“This response surprised us--we thought this was going to be great--how could it not be?” said Uhrman. “We launched the Free the Games Fund to find great games from the very platform that gave us life.”
Pulling from a million dollar pool, the Free the Games promotion promised financial backing to Kickstarter games if they were Ouya exclusive for six months (afterwards, they could go wherever). If the Kickstarter projects raised at least $50,000, Ouya would match that, and that financial matching would continue as high as $250,000. An additional $100,000 was promised to the project that raised the most money during this program.
So far, two of the projects have been embroiled in speculation about their funding efforts, with Elementary, My Dear Holmes being straight-up shut down by Kickstarter late last week. Both have been dealing with accusations of friends and family pumping in funds to hit Ouya’s target.
“We wanted to get on top of this and did not want anything to do with any of what was happening as it was an extremely negative campaign for us” wrote Elementary creator Sam Chandola. “Strong personal accusations were going up against us, and it was a huge drain on our time, energy and resources. We had been hoping that the suspicious accounts would have been suspended so that we could keep on going strong and without controversy, but instead it was the project that got so. We are, naturally, deeply saddened by this. But if this is what it takes to put an end to the negativity, so be it.”
Gridiron Thunder, a project that has since closed with $171,009 in funding prior to what Ouya kicks in, faced similar criticisms as Elementary. According to Kicktraq, the average backer pledge was $934, well outside the norm. In Gridiron Thunder’s case, the developer, MogoTXT, didn’t deny friends, family, and supporters from its Silicon Valley roots had pledged big. Many of these pledges came from brand-new accounts that hadn’t supported anything on Kickstarter before. Furthermore, MogoTXT was promising to release the game in September (this month!), raising questions about what a project clearly in the final stretch needs with a program that, in spirit, was designed to help scrappy upstarts. But it hit the goal, so Ouya will have to back it.
When I originally asked developers about Free the Games, many were skeptical of Ouya’s approach.
“I mean hey,” said Dan Marshall, creator of Ben There, Dan That! and the recent Gun Monkeys, “if you've got a million bucks to blow, take it to some indie devs you admire, and whose style of games you desperately want on your system and say ‘Here! Look! Here's $100k, make something spectacular for us that'll make our system a must-have.’ THAT would be a tactic I'd respect them for. Six months exclusivity on a hundred games that'll be out on Steam eventually doesn't feel like a particularly wise way to spend that money and get systems selling, I'm afraid.”
The blog post contains only vague references to the conversation around the Free the Games program.
“In launching this campaign, we’ve been called everything from naive and foolish to crazy and idealistic,” she said. “This is not the first time we’ve been called any of that. Maybe we’re naive…and YES we’re definitely idealistic. It’s gotten us this far. We believe (still) that great games from great developers can be discovered this way--by you. If we can put aside the doubt and embrace the spirit of this fund as it is meant, and of OUYA as it is meant, we might just be surprised by what a little positivity can produce.”
Asking people to stop being jerks is, perhaps, not the best way to inspire developer confidence. This becomes clear in the comments section, in which several well-known developers weigh in with their own problems with Ouya, and Uhrman’s decision to seemingly ignore the underlying issues with the Free the Games deal.
“This post makes me sad, for a lot of reasons to be honest, but mainly for the wording,” said Mike Bithell, developer of Thomas Was Alone and the upcoming Volume. “This isn't an acceptance of criticism, or an explanation of how clearly dodgy as hell schemes are being supported by you publicly (in PR at least, I really hope you weasel out before giving the Gridiron Thunder guys a penny). This reads like a press release from a console company locked into a foolish policy and using aspirational language to shift the blame, weirdly, onto its critics.”
Bithell was not alone.
“I said the Gridiron thing was the final straw but in reality this blog post was,” said Richard Perrin, developer of Kairo and the upcoming Journal. “We've all been waiting for how you guys were going to deal with this and your response is to post a blog entry that ducks and doges around the one central issue. We've all been watching very concerned, and you've basically made it clear you're either not listening or are not willing to engage with us. That being the case I can't work with you guys and I won't work with you guys. Thankfully we seem to be in a new era with game development where companies like Sony are taking the time to engage with smaller developers and are willing to admit mistakes and try to make things better. That your small plucky start up is coming across more impersonal and corporate than Sony should worry you deeply.”
"I know what honesty looks like, I know what dealing with problems looks like, and I sure as shit know what putting developers first should look like, and this isn’t it.”
In the case of Sophie Houlden, developer of Rose and Time, she’s actually pulling the game down from Ouya’s store.
“A real indie has more faces than just ‘look at how well things are going for me,’ we have to deal with all kinds of problems and we respond when people come to us with them,” said Houlden. “Responses like the one I read last night (weeks after the problem became apparent) feel entirely empty and dishonest to me. I know what honesty looks like, I know what dealing with problems looks like, and I sure as shit know what putting developers first should look like, and this isn’t it.”