The OUYA and I have a complicated relationship. When I first saw it I loved the idea of a console that was free from any restrictions, one that would inevitably become a playground for the independent developers that I had come to love so much. However the reality fell short of my (and many others) lofty expectations but deep down I still really wanted it to take off. Whilst I’m not cheering for the downfall of the three kings of consoles having a viable alternative for developers who can’t afford to develop for traditional platforms is something that the industry needs and before you ask no, smartphones don’t count (at least not yet).
OUYA’s latest move has done nothing to improve this situation, however.
OUYA recently announced the Free the Games fund, an initiative whereby a game that’s funded through Kickstarter can have its contributions doubled, to the tune of $50,000. On the surface that sounds like a great thing as that kind of cash is kind of unheard of for many independent developers and studios however this isn’t free money exactly. First off your game must be an OUYA exclusive for the first 6 months of its life after which you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Secondly your Kickstarter goal must be at least $50,000 and you have to reach it to be eligible to get your funds doubled. These two aspects combined together have seen the Free the Games fund met with some harsh criticism and, frankly, I’m inclined to agree with them.
For starters being an OUYA exclusive drastically limits your market potential as even the most successful game on that platform has only managed to sell around 2,000 copies. Considering that cross platform development is now easier than ever thanks to tools like Unity indie developers are quite capable of releasing for multiple platforms even with the limited resources that they have to work with. Thus it makes sense to release on as many platforms as is feasible to maximise your market exposure unless you’ve got a compelling reason to go exclusive. $50,000 might be compelling enough for some, especially if that will allow you to develop a cross platform release during the exclusivity period, but the second caveat on that funding is what makes that particular scenario unlikely.
The average game project on Kickstarter gets no where near the amount of funding that OUYA is asking for in order to receive the grant. According to Kickstarter’s own numbers the average funding level of a games project is on the order of $22,000 which includes outliers which have nabbed millions of dollars worth of funding. In truth the average indie studio would probably be lucky to get anywhere near the average with 63% of them raising less than $20,000. OUYA’s logic is likely then that any game below that amount would be too risky for them to invest in but its far more likely that they’re pricing out the vast majority of the indies they were hoping to attract and those who meet the requirements will likely not want to trade exclusivity for the additional funding.
In theory I think it’s a great idea however it’s implementation is sorely lacking. I think a lot more people would be on their side if they reduced the amount of funding required by a factor of ten and changed the exclusivity deal to guaranteeing that the game would be available on the OUYA platform. That way the developers aren’t constrained to the OUYA platform, allowing them to develop the game however they want, and the OUYA would get an order of magnitude more titles developed for the platform. Of course that also means the risk of getting shovelware increases somewhat however after my decidedly average experience with OUYA exclusive titles I can’t say that they’d be diluting the pool too much.
I’m still hoping that OUYA manages to turn this around as their core idea of an unchained console is still something I think should be applauded but the realisation of a viable, alternative console platform seems to keep drifting further away. Their latest move has only served to alienate much of the community it set out to serve however with a few tweaks I think it could be quite workable, allowing OUYA to achieve its goals whilst furthering the indie game dev scene. It doesn’t look like they’re intent on doing that however so this will likely end up being yet another mark against them.
My group of friends is undeniably tech-oriented but that doesn’t mean all of us share the same views on how technology should be used, especially in social situations. If you were to see us out at a restaurant it’s pretty much guaranteed that at least one of us is on our phone, probably Googling an answer to something or sifting through our social networking platform of choice. For most of us this is par for the course being with all of us being members of Gen Y however some of my friends absolutely abhor the intrusion that smartphones have made on normal social situations and if the direction of technology is anything to go by that intrusion is only going to get worse, not better.
Late last year I came across the Memento Kickstarter project, a novel device that takes 1 picture every 30 seconds and even tags it with your GPS location. It’s designed to be worn all the time so that you end up with a visual log of your life, something that’s obviously of interest to a lot of people as they ended up getting funded 11 times over. Indeed just as a device it’s pretty intriguing and I had caught them early enough that I could have got one at a hefty discount. However something that I didn’t expect to happen changed my mind on it completely: my technically inclined friends’ reactions to this device.
