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Editorial: Ouya's success is opportunity missed for Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony

Tim Stevens

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While today's videogames are bigger, flashier and more impressive than ever, it's hard not to think that the golden era of console gaming is behind us. Back in the late '80s and early-to-mid '90s, when a new console came out every couple of years to cut its predecessors off at the knees and brutally savage the bank accounts of the hardcore gamer who had to have them all, there was genuine excitement. Now, with modern consoles showing their age and throwing on more and more gimmicks like so much makeup to compensate, it's hard to really get properly enthused about any of them.

Out of nowhere came Ouya and, based on the $2.6 million it raised in 24 hours alone, it's safe to say it has succeeded in renewing that excitement. That's a stark contrast to the general feeling of malaise at this year's E3. I'm excited too -- but cautiously so.

I don't have all the old consoles, but I'm happy to say I have most -- there's a Genesis with the 32X and Sega CD add-ons, an Atari Jaguar, a trio of beige and brown Atari consoles and, of course, the obligatory NES and SNES, plus a lot more. I still remember the overwhelming excitement leading up to a console release, the early pictures in Nintendo Power or EGM, the speculation, the rumors and the anticipation of great games with great graphics to come. Best of all, the allure of the next generation was never more than a couple years away.

Today's primary consoles, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PS3, have stopped being exciting toys and started being household appliances.

That's 180 degrees away from today's state of console gaming. Our primary consoles, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PS3, have stopped being toys and started being household appliances. Last year, Nielsen found that people spend more time watching Netflix and the like on their consoles than actually playing videogames on the things, and that's something of a sorry state of affairs.

I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to the domestication of my prized gaming machines. I, too, am more often whittling away at my Netflix queue or streaming something over DLNA on my Xbox than saving political prisoners in Gotham City or collecting loot in Borderlands. Before launching the original big, green Xbox, Microsoft wanted for decades to find a way to dominate the living room. With the Xbox 360, it has succeeded with flying colors but, in dragging this console generation out for nearly seven years, both MS and Sony have sucked the excitement out of console ownership.

Both Microsoft and Sony have sucked the excitement out of console ownership.

Traditionally, videogame consoles were put to pasture just as they hit their stride. Like an NFL quarterback who slips on a Super Bowl ring before promptly walking off the field for good, or a Formula One driver who hoists the championship trophy and then announces his retirement, these consoles went out on a high. Because of this, we have fond, untarnished memories of those great systems of the past. Now, I can't escape the feeling that modern consoles are just hanging around, collecting a paycheck for as long as their achy knees and frazzled nerves will allow.

Sure, they have some new tricks to keep things exciting, but those tricks are almost universal failures. Neither Microsoft's Kinect nor Sony's PlayStation Move have succeeded in delivering anything close to a next-gen gameplay experience, serving only as pricey accessories to keep the golden eggs flowing out of a pair of tired, old geese.

And we can't forget the third major player. It is of course Nintendo's Wii that was the driving force behind both of those accessories, and Nintendo is the first among the big three to stride bravely into the next generation with the Wii U, slated to launch sometime before the end of this year. Kudos to Nintendo for being the first to move on, but even that console's upcoming launch feels less like an exciting march to a blockbuster release and more of a grueling hike toward a too-familiar destination.

The Wii U, when it's released, will have graphics little (if at all) better than the Xbox 360 or PS3. Because of that, it depends on a fancy new controller with a (resistive) touchscreen. It's through this that we're again promised a next-generation gameplay experience. I'll buy one when it comes out and give it a fair shake, but at this point, after sampling the thing at two successive E3s, I'm not optimistic that the Wii U will deliver any more excitement to my living room than its predecessor did.

Android offers an amazing selection of mediocre games that almost universally look bad on a 4-inch display. How are they going to look on a 60-inch HDTV?

So, then, why care about a $99 videogame console from a no-name company with no established first-party games lined up? There are plenty of reasons to expect the worst, not the least being a set of hardware specs no more impressive than a modern smartphone. Even worse, it runs an operating system that has thus far shown to be ill-suited for serious gaming. Android has done less to wow serious gamers than the PlayStation Move, offering an amazing selection of mediocre games that almost universally look bad on a 4-inch display. How are they going to look on a 60-inch HDTV?

Despite that, I'm excited for a few reasons, first because this is a very developer-focused box. Sony shot itself in the foot with the PS3 when it created a notoriously tricky system. Quality titles were slow to come and few truly managed to best the supposedly under-powered competition on the graphical front. The Ouya is positioned from the beginning to be a box for developers -- in fact there's no expensive dev kit to buy. Each Ouya console is a dev kit, and digital distribution means there's no need for publisher or retail agreements. This can and will mean an overwhelming flood of crapware, but it also opens the door to more and better indie developers. The next Braid or Super Meat Boy could happen here.

I'm also excited because this is a box focused on gaming. Yes, on playing games on your television! Look at the Ouya Kickstarter page and you'll find nary a mention of Netflix or Hulu, the closest being a note that you can watch professional gamers on Twitch.TV. Sure, it's Android, and all those zillions of media apps for that OS will presumably come along for the ride, but the focus is gaming. I like that.

The next Braid or Super Meat Boy could happen here.

More importantly, the focus is on traditional console gaming -- that is, games not where I am the controller, but games where the controller is the controller.

Finally, I'll be honest that I'm excited because this is something new, and I would have to assume that the 24,000 (as I write this) backers are also excited. It seems apparent to me that the current console cycle has dragged on for too long. Gamers are craving something different, and if the Ouya is a success, it could usher us into a new golden age of gaming, a time when there was room for crazy systems like the vector-driven Vectrex and three-sided Coleco Telstar Arcade.

But will the Ouya be a success? It's too early to say. Sure, it's raised over $2.5 million in a day, and that's impressive for a nobody, but let's put that in context. When Nintendo launched the Wii in Japan it moved 370,000 consoles in two days for approximately $80 million in sales. It would go on to rake in $190 million in the first week of availability in the Americas. This is the power of mainstream success.

Editorial Ouya's success is opportunity missed for Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony

The most damning concern on my mind regarding Ouya is that it follows in the footsteps of other tepidly received independent and open gaming systems like the EVO 2, GP2X and the Pandora handheld. All have had similar mission statements and none have taken the world by storm. The Ouya has at least succeeded in piquing the interest of both gamers and developers, but whether that will translate to long-term success remains to be seen.

I hope it does. I was among the first couple hundred people to pitch in $95 primarily because I'm ready for something new, something different, and something that is totally gimmick-free.

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