Depending on its size and scope, it's common for triple-A console games to employ hundreds of artists, programmers, and other production staff to work on a single game, for up to three years -- or even longer. With high quality production values that include things like motion capture performances, A-list voice actors, full orchestral scores, and much more, costs can soar into the millions and tens of millions. Is it any wonder most console games are priced at $60? It's a wonder they don't cost $100! And that doesn't include DLC packs, which typically come at another $10 a pop.
On the other end of the industry spectrum are the small developers, the startups that, on average, have maybe a dozen employees or less. They craft smaller games that take less time and money to make, use fewer system resources, require less art and audio assets, and are ultimately sold to consumers for significantly less. Some of these games can be found on the likes of Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Steam. Some are building browser-based games. (Hey, don’t scoff. Browser-based games are growing increasingly sophisticated.) But the majority of small developers are taking their games to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
The arena of mobile gaming — and by “mobile” I mean smartphones and tablets, I’m excluding your 3DS or PSVita for this — might as well be a different industry, a completely different world than the realm of console gaming. Even the smaller developers that take their games to consoles via virtual store downloads are part of a different landscape, charging between $10 and $20 for their games. But look around the iTunes App Store or the Google Play Store, and you’ll see how rare it is for a game to be priced above $5. The vast majority of games are sold for just a buck. Smaller developers can get away with this not only because their games are smaller but because a lower-priced game is a far easier purchase for consumers to justify. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of truly fantastic games in these app stores (and awful ones too, but we’ll ignore them for now), that cost less than a cup of Starbucks.
OUYA‘s potential lies in how it aims to level this playing field, bringing together the world of big-budget, triple-A console games and small, indie mobile titles. OUYA runs on an Android-based operating system, so Android developers will find it easy to port their games to OUYA, barring the issue of translating games developed specifically for a touchscreen interface to a traditional console controller. (Granted, the OUYA controller has a “touchpad” on it, but it looks pretty small.) Many other small developers selling their games on platforms like Steam and web browsers will bring their games to OUYA, too.
If OUYA’s plan is successful, no longer will consoles be this walled-off, upper echelon of the gaming industry, where developers have to spend years and millions of dollars to make their games, or pay license fees to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo just to have their titles sold on a major console. OUYA’s business model does away with all of that.
But there’s even more at stake here than bringing mobile games to the console masses. Namely: the big issue is money. Console gaming is a billion-dollar industry that’s primarily controlled by mega-publishers like Activision, EA, and Ubisoft. They’re the companies that can afford to fund huge PR and advertising campaigns, and have their games placed in every electronics retailer in the world. Going around these industry gatekeepers to make your game available on a major console hasn’t been possible before now, and if OUYA catches on, the big name publishers could see their bottom lines diminished.
Then again, Activision, EA, and Ubisoft are all selling dozens of games on the App Store already, so clearly they’re savvy to the way the winds are blowing. (Way more people own smartphones than own consoles, after all.)
Smaller devs working on mobile games have tiny promotional budgets (or none at all!) to attract attention to their games. But the App Store and Google Play are equal-opportunity retail spaces. Think back to the music industry before iTunes came along. CDs were the dominant format, record deals were all-important, and indies had to work harder than anyone to find an audience. Then iTunes happened and suddenly everyone was on an even playing field. Indies could get noticed and attract a following far easier than before. (The music industry’s gatekeepers eventually adapted, and learned to dominate this new way of selling music, too.)
Likewise, you have the book publishing industry, which is currently going through a similar transition into the digital age with the advent of ebooks. Anyone who knows how to work Amazon to their advantage can be an ebook bestseller, raking in the income, while traditional publishers are floundering to adapt their business models to this new medium. (I’ve no doubt they’ll work it out in the end.)
And then there’s video games. This revolution is already well underway, in the App Store and Google Play and Steam and elsewhere. One could argue that OUYA is merely the next logical step. Consoles are far from dead, after all. OUYA is merely bringing something new to their table. It’s got a sleek design, a tiny footprint, digital download-only sales, and freebie and freemium games. It’s also remarkably affordable, priced at just $99 for the console and a single controller. And then there’s the open source thing; OUYA is built for programmers and hackers to dive into and make it their own.
These are smart qualities for any game to have, but in the end, OUYA will live or die based on the same principle that every other video game platform hinges on: its games. Successful platforms have great games that gamers want to play.
OUYA already has commitments from Robotoki’s Human Element, U4iA’s Offensive Combat, Semi Secret’s Canabalt, Madfinger’s Shadowgun and Dead Trigger, and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy III. So they’re off to a great start.
Personally, I’m rooting for OUYA to succeed. If for no other reason than because I love gaming and want to see it not just survive, but thrive. As Sean Connery told us in The Hunt for Red October… “A little revolution can be a healthy thing.”