No discussion about the exciting open-source Ouya console passes without someone inevitably comparing the Kickstarter sensation to a mobile phone or Android tablet without a screen.
Defenders rush to defend the great indie console hope, arguing that it's much more than that. This is all-new hardware packed inside a small-but-sexy design by Yves Béhar. They say it's the future of console gaming.
Which side is right? Both of them.
The tiny console that's generated more than six million dollars of crowd funding is, essentially, not that different from several Android devices currently on the market. I like to use the example of the Asus Transformer Prime tablet (my Android device of choice), mainly because the specs are so similar.
Let's take a look.
A couple of key differences to note, the Ouya is slated to use the 1.6GHz Tegra 3 T33 processor, which Asus uses in its Transformer Pad Infinity, while the Prime uses the 1.4GHz Tegra 3 T30. Other than the processor difference, storage size, the main hardware differences between the two devices involve accessories, the display and dependence on battery power. The Ouya has no screen and uses AC power, so the meagre resources normally dedicated to managing such things can be repurposed towards providing additional processing power, as pointed out to me by Ouya's Tiffany Spencer.
And then there's the price.
While there are cheaper Tegra 3 devices on the market than the Prime, nothing comes close to the value offered by the Ouya. If anything else, it'll be the cheapest way to play Android games on the market (yes, your phone might have been inexpensive, but try buying one without a contract).
The Ouya can and will run any game available on the Android Market, which is why many people scoff every time a new game or service is announced for console; games like Final Fantasy III and the streaming OnLive service already function on Android, so of course they'll be available on Ouya.
What these app developers are really saying when they announce plans to provide their work to the Ouya is that they'll be placing their items in the console's custom front end. Like the Kindle Fire, the Ouya will have its own front end, where developers both independent and corporate will be able to display their wares, provided that their offering is available in some sort of free form. Square Enix is creating the first demo version of Final Fantasy III in order to comply with the mandate, and that's definitely a move in the right direction.
Conversely, any Ouya-exclusive game, like Robert Bowling's Human Element prequels, will also run on any suitably powerful Android device.
"Yes technically the games will run on any Tegra 3 hardware," said Spencer, adding "Performance will depend on how that particular system is configured."
While hooks may exist that tie exclusive titles specifically to the Ouya, the open source, hacker-friendly nature of the unit almost ensures that an enterprising technomancer could easily create a workaround, bringing us right back around to the piracy problem.
And don't expect any perfect console ports for the Ouya. While there are some immensely impressive games available in the Tegra Zone, they're still a far cry from AAA titles on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Having a unified platform with a strongly-defined user base might convince publishers to make limited versions of a Call of Duty or Final Fantasy for the console, but technical limitations are technical limitations.
When someone says the Ouya is a phone or tablet without a screen, they are correct. This is fairly standard technology. The difference, as Spencer put it, is in "how we combine the tech, the relationship we have with developers, and our biz model." The Ouya gives the muddled Android gaming scene a focus, both for players and developers. It could transform what began as a phone platform into a major player, bringing an entire army of mobile gamers into the living room.
I'm saving a spot on my couch.