Why Ouya Won’t Be Yet Another Vaporware Gaming Console Upstart

Today, Los Angeles-based startup Ouya launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund its Android-powered, $99 game console designed by Yves Behar. The company, headed by founder and CEO Julie Uhrman, thinks the time is right to disrupt the console market with a new entrant. That’s an ambitious goal, and one that has left a lot of other startups broken and bruised in the wake of the relatively unshakeable big three in Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, but there are a number of reasons why now might be the right time for what Uhrman and her team are planning.

The path to shaking up the gaming console space is littered with cautionary tales, including the Gizmondo, the Phantom, and the Pandora open gaming console. No one has been able to really break the stranglehold that major game industry vets have on the market, and all but one of the examples just mentioned ended up being vaporware, never even making it to market. Ouya has some starting advantages that those players didn’t, however: it runs Android, a platform with proven popularity and an extensive library of existing content; it has strong support from the development community; and even though it’s trying something new, it’s business model is based on a strategy that’s already been very effective in the mobile gaming space.

“We wanted to build something that was really accessible for gamers and for developers,” Uhrman said in an interview with BetaKit. “So for gamers, we looked at the price point first and foremost, believing that anybody could afford it at $99, where all the games are free to try, so they truly get to decide if they want to pay for something. Really leveraging the benefits of free-to-play that core gamers really embraced on the PC side.”

Uhrman’s talking about the success of titles like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends, but of course that value proposition is also well know to mobile gamers, who’ve embraced titles like Tiny Towers, Smurfs’ Village, The Sims FreePlay and many, many more. While Ouya has the support of developers that will appeal to more serious gamers, and a controller design that should also encourage more robust gameplay experience, it’s also built on Android, a mobile platform, and affordable enough that it could become a transition device for mobile casual gamers looking to extend that experience to their TVs.

On the developer side, Ouya also has a lot that previous attempts at console disruption didn’t provide. “The whole idea of the free-to-play model is great for developers,” Uhrman said. “They can develop as needed, they understand what the economics are, they can really look at gamers and give them what they want, instead of building something up front and hoping it’ll be well-received. We also wanted to give them something that was familiar, something that they knew and understand.” Android accomplishes that, since it’s free to license, allowing Ouya to offer an SDK complete with an Ouya box for testing to devs for $99, the same price as an annual iTunes developer account subscription.

Ouya already has a strong head start thanks to Yves Behar’s (who previously designed such iconic gadgets as the Jawbone Jambox) involvement in the industrial design of the product and the vocal support of developers like Mojang (creator of Minecraft) and Adam Saltsman (creator of Canabalt). The console is also designed to be played with, via rooting and hardware hacks, and comes with an open USB port aimed at encouraging plug-in peripherals. It could become a much richer multimedia experience in fact, leveraging apps on Android that playback video and provide all kinds of streaming services for TVs and home theatres, but Uhrman notes that they believe the big opportunity is in gaming, and that the rest can follow after.

Uhrman originally went after venture funding for the platform, but found it hard to convince investors to get behind a hardware startup. She turned to Kickstarter, a community with a dedicated base of hardware innovation-supporting users instead, in order to raise money and also demonstrate the appetite for this kind of device. Since the campaign has already reached around $180,000 of its $950,000 as of this writing, just a few short hours after launch, it’s looking like that was a very good bet. Users clearly want to see this become a reality, and thanks to their support and for the reasons listed above, it looks like there’s a very good chance it will.

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