$99 Hackable Video Game Console Requires $950,000 To Build

Julie Uhrman isn't asking the world for a million bucks. No, she's asking for just under it to produce a new $99 Android-based video game console called Ouya ("ooh-yuh") that will challenge the way Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been bringing games to you on your television for years.

"We don't think the console-makers are dead," Uhrman said in an interview with Kotaku. "We just think it's time to rethink how they do their business. We don't like it when people pay $90 for a game and feel cheated. We don't like it when developers can't work on a platform because it's too expensive."

Enter: Ouya, a fully hackable console with the same Tegra 3 chip as the new Nexus 7 tablet and a twin-stick controller that also includes a touchpad. Enter a system that is being pitched as a platform for both indies and big companies, a console that is fully open to develop for and on which every game will be free either initially as a demo or as a free-to-play game.

But Ouya will only be made with crowd-funding, so today Uhrman and her team, which includes early Xbox pioneer Ed Fries and One Laptop Per Child designer Yves Behar, are launching a grand appeal on the crowd-funding service Kickstarter. They're asking for $US950,000 over the next 29 days. If they hit their goal, they're promising their new console by March 2013.

The Next Xbox?

It's been 11 years since the last successful insurgency into the home console war. In 2001, Microsoft barged into a scene contested by Sony, Nintendo and Sega. Very slowly, the Xbox found its place. On either side of the timeline, we've had the likes of 3DO, the Phantom, Project Nuon and other console contenders that couldn't last or, as has been more common, couldn't even get started.

Uhrman, naturally, says the time is right for Ouya. The longtime gamer and former boss of IGN's downloadable games division senses a "brain drain" among console game developers. She sees top game creators bailing on the expensive business of making games that will run on Xboxes, PlayStations and Wiis and seeking better profits and more creative freedom by making games for mobile phones and tablets. There's just one problem, she says: those new games they're making don't run on TVs, not with a controller. Ouya is built to address that.

The Ouya box is small and designed to either be a conversation piece or to be easily tucked away, whichever the player chooses. It and the controller were designed by Yves Behar, designer of the One Laptop Per Child computer. "Just because it's inexpensive it doesn't mean it's cheap," Uhrman said of the console. "We have designed this to be beautiful."

Ouya would work like any other Android platform. Development would be open. "Every console is a debug kit," Uhrman likes to say, drawing one of many distinctions between her machine and the closed Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo systems. The established players in home gaming only let licensed developers make games for their machines and only grant those creators the debug kits that are essential to creating games. The big three console makers must approve all game development and serve as gatekeepers for nearly every game made on their machine (the sole exception is the community-approved Indie gaming channel on the Xbox 360).

Uhrman believes that the current closed system of home console gaming stifles creativity and is out of step with the popularity — Apple's walled garden of iPhones and iPads not withstanding — of open platforms. "I just think closed is the wrong way of doing things," she said. "I see unbelievable indie content out there, and watching ‘Indie Game the Movie' and watching their faces as they wait for Microsoft to approve [their game], it just didn't make any sense."

This new console will be so open, that its backers are expecting and asking for it to be hacked.

"We decided, ‘let's take this as far as it can go," Uhrman said. "So if you want to go in and hack the box, go ahead and do it. We hope you do it."

In a follow-up email, she was more specific about just how far under the hood the Ouya crew would let a hacker go: "The circuit board will have well-documented test points. People can swap out chips, add, etc. We may even publish the hardware design if enough people are curious. Because Ouya will also have Bluetooth and a USB, hardware hobbyists can also make their own peripherals (someone already suggested pinball controls to us). Regarding the software, you'll be able to root the device easily. It won't void your warranty. Every unit has a debug console. We are even working on the idea of a "plant" — which will restore your profile after rooting your device (reverse your root). Because it's built on Android, you'll understand the source code well, too. (Obviously if a hacker roots the device, our integrated user experience and game store will no longer be available while the device is rooted — so there is, as always, a tradeoff between customising your device and enjoying the benefits of standardization. We expect the true hackers to be an elite, but small proportion of the total number of people who buy the box. Most people will probably just use the standard setup.)"

