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.