The Piracy Problem: Why Ouya's Biggest Strength May Be Its Biggest Weakness

There's an exciting new video game console on the horizon. It's called Ouya. It doesn't exist yet, though over 34,000 Kickstarter backers have opened their wallets to ensure that it will.

Ouya has made all of its money -- over $US4 million during its first 48 hours on Kickstarter -- on three major selling points: 1. It will only cost you $US99; 2. It will allow you to play Android games on a television, with a controller; and 3. It is completely hackable.

Take another look at that third one. Unlike, say, any of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, or Apple's devices, Ouya actually wants you to crack it open and play around with its guts. You'll have free reign to modify its interface and stuff its hard drive with fully-customized programs. You could download and emulate old Super Nintendo games. You could watch illegal streams of live sporting events. You could set your television to display nothing but cat GIFs. The options are limitless -- even if your hacking knowledge is limited to MS-DOS commands, rest assured that it will only take hours for a very large library of third-party mods to start circulating.

"Have at it: It's easy to root (and rooting won't void your warranty)," Ouya's creators write on their Kickstarter page. "Everything opens with standard screws. Hardware hackers can create their own peripherals, and connect via USB or Bluetooth. You want our hardware design? Let us know. We might just give it to you. Surprise us!"

Surprise: this could be the most pirated console in gaming history. Users who jailbreak or modify its hardware won't have to worry that they might be doing something illegal or breaking their expensive systems for good. And they won't have a very difficult time finding easily-accessible ROM and ISO files for every game imaginable, from NES classics to brand new Ouya titles. Piracy is a serious problem on PCs; on Ouya, it could be the norm.

While this might be wonderful for customers -- and I've spoken to some gamers who love the idea of a $US99 box that can emulate anything -- it could be a serious problem for the people who make video games. If game designers are worried that whatever they make will be immediately stolen, why would they even bother developing Ouya-exclusive content? And as a brand new, independent device with a limited userbase, Ouya will have a very difficult time getting off the ground without its own exclusive killer app, its own system-seller like Halo or Mario. The console could live or die based on this one problem.

I asked Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman whether their developer partners are worried about piracy.

"No, developers haven't said they're concerned," Uhrman told me in an e-mail. "Developers should know that -- despite the openness of our platform -- all paid content on Ouya will require the user's payment to be authenticated by us. We want developers to be rewarded for the value of the games they make."

She says there will be an app submission model. She also says every game will have optional DRM, or digital rights management, the anti-piracy tool that has become something of a curse word in gaming today.

And industry analysts also seem unconcerned. I spoke to Wedbush Securities' Michael Pachter, a big supporter of Ouya, to hear his thoughts on whether piracy would be a concern for the system.

"I think most games will be developed for Android platform, so that generally means free to play," Pachter told me. "I don't know if piracy of $US4.99 games is a problem on Android tablets or not, but likely not a huge risk. Most consumers will pay if prices are reasonable; iTunes is proof of that."

But it's hard to believe that gamers, when encouraged to hack and customise this console, won't use it to run illegal software. Unless there's some sort of concrete infrastructure that makes it more convenient and fun to buy games than steal them -- like, say, Steam -- I think pirates will have a field day with Ouya.

On the flip side, this could be awesome for us. You won't have to worry about region-locking or warrantee-voiding or any of the other issues that can make normal consoles such a royal pain to use. You'll be able to use customised controllers, play games from anywhere in the world, and even add fan-made English patches to certain Japan-only titles that may or may not be named Mother 3.

But as Valve's Gabe Newell has said often, piracy is not a pricing issue; it's a service issue. Everyone is willing to spend money when it's easier or more beneficial or more rewarding than downloading a game for free. But Ouya's service is that it's a hackable platform. It's a pirate's playground. Which could be great news for emulator-loving gamers -- and awful news for Ouya.


Comments

    Piracy is only an issue when there is a "barrier to entry", i.e. price or poor service. With (I expect) simple access to free games this shouldn't be a problem.

      ^^ this, guild F2P with microtransactions and your away. for large boxed entries make an online portal they need to go through like gameloft and away you go

      Is a problem when people start stealing ideas from the BIG game companies and ouya has to defend there console

      Is a problem when people start stealing ideas from the BIG game companies and ouya has to defend there console

      EXACTLY like im sure Steam curbs pc piracy with its cheap games so the question is y the hell are games on XBLA and PSN MORE EXPENSIVE THAN IN STORE!!!

    ^^ Wot e said

    If the stupid pricing of Australian games don't go away, I can see piracy still being relevant.

    The OUYA is like a desktop PC, only cheaper and running the the Android operating system, therefore, like a PC, it is up to the developers to incorporate something to prevent piracy, which isn't really that hard to do (online activation?). My biggest concern is the spread of viruses, unless OUYA can obtain some decent anti-virus software, then there is going to be trouble

      The OUYA is based on Android, did you read the article? F-Secure, Mcafee, AVG and AVAST! offer free Android AV.

    I wonder if their open designs will mean cheaper chinese rip offs?

      Cheaper than $99?

      I wouldn't be too worried...

