Since raising an unprecedented $2.5 million on Kickstarter in less than two days (not to mention hitting its initial funding goal in a matter of hours) last July, Android-based gaming console OUYA has created no shortage of buzz for its promise of a relatively cheap, stylishly designed, hackable platform for gaming on the television. With Fast Company Master of Design Yves Behar and his team at Fuseproject onboard as creative co-founders, the company helmed by video game industry vet Julie Uhrman set out to do something different: Make an open gaming platform that’s accessible to both established and indie developers hungry to bring their creations to HD television screens without the prohibitive costs and barriers-to-entry associated with the existing console makers.
"We were trying to disrupt an industry that hasn’t changed in 25 years," says Uhrman.
Not surprisingly, with that kind of bold approach was bound to come with an equal amount of speculation. Can a diminutive box that’s about the size of a Rubik’s Cube created by an unknown gaming company bring something of value to a highly fragmented industry where ultra-cheap mobile games vie for attention against $60-a-pop titles available made for expensive home gaming consoles and personal computers? Critics have also raised concerns about the console's Nvidia Tegra 3 chip and quality of games it can offer.
At an unveiling party Thursday night in San Francisco, onlookers were closer to finding out the answer as Uhrman, Behar and members of the OUYA and Fuseproject teams gathered to fete the console, which will begin shipping retail units on June 4, Urhman announced. The splashy event reflected the excitement around OUYA with food trucks, open bars, big screen televisions set up for mid-party play and 3D printers courtesy of MakerBot.
"The idea was so simple, people called us crazy. We wanted to build a game console where every single game developer could put their game on a console," Urhman told the crowd.
With over 63,400 consoles heading to backers as of this week and readily available games numbering around 100, Behar said, in time for the unveiling, OUYA doesn’t come close to having the reach nor extensive lists of titles available on other platforms. But that may very well be beside the point.
"This can be a game changer similar to the advent of independent filmmaking," says Behar.
Just as the indie film movement of the 1990’s gave rise to numerous influential movies (hello, Pulp Fiction) and catalyzed a shift in the industry as a whole, Behar suggests OUYA’s unique platform and the independent game developers it hopes to attract have the potential to open up the landscape to new talent and new content that otherwise would have far less likelihood of seeing the light of day. In fact, openness and limitlessness are foundational ideas for the console, whose name Behar and his team developed to incorporate an "O" from open and a "U" from universe. As for the YA, it joined those letters to convey a "release sound, a sound of excitement, of victory," Behar explains.
The scrappy, indie ethos of the OUYA doesn’t stop with its developer benefits or its name. From the start, Urhman went against industry grain and made free elements a requirement for any game sold through the platform. That means OUYA owners will have the opportunity to try games before committing.
Then there’s the look and feel of the hardware itself.
"There are already so many things connected to the television," Urhman says. "If we were going to add something to the living room, we wanted to make sure it was something beautiful."
To that end, Behar’s team devised a cube-shaped box and accompanying controller made using aluminum elements that they describe as cool to the touch. Special focus was given to the controller to keep it looking less like a toy and more like a design product, Behar says.
And earlier this week, OUYA bolstered its message of hip, high-tech openness anew when it announced a partnership with 3-D printing company MakerBot and its web site Thingiverse.com that will allow fans to create their own customizable game cases.
With its debut console’s slick design, one that allows anyone to create games or open it up and alter its hardware, and relative affordability, the company hopes to attract enough players and enough compelling games to provide a television gaming experience that’s an alternative to the Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii—but perhaps not to their exclusion.
OUYA, says Behar, can bring a different experience to those who use and will continue to use those platforms, as well as a new place for different kinds of games:
"It’s for the hardcore gamer, on the one hand, who really wants to explore the fringes and new styles of games, but it’s also for a very mainstream audience, people who are developing educational games and storyline-based games that have typically been glanced over by the industry today."