Upon linking my friends to the Kickstarter page I wasn’t met with the usual reactions. Now we’re not rabid privacy advocates, indeed many of us engage in multiple social networks and many of us lead relatively open online lives, but the Memento was met with a great deal of concern over it’s present in everyone’s private lives. It wasn’t a universal reaction but it was enough to give me pause about the idea and in the end I didn’t back it because of it. With Google Glass gearing up to increase its presence in the world these same privacy questions are starting to crop up again and the social implications of Google’s flagship augmented reality device are starting to become apparent.
Google Glass is a next step up from Memento as whilst it has the same capability to take photos (without the express knowledge or consent from people in it) its ability to run applications and communicate directly with the Internet poses even more privacy issues. Sure the capability isn’t too much different than what’s available now with your garden variety smartphone however it is ever-present, attached the side of someone’s head and can be commanded at will of the user. That small step of taking your phone out of your pocket is enough of a social cue to let people know what your intentions are and make their concerns known well before hand.
What I feel is really happening here is that the notion of societal norms are being challenged by technology. Realistically such devices are simply better versions of things we have natively as humans (I.E. imaging devices with attached storage) but their potential for disseminating their contents is much greater. Just like social norms developed around ubiquitous smartphones so too they must develop around the use of augmented reality devices like Google Glass. What these norms will end up being however is something that we can’t really predict until they reach critical mass which, from what I can tell, is at least a couple years off in the future, possibly even longer.
For my close knit circle of tech friends however I can predict a few things. Most of them wouldn’t have any issues with me wearing and using it whilst we were doing things together but I can see them wanting me to take them off if we were sitting down to dinner or at someone’s private residence. It could conceivably be seen as somewhat rude to wear it if you’re deep in conversation although I feel that might change over time as people realise it’s not something that’s being used 100% of the time. Things will start to get murky as Glass like devices start to become smaller and less obtrusive although the current generations of battery technology put Glass on the slimmest end of the spectrum possible so I doubt they’ll be getting smaller any time soon.
Essentially I see these kinds of augment reality devices being an organic progression of smartphones, extending our innate human abilities with that of the Internet. The groundwork has already been laid for a future that is ever-increasingly intertwined with technology and whilst this next transition poses its own set of challenges I have no doubt that we’ll rapidly adapt, just like we have done in the past. What these adaptations are and how they function in the real world will be an incredibly interesting thing to bear witness to and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.
I don’t run ads here and there’s a really simple reason for that: I have the luxury of not needing to. This blog is one of my longest running hobbies and whilst the cost to me is non-zero in terms of time and actual cash I’m willing to eat both those costs simply for the love of it. There is a point where I’ve told myself that I’ll start running ads (that’s the point where I can make a living off doing this) but that’s somewhere in the order of 50 times the traffic I’m receiving today. Not an impossible goal really but certainly a long way off from where I currently am.
It’s for that particular reason that I don’t run ad blocking services on my browser. You see for the most part I don’t even really notice the ads unless they start forming obvious patterns or have obnoxious auto-playing music and I figure that as a fellow content creator I understand their reason for being there. Even though I don’t usually click on them I know that the author is getting at least some kind of reward for providing that information for free to me, even if it’s not much. I completely support everyone else’s freedom to block ads as they see fit however as I know that overall they’re in a minority and they won’t be the death of free online content any time soon.
Then I read this article titled “How Much Would You Pay to Never See an Online Ad Again?” thinking that it might be some new inventive start-up idea like Flattr which would be working with publishers in order to get rid of advertising on their site. AdTrap is in fact quite the opposite being a hardware device that sits between your modem and router (it actually necessitates that configuration which rules out people using integrated devices) that works to remove ads before they reach your browser. Taken at face value the marketing makes it sound like a pretty fantastic device given all the features it’s touting (many of which are not born of it, simply of the way it connects into your existing infrastructure) and it can be yours all for the low price of $120.
Now granted I had some idea in my head of what AdTrap was (care of the title of the article that led me to it) so it’s possible some of my angst directed towards this product is born of that but I’m not totally on board with the idea of paying someone else in order to block ads. It’s one thing to provide that kind of technology for free, that’s kind of expected on the Internet, but building a business around denying revenue to content creators doesn’t sit right with me. I’d be much more on board with being able to pay people directly in order to remove ads, a la Reddit Gold, rather than some 3rd party who isn’t really doing anything for the content creators with their product.
In the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much as again the number of users who actually end up buying one of these things will be in the minority and won’t have any meaningful impact on revenue. I guess I just take issue with people profiting from such an endeavour as the motives then change from being simply altruistic to maximising their revenue at the cost of other’s. I’m not going to go on some crusade to try and take them down however as the market will be the final judge of it and if the people want something like this then it was inevitable that it would be created.