This kind of openness is anathema to an outfit like Nintendo, that frowns on people even tinkering with their Wii to play a game that's not coded to run on consoles sold in a specific part of the world. It is also a hazard that could fracture Ouya the way so much of the Android experience already is fractured, leaving gamers and game-makers uncertain about which games, which hacked controllers and even which hacked consoles can run what. The same is true, of course, for PC gaming, which has been flourishing on its open platform for decades.

If this is sounding so open that it doesn't sound like a console anymore, Uhrman said we can still think of it as one thanks to the controller. It ties it together. It makes this thing a TV-gaming machine in a way that other Android devices, even if they can connect to your TV, are not. "Ouya is a video game console first," she said. "To be emotionally immersed playing games, you need a fast and accurate way to control the game — and, for most games, only a controller with precise sticks and responsive buttons can do that."

Ouya Specs

Console

  • Tegra 3: Quadcore ARM CortexA9 + GPU
  • 1GB LPDDR2 RAM
  • 8GB on-board flash
  • HDMI connection to the TV at 1080p HD
  • Wi-Fi 802.11bgn
  • Bluetooth LE 4.0
  • Enclosure opens with standard screws
  • No disc drive

Controller

  • Wireless controller with 2.4Ghz RF
  • Standard game controls (two analogue sticks, d-pad, eight action buttons, a system button)
  • Touchpad, for porting mobile games more easily
  • 2x AA batteries
  • Enclosure opens with standard screws 


OS and Software

  • Android 4.0
  • Custom TV UI
  • Integrated custom game store — find and download games (and other apps)
  • Includes SDK for game development
  • Ability to root device without voiding warranty

The Games Of Ouya, In Theory

Ouya currently has no Super Mario Bros. It doesn't have a Halo, either. What it's got is a litany of testimonials from indie developers who say that Ouya is a great idea. They say they'd probably or maybe make or port a game to it.

There are some smoke and mirrors here. The Kickstarter video shows Minecraft on Ouya's system dashboard, which might be possible without further development given that Minecraft is available on Android. But Carl Manneh, who helps run Minecraft development studio Mojang told Kotaku that he and his colleagues "haven't seen it nor committed to anything." He added: "but we do like the idea!" Loving the idea and wanting it to succeed seems to be the status for a raft of top indies, including Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman and Wasteland creator Brian Fargo.

The Ouya team assumes that they'll simply be awash in, at worst, top Android games. Uhrman doesn't want to settle for that. She wants to use part of the funding for the new console to fund the development of games.

On Kickstarter, the Ouya hype reel shows mega-pubisher EA's Madden football game on the system's dashboard. Again, not quite. The Ouya crew has mostly reached out to all-star indie developers. Asked what kind of traction they've gotten with the likes of EA, Activision and Ubisoft, Urhman said, "We've talked to a lot of the AAA publishers. As you can imagine their questions about a new platform are similar to what anybody's are: ‘So you have an audience?' ‘Do you have great graphics?' and ‘Why would somebody want another box?'"

The audience part might be proven out in the crowd-funding, if enough people pitch in to reach the $US950,000 goal.

The graphics?

The Ouya people point to tech demos of Tegra 3, like the one here. (We recently reviewed a game called Puddle which is a showcase for the Tegra 3's power.)

"I think the openneess and variety of games for Ouya will trump what something else can do technologically," developer Fargo told Kotaku. "They have a good price, a familiar OS. You don't have to make games just for this."

But there's that last question… "Why would somebody want another box?" If they already have an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3 or are buying a Wii U later this year. For one thing, Uhrman said, her console will only cost them $99 more. "I think this is for everyone. There's no reason they wouldn't get this too. I think there are going to be great games on mobile and Androud that they wouldn't be able to get on consoles." Through Ouya, they'd be able to play them on their TV, with a twin-stick controller.

"I think it will start as an indie/casual platform," industry analyst Michael Pachter told Kotaku. He's been briefed on the device. "I don't see them attracting publisher support until there is an installed base. It's chicken and egg. I think it is powerful enough for $99, and will accommodate most XBLA type games."

