Ouya Review: First Impressions

Ouya officially launched in select U.S. and international outlets this morning to the delight of the console’s Kickstarter backers and hopeful fans around the world. I raced out to pick up the last copy in my local Gamestop before the crack of noon, ready to unpack the long-awaited console created by a small, crowdfunded group of innovative engineers. My first-day experience with Ouya sold me on the console, although the road was a bit bumpy at times. It is clear that Ouya is an “indie” console in more ways than one, but it left a positive and endearing impression on the indie gamer and developer in me.

I cannot begin an Ouya review without talking about the unboxing experience. Ouya’s packaging delivers an Apple-esque experience of visual gratification and tantalizing marketing narrative. The shoebox-sized package features crisp graphics and clean colors in a black-and-red motif, displaying the usual mixture of product specs, game screenshots and mouthwatering product images. After easily sliding the sleeve from the inner packaging, buyers are met with a neon insert reading “And so begins the revolution.” It is clear the folks at Ouya did their homework on creating effective packaging that elicits an emotional response, which is surprising given the smaller scope of the company and the product.

The console itself is much smaller than I expected, about the size of a standard Rubrics cube. It features a single button and a handful out outlets for HDMI, USB and power cables. It is sleekly designed, and I imagine it will be the easiest console to transport in history. The controllers are light and responsive, but the way they feel resembles cheaper PC controllers more than their triple-A competitors’ devices. The controllers are clearly designed for the “Google it” generation, as there is virtually no way any non-genius could figure out how to insert the batteries without searching the web (I won’t spoil the fun for you — try to figure it out on your own).

Ouya Game Store
The “Discover” feature of Ouya’s main interface is well designed and easy to use. It is clear that indie developers have supported Ouya en masse, as the launch titles are predominantly indie. The available titles are a dream come true for fans of indie games, but may be underwhelming for those hoping to play Call of Duty on the Android-based machine.

Discoverability is the toughest challenge faced by indie developers today, and app stores have tried numerous ideas to allow well-designed games to float to the top. Ouya combines elements of several existing curation systems in its game store, resulting in an impressive and promising take on the traditional app-store layout. The “Discover” store uses a number of filter options to provide personalized content curation. The familiar “Featured,” “Trending” and “Genre” categories are present, but Ouya adds custom “playlists” hand-crafted by developers of Ouya games. Users who download Matt Thorson’s Towerfall, for example, immediately have access to Matt’s personal playlist. The “Showcase” category will presumably include games in different themes — at launch, the theme is “couch gaming with friends.” There is a custom playlist made by Ouya founders, and another for Ouya exclusives. All of this adds up to a wide range of content curation and discoverability options, all designed to let the best games rise to the top based on their merits. Players can search for games by title, as well.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Ouya’s free-demo policy in action. No prices are displayed in Ouya’s game store — anything can be downloaded free of charge. Every game includes a playable demo, and purchases are handled inside the game. The prices I saw ranged from $2 to $10, which seems to be the perfect range for the types of games available at launch. This feels quite refreshing for someone who has stared at the backs of game boxes for hours trying to decide what to buy. On Ouya, players can literally play any game they want before making a purchase decision.

I had a mixed experience with Ouya’s hardware. On the plus side, the touchpad on the controller seems to be a nice addition. It can be used like a mouse to navigate user interfaces in-game, but I did not run across any other practical use during my first few hours of play. Unfortunately, the touchpad is the only thing that impressed me with the hardware.

The wifi connection randomly cut out halfway through the console setup process, delaying it by a few minutes before randomly coming back up and staying strong afterwards. The buttons on the controller have a tendency to get stuck inside the casing. The bluetooth connection between the controller and the console is extremely weak; anything in the direct line of sight can cause the controller to lose its connection. Worst of all, certain games lagged from time to time, hinting that the NVIDIA Tegra-3 Quad-Core processor may not be strong enough to handle the types of things developers want to do. Luckily, the company has stated that they will release new, updated hardware every year, so none of this constitutes a fatal blow.

The Ouya has its pros and cons, but the $99 price tag tips the scales strongly in its favor. This console could be horribly disappointing at $400 with $60 games, but at $99 with $2 games it offers the perfect value proposition, and its a playground of awesomeness for indie-game fans.