Kickstarter was one of those services that faced the typical chicken and egg problem of Internet start ups. As a crowd funding platform its success was born out of the exposure it could bring to potential projects and in the beginning that was essentially nothing. As time went on and crowdfunding became more mainstream Kickstarter then became the portal to get projects funded online and since then we’ve seen the projects transform from being mostly single guys in garages to mutli-discplinary teams looking to launch disruptive technology. Whilst I still believe that Kickstarter doesn’t fundamentally change the rules of the funding game the shift of the value judgement from the entity to the wider world is a big one and one that has seen many products come to life that might not have done otherwise.
Of course as the service and the number of projects has grown over the years it was statistically inevitable that things would start to go wrong. Thankfully the majority of the problems faced by Kickstarter campaigns are usually overly ambitious product designers who under estimate the time it will take to get their product to market leading to delays to their initial time frames. There haven’t been that many outright problems either with failed projects never getting any money (and still being publicly accessible after the fact) and there’s only a handful of projects that vanished into the ether, all apparently due to copyright claims.
Still there were a couple high profile cases of projects being showcased that were little more than a concept that someone wanted to create. Now this is the reason why Kickstarter exists, to get projects like that the funding they need to get over that initial hump, however for physical goods having nothing but a couple product renderings can lead to some serious down the road and there were numerous projects that suffered major delays because of this. There were even notable projects that had a prototype but struggled to scale to meet the demand created by their Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter, to its credit, has recognised this problem and recently changed the rules, putting it rather bluntly that Kicksater is not a store.
Looking at the changes the first thing you’d notice is the number of projects that were previously funded that would no longer fly under the new rules. Personally I think its a good thing as requiring an actual prototype means that a project creator will have to have gone through many of the initial hurdles to bring the product to reality and thus won’t be using the Kickstarter funds to do this. It does mean that the barrier to entry for product and hardware categories just went up a few notches but it also means that there’s a much higher likelihood that such products will actually come into existence. The change that puts an end to multiple items is done to ensure another Pen Type-A/Pebble situation doesn’t occur again, although there’s still the potential for that to happen.
I think the changes are overwhelmingly positive and whilst there might be some projects excluded from using Kickstarter as a funding platform there’s still many other crowd funding alternatives that still support projects of that nature. It also helps to make sure people understand the (usually low) risks of using Kickstarter as there’s every chance in the world that the product/service will not be viable and neither Kickstarter nor the project founders are under any obligation to issue refunds for projects that fail after funding. This might be spelt out in no uncertain terms in the fine print when you sign up but anything to make people more aware of what they’re getting themselves into to is a good thing and does wonders for Kickstarter’s reputation.
It hasn’t turned me off the idea, that’s for sure.
I have to admit that I was somewhat sour on the whole Kickstarter idea for quite a long time. Not that I thought it wasn’t viable or anything like that, there are many many projects to prove to the contrary, more that in the age of near instant gratification for nearly anything you can care to dream of the idea of shelling out cash long before a product would ever grace my presence made me…apprehensive. It was also partially due to the fact that I didn’t really need nor want most of the products I saw on Kickstarter, even if they were technically cool. However I’ve recently backed 2 projects that I really wanted to see succeed and both of them I backed at something of a premium level.
The first was the OUYA, the crazy Android games console that could shake up the console market in much the same way that the Nintendo Wii did. Of course it could also easily go the other way as whilst the Kickstarter numbers were impressive they only translate to some 60,000ish consoles which in comparison to any of the 3 current major players is really quite small with most of them selling that number every week for as long as they’re available. As long as the hardware gets delivered to me I will consider it successful as whilst its primary purpose might be gaming it will make a solid media extender for a long time to come thanks to its use of Android as a base operating system.
One that really caught my eye though was Planetary Annihilation. Now game Kickstarters are always fraught with danger as the majority of them will never make their funding goals however whilst Planetary Annihilation didn’t have an explosive day 1 like many high profile projects do it did have consistent funding growth over time. In fact it was only just last week that it reached its seemingly lofty funding goal of $900,000 but it’s steadily been growing ever since. It’s rather contrary to many of the other high profile Kickstarters I’ve seen over the past year or so with many reaching their funding goals early and then staying steady until a last feverish burst before the final deadline. Looking at the way they structured their rewards you can see why this is so.
