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GDC: Going Hands On with Ouya

ouya-splashFrom Kickstarter concept to home console, the journey of Ouya has been long, strange, and, most of all, exciting for both gamers and developers alike. Don’t let its relatively minuscule size fool you – this Android-powered console packs a punch and at a cool $99, it might just be the best bang for your gaming buck when it launches on June 4th (or this week if you were an early adopter on the console’s Kickstarter). Like you, my eyebrows were raised, but after sitting down with Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman and getting some hands-on time with the console, I’m ready to plunk down a crisp Benjamin Franklin (or one hundred wrinkly-ass George Washingtons – your call, whomever is taking my money).

After exceeding its original fundraising goal of $950,000 by $7.6 million, the little console that could attracted considerable support from not only the gaming community, but developers too. High profile supporters like Square Enix, Notch (Minecraft), Gabe Newell (Valve), Brian Fargo (inXile Entertainment), Adam Saltsman (Cannabalt HD), Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia) and more are all developing titles for the system, including “AAA TV exclusives” like Final Fantasy III. The company’s open source aesthetic and more than reasonable price point made one thing abundantly clear: this is a platform designed by gamers for gamers.

ouya-menu1

If there’s one governing concept behind Ouya, it’s accessibility. Terms like “ease of flow,” “simplicity,” and “customization” were uttered time and again in Uhrman’s remarks to the small assembly of journalists. Even the console’s name, Ouya, a shortened version of “Open Universe,” adheres to this principle. (Uhrman admitted that the “-ya” suffix is cosmetic, citing that “it just sounded good”). And it’s not just rhetoric – they put their money where their mouths are. Beginning with the stark simplicity of the UI above, the console took notes from its competitors and from its supporters, crowdsourcing feedback via Reddit polls and AMAs to improve everything from the UI’s features to the layout of the controller (which looks like a DualShock had a baby with a Y-Wing from Star Wars, but in a good way). Don’t like the color of the console? They’ve got you covered…if you own a 3D printer, that is. Put your MakerBot through the paces with these custom console enclosures on Thingiverse. We’re thinking a nice Nerdist red-and-yellow would do the trick.

ouya-menu2

From the moment you hit play, you’ll be able to access all of your downloaded titles in a slick grid display similar to Steam’s. Load times were practically non-existent, as games booted up seconds after selecting them. Accidentally opened the wrong game? Realized you’re late for class and need to leave ASAP? Double-tapping the home button on the center of the controller will take you back to the console’s main menu and it will save your game state, so you don’t have to sacrifice your GPA because you couldn’t find a save point. This makes leaping between games a breeze, perfect for those “embarrassment of riches” moments that anyone who owns more than one video game has experienced.

With a game selection curated by former thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago, Ouya offers a robust catalog, primarily composed of indie games, all of which are free to try (although you’ll eventually have to plunk down some real world currency to buy the full version). Currently, the store operates on an algorithm called the “O Rank,” which tabulates a game’s positioning in the store based on engagement rather than just number of downloads or revenue streams – e.g., how often do you play it, is it the first game you boot up, how many thumbs up it has from users, etc. In short, it’s meant to be an algorithm design to sort titles by their “fun factor,” a smart move in that it incentivizes developers to support their titles after the fact via social media and other official channels (and, you know, to make fun, addictive games). To prevent the store from flooding with unfinished titles or quick attempts at cashing in, the newest titles will live in what is being called the Sandbox, a proving grounds of sorts similar to Steam’s Greenlight, where new titles will live until the hit the minimum fun factor/O Rank needed to ascend to the official store. In effect, this should transform the system’s store into a self-selecting, fan-driven catalog of top tier titles.

ouya-menu3-builds

But boosting one’s O Rank isn’t the only way that devs can interact with the gaming public. Through their innovative Make menu tab, you can access three sub-categories – Builds, Software, and News. According to Uhrman, Make is a “place to learn how to make and market games where devs can post their builds and foster relationships with gamers.” While News is pretty self-explanatory, Software will serve as a repository for side-loaded programs (like that SNES emulator you have… or those ROMs that you only own because you also own a physical copy of Battletoads, right?).  Want to make your own games? Are you already an existing developer and need to work out some bugs? Ouya’s Dev Kit is available free of charge, so you can download that and then put an alpha or beta of your next Halo killer up on the Ouya’s Builds section where users can download, play and give feedback on it.

All in all, the Ouya is a tidy little package with potential that far exceeds its diminutive dimensions. From its open source aesthetic to its almost fetishistically clean design to its robust, dev-and-gamer-friendly gaming catalog, the Ouya is quickly becoming the best way to spend a hundred bucks this summer.

One last thing – for the gearheads among us, here are the system specs.

OUYA Console
Case: Sand-Blasted Aluminum and Plastic
CPU: NVIDIA Tegra 3 Quad-Core
Memory: 1GB RAM
Storage: 8GB Internal Flash Storage (Expandable via USB Port)
USB: One USB 2.0 Port, One Micro USB port
Connectivity: WiFi (802.11 b/g/n), Ethernet Port, and Bluetooth
Output: HDMI (up to 1080p HD)
Dimensions: 75mm x 75mm x 82mm (2.9in x 2.9in x 3.2in) / Weight:
300g (10.5 oz)
OUYA Wireless Controller
− A true gamer’s controller with two analog sticks, D-Pad, eight action
buttons, a system button, and touchpad
− Connectivity: Bluetooth
− Controls: 15 Buttons with Touchpad
− Body: Sand-Blasted Aluminum Top Plates and Plastic
− Dimensions: 163mm x 109mm x 53.5mm (6.4in x 4.2in x 2.1in)
− Weight: 275g (9.7 oz)
− 2x AA Batteries
OUYA System Software
− Open OS with custom OUYA interface, designed for televisions from
the ground up
− Custom OUYA store, Discover
− OUYA Development Kit (ODK) for making games

− Games will be added daily to OUYA leading up to the June launch and beyond, including titles from every genre: racing to shooter, action-adventure to RPG, and platformer to puzzle, and more

− The latest apps, including Twitch.tv, Flixster, XMBC are available today. Coming soon: Plex, Crunchyroll, iHeartRadio, and many more

− 8,000+ registered developers building the next “must have” games  for OUYA now

- OUYA console with one controller: $99.99

- Additional OUYA controller: $49.99

So, now that you’ve got the skinny on the latest contender for the console crown, what do you think? Are you an early adopter? Will you be buying one? Let us know in the comments below.

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