A series of PR blunders and missteps threatens to derail the game industry's most open platform
Since appearing on Kickstarter one year ago now and taking the game industry by storm with its then record breaking $8.5 million crowdfunding campaign, Ouya has never been far from controversy.
The company preaches openness, and always has. The console itself allows developers to tinker with the hardware the way they want to get the most out of it. The idea of offering a free element to every game – not the free-to-play it initially touted – is an interesting experiment to get potentially more people playing games.
But the firm appears out of touch with its original ideals and vision. The Free the Games Fund, which promised to match-fund Ouya Kickstart projects that raised over $50,000, and its reaction, is the latest in a string of controversies and PR blunders to envelope the company, and they are all problems of its own creation.
One of the games at the heart of the match-funding issue is Gridiron Thunder. It’s important to note the developer MogoTXT has done nothing illegal, but the suspicious nature of how it raised the funds, $171,009 from 183 backers, and the fact the game will be released by September 15th, should raise a few eyebrows in the Ouya hierarchy.
But after a barrage of complaints about that project from indie developers, many calling Ouya to either call off its match-funding scheme – which had also been criticised previously - or at least investigate suspicious crowdfunding campaigns, the CEO Julie Uhrman’s response is the antithesis of openness.
Uhrman talks about the company’s surprise at the reaction and yet again how it champions openness, which she writes explicitly numerous times, and then tells indies how good the Free the Games Fund is for them. Not at any point is the problem addressed.
Unsurprisingly, developers are – once again – up in arms over Ouya’s inability to listen. Rose and Time developer Sophie Houlden was one of the first to respond, and although describing her love for the console, says the company itself has driven her away and she has withdrawn her title from the marketplace. Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell also express his sadness over Ouya’s reaction and avoiding any acceptance of criticism.
And this isn’t the first time the company has avoided criticism. After a backlash for a new animated ad for the console, featuring a gamer vomiting and killing himself over the premium price of standard console games, it claimed the commercial had nothing to do with it. In this comical string of updates on Kotaku, it eventually confirmed the ad was uploaded to Ouya’s official YouTube channel, but then claimed it was not official.
Another example is from its early days during the Kickstarter campaign. Uhrman told Develop the company was looking for additional funds on top of its crowdfunding efforts, and that even with investment, it wanted to take Ouya to Kickstarter regardless. But once again, following negative feedback, Uhrman claimed there had been a misunderstanding, and it would not been seeking additional funds in the “immediate future”. Ten months later Ouya received $15 million from investors.
The big console players such as Microsoft and Sony have learnt to take criticism from indies and consumers on board the hard way. Microsoft in particular has had a tough time with the Xbox One, but has enacted a number of reversals and opened an indie self-publishing scheme to show that it is listening, and it is open to feedback – moves it should win many plaudits for.
Ouya can be a great console for developers. It encourages a test bed for new ideas and it could become a hub for creativity and innovation for indies, and currently acts as an interesting alternative to release games on. In a few years, the marketplace could be buzzing with great games and have built up a loyal following, if the company behind it hasn’t driven support away by then. Ouya must remember it relies *completely* on the indie community, and it can’t keep its head up in the clouds and ignore them.
Ouya needs to stop preaching openness, and act on it.