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Ooh Ouya! Testing MMOs on a $99 console

Justin Olivetti
Justin Olivetti|August 12, 2013 2:00 PM
Ooh Ouya!  Testing MMOs on a $99 console
My big birthday present this year was an Ouya -- the $99 Android console that was funded by Kickstarter, powered by dreams, and promoted as a "revolution" by its makers. I've not been big on either consoles or Android platforms as of late, mostly due to being preoccupied elsewhere. But something about Ouya's roguish underdog status and the combination of being a fully functional console and a development kit in one attracted me to it. Plus, it's so dang tiny! You can only fit one-half of a magical elf inside it, and even that took some intense pushing.

Obviously this is not a bleeding-edge console that's going to pump out realistic graphics at 100 fps, but that's not Ouya's thing anyway. So you might be forgiven in thinking that MMO studios might stay far away from it, what with its limited storage space and processing power, but that's actually not the case. Two MMOs that I know of have been released on the Ouya, Vendetta Online and Order and Chaos Online, and to me that signals the possibility that there might be more in the future.

So I downloaded both of them fairly quickly and settled onto my couch to check out MMO gaming with a controller on a TV powered by a console smaller than a Coke can. What kind of MMO experience was I going to get with a $99 machine?

Ooh Ouya!  Testing MMOs on a $99 console
Vendetta Online

Vendetta Online is one of those games that seems to be on every platform and every OS in the universe, including your microwave display (just hit "pizza" and "popcorn" simultaneously to access it). I've never touched it before now, but if the Ouya experience is typical, I can see it needing the advantage of a wide field to make up for its shoddy craftsmanship.

Installing Vendetta Online and getting in was the best part, actually. The download was quick, and to my surprise, the game didn't require me to create an account or register a credit card. I just chose a name and got in the game. Considering that you have to type everything with a virtual keyboard via controller, I say the less I had to spell out, the better.

Past this point, there isn't going to be much good I'm going to say about this title other than the fact that it ran, it wasn't buggy, and it didn't lag. But just because something runs doesn't mean that you should hop in and go for a ride.

The first problem is that Vendetta Online's introduction is a terribly bland affair that's text box after text box overlaid on top of the menu UI. I mean, when you're going to show off your game and make a good first impression, you should force your players to stare at a screen that Final Fantasy III players would consider primitive, right? To make matters worse, the cursor is controlled by one of the Ouya analog sticks and moves at the rate of an inch a second. Seriously, it is slow -- so very, very slow.

Ooh Ouya!  Testing MMOs on a $99 console
After being thoroughly impressed with Vendetta's glamorous menu screen and hot cursor action, I finally launched into space for a fresh hell. At least it was visually interesting if not cutting-edge beautiful. Unfortunately, it wasn't fun. This was homework, and Vendetta Online was hosting a quiz at the end of class. To proceed through the tutorial, I had to keep toggling between the menu screen (to see what the tutorial was saying -- because why would you have a tutorial popup over the in-game action? That's just silly convenience) and the game itself. I think the game showed me the controller scheme at one point and then got rid of that useful screen, leaving me no obvious way of pulling it up again to figure out what button was what.

To make matters worse, the tutorial would often give me instructions, like press the d-pad down to stop, that would do something else entirely (like activate downward thrusters). I couldn't ever figure out how to stop my ship, which made me feel all sorts of emasculated. Look at me! I'm a professional games writer who can't stop my Fisher-Price spaceship from moving!

It just went on and on like that. Combat was dull, with me squinting at a box outlining something six game miles away and then delivering a few Atari 2600 blips as I fired. I did get a little better about navigating, and I thought that the Newtonian physics were kind of neat -- if I could ever stop the ship, that is. The most enjoyment I got out of my time was going really fast in one direction and then swiveling back to look at where I came from. The second most enjoyment I got out of my time was exiting out, deleting it from Ouya's flash drive, and looking at the empty space where it used to dwell.

As for the community aspect, I didn't see many folks when I was on. There was a bit of chatter that scrolled by, but since to talk I would have to go to my menu screen, scroll over to the chat window, and then use the virtual keyboard to type whatever "your momma is so fat" joke that came to mind, I decided it wasn't worth it.

