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Kellee Santiago on Ouya, wrangling developers, dubstep


Apart from patching up software and hardware issues, the Ouya's biggest hurdle is the same one that every new console faces: Games. That's where Kellee Santiago comes in. Santiago made a name for herself with thatgamecompany, the studio behind Flow, Flower and Journey. After departing thatgamecompany in 2012, she joined Ouya earlier this year as its head of developer relations. That makes it her job to both work with Ouya's current developers, reach out to new ones and, perhaps most importantly, help curate the content on the Ouya store.

"One of the, I would say, main goals for the console is to create an ecosystem in which any developer can find the right audience for their game through Ouya." That means creating a system that is "naturally diverse" to begin with, she says, and "taking a look at what are our early developers naturally gravitating to. What is [the] content we want to get onto the platform in order to increase the diversity of our portfolio."

That also means avoiding "the trap that many new distribution channels can fall into, which is sort of feeding into the early successes of the games that were accepted by the initial audience of the platform." That's easier said than done, and Ouya has a handful of battles to fight.

One of those battles will be developer awareness. "[We're] looking for brand new developers, of course in the independent scene [and] students coming out of school," she says, along with developers who may be unaware of the Ouya as a potential distribution channel. Many developers can only rely on the channels that are the simplest, and that typically means either mobile or PC. "Making them aware of this new option and opportunity – if they're a developer that is interested in creating content for the living room – that Ouya is now going to allow them to do that with just as much ease."

"You're seeing games from new voices in development in the console space, which is really exciting."

"There's no gatekeeper of the Ouya Discover store," she says, noting that any game can be on the store so long as it abides by Ouya's content guidelines. Initially, new games enter an area of the store called Sandbox. From here, users can try out new games and, once a game reaches a certain rank – measured via a combination of user metrics ranging from "likes" to number of hours played – it can be promoted to the store proper.

Though Ouya consoles are being shipped to Kickstarter backers, they aren't yet available to the general public, and Santiago has been using this "preview period" to experiment with creating different channels of featured content in the Ouya store. Obviously, it's part of her job to help users find the games that are worth playing, but how does she find them? Is it based solely on user data, or is it a case of personally diving into the Sandbox to look for diamonds in the rough? "A little bit of both," she says. "Some of the channels right now are based purely on data."

One of these channels is "Faves," which is based on Ouya's "O Ranking" system which relies on player likes as well as other behind-the-scenes metrics. There's also "Fresh" which simply features the last 20 games to be uploaded, while "Staff Picks" highlights the favorites on the Ouya staff. "We kind of keep a running tab of games we're really enjoying." These channels, she says, give opportunities even to games that are still in the Sandbox, giving them a better chance of making it into the Discover store. Ouya is also approaching third parties, like Universities and well-known developers, to create their own curated channels that will be visible to players.

Of course, the best curation in the world won't matter if the Ouya library is flooded with ports of aging mobile games, a concern often raised because the console's Android-powered innards. A great number of the games currently on the Discover store are indeed mobile ports like Canabalt HD, which came to Android last year and iOS long before that. It's not a bad game, but it's probably not the sort of game to get potential buyers excited about a new console either. Making sure that the Ouya's library doesn't start and stop with mobile ports is part of Santiago's job.

"I think, certainly, some of that will come through in my own curation process, and the projects I'm reaching out to." Many of Ouya's developers are currently experimenting with the console, she says. "A great way to do that is by taking a game you have working on Android already and porting it over, and seeing how that works, and how the whole pipeline functions. I think that is not surprising, and just naturally as those developers learn from these initial products, they're going to also learn how to develop specific content for Ouya." Players, too, will help guide the direction of Ouya's content. "The more they play games that are not mobile ports, the more people will start designing special experiences for them."

Polarity, an Ouya exclusive

In the meantime, many prospective Ouya players – and Kickstarter backers who already have a console – are looking for the killer app, the one game that really sells the console. Ouya has announced partnerships with Double Fine and Kim Swift's Airtight Games, but we've seen very little of the former and nothing of the latter. "I've been very excited about some of the projects we're already seeing live on the store today, like Fist of Awesome, Polarity, so you're seeing games from new voices in development in the console space, which is really exciting."

Given the open nature of the platform, developers don't have to conform to specific schedules, and that can make it difficult to publicize the console's upcoming slate of games. There are over a hundred games on the store right now, and I ask Santiago if she even has an estimate of how many will be available at launch. "I do not," she says, laughing, "I'm not even going to try and guess." Still, in an industry that's used to hearing about a console's launch titles months or even years in advance, Ouya's relative silence on the matter is frustrating.

Ouya has a lot of registered developers on board (over 10,000), but there's no telling how many of them will be creating noteworthy experiences, or even how many of them will release a game at all. Ouya is hoping to make some announcements about its most promising projects in "the upcoming few weeks," Santiago tells me. Hopefully, prospective Ouya owners will have something to pin their hopes on by then.

In the meantime, I ask Santiago what her favorite Ouya game is right now? "DubWars." It's a twin-stick shooter in which your weapons fire to the beat of a dubstep track. "I wish there were more levels of it right now, probably to my husband's chagrin, because he's not a huge fan of dubstep, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the audiovisual stimulation from DubWars."

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