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Ouya: Joystiq goes hands-on


For being such a little thing, the Ouya is surprisingly heavy. The Kickstarter unit I tested was etched with the names of $10,000 backers, Minecraft creator Notch at the top of the list. Ouya's development kit (the ODK) is in the hands of 8,000 developers, Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman told me. "New games are getting loaded every single day, all different types of genres."

The hardware is finalized, she said, having been improved over the original development kits based on developer suggestions. With units now shipping to Kickstarter backers, the next two months will be spent improving the software prior to the official public launch in June. "Like every other sort of typical software platform, it's always going to continue to evolve, and we'll add more features and functionality."

Gallery: Ouya (GDC 2013) | 41 Photos

The menu interface is simple, with the top level menu giving way to each of the four major sections, all of which have their own sub-menus. Game selections, meanwhile, are organized into tiles, somewhat akin to the current Xbox 360 interface. Ouya's home screen is broken down into four categories: Play, Discover, Make and Manage. Play, naturally, is where you'll launch any games that you've downloaded. Manage allows you to fiddle with system options and manage account information. Discover and Make are where things get interesting.

Discover is where players will find and download new games. The store is broken down into several featured categories, offering quick access to specific types of games. This in itself is nothing new, but what makes Ouya's approach intriguing is that its featured categories are curated in-house. The curation is headed up by Kellee Santiago, formerly of thatgamecompany, who now handles developer relations for Ouya. In addition, featured categories are fluid and designed to change frequently. Some of the examples on display are the self-explanatory "Go Retro" and "Hear Me," a category dedicated to games that have good sound. Uhrman also noted that Ouya will reach out to external sources for curation ideas, places like universities and publications (like Joystiq, for example), allowing them to promote worthwhile games. The idea of lists curated by celebrity developers has also been discussed.

Another area of the Discover menu is Sandbox. The Sandbox allows developers to upload their games to the public "This is where all the newest and the latest games will go. It remains in Sandbox until it hits that fun factor, that ultimate like factor, and then it sort of gets ejected out of the Sandbox, and then it can be merchandised in a featured category or it can appear in our genres."

"We think of discovery differently, I think, than other platforms. It's not based on downloads or dollars spent, it's based on 'what are really fun games to play,' and those are engagement metrics." These metrics decide what gets kicked out of the Sandbox and onto the store proper, says Uhrman, and include things like how long users play a particular game, how often they play it, how many thumbs up a game receives or how often it's shared with friends. "That's how we're creating our algorithm, called the O Ring, and that's how games will be ranked within genres, but once you hit the minimum level of fun, it'll get ejected and kicked out of the Sandbox."

The final home screen category is Make, which is dedicated to Ouya development. Here, developers can load and test current builds of their games. Coincidentally, this is also where you can sideload content not found on the Ouya store, though obviously it may not run as intended if not designed with the Ouya in mind. Apart from locally testing builds, developers can also publicly release builds, allowing Ouya users to download them and try them out. "For gamers, it's an opportunity to establish, at minimum, a direct relationship with developers," says Uhrman. "So, Tim Schafer could put up betas, or first playables and builds and get feedback."

Gallery: Ouya hands-on | 12 Photos

Regarding the controller, the team "really focused on weight, ergonomics, the feel," said Uhrman. "We wanted the controller to have great accuracy and be precise." The controller has a comforting heft, possibly thanks to the aluminum faceplates. The triggers are oddly shaped, more like curved rectangles than traditional triggers. but they seem functional enough. The only thing that was off-putting to me were the analog sticks. They seem loose, and frankly I'm not a fan of the convex tops, though I'm sure user mileage will vary on this point.

Ouya Joystiq goes handson
As for the games themselves, they were unfortunately the weakest part of the presentation. Playing Wizorb, a Breakout-inspired game we've covered quite a bit here, there was some noticeable lag between analog stick input and what happened on screen. I noticed the same thing while playing Gunslugs, a side-scrolling shooter, though switching from the analog stick to the D-pad seemed a bit better. I didn't really notice the issue at all while playing Stalagflight, a simple action game, though movement was less prominent in this game in general. Given my short play session, I couldn't honestly say whether the issue stemmed from the software or the controller itself, or even if it was simply a matter of getting used to a new controller.

Even if the latter is the case, the game line-up I saw certainly won't be dropping any jaws. In Stalagflight, you leap upwards, latching onto falling rocks, which allow you to jump even higher, climbing upward to avoid falling into the lava pit below. Gunslugs offered up some simple, accessible shooting, and it has an appealing retro style. In short, there's nothing wrong with these games, but they probably aren't going to inspire anyone to pick up an Ouya either.

The key problem is that, for the moment at least, the games generally feel like reworked mobile games. In many cases – Gunslugs, Canabalt, Wizorb, Saturday Morning RPG – that's exactly what they are. In fairness, these are good mobile games, and they lend themselves well to the television, but it would be nice to see some more games really built with the Ouya in mind. There are plenty of promising titles on the horizon – Double Fine's Broken Age and The Cave, an exclusive project from Airtight Games, Fez – but none of those were on display this week. Hopefully, these games and others like them will be ready in time for the Ouya's public launch this June.

The Ouya is positioning itself as a different kind of console, and the little box certainly has a lot of potential. Its curated approach to discovery could help the truly good games get the recognition they deserve. The ability for developers to easily share and test their ideas with players is a great feature, and unseen on other consoles. Given everything that separates Ouya from traditional consoles, it's ironic that its greatest challenge is the most traditional of all: Building a solid launch line-up.

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