China, the Ouya, and the Future of Console Games

Today, Ouya announced that it had received an investment from China’s Alibaba Group. Along with the investment comes an agreement for Ouya to port their software to Alibaba’s YunOS. These are the potential first steps towards the eventual goal of selling Ouyas in China, perhaps the first plan for console distribution in the country since it recently lifted its ban on video game consoles. This is perhaps the last chance for the Ouya to become as successful as it seemed it would be in its Kickstarter days. If it does, it may cause a major shift in the console market around the world.

Is that really a good thing?

I’m sure that some of you laughed when you saw “Ouya” and “Future of Console Games” in the same headline. Indeed, Ouya has quickly gone from rousing indie success story to laughing stock failure akin to things like the Virtual Boy and the early days of the Vita. Ouya promised us the world and gave us…Towerfall. The Ouya was half-baked, over-hyped, and fundamentally broken upon release. It took months for the Ouya’s custom Android-based OS to get up to speed, and now they’re moving to a completely different platform? This sounds like some sort of cruel joke, played on those who wholeheartedly supported Ouya. Indeed, this seems like a project already doomed to fail. But, for a moment, let us ponder what would happen if it doesn’t, and what it would mean for the console market as a whole.

The Ouya is the first console to take mobile sensibilities into the living room. Games rarely break the $15 mark, and many are free. Of course, like mobile games, many of them are riddled with micro-transactions, the current bane of the games industry at large. And whether or not they have micro-transactions, most of the games on the Ouya don’t have substantial content. You can only play Canabalt so many times before you get supremely bored. Which is okay, because it – along with many other games on Ouya – was developed to be played in short sessions, on a phone. Something to pass time on a bus or train ride. Not to be played for hours on your couch.

Looking at China for a moment, we see a gaming market occupied mainly by online “freemium” games that charge players for in-game items to make their money. Many of these games are fairly simple gambling style games, though some are bigger PC releases, such as League of Legends and Guild Wars 2. There is such an addiction to online gaming in China that the government has been implementing programs to quell addiction and overly-long gaming sessions.

There are multiple failure points for the Ouya in China. There’s no way it will be able to properly port many popular PC exclusive games to its platform. And even if they did get a popular online game onto their console, the Ouya’s network hardware is so notoriously problematic that anyone wanting to play regularly would quickly become annoyed and stop playing on the console. But as I said at the beginning of this article, this isn’t about if it succeeds, it’s what would happen if it does.

The Ouya represents some of gaming’s worst trends. The busted games and hardware at a fundamental level is one thing; the freemium or content-poor software is another entirely. Things not working on the console is, at present, acceptable and on-par with its competitors (seriously, why can’t anyone get things to work right on day one?!), but the reason consoles have been successful up until now has been because they can offer long, engaging experiences that keep you on your couch, playing. The software library that the Ouya offers very rarely has substantial content in the same way the “Big 3” has. And if the Ouya has substantial sales in the most populous country in the world, it could shift what investors think is a “successful” business strategy away from long, triple-A experiences into pay-to-win, short burst, “freemium” games.

I’ll say it again, because it’s a terrifying prospect – the Ouya succeeding in China could convince investors that long, engaging experiences are no longer worth the cost to produce.

Indie games and triple-A’s have coexisted for years – which is why the Ouya’s existence is baffling. A console to promote indies, when the other consoles promote both indies and triple-A’s? Why? I don’t care if you think that triple-A is just rehashed trite or if you think indies are all sizzle and no steak, it is extremely important for both to be able to coexist. And the Ouya succeeding would represent, in my opinion, a major step in the wrong direction.

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