Ouya's Crowd-Funded, Android-Powered, Cloud-Gaming Console Has Finally Arrived

After a longer-than-expected wait, some shipping glitches, and a good deal of anticipation, my open-source, crowd-funded, cloud-gaming, Android-powered Ouya game console arrived in Friday's mail. I unpacked the box, plugged it in, and fired it up. After 24 hours, I've come to some conclusions about the device – though I can't say they're all positive.

(See also Can Startup Ouya's Crowd-Sourced Gaming Console Challenge Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo?)

Ouya: Out Of The Box

The Console: The first thing I noticed about the console itself was its size. The thing is small – about the size of a Rubik's Cube. With no optical drive or expansion slots, there's no reason for the device to be any bigger, but it was still a little jarring. It's also pretty idiot-proof. Plug in the included power adapter and HDMI cable, press the only button on the device, and you're ready to get started. 

The Controller: The controller was reputed to be the system's crown jewel, and overall, it's a success. The pop-off panels for accessing the dual battery compartments seem a little insecure at first, and I would have preferred a more traditional hinged compartment on the back, but the Ouya design seems rigid enough once everything is snapped together, and it's probably cheaper to fix, down the line.

Other than that, the pad, sticks and buttons worked as planned, the controller fit my average-sized hand nicely, and I was able to forget about controls and focus on the games immediately. And that's really the point. I found it worlds more comfortable than any Sony controller, and somewhat more natural than the Xbox 360's. If this controller shipped with a next-gen system, I wouldn't be upset.

Ouya Setup

The hardware was great, and pairing the controllers was straightforward. When I logged into my account, though, the Ouya's Kickstarter roots started to show. Setup went smoothly enough, but even a little documentation might have been nice. The box included only an FCC-mandated warning: no manual or diagrams. The log in process was simple, but to retrieve the username I'd registered months ago, I had to swap to my laptop and Google "Ouya username retrieval." An inline "Retrieve Username" next to the "Lost Password" link in the setup screen wouldn't have been terribly hard to add.

With any luck, that retail units will ship with more documentation and a smoothed-out interface. As an early backer, a reviewer and someone who'd like to see this type of project succeed, I didn't really care, but the Best Buy set is accustomed to a higher level of hand-holding.  

The Ouya UI

Once you're logged in, the Ouya interface is pretty clean, but there aren't too many more positives worth noting. It's tough to make four menu items a jumble, but Ouya somehow succeeded. The designers may have been trying a bit too hard to make things cool.

The menu items:

PLAY: Play the games you’ve downloaded. Simple enough.

DISCOVER:  This is the Ouya app store. DISCOVER is a horribly awkward list of downloadable games, with confusingly named sub-menus (What’s the difference between CHECK IT, STAFFPICKS, and FAVS, anyway?). The GENRES section is more useful, but it reveals an unfortunate lack of content designed for the device. As of the weekend, there were only six games in the DUAL STICK category and only three applications in APPS.

MAKE: Information for software developers that really doesn’t belong in a main menu.

MANAGE: System configuration.

I get what Ouya was going for, but everything abut the interface screams BETA, and it wouldn't have been that hard to do it right. Drop me straight into PLAY, provide a prominent link to the store, and link to games that are related to the one I'm currently playing. Hide the rest somewhere boring. Done.

Some of the gaps should get filled when more titles become available, but that list is likely to to see a lot of static. The bar is pretty low for Android games, so not every entry will be up to par for console games.

That's where some content curation could help. Branded channels (e.g., something by IndieCade or one of the gaming mags) could really help users find games worth playing. So could a healthy peer rating system and some filtering based on past ratings. The good news is that all of this can be fixed in software. The bad news is that the retail release date is coming up fast.

(See also Android Gaming Console Ouya Set To Ship At End Of June.)

Ouya Games

For the most part, the available games are what you'd expect of Android games: small, fun, potentially addictive and disposable. There were some standouts like Dub Wars, which took advantage of the hardware in interesting ways, and some others that locked up my system (Beast Boxing Turbo never made it past the loading screen and forced a hard reset), but there's certainly no "must-have" franchise Ouya title yet.

Final Fantasy III: What about Final Fantasy III? If you've played the Android version on other devices, you know what you're getting. If you played the original version 20 years ago, it's a refreshing trip down memory lane. FFIII offers Game Boy mechanics with 3D graphics: think Pokemon Stadium on the N64 compared to Pokemon Yellow and Red. Younger gamers without an appreciation of history will probably get bored very fast. It's great to see a major studio throw some weight behind the Ouya, but this game is not a kingmaker. 

The Ouya Verdict

I think the gaming industry needs a kick in the pants, and I'm glad to have helped support the Ouya's attempt to provide it. I have hopes that in time, the Ouya can provide exposure to indie game developers, add playability to Android games that could really use a solid controller and function as a valid over-the-top box for Netflix and other TV apps.

As a geek and freedom fighter, I think my money was well-spent. If I were a parent on a shopping mission or hardcore gamer looking for a fix, though, the Ouya just doesn't deliver. If you're looking for anything resembling a AAA-title gaming experience, your $99 would be better spent on a used Xbox 360 or a new video card for your gaming computer.

I think Ouya has the potential to fix the bugs and round out its stable of apps and games to make a really viable complement to traditional consoles, but the company needs to move fast, before gamers decide to move on.