This Is Where You Come In

Up until now, the Ouya project has been funded by angel investors. Venture capitalists, Uhrman said, "are still scared away from hardware."

That's why they're asking regular people for nearly a million bucks. That's why they're basically saying that even though Bill Gates' fortune made the last successful insurgent console, the common gamer or ambitious game developer is needed to make the next one possible. Donate $90 and you're insured a console, but only if the thing gets funded and made.

"We believe this is really the people's console and we want to get their support," Uhrman said. "More importantly, we need the money. If the world does not support this we will not exist."

If you're interested, their Kickstarter is here.


Comments

    aaaand its funded :|

    Great news! It's already over $1000000 in the first day. Looks like this is actually happening!

      Yeah just noticed this. Surely that must be new record for kickstarter? Going to be crazy to see how much they end up with.

    I guess we know what the specs of the next Apple TV will look like then.

    Wow. I won't back it on Kickstarter because it looks like I don't need to, but I'll be keeping a very close eye on this when it comes out. If they do it right, this has enormous potential.

    Let me use my ps3 remote and you have a deal.

      It has bluetooth so you're already part-way there!

      Being android with the bluetooth functionality as well as being able to root it means you can actually use a sixaxis controller. There is an app on the Google play store that gives you the ability to pair the controller to the device, provided the device is rooted.

      It has bluetooth and is easily rootable, so you can bet people will hook that up quite quickly.

    They've reached their target, but they don't have the numbers to really succeed yet. Like they mentioned, it's chicken and egg - the more preorders it gets, the more it will get interest from game developers. So, Dean and anyone else on the fence about this, I urge you to get on board early. To actually work - to reach a critical mass and take off as a console - this is gonna need to smash every kickstarter record in existence.

    Be interesting to see if all the kickstarter donations are authentic. To reach over a million on day 1? Im not saying it isn't but holy damn thats a new record surely...

    I'd still like to know exactly how they expect developers to make money from their games on this system if they are all supposed to be free to play.

      Maybe Advertising? :/, but it works just like the android market, you are able to download demos and pay for games you want, im sure some people just make free to play games for fun, but the good ones you'll be paying for

      They said that every game needs to have some sort of free to play, not entirely free to play. So you might make multiplayer paid, but singleplayer free. Or just provide a demo, or have microtransactions. Just as long as people can legitimately "try before your buy" sort of thing.

    BIG QUESTION, HOW BIG IS THE HARD DRIVE??????

      It does state that in the specs. 8GB on-board flash and I imagine it will have an expansion slot despite not being mentioned.

    WAIT... So they're putting a di, ah, phone in a box. Then adding controllers and going "ZOMG guise new console!!" and hoping to succeed as entry level competition for the big guys Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft? Good luck. This just makes me think of a more expensive version of the usb android computers looking to capitalise on the games industry... or to halt real progress.

    I say this will be a gimmick at best and mostly be forgotten about by 2013.

      Are you serious? Those compact usb drive devices are basic linux drives for word processing and web browsing. This is a console to connect to the TV via 1080P HDMI running the most powerfull mobile device processor on the market.
      Some of those games had similar if not better graphics, effects and physics as the 360 and PS3 indie games, even some full retail games and they will range from free to maybe $10 - $15 dollars at most.

      And just an idea since it will run Android OS it could be linked via bluetooth to your Android phone, using it for touch controls, that way if you have an android touch phone, no need to buy the touchpad controller which could just be an optional add-on.

        I would hardly say better and within 12 months time, if nothing already has this power. New mobiles would have trumped this and... I believe it is already not that difficult of a feat of connecting controllers to android mobile devices and connecting mobile to TV with hdmi. So really this isn't that big of a thing.

        Plus in the $10-$15 range your not going to get amazing big name games or anything. You'll at most get some polished and optimised mobile apps. Which aren't to bad mind you.

        Furthermore with a new console generation just over the horizon. This Ouya will soon be drowned in the new light.

        Why the Tegra 3? WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHY? The Snapdragon S4 would be a better choice imo, MOAR CORES doesn't always equal better performance.

