, considering a couple of major releases were coming out that day.

No Promotion
I was in such a rush to get my game ready in time that I didn’t do any promotion of the event beyond a few tweets the day before. No attempts to contact press or otherwise generate interest beyond (figuratively) grabbing people as they walked past in the street

Game Specifics
My own game is both quite abstract and complex (requiring players to get through a substantial tutorial before they can really get going), and slow paced. As a result, I found it wasn’t really hitting it off with customers, so in the end I didn’t actually demo it to that many people

Closing the Sale
In terms of generating extra pre-orders of the OUYA, I was quite poor at closing the sale and getting those genuinely interested to actually commit the £10 pre-order deposit. That’s partly because I suck at sales, but also due to it being too easy for customers to get out by saying they can just buy it when it comes out.

Securing the OUYA and Controllers
Being small and light, and having completely wireless controllers meant that someone had to keep an eye on the equipment at all times to avoid it getting stolen

Limited Play
Some games I had not played extensively enough prior to demoing them, only to discover that they used a limited number of plays per day, leaving customers disappointed that they could not continue.
____

From a practical, proof of concept point of view, the whole day was a success. However, as already mentioned, it clearly isn’t effective in terms of raw sales generated for the indie, and in terms of generating press interest, it’s only going to work once or twice.

Interestingly, in discussing these issues with other devs, the example of Games Workshop came up a number of times. Every store has a dedicated space for players to come in and play tabletop battles together. Even if just watching other people’s battles, it brings people into the store with something exciting and participatory, which in turn helps create a lasting connection with the product and relationship with staff and other members of the community.

Stores like GAME already do a similar thing, with consoles set up for people to have a go at playing the latest games. However, what Games Workshop also do is run sessions for beginners, and for helping improve people’s skills in painting and crafting scenery.

As it happened, I’d help arrange for a number of other developers to demo their own OUYA games at GAME, including Jamie Lowes of Vamflax, who headed down with his own game, Chopper Mike, to the large GAME store at the Bullring in Birmingham the day after my own adventure.

jamie lowes bullring small

One thing that he reported came up repeatedly was that customers were also enthusiastic in getting into game development themselves. It makes sense that people think to themselves “I can do that as well,” especially when the developer is no longer remote and hidden behind corporate logos, but there in person and able to talk about the issues that directly affect game development

Retailers could co-opt the indie community by providing the co-working spaces and environment where they can get out of the home office and interact with other developers and gamers. Get feedback on their latest builds or inspiration from what others are doing. A sort of indie games incubator that doubles as a store and hub for all things gaming related.

Whether you could truly justify that cost if you’re not a platform holder like Google or Microsoft is a question that can’t be easily answered without taking some big risks to try and find out

Indeed, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to retail. Perhaps the game industry will trend back towards larger, more professional studios and indie games will once more cycle into the background world of underground niche development, making all this irrelevant. The incoming new generation of consoles will no doubt boost retail and allow long term issues to be kicked down the road for another few years.

However, these are questions that need to be answered now if retailers are to have enough time to make them work before the inevitable changes in the industry finally catch up with them.

I’ll be trying to answer some more of those questions when I demo the OUYA again at GAME Perry Bar on June 1st. If you missed the chance to play Chopper Mike before, you can catch up with Jamie Lowes in GAME Solihull also on June 1st. Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios will also be demoing, at GAME in Leeds, again on June 1st, and also June 2nd

Rebranding Always Online

Games that require always on internet provide immense benefit to both game developers and customers, but the case for their use is not being made

The recent controversial tweeting by one Microsoft executive about the prospect of an always online console was not what lost him is job, but rather the attitude it displayed. It is one reflecting a deeper frustration amongst those in the game industry with consumer resistance to games and platforms that require a constant internet connection.

There are of course a multitude of excellent reasons why game developers would want or require an internet connection for single player games, or those that do not use the internet directly in the game itself.

always online

Collecting data about gamer’s habits, analysing where in the game they get stuck, frustrated or bored. Gaining feedback on game balance issues and detecting bugs and defects more precisely and in a way that is useful to developers without having gamers require detailed technical knowledge of the game or needing to manually report. These things help make better games, and therefore eventually benefit gamers, even if not directly / at the time.

Yet the concept of an always online game has become toxic in the minds of many gamers, and grown to represent perceived corporate greed and the running rough shod over gamers’ concerns by large studios and publishers. The internet is also abound with innumerable stories and anecdotes of jumping through hoops, over barriers and gamers being generally prevented from just being able to get on with the game experience.