Most Kickstarters start out with their initial goal and upon getting more funding than they expected will usually try to make an announcement of what they intend to do with the extra funds. Whilst its admirable that many do come up with good ideas it usually comes late in the piece so the stretch goals can’t be used as a carrot for those who were on the edge of funding them or not. Right from the beginning though the guys behind Planetary Annihilation made it clear that they had many additional stretch goals already planned out should they get the requisite funding and, just to make people want to fund them more, kept them secret until previous funding goals had been achieved.
Additionally they continue to add value to the more premium tiers to encourage people to up their pledge level. This means people coming back to check on how the Kickstarter is going will have that little extra incentive to jump up to the next tier and indeed the vast majority of their funding is coming from the $95 and above tiers showing just how effective this can be. Whilst the extra rewards didn’t really mean that much to me (I pledged $250 because I’m one of those crazy collector’s edition nuts) I was definitely happy to see I was getting even more for my money.
With just 11 days to go on this particular project it’ll be interesting to see how many more of the stretch goals the Planetary Annihilation guys can hit before they reach the end of the funding period. In the week since achieving their funding goal they’ve already added on another $200,000 so it’s quite possible that they could hit their next stretch goal without too much trouble. Whether this consistent funding flow builds to a mighty crescendo at the end thought will have to remain to be seen.
I’d definitely recommend backing them though, even if you only spend $20 to get the full game upon release. Some of the guys behind Planetary Annihilation are the same people responsible for Total Annihilation and the first Supreme Commander, two games which took the traditional RTS idea and took it to a truly epic level of scale. If anyone can pull this kind of game off these guys can and I really can’t wait to follow this game from the alpha stages right up to its final release.
I’ve seen so many consoles come and during my years as a gamer. I remember the old rivalries back in the day between the stalwart Nintendo fans and the just as dedicated Sega followers. As time went on Nintendo’s dominance became hard to push back against and Sega struggled to face up to the competition. Sony however made quite a splash with their original Playstation and was arguably the reason behind the transition away from game cartridges to the disc based systems we have today. For the last 5 years or so though there really hasn’t been much of a shake up in the console market, save for the rise of the motion controllers (which didn’t really shake anything up other than causing a giant fit of mee-tooism from all the major players).
I think the reasons for this are quite simple: consoles became powerful enough to be somewhat comparable to PCs, the old school king of gaming. The old business models of having to release a new console every 3 years or so didn’t make sense when your current generation was more than capable of modern games at a generally acceptable level. There was also the fact that Microsoft got burned slightly by releasing the Xbox360 so soon after the original Xbox and I’m sure Sony and Nintendo weren’t keen on making the same mistake. All we’ve got now are rumours about the next generation of consoles but by and large they’re not shaping up to be anything revolutionary like their current gen brethren were when they were released.
What’s really been shaking up the gaming market recently though is the mobile/tablet gaming sector. Whilst I’ll hesitate to put these in the same category as consoles (they are, by and large, not a platform with a primary purpose of gaming in mind) they have definitely had an impact in the portable sector. At the same time though the quality of games available on the mobile platform has increased significantly and developers now look to develop titles on the mobile platform wouldn’t have been reasonable or feasible only a few short years ago. This is arguably due to the marked increase in computing power that has been made available to even the most rudimentary of smart phones which spurred developers on to be far more ambitious with the kinds of titles they develop for the platform.
What I never considered though was a crossover between the traditional console market and the now flourishing mobile sector. That’s were OUYA, an Android based game console, comes into play.
OUYA is at its heart a smartphone without a screen or a cellular chipset in it. At its core it boasts a NVIDIA Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, Bluetooth and a USB 2 port for connectivity. For a console the specifications aren’t particularly amazing, in fact they’re down right pitiful, but it’s clear that their idea for a system isn’t something that can play the latest Call of Duty. Instead the OUYA’s aim is to lurethat same core of developers, the ones who have been developing games for mobile platforms, over to their platform by making the console cheap, license free and entirely open. They’ve also got the potential to get a lot of momentum from current Android developers who will just need a few code modifications to support the controller, giving them access to potentially thousands of launch titles.
