The makers of Ouya want to give back to developers and secure some platform exclusives in the process, but it’s unclear if the company’s Free the Games program will end up helping anyone. Developers that Giant Bomb talked to were universally pessimistic about its chances.
“Ouya is expecting developers to pull off several, subsequent miracles before they themselves even take a single risk on a game they want to serve as a flagship title for their own platform,” said Dust: An Elysian Tail writer Alex Kain.
Ouya’s creators have one million dollars to spread around, but there are a series of catches. Developers have to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a game on or after August 9, 2013. The promo ends on August 10, 2014. The campaigns must raise at least $50,000, and release the game exclusively on Ouya for the first six months. If a game qualifies, Ouya will match everything raised on Kickstarter up to $250,000 per project. You don’t get a lump sum right away, though. 25% is paid out when the Kickstarter project ends, 50% is paid out when the game launches, and the final 25% arrives when the exclusivity period ends.
“We wanted the amount to be meaningful and make a difference,” said the company in a statement, explaining the $50,000 requirement. “Based on our conversations with developers this amount felt right. We do not tell developers how to spend the money--they can spend it on development or marketing, or something else. They know what's best. In terms of the timeframe--six months is a sign of a real partnership. It gives us enough time to work with and promote the developer to the Ouya community.”
It’s a bit ironic that a program called Free the Games ends up requiring every game to be locked into exclusivity for several months.
Exclusivity windows are not new to video games, though. Microsoft and Sony routinely lock games to their platforms for a set amount of time, usually exclusive to the console, and allow the developer to release on the PC a certain number of months later.
“I mean, maybe I’m not one to talk, having signed an exclusivity with Microsoft...” said Dust: An Elysian Tail designer Dean Dodrill, “but of course we are talking about a massive publisher with a proven outlet for indies (XBLA) vs. an unproven and somewhat questionable Ouya market. And generally when you sign exclusivity, or work with a publisher, you have the potential to receive funding anyway.”
While developers I spoke to applauded Ouya’s well-intentioned desire to back some potentially cool games, it didn’t take long for them to detect a number of huge flaws in the company’s plan.
“A $50k Kickstarter goal filters out anyone small or unknown,” said former Harmonix and Twisted Pixel (and now independent) designer Dan Teasdale. “From that point, you're then raising money for an exclusive on a console, which filters out any backers not on that console. The Ouya's small install base makes that even worse. To even pass the minimum threshold, you'd need to get a double digit percentage of all Ouya owners to back your Kickstarter, which is grossly unrealistic.”
Response to the Ouya has not been very positive. The console still has enormous potential, but the controller was universally panned, glitches remain an issue, and a good portion of the store is filled with junk games. Even beloved exclusives like Towerfall (coming to PC this year) only show off its true potential with several players in the room at once. So it makes total sense the people behind Ouya would want to entice more people onto the platform with new material, games that won’t be available anywhere else until later on.
It’s the way the money is being distributed, specifically the call for exclusivity, that rubs some developers the wrong way.
“One of the easiest ways for Kickstarters to make more money is to promise support for additional systems,” said Robert Boyd, designer at Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness developer Zeboyd Games. “It's possible to make large amounts of money off of a single system--for example, Pier Solar raised around $100,000 just off of their Dreamcast rewards--but the system in question has to have some level of popularity to begin with. People make fun of the Wii U & Vita for selling poorly, but these ‘failures’ are still selling millions of systems with the potential to sell far more after the inevitable price drop and more software arises.”
When asked about such concerns, Ouya’s creators didn’t have much of a response.
“We have over 262 games today and over 21,000 developers registered to build games for Ouya," said the company in a statement. "They see gamers buying Ouya every day, downloading, and playing games. For a developer, finding traction within the Ouya community not only benefits them financially but we believe increases their chances to succeed on other platforms. We already have some fan favorites--Towerfall, Amazing Frog, ittle Dew, to name a few. If they want to support us, we'll support them.”
“Ouya is expecting developers to pull off several, subsequent miracles before they themselves even take a single risk on a game they want to serve as a flagship title for their own platform."
In the Free the Games announcement, it was suggested committing to Ouya could be a financial boon to developers, as the company said “some of our early developers are already seeing very nice numbers.” Unfortunately, when asked, the company declined to release any sales data.
“I mean hey,” said 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.”
It’s just a few weeks until Free the Games kicks off. If you’re a developer that’s planning to participate, let me know, will you?