It is therefore interesting to consider the OUYA, a console that works purely based on digital distribution and though not quite demanding 100% connectivity, essentially needs an internet connection to be in any way useful. It has not encountered any of the hostility directed towards other games and platforms, such as Sim City, Diablo III and the rumoured upcoming Microsoft console.

The key to understanding this is to realise that the benefits of an always online OUYA are obvious. So clear and easy to understand that consumers can see exactly what the direct benefits are to them.

It is in making the case for similar always online products that game developers and publishers have thus far failed. Explicitly spelling out those benefits I listed above, and accepting and accommodating those who are not convinced (i.e. giving them a way to opt out of the data collection) is the bafflingly simple solution that for whatever reason, isn’t being acted on.

In a world where people are increasingly aware of privacy issues and the data they are inadvertently creating, it only makes sense to offer control and give people a stake in the management of the data that, after all, they created in the first place. It’s time companies woke up to customer concerns and understand this is not a technical or anti-piracy issue any more.

Making of a Killer

Killer apps are rarely identifiable ahead of time. OUYA needn’t be worried yet

A common criticism of the OUYA is that it lacks a killer app. Something that people can point to and say “This is reason alone to buy the console.” Of course it somewhat misses that most killer apps are only regarded as such in hindsight. It can often take years for such things to emerge and be truly appreciated for what they are.

killer knife

That doesn’t mean OUYA should sit back and wait for such an app to naturally occur. Instead, OUYA should work to maximise the chances of it appearing and make every effort to create the sort of environment where a killer app can take hold.

In this regard, I think OUYA are making excellent progress. With an open platform and as many barriers to entry removed as possible, plus the shortened feedback loop between developers and OUYA, there are plenty of reasons to believe some of those developers working away on the OUYA right now could spawn a genuine hit or two.

I would still argue they need to do more to attract developers into the fold to begin with. High level press coverage isn’t nearly as effective as taking a small group of developers aside to pitch to them on a personal level, and I hope OUYA will do more of this in the future.

On the flip side, the unfortunate reality is that the number of consumers / paying customers using the platform also directly impacts on the ability to attract developer support, leading to a certain level of interdependency that is hard to escape (i.e. a chicken and egg scenario).

As well as creating the right environment, it is important to be able to identify early on those apps that have most potential to turn into that killer app. That way, when such an app does begin to really gain traction (and not before!) and start to cross the threshold between merely selling well to the existing customer base, and actively attracting people to the OUYA, the marketing machine can swing into action and accelerate that process

Where it gets harder is when the killer app is something more abstract than a single, easily packaged and identifiable product. To a certain extent, this is OUYA’s current problem, where the unique selling points are abstract things like hackability and potential for interesting indie titles. Those things are a tough sell to consumers raised on a high-octane diet of explosive action scenes and high visual impact imagery.

Games are a visual medium as much as anything else, and whilst gaming aficionados might complain about shallow gameplay mechanics and narrative behind the scene, the brightly painted cardboard cutouts at least do the job of getting people through the door.

With its explosive start and tight schedule, OUYA seems to be racing around at a million miles an hour, it may be once all the hype subsides after the June retail launch, that the OUYA can get really going on the long, slow burning path to true usefulness, and I think it is during this period that a killer app will emerge.

Finishing Service

What Indie developers really need is a finishing service

Another take away from Richard Nash’s excellent (if rather long) take on the state of the literary/book publishing industry is that publishers (especially editors) actually perform multiple roles that add value, and while some of those roles are now obsolete, others are absolutely still relevant. Perhaps even more so in a world flooded with digital content.

Chief amongst the tasks of an editor is ensuring that manuscripts are up to standard and ready for market. In other words, that they are polished and have had all their rough edges smoothed out. Translating this to games, I’m not talking about finding bugs or play testing and balancing, but the little things that make a game feel professional and complete.

polishing

In some cases, that rough, unfinished feel to a game can really add to the indie credibility / authenticity, but all too often, potential customers don’t get past the shoddy packaging to find the real treat of a game inside. Especially in an era of free to play games where consumers are oversaturated with choice, and need to make a rapid assessment on a game’s attractiveness, if the outside façade doesn’t look promising, first impressions will form and players won’t even get past the front door.

