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As the Ouya ships to backers, can a $99 console bring players and developers together?

As the Ouya ships to backers, can a $99 console bring players and developers together?

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The Kickstarter-funded Android box has style, but it's still a work in progress

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Ouya hero shot
Ouya hero shot

GDC 2013 is full of big-name Kickstarter projects waiting to launch. Oculus VR has sprinkled presentations throughout the week, while Gamestick is showing off an early version of its portable Android-based console. And the tiny Ouya gaming machine has started shipping to its early Kickstarter backers. Set for a retail launch on June 4th, the Ouya promises to be a super-cheap, moddable game platform, combining the ease of mobile development with the fun of living room play. But now that players are getting their first real look at the console, can it carve out a niche in a hardware industry dominated by giants?

Though a quick look at the Ouya’s controller suggests you’re dealing with a straightforward Xbox / PlayStation competitor, the console is trying to compete by combining several markets. Besides the movie, game, and TV hub we’ve come to expect from living room boxes, the Ouya shares both its roots and parts of its current catalog with mobile devices — it runs Android on a Tegra 3 processor, even if you’d never know it from the interface. And in contrast to the vast and impersonal app stores of Apple and Google, Ouya wants to be your personal guide to the world of gaming. It’s put Kellee Santiago — who co-founded Journey and Flower studio thatgamecompany — to work crafting themed collections, and its genres bear chatty names like "Short on Time" or "Fight!"

Consequently, the console sometimes feels like a bundle of contradictions. The hardware, conceived by famed designer Yves Behar’s fuseproject, is as stylish as anything you’ll find in gaming: smooth, muted aluminum that cuts sharply around the console and curves around the controller. Pick it up, though, and you’ll instantly remember the $99 price point. The triggers and D-pad work just fine, but they look cheap and feel mushy. And the controller feels well-constructed but somehow not very solid. Overall, Ouya has done a good job balancing its high-end aspirations with its low-end price, but the seams are still there.

The interface looks great, but sometimes it's tremendously confusing

The software has similar issues, though unlike the hardware, it will be modified as early adopters give feedback. Ouya has almost completely stripped away Android’s design language, opting for minimalist "Play," "Discover," "Make," and "Manage" sections geared towards helping you tweak settings, browse the catalog, or play what you’ve downloaded. Once again, it looks great, taking full advantage of large screens and a controller-based interface. But it’s sometimes tremendously confusing. The simple verbs don’t encompass non-game content well, for one thing: Ouya supports video apps like Twitch.tv and Flixster, but you’d be hard-pressed to stumble across them.

Beyond that, the Ouya will eventually live and die on the games it’s able to deliver. The company has brought in a few big names — Portal developer Kim Swift is designing an exclusive title — and gotten a solid number of ports and indie games. Theoretically, you’ll be able to find all sorts of content on the Ouya, including AAA-style titles and games specifically built for the controller and its one-finger touchpad. What we found, though, tended towards simple arcade- or mobile-style games with lo-fi graphics and one- or two-button controls.

Right now, we’re told there are somewhere between 40 and 60 titles, some exclusive and some Ouya-optimized versions of existing titles. That’s nothing compared to the numbers we’re used to seeing in app stores, but right now, low numbers might be not only beneficial but necessary.

Ouya wants to be your personal guide to the world of gaming

Rather than being strictly a delivery system, the Ouya is meant as a point of connection between developers and players. After a game is submitted, it doesn’t get categorized immediately; instead, it’s dropped in the "Sandbox," a kind of limbo from which games escape by reaching a certain level of engagement. The idea is that developers will have a further incentive to promote their games, and that players won’t instantly be confronted with chaff from the lenient submission guidelines. Right now, the Sandbox is quite manageable. But as it grows, wading in to find new games — without, as far as we can tell, any sorting tools — will become a lot less fun.

The Ouya still has a ways to go before I’d call it a full-fledged home console competitor. Even if I’m not convinced of its utility, though, I’m reassured that it’s trying to offer something new and different, not just a rehashed set of Android games or another hardware gateway to the same content. And at $99, it doesn’t have a high bar to clear.

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