If there’s one thing to be learned from the recent controversy over Microsoft’s Xbox One console, it’s that the business of video games is due for a major upending.
At the core of the issue was the price of games. Typically around $70, modern titles are simply too expensive, which is why people revolted at the notion of Microsoft restricting or even eliminating their ability to resell used discs with its upcoming successor to the Xbox 360. Trading in old games generally provides a discount on new games, which makes those high price tags a little more digestible.
The company last week reversed itself and said the Xbox One will indeed honour the second-hand status quo, but many gamers are still mad. They want change.
Into this showdown steps the Ouya, the fledgling game console known for raising millions of dollars from those same disgruntled gamers through crowd-funding on Kickstarter. The San Francisco-based company is promising that very change.
The console is premised on all games being free, with players only paying for full versions — or, in some cases, relying on an honour system — if they like the game after trying it. The device itself is now available to Canadians through Amazon.ca and is modestly priced at only $99, a far cry from the $399 and $499 price tags, respectively, on the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles.
The Ouya is also designed to appeal to game makers themselves. Since it is based on open-source Android software, anyone can tinker around and build games for it, which is the opposite of how it works on big consoles. There, developers often need millions of dollars to build a game and have it succeed. Ouya is thus hoping developers take to its device in the same way they’ve jumped onto mobile phones and tablets.
In light of the Xbox controversy, the Ouya’s launch this week couldn’t be better timed. But does it deliver?
After spending a weekend with it, the answer is no – or at least, not yet.
Slow response time
On the plus side, set-up is a breeze. The Ouya finds your wi-fi network and easily connects to it, then prompts you to create an account. While games are free, you are required to punch in your credit card in the event that you do ultimately make purchases.
The device itself is amazingly small, about the size of an apple or a can of beans. It makes you wonder why the bigger consoles need to be so big. Then again, the Ouya is significantly less powerful, with only a fraction of the graphics and processing capability.
The controller is similar to the Xbox 360’s, featuring essentially the same button configuration. It’s a bit more boxy, though, and it definitely feels more plasticky, like a cheap knock-off of its big-console cousin. It also doesn’t have a rechargeable lithium battery, instead requiring one AA battery in each handle.
A console generally lives and dies by the quality of its controller. The Ouya’s handheld feels nowhere near as nice as those of its rivals, but those tradeoffs are to be expected with such an inexpensive proposition, so it’s not necessarily a deal breaker.
The actual deal breaker is its poor responsiveness. In just about every game I tried, there was a noticeable lag between pressing the button and seeing the corresponding action on screen.
I tried Vector, for example, a promising-looking game that features a silhouetted man running from a pursuer. The idea is to jump over and duck under obstacles using timed parkour moves. Yet half the time, he’d miss his cues and get captured, forcing me to start over. It might have been a game I’d pay for, but I’ll never know, because it’s unplayable at this point.
The Ouya is marred by other, similar flaws. The first-person exploration game Polarity also looked intriguing, but the notes attached to it explained that it needed to be deleted and re-downloaded to work properly. I tried that, only to get stuck in an infinite download loop, with no apparent way of stopping it.
Not only could I not play the game, I became worried that the loop would eat up my monthly internet download limits. I suspect a factory reset of the Ouya might solve the problem, but that shouldn’t be the only fix. A "stop download" button is sorely needed.
162 games, but no 'system seller'
The console boasts 162 games at launch, but it’s definitely lacking any system sellers. Most of the games are repurposed from other platforms, such as Android and iOS. One of the more entertaining titles, the third-person dungeon-crawler The Bard’s Tale, was originally released for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 way back in 2004. That’s positively ancient.
That’s perhaps the console’s other big problem – there really isn’t much you can do with it that you can’t accomplish through other means. Many tablets can be connected to a television and then further linked to a decent handheld controller, for example. Using the tablet as a sort of intermediate console in this way actually has several advantages over the Ouya — a wider assortment of games, for one.
Many of the games are simple affairs without the sort of uber-realistic graphics found on the major consoles. That’s to be expected, and really, good games don’t necessarily need super production values.
But in the end, the Ouya has something of a chicken-or-egg issue. If it sells enough units, it might convince developers to spend their time creating games for it. But without those games, it probably won’t sell many units.
There’s no doubt the console touches on several great ideas. The games market is in need of some disruption, and it’s only a matter of time before someone – perhaps even Ouya in future iterations – figures out how to do it properly in the living room.
As is, the device still has several big problems to overcome before it can start to shake things.