I’ll be honest at the start I was somewhat sceptical about what the OUYA’s rapid funding success meant. When I first looked at the console specifications and intended market I got the feeling that the majority of people ordering it weren’t doing it for the OUYA as a console, no the were more looking at it as a cracking piece of hardware for a bargain basement price. Much like the Raspberry Pi the OUYA gives you some bits of tech that are incredibly expensive to acquire otherwise like a Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB RAM and a Bluetooth controller. However that was back when there were only 8,000 backers but as of this morning there’s almost 30,000 orders in for this unreleased console. Additionally the hype surrounding around the console doesn’t appear to be centred on the juicy bits of hardware underneath it, people seem to be genuinely excited by the possibilities that could be unlocked by such a console.
I have to admit that I am too. Whilst I don’t expect the OUYA to become the dominant platform or see big name developers rushing towards releasing torrents of titles on it the OUYA represents something that the console market has been lacking: a cheap, low cost player that’s open to anyone. It’s much like the presence of an extremely cut-rate airline (think Tiger Airlines in Australia) sure you might not catch them all the time because of the ridiculous conditions attached to the ticket but their mere presence keeps the other players on their best behaviour. The OUYA represents a free, no holds barred arena where big and small companies alike can duke it out and whilst there might not be many multi-million dollar titles made for the platform you can bet that the big developers won’t be able to ignore it for long.
I’m genuinely excited about what the OUYA represents for the console games industry. With innovation seemingly at a stand still for the next year or two it will be very interesting to see how the OUYA fairs, especially considering its release date for the first production run in slated for early next year. I’m also very keen to see what kinds of titles will be available for it at launch and, hacker community willing, what kinds of crazy, non-standard uses for the device come out. I gladly plonked down $149 for the privilege of getting 1 with 2 controllers and even if you have only a casual interest in game consoles I’d urge you to do much the same.
The idea behind Kickstarter is a great one: you’ve got an idea and you’ve got the fixins of a potential business going but the financial barrier of bringing it to market are keeping you from seeing it through. So you whip up a project on there, promise people rewards or (more commonly) the actual product you’re intending to sell and then wait for backers to pledge some cash to you. For the backers as well its great as if the project doesn’t get fully funded then no one has to donate any money, so your potential risk exposure is limited. Of course Kickstarter take their slice of the action, to the tune of 5% (plus another 3~5% for the payment processing) so everyone comes out a winner.
It’s a disruptive service, there’s no denying that. There are many products that wouldn’t have made it through a traditional venture capital process that have become wild successes thanks to Kickstarter. This of course gets people thinking about how those traditional systems are no longer needed, I mean who needs venture capitalists when I can get my customers to fund my project? Well whilst I’d love to believe that all we need for funding is crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter I can’t help but notice the pattern of most of the successful endeavours on there.
They’re all done by people who were already successful in the traditional business world.
Take for instance the latest poster child for the success of Kickstarter: The Double Fine Adventure. For gamers the Double Fine name (and the man behind it, Tim Schafer) is a recognizable one, having worked on such cult classics as The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and releasing others such as Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. Needless to say he’s quite well known and made his name in the traditional game developer/publisher world. Kickstarter has allowed him to cut the publishers out of this particular project, putting more cash in his pocket and allowing him total control of it, but could someone without that kind of brand recognition pull off the same level of success?
The answer is no.
For all the successes that are seen through Kickstarter only 44 percent of them will ever actually get the funding they require. Indeed in the Video Games category the highest funded game (there are a lot of projects in there that aren’t exactly games) before the Double Fine Adventure managed about $72,000. Sure it’s nothing to sneeze at, it was almost 6 times what they needed, but it does show the disparity between relative nobodies attempting a to crowdfund a project and when a well known person attempts the same thing. Sure there are the few breakout successes, but for the majority of large funding successes you’ll usually see someone who’s already known in that area involved somehow.
Now I don’t believe this is a bad thing, it’s just the way the process works. Nothing has really changed here, except the judgement call is shifted from the venture capitalists to the wider public, and as such many of the same factors influence if, when and how you get funded. Name recognition is a massive part of that, I mean just take a look at things like Color that managed to pull in a massive $41 million in funding before it had even got a viable product off the ground just because of the team of people that were behind the idea. Kickstarter doesn’t change this process at all, it’s just made it more visible to everyone.
Does this mean I think you should keep away from Kickstarter? Hell no, if you’ve got a potential product idea and want to see if there’s some kind of market for it Kickstarter projects, even if they’re not successful, are a great way of seeing just how much demand is out there. If your idea resonates with the wider market then you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free publicity, much more than what you’d get if you just approached a bank for a business loan. Just be aware of what Kickstarter does and does not do differently to traditional ways of doing business and don’t get caught up in the hype that so often surrounds it.