Ouya’s Free the Games Fund is full of good intentions. By going back to Kickstarter to work with games that are currently seeking Kickstarter funds, Ouya is able to use its extra funding to match donations for indie games in exchange for Ouya exclusivity. Ouya gets to build out its title library with up-and-coming talent, and the developers can use Ouya’s exposure to bring more potential donations. It seems like a win-win for everyone involved.
So why is it going over so terribly?
For a time, the Free the Games Fund was working quite effectively. Within the first month, Ouya already had two successful candidates: indie football game Gridiron Thunder from MOGOTxt and point-and-click adventure game Elementary, My Dear Holmes! from Victory Square Games. Both titles were successfully funded with time to spare and more than met Ouya’s requirement of a funding round of $50,000. Ouya then touted the initial phase of the project as a success.
“We launched The Free the Games Fund August 9th as the first-of-its-kind fund offering $1 million in matching funds for Kickstarted games for OUYA, ensuring a steady stream of inventive and creative content into the living room and for all you fans for years to come!” the company wrote in a statement to me in late August. “To date, we have more than 30 projects registered eligible for the program with 11 campaigns are already live and two funded!”
But just as the Free the Games fund was heralding its own success, the games community felt something was fishy. Users at gaming forum NEOGAF pointed out that some of the elements of the “successful” campaigns didn’t match up and accused both games of “astroturfing” — seeding the campaign with fake accounts to reach funding goals or create buzz.
First, Gridiron Thunder has managed to rake in (as of this writing) $171,009 from just 186 backers — making the average contribution per person over $900, which is a lot to pay for a football game. A large portion of the backers are first-time funders, and none of them have disclosed how much money they have put in to the fund. Elementary, My Dear Holmes! also ran into trouble, as many of the first-time backers had suspicious profiles with celebrity photos. Campaign leader and Victory Square Games founder Sam Chandola wrote on the company’s website that once the discrepancies were brought to his attention, he asked Kickstarter to look into them.
“I was hoping our pledges would be investigated and any suspicious ones removed,” Chandola wrote. “But the project got suspended. And, to put it quite freely, that sucks.”
While Gridiron Thunder remains eligible for the Free the Games Fund — although under pressure from wary gamers — Elementary, My Dear Holmes! has been wiped from the program entirely and will not receive any form of funding. As of now, both games have been erased from the Free the Games Fund website, and Ouya released a statement on the issue last week. Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman reinforced the company’s commitment to the program. But rather than confirming or denying whether any fraud had taken place, Uhrman simply deflected the issue.
“If we can put aside the doubt and embrace the spirit of this fund as it is meant, and of OUYA as it is meant, we might just be surprised by what a little positivity can produce,” Uhrman wrote.
But, unfortunately, it appears the damage extends beyond shady dealings and suspicious funding activity. No other game has managed to cross the $50,000 threshold to qualify for extra funding thus far, and many titles are actually on the road to failing. There are also shockwaves reaching beyond the Free the Games Fund, as at least one developer, Rose & Time creator Sophie Houlden, has withdrawn her game from the Ouya Marketplace.
“After reading Julie Uhrman’s blog post last night it became very apparent to me that the company does not support indie developers who need the support most, and that they are incapable of ever correcting their mistakes,” Houlden wrote regarding Ouya’s treatment of the Free the Games fund.
As of this point, without a controversy-free banner game to boost its prospects, Ouya is becoming haunted by its own good intent. Money is money, so it’s unlikely that many developers will turn down the opportunity to get their crowdfunding matched by Ouya, but every title will be put under the same scrutiny if it meets the funding goal. Any inconsistencies could send Ouya into a tailspin — unable to get an “honest” game for its efforts. The most recent game that has met qualifications to make the Free the Games Fund, arcade brawler Dungeons: The Eye of Draconus, is already drawing ire from funders because it has openly admitted to inflating its own funds by more than $30,000 with help from family. Very rapidly, the win-win situation Uhrman thought her company would have is rapidly turning into a lose-lose.
There are many things to learn from Ouya’s missteps, but perhaps the biggest is the flawed construction of the Free the Games Fund. To some extent, Houlden’s accusation about lack of support from Ouya isn’t unfounded — rather than pull from a pool of developers that have already made good games for the console, the company chose to look outside to Kickstarter and to unknown developers. Furthermore, Ouya’s decision to remain hands-off and very loose about the fund’s requirements makes it easy for any developer to latch onto the program for the cost of 6 months of Ouya exclusivity. It’s glaringly obvious that Ouya isn’t vetting the developers it is associating its brand with, and that could cost them the company.
Ouya, do us all a favor and pull the plug on this program. There are many ways to support the indie gaming ecosystem, but what you have now will only drive your console into more scrutiny.
If pulling from Kickstarter is the only way to widen the developer pool and secure exclusivity, why not approach developers after their projects have been successfully funded? The console company has a right to pick the games it chooses to distribute to its users, and it’s a power Ouya should exercise frequently. Instead, it will be mired in hundreds of poor, uninspired or overplayed games rather than the handful of great ones it needs to be considered relevant.