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.