    Sounds like it was go the steam way of fixing piracy good distribution service and an online profile linking your games to you.
    Fact is concern about piracy here misses the point. Because its open you are not lock in content anyway. The piracy risk here is for other consoles, that is using it to play pirated content from other consoles emulated on it...

    Terrible article. Should be on Yahoo.

      LAWL just lost my cappuccino.

    What about Assassins Creed 3? Gears of War? Halo? FinaL Fantasy X, XIII? GT5? Forza? Diablo 3? Crusader Kings? Is it capable of playing these games, or any games of this sort of level?

    Don't get me wrong, this sounds interesting, but it seems like all it'll play are App-Store level games, not AAA titles. I'm not sure I want to buy a glorified phone and pay to play flash games I get for free on Kongregate.

      I would pay a hundred bucks to play Kongregate games on a big screen TV with a controller.

      Just sayin'.

        LOL really? I'd rather watch paint dry.

      Since first launching the kickstarter campaign, they've had a survey of the 'top 20 games you want to see on the OUYA'... Games in the list included:
      Fez, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Torchlight, Battletoads, Mass Effect, League of Legends, Skyrim, Minecraft, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Battlefield, FIFA, Limbo, Bastion, Timesplitter, Terraria, Super Meat Boy, Need for Speed, and Dungeon Defenders.
      I'd say this suggests they're at least courting the studios behind these games/franchises...

        Yup, I read that, but is the listed hardware even capable of RUNNING Skyrim, AC3, GTA5, GF, etc? That's my point - sure, it can run 10-20yo games, but if it can't run current gen or current games, what then?

        $5 app games are great and all, but its not going to be enough. If that's all it has, it'll sell like the Wii and then mothball like a Wii, and that'll suck.

          Short answer is no, it is not capable of running current-gen games. It's not capable of playing the PC version of Minecraft, it should handle the mobile version fine. It's not capable of emulating Game Cube or PS2 games.

          If you've got an Android phone/tablet, you can already hook it up to your TV and use a bluetooth controller (PS3) to do what OUYA is promising for less than $100.

    As long as OUYA isn't going to end up with an always-on internet connection, then this could work. Also it needs to NOT connection to OUYA servers or anything upon boot, this is a way viruses could hit everyone.

      connect*.

    if they eliminate regional pricing - it will actually do good for consumers. I really hate regional pricing on digitally distributed media.

    I agree, ill happily pay for a game if I can get it easily, and it's a fair price.That and especially when games have systems (often multiplayer) built in that couldn't be bypassed, or would put you in a different league (private servers) which may not be as enjoyable.

    Personally, I don't think piracy is the biggest problem. Whenever I see articles on the Ouya, all I think of are the problems of OtherOS, XBLIG and the Android Play store all rolled into one handy little device. This means a potential smorgasboard of malware, overcrowded markets, certificate and server based hacks and whatever else has made headlines in the past few years.

    I'm hoping I'm just being overly paranoid and that the designers have seriously looked at all the potential problems and come up with solutions. Especially in terms of payments. When a Russian hacker can set up a system (now blocked) to have free in-app content for any app in Apple's walled garden then it's going to be even easier for a similar system to be set up for an entirely open bushland.

      What I wonder is whether devs will stick to using official payment methods. Or whether they will find a way to use their own method so they can pocket 100% of the revenue.

    "But as Valve’s Gabe Newell has said often, piracy is not a pricing issue; it’s a service issue. Everyone is willing to spend money when it’s easier or more beneficial or more rewarding than downloading a game for free. But Ouya’s service is that it’s a hackable platform. It’s a pirate’s playground."
    What the-? No, that's wrong, that's not even close to being correct, that's completely ignorant of how piracy on such a device should work AND the intention behind what Gabe Newell said and you should feel ashamed for writing that.
    If it's easier to buy apps than to download them, then that won't matter - people will pay for quality apps. Especially on an open system. If the Ouya uses an App Store-like system, it'll already have an advantage over normal app piracy. Consider also the huge numbers of people who basically say "I pirated it, liked it, and then I bought it on Steam". Even if it does become a system supposedly rampant with piracy, if they can pull things off correctly, the same thing will happen here.

      But you also need to consider the flipside, the huge numbers of people who say "I pirated it, I know it's only $5, but I got it in a pack with 30 other games in one torrent, why would I pay for those after I already have them"

      I agree that having games fairly priced and making them easyy to get can limit a certain amount of piracy. But "Download for free" will always beat "Download for a price" everytime.

      There a lot of there who will buy the game after downloading it, but I imagine there are a lot more who wont.

    No, Ouya probably can’t run current AAA titles (unless they work something out with OnLive). It’s $99, what on earth did you expect? But guess what the makers did point out – it’s easily upgradeable. You can spend $200 and likely get a CPU superior to current consoles. So for $299 you have a superior system that’s easily hackable and modifiable.

      Who is going to develop a game for an openly hackable system, and then only for those who have spent 200% extra on their console getting a 'superior CPU'?
      For success for developers they need either the masses paying a little bit, or a minority paying a lot. Ouya provides neither.

    So what does that say about mobile apps where people say that its not worth $0.99? :S

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