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Ouya launches Android-based game console

Wed, 06/26/2013 - 2:08pm
The Associated Press

Ouya, maker of a bite-sized game console that runs Google's Android operating system, wants to take a bite out the video game triumvirate of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.

The console, which went on sale Tuesday for $100, lets players try games for free before buying them, a selling point Ouya (pronounced oo-yah) CEO Julie Uhrman often makes to underscore that gamers who use consoles made by "the big three" can't test games before they spend as much as $60 to purchase them.

"We are definitely disrupting the console market," Uhrman says. "I mean, there's been no startup that has had a meaningful impact on the market in decades, and we're the first. We offer something different."

So far, Ouya's pitch seems to be working. The underdog console had sold out on Amazon.com and on Target's website by Tuesday afternoon. It is available at other outlets, including Best Buy and GameStop.

The Ouya game cube measures about 3 inches on each side and hooks up to a TV set. The console comes with a single controller. Additional controllers cost $50.

There are nearly 180 games available for Ouya, ranging from the likes of "Crazy Cat Lady" to the more established "Final Fantasy III" from Square Enix. The company says more games are on the way. There are also some non-gaming apps, such as online music service TuneIn Radio.

The games are sold through Ouya's storefront, not Google Play, the app store where people buy games for Android tablets and mobile devices. Pricing is left up to individual game developers; many games are in the single digits. "Final Fantasy" is an exception at $16. Ouya takes a 30 percent cut from the game developers.

While you won't find "Grand Theft Auto IV" or the latest "Call of Duty" among the available titles, there are plenty of others from independent developers whose games may never make it onto the dominant consoles, Microsoft's Xbox, Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's Wii.

"I don't think it's ever really going to challenge the big three, but it offers a lot to the more casual gamer," says Anthony Yacullo, a self-described "gadget geek" from Lawrenceville, N.J. Like thousands of other gamers and game developers, Yacullo already has an Ouya. He contributed at least $95 to the company through crowdfunding website, Kickstarter.

"When I'm out on the road for work and come home, I don't want to play 'Call of Duty," he says. Rather, Yacullo says he looks for games more like the ones on his phone — except he doesn't want to be staring at his phone.

That's where Ouya comes in. Still, the new console is unlikely to present a serious challenge to high-end consoles coming out from Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. later this year. Ouya lacks recent blockbuster games with high-end graphics. But at a fraction of the price (the Xbox One will cost $500 and the PlayStation 4, $400), it appeals to budget-conscious gamers, gadget geeks and those looking for an alternative to gaming power-trio.

Gartner analyst Brian Blau says the measure of Ouya's success will not be the number of consoles it sells but the amount of money game developers make —and whether there is a steady stream of new games for the device. What's missing now, he adds, is the big-name video game brands such as Activision and Electronic Arts supporting Ouya.

That could come later.

The project to build the Ouya console launched on Kickstarter last July. On Aug. 9, 2012, Ouya's funding period ended with $8.6 million pledged, more than nine times the original $950,000 goal its creators had set. More than 63,000 people donated, with 12 pledging $10,000 or more.

"We brought it to Kickstarter because we wanted to know if anybody really wanted this," Uhrman says. "We had talked with developers and industry veterans like (video game designer) Brian Fargo and Ed Fries, who is one of the founders, basically, of Xbox, and there was a general feeling that there was a void in the market place for soemthing. But we wanted to validate it."

This May, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Ouya received another $15 million in venture capital funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, other VC firms, and chip maker Nvidia.

Ouya is not the first independent game console to attempt a challenge to the big three console makers. Four years ago, a startup called OnLive launched, offering games streamed over an Internet connection, similar to the way Netflix offers streamed movies and TV shows. OnLive's small game consoles went on sale for $99 in 2010, but they never gained broad appeal or even made a dent in the traditional console market.

Another early backer, Pedro Amador-Gates, thinks Ouya should "not even go after the consoles," but rather appeal to hobbyists and do-it-yourself folks.

"This is like a baby system compared to an about-to-be upgraded gaming system," he says, referring to the Xbox one and the PS4. But, much like it was with the early cell phone games, "it will only get better."

