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

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