Anybody can build a game for the Ouya. A $99 console with an Android-based platform, Ouya takes the cheapness and ease of mobile gaming and brings it to the television.
Just over a year ago, following an extremely successful Kickstarter that raised more than $9 million in funds, the first Ouya models began arriving in backers’ homes. After an initially lukewarm reception, the console found its niche by appealing to developers and the DIY crowd, aka “makers.”
Now its Android development environment, paired with the Ouya team’s constant documentation and support, has made Ouya the choice for 36,000 registered developers—and an additional 1,000 more on average each month.
Gamers who have grown accustomed to playing the same sequels of first-person shooters and racing games year after year were pleasantly surprised by the Ouya marketplace, where just about anything goes. And while most console games cost a standard $60 (on top of consoles that cost hundreds), nearly all of the 920 games offered on the Ouya platform are free to try. It’s a democratic take on the game industry, where both consoles and games are cheap.
I talked to Ouya founder and CEO Julie Uhrman about the console’s first year. We talked about how Ouya found its audience, courted game developers, and encouraged people all over the world to try their hand at game making.
A Woman, A Plan, A Console
ReadWrite: You started out in investment banking during the first dot-com bubble. How did that shape your view of technology?
Julie Uhrman: (Laughs) It moves really quickly!
But I think the most important thing that I learned is that it doesn’t matter if you have a great product. If your audience isn’t ready for it, it’s not going to succeed.
Finding the balance of the right product, the right time, the right audience is really challenging, and sometimes being first to market isn’t necessarily the right approach. Biding your time and waiting for the right time when the audience is ready for embrace it. That’s when I think you have the biggest chance for success.
RW: When did you first get interested in gaming?
JU: I’ve been a gamer my whole life. I used to write code on my Apple IIe, download games at 9600 baud on the BBS—I was always really excited about it.
After I left investment banking, when I was looking at an industry that I would enjoy, I first and foremost looked at gaming and I was able to get a role with Vivendi Universal Games.
RW: What first inspired you to step away from established companies, found a startup and develop a game console?
JU: I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’ve always enjoyed building something, creating something important that doesn’t exist today to consumers that will value it.
Before Ouya, I was at IGN running the official distribution business called Direct2Drive and I was witnessing a lot of changes in the industry. The number of console and TV games that were being launched was declining year over year. Mobile was growing exceptionally fast. This was in 2011, 2012. I was witnessing a lot of development studios that were focused on console games closing to reopen as mobile development shops.
Digging into that further, it was really because of the openness of the mobile platform, the ease of which it presented itself to new developers to build the type of game they wanted and to reach gamers more easily. Mobile was also a great discovery platform for gamers. Games are free to try and they’re short. You could enjoy something quickly, or not, and move on to something else.
So I was watching these trends happen, and I came up with a device that was build on Android and wasn’t a mobile phone and had that lightbulb moment: what if we brought the best ideas from the PC and mobile to the console space? What if we built an Android game console for the television that was about being affordable for gamers, and allowing creators of any type access to the number one screen in our lives, which is the television?
RW: How did your decade working in the industry shape what the Ouya would become?
JU: Well it certainly helped that I built strong relationships with different people in the industry — developers, gaming executives, and even gamers. Ouya wanted to be different—open to gamers and developers—and it was conversations with these individuals that helped us shape our offering.
With that in mind it was really easy to build Ouya from the perspective that we were trying to remove as many barriers as possible and make it as easy as possible for developers and gamers to experience one of my first loves—for games on the television.
Ouya Around The World
RW: We’re talking about removing the barriers, and money is one of them. What’s the least amount a developer could spend to develop a game for Ouya?
JU: Assuming you already have a computer, zero.
You download the Ouya SDK [software development kit], build the game on your laptop, upload it to our platform and launch it. You could also buy an Ouya as easily as a development console and build it and publish it directly to Ouya. Ouya’s $99.
And for gamers, the majority of our games are free to try. We wanted games to be accessible. We wanted gamers to love them before they bought them. Today, a majority of our games are free to try. They’re either free with in-app purchases or demos where you can download the full version of the game if you love it. And there are even games that are entirely free.
RW: When did you realize that Ouya had some serious appeal outside the U.S.?