        The best option would be the OMAP 5 but that's still a ways off last I checked.

      The big advantage this would have over other devices is the ability for developers to program directly against the hardware, rather than having to go through abstraction layers. Compare the performance difference of an XBox360, and a PC running similar hardware, and then apply that to current leading tablets.

      While it won't be groundbreaking or cinematic quality, it will be sufficient graphical fidelity for most developers.

      On the other hand, whack VLC on it and you've got a nice cheap media center.

        +1 provided you can plug up a USB hard drive

    $1.5M in one day. They are going to end up with a crazy amount of money.

    I hope they consult with Google and Intel, so they can put in the CPU AFTER the Tegra 3!! They've definitely got the R&D cash now.

      Psst... Sony spent $400m on their CPU "R&D."

    I bet they already had a huge backer lined up putting in 750k so that it would make the news, same as when record companies buy back large amounts of CDs so they can fake Platinum claims.

      Read the Kickstarter website. It stated how many people have pledged and how much. Only 4 people have pledged more than $2000.

      Your comment has just been flagged as BUUURRRRRNNNNEEEDD!!!!!

    There has to be some kind of gatekeeping for the games system, or will it be like the Play Store - overrun with crap and buggy, illegal ports?

      Build in a points system (similar to MS Gamerscore), give people points to review games once they've played them.
      Let people filter out games below X score. Problem (kinda) solved.

    This is the next evolution of the GP32 I guess. Much like the GP32 and its ilk it will only be popular for emulators.

    Can it run MAME?

    $99 USD (probably $120-150 AUD) to play Angry Birds and other crappy flash games that are available on many other places for free like Newgrounds, Google Play store, even free in your Chrome browser.

    Tell me when I'll be able to "hack" in an extra stick of RAM or an older GPU for more power? ONE USB 2.0? You must be kidding, while not having USB 3.0 is still acceptable, a single USB port is no way acceptable, unless a USB hub is included.

      if you cant see the potential of this thing thats your fault. I am already planning to install VLC and turn it into a proper media centre. Hopefully steam brings their platform to android then i could get all my indie games on there no problem.

    If you used a computer or smart phone to fund that thing, then how silly.
    Pledging to buy something that is weaker than you're current device/s.

    You'll be able to put the Firmware on a Tegra 3 phone or tablet so the console is more of just a dedicated way of hooking it to the screen. Permanently hook up an OLD Tegra 3 phone, there would be no need at all to buy the console. This is very interesting.

    Android-based ... not challenging MS then is it, they will need to license bits of Android from Microsoft like phone makers do. Inb4 fail.

    I personally don't like the open ability to make and release games as personally it will mean that the marketplace will be flooded with shit and you will have to wade trough said fecal matter to find quality much like the apple app store, there will be no games with substantial quality to them because of the lack of quality assurance that closed dev consoles offer imagine a home console full of games you spend $20 to $40 on and play once and never touch again... Oh shit we have that already its called a Wii, I'm trying to be optimistic and I love the indie focus lets be honest some indie or small dev games are the best games ever but all of them have an Achilles heel if you must and it's the substantial replay and quality eg. Minecraft, amazingly epic game but between waiting on updates and playing with the repetition factor I'd rather a system that brings me games like CoD, Halo, Forza, Uncharted than a system with shitty rehashed versions of pc games, apologies for the rant but the Ouyah is just another Phantom

    Also people who are supportive or funding this are the problem with the game market these days, they'd rather spend $10 funding a iPad with an Xbox controller hooked up to it, than purchasing a awesome game like castle crashers etc and then go online and whinge that Halos hit boxes are unbalanced if you use a different helmet, thanks assholes

      I think you are the problem. People who fund this see it as more than just a console the ability to use this as an effective mediacentre or emulator interface are HUGE. Plus it only costs 119 with shipping to australia. THATS CHEAP! People like you who will settle for rehashed games with shoddy quality eg crap hit boxes is whats wrong with gaming. its not always about the eye candy eg Cod, halo etc its about game play. Have some imagination.

      So you're saying alternatives are bad?

    And 90% of them will be full of emulators and roms

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