Ouya is likely a product you've never heard of, and that's probably because it hasn't been launched yet, nor has it really gotten the kind of buzz it might deserve. Shoring up grassroots investment on the crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, Ouya's creators are offering a conceptual, yet intriguing, take on casual gaming.
The big console trio of the Sony PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii are, for all intents and purpose, platforms to play big games. Big in scope, big in production and big in cost at an average of $50-$60 per title. Ouya is an Android-powered silver box that either looks like brushed metal or stainless steel, and it's designed to play inexpensive games that you would typically find on a smartphone or tablet. The price for the box as of now? Just US$119 for the console, a controller and shipping to Canada. It's US$149 if you want to add a second controller.
The product has only been up on Kickstarter for about a month, and though the funding goal was US$950,000, thousands of donours seemed so enamoured with the thing that they collectively gave the startup US$8.6 million. Pre-orders are now being taken for delivery in April 2013.
On the surface, the Ouya would appear to have entered a market that is already dominated by big players, except casual gaming is a different animal altogether. Smartphone and tablet users know this all too well, so the idea of moving those, and similar games, to a small box that can display them on a big TV with controllers is a pretty sound one.
The premise here is to democratize game development in a way where users can be sure that at least some of the content available to them will be free to play or try. This doesn't appear to be any different than having a "Lite" version of a game for free on iOS or Android, with an in-app purchase to the full version. Indeed, the free-to-play model isn't new, and certainly isn't unique to Ouya.
At the same time, the connectivity and integration between mobile devices and TVs is still fairly nascent. Sure, there are wireless standards, like DLNA or AirPlay, along with proper cables, that can bridge the two together, but these are more about mirroring than delivery platforms.
One wonders why Apple and Google didn't just incorporate this sort of thing to the Apple TV and Google TV, respectively. The ecosystem is already there, and games have been developed in the hundreds of thousands for both iOS and Android. Apple could've even gone as far as including any games designed for the Mac. I can't speculate as to why neither company really pursued a gaming strategy with their own set top boxes, but if Ouya isn't just a lot of hype, then they may have to pay attention.
This could end up going one of two ways. Casual gamers are a compulsive lot. They play a lot of games on their mobile devices, but are not keen on spending much money to entertain themselves that way. Ouya is priced well for what it purports to be, and since free playable content is the backbone of the box's presence, it has a chance of resonating with consumers. On the other hand, it's hard to see how Ouya would go the other way, meaning from TV to mobile. Could it extend the gaming platform from the hardware of the box to the mobile devices it's taken inspiration from?
As with any new product from a startup, there are unknowns and question marks, but even so, this is an interesting and practical take on big-screen casual gaming on the cheap. Games have been integral in shaping the clout smartphones and tablets have in today's market, and even if the Ouya falls flat initially, it will have at least made an impact on an industry in need of a shake up.