In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.
Part 1: Anil Dharni – SVP of Studio Operations, GREE
What GREE does well: Given the company’s enormous reach and user base, it would be an understatement to simply say that GREE is a leader in the mobile social gaming space. With a sprawling global network of over 230 million users and a truly open-minded company culture, where all genres, preferences and devices are welcomed, GREE’s world domination continues through an impressive push to bring developers and players together on its recently launched GREE Platform.
Why OUYA could matter to GREE: In a nutshell, GREE is wide open to any platform or device that develops a healthy audience of gamers in the social gaming space. Unlike the trepidation expressed by some social mobile gaming network operators, GREE appears to see a truly viable and untapped potential Android marketplace on Ouya: The inevitable transition to the connected TV and living room. GREE will continue to gauge the Ouya’s momentum and observe how its owners cope with console-related challenges, but if the TV space becomes as fertile as they predict, and if the games and services make sense, it would only be a positive to offer the GREE Platform to Ouya users and developers.
Gamesauce: After talking to you and some of the other GREE representatives at Casual Connect, it sounds like there’s already an internal discussion regarding the Ouya console. Is that just general buzz talk, like everyone, reacting to the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, or is there a real opportunity there for GREE?
Anil: I think a lot of our excitement is for the project itself, and we’re hoping the developers of Ouya can find a way to succeed, and of course make a great product, at the end of the day. Obviously there are a lot of challenges there. The Kickstarter campaign is definitely impressive – not just the numbers, but the enthusiasm around it. One thing we were trying to figure out: Is that a lot of game developers putting their money in initially, or the backers, or primarily consumers? Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.
Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.
GS: That’s a fairly common sentiment whenever we get close to a console generation transition, but you’re right, there seems to be a real movement for some kind of shake up in the console space. It’s hard to extrapolate whether that movement is consumer or developer driven…
Yeah, it’s hard to say without some hard data down the road. That will be enlightening, when we see how the backers and interest break down. That being said, regardless, they are going after the right market. TV connectivity is going to be an active space; we already know who a lot of the big players are going to be, and it’s absolutely coming. The timing, at least, could work out very well for Ouya.
The second big factor: I think they picked a good platform in Android. More and more games are launching on Android now. It’s a very fast rising platform, so we’re very bullish on Android. You see what Amazon has been able to do, taking the Android source code and then modifying it to their needs and their ecosystem. It can be done. So I think they picked a good platform.
GS: You might say Android is the most neutral gaming platform out there, so it fits the Ouya’s goals rather well as an open game console – as opposed to, let’s say, using their own proprietary OS.
Yes, they picked the right market and the right platform, but it’s still a kind of chicken and egg scenario. Will the developers come, given the model of the console? Can they succeed on the system, and what kind of games will do well? It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time: The TV question, and what kind of games we’ll see from Android developers for a TV experience.
GS: A huge slice of the active Android development community is made up of talented casual games studios. Do you think the Ouya could become a casual-friendly device with a mobile-style ecosystem of freemium titles, or will there be an expectation for larger, more expansive console-style experiences?
That’s another challenge, just finding out what people want out of an Android console. From our perspective, we are free-to-play champions. We love free-to-play with great value. It’s really hard to know what can thrive on Ouya, but for us, we just make sure the content itself is great, and that’s for all players. The more people you can bring to the platform, the better it is in the long run. That’s how we look at it. And it won’t take long to figure out a really tight design that’s ideal for the console.
GS: So it’s going to be about existing and new Android developers incorporating features that support – specifically – the Ouya’s hardware specifications. That can be risky or costly, early on.
But the hardware itself can help to keep game prices low, since you can also charge for things like extra controllers. It’s hard to say if developers will choose Ouya exclusively, or add console features to their existing tablet projects. If you look at developers right now, with a ton of studios working on iOS and Android, there’s a lot of movement towards iOS – but a lot of people are placing long term bets on Android.
GS: For smaller indie teams, short term returns might trump long term bets. But the prospect of being an early title on a new platform – especially one generating so much buzz – could be just as lucrative.
You basically have to prioritize as an indie developer. You only have ten, twenty, thirty people – max? – on your team, and running on a limited budget? Indie developers have to prioritize a platform, risks and all. But I think that’s where the chicken and egg issue comes in again, and it’s going to become important for developers to see successful business models emerge on Ouya. Is it going to be freemium, subscription, or free-to-play? We have to see.