JU: Kickstarter. We shipped Ouyas to over 110 different countries.
It was one of the reasons that, when we launched Ouya, we wanted it to be a global launch. We launched in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. on Day One. Subsequently, we added Western Europe, Brazil, and the Middle East. We added our own international ecommerce shop. Even today, we heard from one of our developers that their game’s been played in 50 different countries.
RW: How did your strategy change as a result to discovering your global audience?
JU: I think the reason that we are embraced globally is because of our strategy, which is an open platform, open ecosystem, and accessibility to the team.
Kellee Santiago runs the developer relations team. She was co-president and founder of That Game Company and partner at the Indie Fund. She is incredibly useful in working with new developers and helping them bring their content to the television. And as a result of that, 54% of our developers are based outside the U.S. as well. So it’s both gamers and developers that are coming to Ouya from all around the world.
RW: What have you learned from the demographics of your developers and your users?
JU: That gaming is global.
When you have an open platform, you can inspire any type of creator, whether they’re a newcomer or an established developer, to bring their best content to the television. Because the television is an incredibly powerful medium to build a game.
RW: Is the Ouya looking to expand into other languages?
JU: Today we support five languages—English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. We support three currencies—the dollar, the Euro, and the pound.
We’re focusing a lot of our attention on Asia and that market given the interest there is for the platform and our games.
RW: Tell me about some of the highlights from Ouya’s first year.
JU: Sure. When we launched, we had a little over 170 games. Today, we have over 850 games. We started with a little less than a thousand developers. Now we have 36,000 registered developers. We have a developer Matt Thorson who launched his game TowerFall on Ouya, and after that it was picked to be one of the launch titles on the Playstation 4 indie channel. Developers are finding and building their community on the Ouya and leveraging that to grow their audience on other platforms, and I think that’s a phenomenal development for Ouya.
Even recently, we’re starting to see a significant increase in the number of alphas and betas on the platform. Developers are coming to Ouya first to test their ideas and get feedback from the community, improve the game, and then launch it when it’s ready.
Ouya’s gone from being a console where people publish final games to a platform where makers can come and create games. Ouya’s really leaning into that now as we try to focus more on makers. We’re providing more tools and documentation and videos to enable anybody to be a game creator.
RW: Which niche was the Ouya intended to fill, and which niche does it actually fill?
JU: Ouya’s always been intended to be an open platform. I think when any new platform gets to market you get the established player to first understand the space and embrace it early, but it was always our goal to be a place for any maker or creator to build a game for the television.
It’s taken us time to build the tools and the documentation. Unity, for example, is a great tool for developers to build games. We’ve integrated with them and twelve other middleware solutions, and are starting to build our own documentation and how-to videos for early developers.
I think it’s clear when you look at the UI [user interface] of the Ouya, on the top main navigation screen “Make” is one of the channels. It’s not just about playing games, it’s about making games. We put that front and center and now we’re really able to build that out more.
Making A Maker Platform
RW: Ouya has found an audience with new and indie game developers. How are you working on catering to that audience?
JU: We have a team of four in our content and developer relations team that works very hard to get out in front of developers, whether it’s going to events or holding our Google Hangout every single week, to responding to email requests, to literally working directly with hundreds of developers.
My team has worked with over 300 developers, reviewing their builds, giving feedback on their games and their monetization strategies. Then, once launched, we work hard to market and promote those games for them. I think developers see us as a real partner.
RW: There’s growing competition in the indie-gaming space, from high-end systems like Steam (forthcoming, at least) to game-friendly TV streaming boxes like the Amazon Fire TV and Android—even, perhaps, Sony’s PlayStation TV. Where does a console like Ouya fit in this world, and what challenges does it present you?
JU: We’re excited to see others entering this space. Other entrants so far have helped us. It’s great to broadens the audience for developers, and give gamers access to games where they are, and not necessarily force them to buy a particular piece of hardware to enjoy games on the television.
RW: What makes a console developer friendly?
JU: I think it’s everything that we do.
I think it’s about having a team of ex-developers that really understands what it takes to build, market, and launch a game. I think it’s about having documentation and support material to help those that aren’t as knowledgeable or educated about building a game. I think it’s about being accessible to developers—and accessible on their terms, whether it’s email, Google Hangout, or at events—being approachable. And that’s what I think Ouya’s really about.