 

Review: Ouya brings indie games to your TV

The ongoing explosion in independently developed, low-budget video games has been a boon for players who travel. Whether I'm on the road with an iPad, an Android smartphone or a laptop, I know there's a huge library of games to play.

When I get home, though, I want to play on a bigger screen. That's where the Ouya comes in. It promises to deliver the best in inexpensive indie gaming on a high-resolution screen, through a small device that runs the Android operating system designed for phones and tablets.

Ouya costs just $100 — a few hundred dollars less than what you'd pay for a major game console. Thousands of gamers and game developers got Ouyas over the past few months after contributing at least $95 to Ouya's creators through the group-fundraising site Kickstarter. The device went on sale more broadly on Tuesday.

Ouya runs Google's Android system and is built around Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor, used mostly in smartphones and other mobile devices. That should make it easy to port over the thousands of games already made for Android phones and tablets, but for now you're limited to software specifically designed for Ouya. Nearly 180 games are available so far through Ouya's online store, with many more expected.

Each game has a version you can download for free. If you like what you see, you can download a full version for a few bucks. By contrast, games for one of the big three consoles can cost as much as $60 each — usually with no free trial.

The device itself is a cube measuring 3 inches (8 centimeters) on each side, with slightly rounded corners on the bottom. The controller is a bit chunkier. It resembles what's available with Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation, with two exceptions: The Ouya controller has a touchpad in the middle (although none of the games I sampled took advantage of it), and its grips are longer, each accommodating an AA battery. One controller comes with the Ouya, and extra ones cost $50 each.

Setup is easy once you connect the Ouya to your high-definition television set using a supplied HDMI cable. When you turn on the console, it automatically searches for Wi-Fi connections. You can also connect to the Internet through an Ethernet cable, which you have to provide yourself. Once connected, you need to create an account and supply credit card information.

Then you're taken to a simple menu with four options: play, discover, make and manage. "Make" takes you to an area for potential game developers, while "manage" lets you tinker with system settings.

"Discover" takes you to Ouya's game store. You can find games by genre, such as role-playing, sim/strategy and "meditative." You can also check out showcases such as "couch gaming with friends."

Download speeds aren't bad; it took about 20 minutes for me to transfer a 725-megabyte file over Comcast high-speed Internet. Smaller games are, of course, much faster. The device has 8 gigabytes of internal storage, and you can add more by connecting an external hard drive to the Ouya with a USB cable.

Once you have your game, clicking "play" on the home page takes you to your personal library. Compared with the sometimes daunting menus on the Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, Ouya's displays are clean and elegant.

The offerings on the Ouya store vary wildly in quality and ambition. Android is an open platform, so anyone can write software for it. That means you have professionally executed games such as the beloved "You Don't Know Jack" competing head-to-head with the sloppy trivia game "Quizania." Some popular console games, including "The Bard's Tale" and "Final Fantasy III," have been adapted for the Ouya, but it isn't the place for blockbuster titles such as the latest "Call of Duty" and "Grand Theft Auto."

More prevalent are games that have been cult hits on PCs and smartphones, including "Canabalt," ''Saturday Morning RPG" and "Organ Trail." There are a few Ouya exclusives, including the 3-D puzzler "Polarity" and the multiplayer archery game "TowerFall."

Ouya offers high-resolution displays in 1080p, comparable to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii U. Most of the Ouya's offerings are fairly low-def, though, and if you're looking for the wide-screen majesty of "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" or "BioShock Infinite," you won't find it here. If your video-game habit dates back to the 1970s, you'll notice a distinct retro feel to the Ouya's library. That's not a complaint; there's something refreshing about taking on a simple running-and-jumping game such as "Canabalt" after you've survived a grueling epic like Sony's PS3 hit "The Last of Us."

Indeed, some of the more satisfying indie releases of the last few years — say, "Fez," ''Hotline Miami" or "Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine" — have combined old-school graphics with game play that's more sophisticated than most big-budget console releases offer. Nothing currently on Ouya matches the quality of those games, but if the system can attract that level of talent, it will be a console to be reckoned with. If you're a hardcore gamer, it won't replace your Xbox or PlayStation, but for $100 it's a worthy supplement.

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