To be fair, most of my complaints about Vendetta probably stem from what the game is more than the Ouya adaptation. There was obvious work done to make it compatible with the system, and the fact that it runs well and is integrated with the rest of Vendetta's platforms is admirable. But I can't see being a part of the community typing with this slow cursor or cursing at the slow ships after going through a tutorial that sucked all of the fun of space combat right out of the airlock.

Ooh Ouya!  Testing MMOs on a $99 console
Order and Chaos Online

Like Vendetta, Order and Chaos Online delivered a quick download, although that was followed up with a lengthy patching process that took about 12 minutes to download a 1.3 gig update. I've played Order and Chaos on my iPhone and found it to be an acceptable World of Warcraft-lite title, although I never did like trying to navigate with a touchscreen alone. Perhaps Ouya's controller would offer a better experience?

Logging in was much more smooth with this title, as I was able to use the d-pad to navigate fields and enter information. I was happy to see that the game recognized the account I made with my iPhone. The "remember me" checkbox felt essential and I'm glad it was there, as there's no way I would want to have to type in my info every single login. Colorful icons were present throughout all of character creation to show me what buttons on the controller did what, which was another indication of polish.

Here's where I hit a brick wall: After making my character, I tried to enter the game world only to be told that the request had timed out. But after that error message, there was nothing I could do -- go back, try again, restart from the menu. I had to exit the game entirely to try again, and that bugged even worse, with the character model and a couple of the buttons not even showing up on the screen. It turned out that I was trying to test the game on a day when the game itself was being borky, so I solved the problem by waiting a couple of days to try again.

When I finally was able to get in, Order and Chaos performed admirably. The controller still had a ridiculous number of button presses to remember in order to access everything, a problem that's going to plague pretty much every MMO that makes a jump to a console, I think. It took me five minutes just to find the options menu (click down on the left analog stick, then use a radial menu to get to the options). However, it's not that bad, and on-screen mapping of the most important buttons really helps. As with Vendetta, I wouldn't want to try to type a lot using the virtual keyboard, and I think that this has to cut down on the amount of socializing one would do in this game.

I was less than pleased with the camera control and visuals. Again, this is coming from a guy who uses a PC most of the time, so trying to wrangle movement and camera angles with twin analog sticks is so dang annoying when you're used to a mouse. How do you console folks put up with it? The visuals are, well, colorful, but they're also designed for pretty small mobile screens and look quite angular and jagged when blown up to a huge TV. For whatever reason, the draw distance is pretty short too, meaning that the background was almost always bridges and land disappearing into blue-green fog. Everything keeps popping into view when you run, which is tremendously distracting.

Ooh Ouya!  Testing MMOs on a $99 console
Let's go with some pluses because overall I think that this is going to be your best shot for an MMO on the Ouya for the foreseeable future. It definitely captures a WoW-lite feel as you run through the world, and the music is quite easy on the ears. I appreciated how easy combat was, and once I got used to the camera controls, I was jumping and running my way through the world like the little scamp I am.

There's always a convenient arrow at the foot of your character to show you where to go for your current quest, which I thought was a nice touch. If you really want to have an adventure, just hit your "O" button, as this context-sensitive button will send you right to the nearest object, person, or enemy that offers interaction. Since you use this button for everything, you could easily press it one too many times and find yourself going from looting to talking to a stranger to accidentally aggroing that dragon that's 10 levels above you.

Ultimately, I liked using the controller more than a touchscreen for this game and found the experience of playing an MMO from my couch intriguing. However, we're talking about a very basic, very streamlined MMO that's not really offering anything better or different than what's on the market on other consoles and PC.

I hope we do see more MMOs come to the Ouya, but there are going to be concessions made if the title is more recent than 2004 in the graphics or processor department. Maybe instead of adaptations, someone could work on an MMO that is purely customized to the system while offering an exclusive experience that you can't get anywhere else.

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Ooh Ouya! Testing MMOs on a $99 console