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In explaining what happened to Ouya’s Free the Games Fund, CEO Julie Uhrman declined to sugarcoat the troubles her company faced. And from the beginning the fund — designed to build exclusive titles for the company’s Kickstarter-funded titular gaming console — was a big problem.
The million-dollar fund, Uhrman said in a recent interview, was one developed with good intentions: the company wanted to create a feeder program for Ouya that also gave back to the thriving Kickstarter games community. Ouya would get exclusive games to round out its platform (which I knocked for being anemic), and basement developers and indie studios would get the chance to obtain even more money to make games. It seemed like a win-win situation until many of the games that had reached independent funding levels needed to qualify for additional funding from Ouya were suspected of “astroturfing,” essentially pumping personal money through shady accounts to boost popularity. Gamers accused Ouya of managing the fund poorly, while developer Sophie Houlden wrote a scathing blog post and pulled her game, Rose and Time, out of the marketplace.
Uhrman and her Los Angeles-based company of 35 were dumbfounded.
“Developers were telling us over and over, ‘You’re being too idealistic, and you’re being too naive,” Urhman explained. “That was the part that personally took me a while to understand.”
Faced with mounting unrest, Uhrman decided to change the rules of the fund: the company reduced the minimum goal to get funded, added in exclusivity requirements based on the amount a game is funded, and created a dollar-per-backer limit. That meant burying two of the three games that had succeeded in the fund: Elementary, My Dear Holmes! and Dungeons: The Eye of Draconus (the former had the fund canceled by Kickstarter because of those aforementioned “suspicious accounts” and the latter’s campaign was cancelled in the wake of Ouya’s decision). The third, Gridiron Thunder, was never formally accused of wrongdoing (despite accusations) and continued to make the game. It will be available on Ouya, but Urhman said that creator MogoTXT ultimately turned down its funding money.
It’s a stark contrast to what Uhrman hoped the fund would accomplish, although her goal of finding the “next Minecraft” was (and still is) quite the moonshot. But the damage has certainly been mitigated, as survival-horror game Neverending Nightmares has met the goals to become funded, and Uhrman said she worked with Ouya developers — including Houlden — to quell platform unrest. Houlden has since put Rose and Time back on Ouya, and released a new blog post regarding the decision:
“Will the company screw up again? probably. Will they do something that pisses me off? almost certainly! But I believe when it happens the company will be receptive to criticism and will not be afraid to say “my bad” if they realise they took a wrong step.”
Now that this chapter is closed, Ouya still has a lot of work left. While Uhrman is quick to point out that Ouya has nearly 500 games available, just a handful of them are recognizable enough to turn an observer playing at a demo kiosk in Best Buy or Target into an owner.
That said, the platform has had breakout stars — one in particular being MattMakesGames’ Towerfall — and Uhrman stressed that the company is working with more established companies to bring bigger games to Ouya. In particular, the company has inked a timed exclusivity deal for DoubleFine’s Kickstarter blockbuster Broken Age, will be bringing buzzy indie debut That Dragon Cancer exclusively and is working with other indie developers to port their existing games — Phil Fish’s Fez, for example.
These are smart steps forward, but as the game console environment becomes more competitive with the debut of newer consoles like the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne, the Ouya needs more to stand out. Uhrman said her focus is on “right now,” and wouldn’t comment on the future, but it’s hard to ignore the competition that’s heating up, particularly from Valve and the Steam Machine. With an already rich ecommerce platform and loyal community, Valve will enter the console market with more force than the upstart Ouya did in July.
What stands as Ouya’s biggest calling card — that “open platform” — is also one of its biggest challenges, as it means the company has to balance between welcoming new developers and separating the wheat from the chaff. This creates an identity crisis: who is the Ouya meant for?
This will be the company’s big test: to find a niche that not only praises exploration, but also has enough for mainstream gamers to buy in and keep sales going.
“We didn’t build a product for two years thinking, ‘this is perfect,’ and put it on the shelf,” Uhrman said. “Ouya’s never going to be a perfect company because it means that we’re done, and we’re never done.”