Linux Gaming News

Ouya? Don't drink the Kool-Aid

The Android perspective and gaming challenges


For those used to railing against the domination of corporate gaming interests, the announcement of Ouya last week must have seemed like the answer to a prayer.

“Let’s open this sucker up!”, proclaims the Kickstarter brief.

“It’s time we brought back innovation, experimentation, and creativity to the big screen. Let’s make the games less expensive to make, and less expensive to buy.” Fight the power!

“With all our technological advancements, shouldn’t costs be going down? Gaming could be cheaper!”

The revolutionary, Orwellian message conjures images of a huddled, determined resistance group launching a counter-attack to unwind the tendrils of hated, locked-down hardware platforms.

It’s a rallying cry issued to awaken the base desires of those cowering the shadow of big business to rise up and unshackle themselves from the overbearing ubermen running the show. Only by championing Android, the One True Platform, shall developers be forever free to finally make the games they want to, as opposed to the cattle-prodded rubbish that passes for AAA titles these days.

None of this heroic rhetoric detracts from the fact that it’s not going to work, of course.

That’s not to say Ouya isn’t an admirable proposition, because it most definitely is. It’s just not a particularly original one.

Born at the end of protracted and unexpected silences from Apple and Google, both of which have confounded predictions as to the whereabouts of similar systems, Ouya is the descendent of other failed bids for open-source and independent gaming immortality, themselves also squashed by larger players with well established interests in this hugely competitive market.

The Phantom, a console designed to play PC games through a direct-download content delivery system, morphed from vapourware to total failure in the light of extensive financial mismanagement, sinking US$60m in the process.

Nuon DVD technology promised to revolutionise the then-middle-aged DVD format by including additional capacity in the guise of a simple set-top DVD player for game developers to exploit. They didn’t.

The EVO Smart was a seventh-generation Linux-powered game console and media PC designed to bridge the gap between the two. The HD-equipped, Internet capable devices were discontinued in 2010.

Zeebo Inc. tried a different tactic. By identifying that people in the third-world are as likely to enjoy playing games as their counterparts in the first, the company launched a 3G-powered open-source console in Brazil, Mexico, Russia, India and China over the latter half of the last decade. The company even managed to gain traditional support from publishers including Activision and Capcom. But the ARM/AMD-equipped unit slid into obscurity after failing to establish a foothold in the US.

“Ah yes”, speculators will murmur, their hands gripping a worn credit card, “those devices failed because they weren’t using Android”. That Google owns Android, would hardly miss a heartbeat if it lost $4 million (the sum raised by Ouya’s Kickstarter thus far), and yet isn’t interested in making a similar system of its own, should sound a warning to everyone but those blinded by platform loyalty.

Despite Steve Jobs’ legendary disinterest in gaming, Apple could push out an iOS-powered console in this space anytime it so desired.

Even though it’s sitting on 40 million user accounts, 1,800 games and more capital than a cult masquerading as a religion, Valve still remains sulkily disinclined to participate in this, or indeed any console generation.

But more than any of this is the relative lack of interest from the wider public. The 35,000 or so people who have signed away donations on Kickstarter at the time of writing may seem like a huge number, and indicative of the popular rising alluded to previously. But it’s a drop in the bucket when attempting to convince developers to create games for a new device – or even port existing ones – rather than to publishers answerable to Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo.

At best, Ouya will capture small percentage of the tech-savvy mobile market keen to utilise hardware for homebrew purposes, or to play fairly uncomplicated arcade titles on a large screen. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach but it’s a far cry from making a single dent in the profits of existing platform holders, and even further away from scaring publishers into abandoning financial due course by giving developers free reign.

In any case, breaking the back of a perceived publisher rort is hardly likely to foster extensive, hitherto unseen innovation. The PC platform has been available for precisely this purpose for decades – the fact that even blockbuster PC titles use large publishers has little to do with suppressing creativity and a lot to do with ensuring that those who create them get to buy food and pay rent.

At least the Ouya seems to have one thing going for it; the team in charge clearly has a solid understanding of what it takes to market a niche product in 2012. Riding the current Kickstarter fad like a seasoned pro, it’s well ahead of rival Envizions, who until last week was probably feeling pretty smug with its offering.

Oh, Envizions? They’re making the EVO 2. It’s a little Android powered, controller-equipped console with 1080p graphics due to be released soon for a little over a hundred bucks. You hadn’t heard about it because it isn’t a Kickstarter-du-jour, Envizions has just concentrated on giving the units away as part of a charity drive.

Perhaps the final word should be given to John Gildred, founder of Indrema. The videogame console, utilising PC hardware and the open-source Linux operating system, was designed back in 2000 to be the only console to allow completely free software to be written for it. It also featured MP3 playback capabilities, a web browser, HDTV support and a built-in development kit.

When the company failed due to a lack of funding in the face of extensive competition from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, Gildred could only offer these sage words of advice to the next video game start-up:

“Finish product before talking about it.”

by Dan Cheer

”linux-game-gaming-gamer-news” title="Linux

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