Friday, 28 February 2014

Ouya Console (Android)


The Ouya received a lot of press following its official post-Kickstarter launch last year, most of which can (at best) be described as a luke-warm reception to an over-hyped and often misunderstood product. Let's face it – the Ouya was never going to and never will change the world of gaming; almost a year down the line from the initial developer units being sent out, their 'revolution' is still no closer to happening.

However, what has happened over the past nine months or so is this; a ton of system updates that have greatly improved the console. We've seen much needed proper USB support added, incremental optimisations, store redesigns, overscan options and many, many bug fixes. And most importantly, earlier this month the completely broken 'sandbox' system was removed and replaced with a far more sensible, ordered list of new releases. Finally, everyone launching a game on Ouya gets a period of exposure on the discover store – which is what the platform was supposed to be all about in the first place.

With these updates to the console considered, here at RGCD I've decided to give the Ouya a no-nonsense, honest review of how the console performs in its current state, and give an insight as to what it can offer – other than being a dedicated Towerfall machine.


HARDWARE

To begin, let's talk about the controller. Those of you with the dreadfully laggy, sticky-button early retail or kickstarter units, I implore you to contact Ouya support and arrange a replacement. The main controller lag and poor analogue stick issues are due to buggy firmware within the controller itself – it cannot be fixed via an Ouya update (note the connection pins under the battery face plate). I simply raised a ticket with their support system, provided proof of purchase and a photo of the serial number and asked for an upgrade, explaining that my controller was not performing as expected due to having an early revision of the firmware. Ouya mailed out a replacement to me completely free of charge, which was a surprise considering that I live in the UK.


The current retail controllers aren't at Xbox or PS standards by a long shot, but they are considerably improved over the broken initial batch. I still occasionally experience some lag, but this is often after extended play sessions and is always resolved by replacing the batteries or cold booting the Ouya. As such, I now find myself relying on my much-loved wired Xbox pad less and less – which is really something of an achievement for a first-time console manufacturer.

The hardware itself has undergone some recent revisions, with an improved 16GB version now available in the United States (still no word on the international launch though). One of the other major bugbears on the initial units was the wifi reliability – although I have some concerns that it might be more of a signal incompatibility issue rather than a general design fault. I have recently upgraded my wifi router from an old British Telecom model that my Ouya always struggled with, rarely getting past an initial hardware handshake without turning the router itself on and off despite being in the same room. I'm now with Virgin and much to my surprise the Ouya reliably connects even from across the other side of the house, through several walls and floors. I still get the occasional drop-out, but nothing like before. Even so, there is no doubt that a physical aerial - or at least one that wasn't shielded by an aluminium shell – might have been a better choice for the console design.


SOFTWARE

The operating system feels a lot more sturdy and intuitive now. It could still benefit from having an improved and user customisable 'Play' section from which you launch your games, and it really needs to have a list of your previous purchases viewable from your profile page (I'll explain why this is important later). However, the removal of the sandbox from the discover store is probably the best decision that Ouya have made in a long time. I no longer have to check their website for new releases, I just turn on the console instead – which is how it is supposed to be, of course.


But what about the games? Ouya makes a lot of noise about how all of their 650+ games are free to play – which means something very different to F2P by the way. Sure, there are some F2P games on the system (Soul Fjord somewhat depressingly being one of them), but the general interpretation of Ouya's rule is that every game should have a free 'try before you buy' element – be it a one level demo or simply cut down functionality that is unlocked via an IAP. Also, an increasing number of games on the system are actually free or donationware, like those by Locomalito, Bagfull of Wrong and Wide Pixel Games.

The Ouya isn't a device that you should consider to be in competition with 'proper' consoles, but rather as one to complement your collection – specifically for those people interested in the indie scene. As such, don't expect to see many (read as: any) AAA titles on the Ouya – aside from a few dozen standout releases, nearly all of those hyped 650+ releases are short-lived independently-developed arcade or puzzle games that whilst being fun to play, are not going to sell consoles by themselves. But for some people, myself included, a rubiks-cube sized box full of weird and wonderful mini-games is an appealing alternative to mainstream gaming.


Aside from the PC, the Ouya is the second most used gaming device in my house - probably due to it being designed primarily with local multiplayer in mind. It gets turned on almost every single day – even more often than our much-loved C64. I have three small kids (Millie 7, Jacob 4, Rupert 2) and they love playing on it together in my office – Mrs. Dad VS Körv still being their favourite, with Boost 2 coming a close second - and when they are in bed I'll often kick back and have a browse through some of the more obscure releases hidden away in the genre sections of the discover store (or to play a few games via emulation).