Of course, no one goes indie to have a publisher telling them what they can and can’t do. The problem is that traditional publishers own and control the brands/IP and bundle in financing and marketing along with testing and finishing services. This needs to be unbundled to provide indie devs with a pick and mix of services that they can select based on their appropriateness and cost effectiveness for their business.

As a consultancy service, developers can choose to take on board or disregard the advice they are given as is their prerogative, rather than having it foisted upon them. It also allows the providers of that service more scope to provide a sliding scale of services, tailored to the needs of the developers.

Often indie games can be a bunch of ideas mixed together in a crazy mess of the creative energies that spawned them. It may be that developers need help to pick out the mechanics, aesthetics or elements of their game that are unique, so that they can build on those and ditch other parts of the game not core to the experience. This works to give indies both a better, more focused game, and assist them in thinking about how the game will be marketed.

Equally, a game may simply need tweaking and minor adjustments made here or there to make it really shine. The little things that gamers and testers are unlikely to be able to consciously articulate, but that can make the different between a good, solid game, and something that really makes players feel energized and immersed.

Or perhaps if that sounds a little fuzzy and waffle filled, there is the other end of the spectrum, where a great set of mechanics and art are lacking all those peripheral things that make a game feel professionally produced. The menu screen might be the first thing the player sees, and no matter how good the game inside, it leaves the player their first impression of the actual experience of being in the game. Equally, developers might not want to spend significant time providing the tutorials, controls remapping, and options setting screens that are not really central to the game, and so not really what those developers are interested in (and ultimately not what they should be spending their valuable time and resources on). Those things though, act like the in-game customer service, helping players get an experience optimised for them. It makes sense to delegate creation of that to a professional services company

As for OUYA, I don’t expect as a platform holder for them to provide this kind of service, especially since the company is small, and just starting out. However, the winds of change are blowing the industry towards indie shores, and without the support and infrastructure of a large studio / publisher, many game developers will find themselves in need of these kinds of services. Having third party companies able to offer that would indeed be an indication of a richer, more complete ecosystem, dedicated to ensuring games reach their potential as more than just commodities

 

Perception War

The OUYA community is unwittingly participating in a perception war, and in danger of getting burned out as a result

I played Eve Online for many years. It’s a game that ostensibly, like all MMO’s, you can’t lose. Even if your ship is destroyed, you can respawn and buy another. Even if your clan loses all of its territory, you can wage guerilla warfare and make life so miserable for the new residents that they eventually give up and leave.

The only thing you can truly lose is the will to fight, to continue the struggle. In-game battles are just the ammunition for the real battle of perception. Eventually a critical mass of people on one side or the other will decide it isn’t fun any more and support will collapse.

afk cloakers(You’ll get this if you’ve ever played Eve Online)

OUYA is locked in a similar war of perception with its detractors, and to a lesser extent, rival consoles.Those who have vocally supported the OUYA now find themselves thrust into that conflict, unwittingly becoming soldiers expected to defend the line and participate in counter-attacks.

It’s incredibly draining, and very easy to end up burned out, all the fun sucked out of the experience. While there will always be a hardcore of stubborn, bitter-enders in any group or community, relying on there being enough to sustain momentum when things get tough isn’t a strategy

One effective measure is to increase communication and interaction with those on the front line. Hearing people’s cries, and being able to give them an insight or hint at the strategies needed to help ease the pressure makes those people feel special and valued. Conversely, aloofness and secrecy at this point are sure fire ways to generate a feeling that leadership are disconnected from the realities on the ground, which in turn causes people to lose faith in that leadership.

OUYA have responded the right way in this regard (though perhaps a little slow off the mark) by rebutting unfavourable reviews and clarifying rumours around the shipping taking longer than most people imagined.

That communication needs to continue (and regularly) until the bridge between the initial disappointing first impressions and teething problems and when better news turns up.

Generating good news is the other way to effectively cancel out the negativity. Obviously people aren’t stupid enough to be distracted with “Ooo shiny new!”, but delivered correctly, a series of positive news stories can help engender a feeling that actually those downsides are more just temporary bumps going against the momentum, which all points towards things being on the up

There is a risk of creating noise and devaluing the impact of communications that would otherwise have bigger marketing and PR impact later, but all that stored up power-of-message is for just these sort of situations

As for those “soldiers” reading this, I’m probably too closely involved with my own game development on OUYA to give any sort of balanced view of the console. If you’re tired of the war, don’t capitulate or take sides. Instead do what I can’t : Look at the OUYA objectively and make up your own mind