RW: With an audience into DIY, how does the Ouya avoid legal trouble through emulators, jail breaking, hacking and rooting the console?
JU: Ouya is an open console. You can open it up, play with it, and it doesn’t void your warranty.
We do not allow emulators to have content. We protect the IP rights of our content owners. If any game or application should infringe on that, it does not get released. Ouya has a set of content guidelines. We do a light review of games and apps before they get launched on Ouya. We want to make sure it is a good experience for gamers and we want to make sure there is no IP infringement, malware, pornography, or anything like that.
RW: Some of my favorite Ouya games are by professional standards, frankly amateur. How does Ouya decide what makes a “good experience” for gamers?
JU: When we review games, we want to make sure not only does it meet our content guidelines but that it’s a good experience for gamers. That means there’s no gameplay issues, text doesn’t go off the screen, it works well with the game controller, if there’s a monetization component it works, but we don’t review games to provide judgement if it is a good game. That’s really up to the gamer. We encourage all developers to make their games free to try so that gamers can make up their mind if they love a game before they purchase it.
RW: Ouya recently announced the AIDE [Android Integrated Development Environment] initiative. How does teaching kids to code fit into Ouya’s big picture?
JU: Ouya’s always been about being open. We’ve always believed that if you have an open platform, the most creative, unique, amazing content will surface. Creating AIDE for Ouya is just one additional step in supporting our goal to be incredibly open.
It teaches anyone—kids or adults—to make games. You’ll be able to hook up a keyboard and mouse to Ouya. You’ll be able to make games and publish them on the platform. We’re also talking with our current developers because the best way to learn is to have a great teacher and so we’re trying to encourage our developers to participate in this program and to help us shape the AIDE initiative as it begins to take form.
RW: I know the initiative is just getting started, but ideally, what’s it going to look like a few months from now?
JU: If you have Ouya or Ouya is on your device, you’ll go into the “Make” channel to take tutorials on how to build games. You’ll see how-to videos and documentation. You’ll have all the elements you need to start learning to code to build a game.
RW: You mentioned that kids as well as adults can learn to program games for Ouya. Can you tell me an anecdote about an especially young developer?
JU: When we launched last year, one of our developers was an eight-year-old boy. He built a game called Astronaut Rescue. He was skiing in Tahoe with his father and broke his leg, and after being bedridden, his dad said, “You can’t stay inside the whole time playing games.” So he said, “OK, I want to make a game.”
He said he wanted to build a game for the television because he didn’t want to have his friends huddled over a mobile phone trying to play it. So he and his dad together built a game for Ouya and worked closely with my teammate, Tim Graupmann, to optimize it for Ouya. They were a launch title on Ouya. They were at E3 demoing the game for press and for gamers. And he’s made money.
We have an eight-year-old and that’s just his first attempt at making a game. Just imagine what his games will be like when he’s ten or 15 or 20.
RW: What are the Ouya team’s primary focuses for the year ahead?
JU: We want to continue to grow our community and grow our library of games. Today we have over 850 games and 36,000 developers and we want to continue to bring great content that’s compelling and unique to the Ouya platform. Obviously a big focus of Ouya is helping beginning developers learn how to make games and we want to be the platform they go to first.
Also we’re really focused on extending the reach of Ouya through our Ouya Everywhere strategy, which is to take our marketplace and put it on other devices, so you don’t only have to buy Ouya to play the games that are in the Ouya marketplace.
RW: You said “Gaming is global.” Was this a hypothesis Ouya has confirmed?
JU: I think the market has shifted. Games used to be local in nature. What was most successful in the U.S. was not what was most successful in Europe and was not successful in Asia. You start to see this changing with Angry Birds and, more recently, Candy Crush and Flappy Bird. You can build a game that has universal global appeal.
Building games on Android, and requiring only an HDMI connection to a television, really means your products can be available anywhere and to any gamer.
RW: What kind of changes would you personally like to see in the gaming industry?
JU: I love seeing more devices coming to market that are supporting games. I’d love to see more companies support game development by encouraging creators and the Maker Movement. When that happens, I think that’s when we’ll find something really special.
Lead image by Duncan Rawlinson