The next leap forward in video gaming is scheduled for this fall, when Sony Corp. begins selling its mighty new $399 (around Rs.24,340) PlayStation 4 console and Microsoft Corp. counterattacks with its $499 Xbox One.
At least, that's how the schedule reads. But what if the real revolution began a few months early, say, right about now? What if the market is really hungry for a different kind of gaming system, one that's small, simple and exceptionally cheap?
We may soon find out, thanks to a company called Ouya. Its new game console, powered by Google Inc.’s Android operating system and loaded with inexpensive games downloaded from the Internet, will set you back just $99—if you can find one. When the Ouya went on sale recently, retailers such as Target and Amazon.com quickly sold out.
Once the avid gamers are satisfied, Ouya sales will taper off. Its roster of crude, low-budget games won’t appeal to a mass market. But for all its limitations, Ouya is rich with potential.
The Ouya device is a sort of curved cube, far smaller than traditional consoles. All the games are delivered via the Internet and loaded on to a measly 8 gigabytes of built-in storage. Luckily, there’s a USB port where you can plug in additional memory. You can connect to the Net either via Wi-Fi or a built-in Ethernet port, and connect to a TV using the Ouya’s HDMI jack. There’s also a wireless game controller that looks and feels very similar to the Xbox controller.
Switch the Ouya on and you see a clean, simple user interface. It comes with a few preinstalled games, but you’ll find dozens more ready to download. They’re not free, but the prices are moderate, generally a few bucks each. But for some reason, you can’t see the price of a game until you've downloaded and installed it.
That’s a good way to scare off customers. Especially when most of the games are so unappealing. Ouya lacks the storage or processing horsepower to handle big-budget Call of Duty-style games. So nearly every title has a crude low-budget look. Only a handful come from well-known developers: Square Enix has delivered an older game in its Final Fantasy series, and Sega is providing a trio of its popular Sonic the Hedgehog games.
But where are Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja or Cut The Rope, or any of the big-time mobile games I can play on my Android phone? You won’t find them on the Ouya; they’d have to be substantially modified. The current versions are designed for small screens and controlled by touch; on the Ouya, they’d have to scale up to HDTV quality and be made compatible with a hand-held game controller. The only major Android tablet game I found on Ouya was Shadowgun, a pretty good run-and-gun shooter that looks excellent on the 7-inch Nexus 7 Android tablet. On the Ouya and a 46-inch Samsung TV, video quality was adequate.
Also missing are the media apps that would turn the Ouya into a full-fledged entertainment console. If Ouya let you watch videos via Netflix, Hulu or YouTube, you could justify buying it for that reason alone. But for now, these apps aren't available. All you get is TuneIn radio, for listening to Internet audio streams, and Twitch.tv, a video service that lets you watch others playing high-end combat video games like Battlefield 4—exactly the kind of game you can’t play on the Ouya.
But here’s the thing: Just about everything wrong with Ouya can be fixed. The company is in talks with Netflix and other video streamers. It’s also trying to put together a deal with OnLive, an outfit that streams high-end video games via the Internet. With OnLive access, Ouya owners could play top-drawer titles for $10 a month.
As for the skimpy selection of decent games, the same could be said for nearly all new consoles. There wasn’t much worth playing on the original Xbox or PlayStation either. Android game designers could create excellent products for the Ouya. But it’s an open question whether Ouya can hold out that long.
It may not matter. Other inexpensive Android game consoles, such as GameStick and Gamepop, are racing to market. And The Wall Street Journal reports that Android’s creator, Google, is also building one. So the game console giants can look forward to lots of low-cost competition, no matter what happens with the Ouya.
©2013/The New York Times