The £99/$99 price tag is incredibly fair when you consider the many uses you can put an Ouya to. I suspect the majority out there in the wild are now being used as media boxes with XBMC or purely as emulation machines, at least that is what the low interaction evident via the game ratings on store titles indicates. It's a shame that it hasn't been adopted by more people purely for gaming though. The number of decent Android games on offer has slowly been increasing, but games rarely get any coverage on the major sites. This means that the population at large have missed out on little nuggets of gaming goodness like Golden Scarab, Revvolvver, Neon Shadow, Meltdown, Fotonica and Bombsquad - many of which are unique to the Ouya or unavailable outside of the mobile environment.


Finally, the small form-factor is also a plus. Over the past year I have travelled around the country with work quite a lot - and as the Ouya takes up hardly any room in bag, it's pretty much a perfect hotel or holiday console.


SUPPORT

You can imagine the chaos the small team at Ouya had to deal with following the console's launch – Kickstarter units being held up by customs in China, dodgy controllers, address changes and missing packages, developer enquiries, badly considered marketing campaigns - and so on. It's no surprise that they were overwhelmed, but it's a totally different story now. I recently had to perform a hardware reset (after some dodgy side-loading shenanigans), following which I was horrified to see that all the games I had purchased on my account had seemingly been 'forgotten' by my Ouya, which was insisting that I had to buy them again. I wrote an email to support, immediately followed up by a tweet, and Bob 'The Games Guy' Mills and the support team answered my queries within 30 minutes.

Note: for those in the same situation, following a hardware reset you do have to 'buy' your games collection again (see why a list would be handy now?) – but you aren't actually charged a cent. It's clumsy, and a fix for this is on their to-do list, but at least it works.


Similarly, despite many members being under the illusion that the Ouya is going to shake up the market (spoiler: it's not), the Ouya community are a friendly bunch. Occasionally misguided - who can forget their annoying tweetathons? – the folk over at ouyaforum.com and on the official developer forums are genuinely helpful and supportive. Several developers have reported that despite download figures being low, the purchase ratio is actually higher than they expected, even though the Ouya ports are often more expensive than their mobile equivalents. This is simply due to those people who are fans of the machine being willing to pay that little bit extra to say thanks for the steady trickle of new games that arrive each day.


Built on Android, getting an APK on to Ouya is a relatively quick and painless process, with a minimal number of hoops to jump through to ensure your game is approved. Ouya keep on pushing the angle that their device is 'hackable', but really they mean that it's a device that everyone can develop and release on. They really should have worked with YoYo Games and targeted Ouya and Gamemaker at schools and colleges to show how easy game development on a console can be.


ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

I'm not alone in saying that the most important thing Ouya needs to tackle next is getting the prices of games listed on their store. The discover store on Ouya must be the only shop in the world where you don't know how much a game costs until you are actually playing it. Who on earth thought this up? When pressed about this issue in the past, the response was simply that it can't be done. This is total codswallop - what they mean to say is that it'll be time consuming and costly to do, but nonetheless people want... no, scratch that - people DESERVE to know whether a game they are looking at on the store costs $0.99, $4.99, $15.99, uses a F2P model or is genuinely free BEFORE they download it. Oh and you really should NOT be prompted to enter credit card details until the first time you try to buy a game either, but thankfully this can be bypassed using widely available and completely legal test credit card numbers (that's a free pro-tip for you there).


WAITING FOR THE REVOLUTION


Like many others out there, I'm still eager to hear how Ouya has performed over the past year – specifically how many units have been sold. Considering the company's 'open' policy, it is a little worrying that no sales data has been officially released, leading to the popular assumption within social networking sites that Ouya must be haemorrhaging money. Even their high profile Ouya exclusives such as Soul Fjord and Killing Floor: Calamity have barely made any ripples in the gaming press. However, on the more positive side, if the Amazon 'bestseller' lists are to be believed then the Ouya has proved itself to be a relatively popular device in some smaller markets, specifically Canada (possibly solely for use as a media centre and emulation box). Whether or not this was a short-lived trend will not be known until Ouya releases details on how successful the company was during the 2013 Christmas period, when it was desperately fighting for space alongside the big three consoles.

In conclusion (and I think I am allowed to be a little biased here), I have to say that personally I would recommend the Ouya to people looking for an alternative to the big three, or even just something a little bit quirky to play games on and make games for. Emulator support up to the 16 bit generation is excellent, and it's a painless way to play retro homebrew (and classic roms) on a modern TV via HDMI. It's a great little casual indie console that boots up in seconds and has provided myself, my friends and family with well over $99/£99 worth of play value - and it just keeps on giving, with oddball little games released every week. We can only speculate what the future holds for Ouya, but I for one have found my first year as an active supporter to be an absolute blast.