GS: Let’s say you’re a tiny indie team: Six or seven guys working your butts off to produce polished games and carve a niche. Your collective dream is to make a cool console game, but XBLA and PSN are too cost-prohibitive to absorb. Does Ouya become the gateway device for a bunch of console dreamers, and can those guys charge XBLA and PSN-like prices?
Well, we do know that paid apps perform significantly lower on Android than they do on iOS. Having said that, they’re getting more and more used to it, and when they associate it with TV there’s a different kind of value perception there. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it could work; I think it’s an OK bet for people, especially those coming from the console side. I think we’ll see more trends from the console side than the social gaming side. For us, we want our games everywhere, on devices everywhere, so we think TV is going to be a great area.
GS: If you look at some of the Smart TV models coming soon, there’s going to be a renewed push towards all-in-one multimedia TVs. And that includes TVs with integrated game chipsets. Can the Ouya wiggle into that space as a game and media streaming device, maybe for consumers that bought their HDTVs three or four years ago and don’t plan on upgrading to newer connected TVs?
I think in that case, it may come down to how Google and Android actually propagates in the TV space and how people enjoy that experience. I don’t know all the technical details, but I know in the Ouya’s case they already have a prototype of the service; we just don’t know how it will compare to other Android experiences coming to TV.
GS: Let’s say the Ouya suddenly takes off and really validates itself a year from now, what’s stopping TV giants like Samsung from releasing their own spin on the Android console? They’re already entrenched in the Android device space, and dominant in connected TVs.
I think it’s true, they might do it if the model proved to be successful. My one caveat is that start-ups tend to be much faster, and a start-up with a real gaming background should have an edge there. We always thought Google could tap a lot of markets with Android, and Samsung is a great company with a ton of resources, but it helps to have a gaming DNA from the beginning like the Ouya people.
GS: Agreed, it helps to have that focus for a device. If you look at how the Kindle Fire is becoming its own Android-based ecosystem, you see the potential for specific game services on the OS.
Exactly – here’s Amazon making a big move into the gaming side, because they know how to operate, without really being tied to the gaming space. So I think the Ouya might have that advantage of background and know-how in the console gaming space, and I hope they can build on that.
GS: It will be good to see games like Minecraft on Ouya, but it needs a few impressive exclusives to really define itself. The issue for developers is risk: Are you prepared to place all bets on an intangible gaming device? So I think we’re going to see a lot of tablet ports with tacked-on Ouya features.
Without a doubt, that’s going to happen early on.
GS: Do you think this kind of compromises the “purity” of designing an Ouya game, in terms of the console’s features being a secondary consideration in design?
Yes it does, and that’s not really what you want to see developers doing. You want them to build for a particular console and context, and that’s when you really produce the stand-outs. Think of the first wave of Android games, where it was largely just porting titles: Besides a few exceptions, it just wasn’t working. Until developers decided: OK, we’re going to have a dedicated team and really understand the platform. Those are the teams that are thriving now. But it’s taken a while to reach this point.
GS: Do you think the Ouya’s price could have the ancillary effect of welcoming lower income families into the console gaming world, and thus expand Android’s presence in that demographic?
I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to how much a person wants to spend, although it’s certainly an interesting price option for a new console that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console. It will be more a function of that, and less about a specific spender.
I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console.
GS: There’s also this contention, and I don’t know if it’s due to mobile propagation or technologies like Microsoft’s SmartGlass, that Ouya games need to include post-Ouya gameplay on phones and tablets, so the user can resume gameplay on a mobile device. Wouldn’t this also compromise the design of an Ouya game, by attempting to satisfy both player types?
That’s a good question. I think the perfect example I can point to is the study that PopCap presented in their session at Casual Connect. They said that most people, when they actually get into a mobile game, they’re sitting at home playing on the couch. I just think it’s interesting that someone finally did a real survey, and it actually points to that fact.
GS: That kind of tells us that short-session games may have a place anywhere, but medium-to-core level experiences have always had a place in the living room, regardless of device. That’s built into our home entertainment culture. And those are the players more likely to put in that extra hour, buy that extra level pack, and so on.
Right, the longer-session players. From a console developer’s point of view, the Ouya is an opportunity to find a middle ground. A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely. So for a lot of these developers getting ready to push great mobile titles next year, they’re already prepared for Ouya. Whether it becomes a good marketplace for them, this remains the question. An [eight million] dollar Kickstarter is great, but will it require a twenty million selling console, or one hundred million, to really carve out a market?
A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely.
GS: That’s the big question. It’s the type of console shake-up we welcome, but there’s no way to tell if it’s the definitive disruption or merely a foundation. Thanks very much for your perspectives, Anil.