So, tomorrow is Switch day. So this might be the last post for a week or so…
For all the anger pushed towards the Wii U, and all the declarations of its abject sales failings, one thing is often overlooked. Whilst it’s clearly Nintendo’s worst result to date, and was a complete balls-up from the get go, it was not in fact the biggest hardware disaster this generation. Not by a long shot, in fact – heck, it wasn’t even the biggest firmware/service failure this generation (OnLive says hi).
No, if you want to see what a complete disaster looks like from the last few years, one needs take no more than a cursory glance at the now very, very dead Ouya.
Which is weird because I… actually… kinda… backed it on KickStarter all those many years ago.
Hell, I even did a piece about my initial impressions and my initial impressions were actually a damn slight more positive than I even afforded the Wii U, if you can believe that. Everything about the Ouya felt right at the time. Nintendo had effectively vacated the lower end of the home console market, leaving a gaping void that we thought needed to be filled by someone. Games were coming out and the costs were being pushed up by £10 in the UK, leaving most of us utterly baffled, bewildered and frustrated. And more than that, it felt like the three-way fight between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo needed a shake-up. After years of Snog, Marry Avoid we just wanted an option of “kill” to be thrust in there. I suppose we just weren’t aware that option was inferred as “suicide”…
So what makes the Ouya a more prominent flop than the Wii U, aside the sales crater that it left behind?
Well, the first thing to point out is that the Wii U actually had some major third party support. Okay, let’s be fair and reasonable here – it had some. EA left very early on, Capcom largely forgot about the platform, UbiSoft seemed earnestly devoted to destroying it from within and Activision… actually, Activision were okay. As were Square-Enix. The disgust, it won’t wash off! The Wii U saw a slew of third-party games over the years, not all majorly successful but at least it did get a Call of Duty and an Assassin’s Creed.
The Ouya never even got that. Which was a problem, because very early on there was a big drive to find out what people wanted and yes, this was what they all wanted. Big names, big brands, big games. The Ouya may only have been a little £80 Android device but as most of us know, cost isn’t exactly the issue here. If the audience is there, third parties will cater to it because it would be corporate lunacy not to. Their absence only served to remind the market that the Ouya was an outsider and it wasn’t part of ‘the crowd’, so to speak.
The Wii U also had software sales figures on its side. For all its hardware foibles, one thing is undeniable – those who bought a Wii U bought software in some volume. In terms of ‘exclusive’ content owned by the manufacturers, Nintendo even now sits on top of the pile despite the Wii U’s sales figures. For the Ouya, it never had a game series to call its own – the Ouya people, much like the OnLive people, forgot that a first-party title is more than just a game – it adds a ton to your company value. The best-selling ‘timed exclusive’ on the Ouya came in 2014, with TowerFall – and to my knowledge, it sold about 7,000 copies across the year. Yes, 7,000 units in a year. The Ouya was not a place where people were buying games, so more developers began to shy from the platform.
There was a good reason for this too. Piracy.
Piracy was rampant on the Ouya – it’s open source nature left it dangerously exposed as an emulation machine, only compounding this visage with emulation tools rising to the most recommended downloads. The emulators were particularly brazen about this on the Ouya too – promoting through images games like Tomb Raider, Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot and Resident Evil and neglecting to remind people that actually downloading and playing ROM files on these things was less than legal.
If that was bad, then seeing people hijack Ouya’s marketing to promote piracy was particularly egregious. It’s #FreeTheGames campaign was questionable in how it funded games (it would match crowdfunding, but in the end this caused loads of headaches and ended up with barely thirty games overall), but the term was of course seen my emulation fans as… well… Free The Games. And so, they gamed the Ouya marketing into retweeting images of games being played which… let’s be fair here… weren’t exactly on the legal side. The moment that Ouya let through an image of Super Mario Bros. was the moment I think I realised that either no-one at Ouya was checking for this abuse, or no-one really cared. And you can be sure there were certainly legal headaches behind the scenes over this nonsense.
Developers fled. Users left. Big publishers and developers just never even showed up. Launched in 2013, the Ouya was dead two years later, sold on 2015 to Razer who stripped its assets and tossed the Ouya branding.
Thing is, we know –now– that the Ouya was onto something. And the reason for that is… well…
After all, the NES Mini wasn’t totally dissimilar to the Ouya. A small device to play small games on, the NES Mini was £90 – more expensive than an Ouya, and with a far more limited amount of games. I could almost feel the spectre of the Ouya behind it, going “Seriously, WTF everyone?!” – okay, the NES Mini was official and looked like a small dinky NES. But the Ouya wasn’t ugly either. And it had the potential to have that sort of game on it – heck, with Nintendo having success on smartphones, one can argue Nintendo could have dropped a few lifelines the Ouya’s way with some Virtual Console love. Making it official – the Ouya could have been the de-facto name in retro gaming.
It was just a matter of naivete I suppose. Ouya was a lovely idea which had a lot of potential, but I think looking back – that’s all it was. A lovely idea.
The execution and performance just never quite matched that noble endeavour we all wanted to be or imagined it being. It never got the games it needed, or we wanted. It got hammered by piracy and legal challenges, slowly drowned in debt after taking an inordinate amount of outside funding. It never natively adopted the OnLive system, and frankly I think that was its biggest failing – OnLive and Ouya should have double-teamed so hard, but neither seemed overly committed to each other despite both having the same idealistic upending of the market goal. And both failed this generation. That… kinda tells you something I suppose.
For me, it’s a bit more hardware for the collection – tucked away neatly in a box, a reminder of a time I was into crowdfunding and perhaps even believed that a chipper, enthusiastic young upstart of a company could give the big boys a slap around the chops. There’s certainly an argument if Ouya had been more careful and more aware of its issues early on, it might still be around. It might not have been any more successful than the Wii U, but still… a second generation of hardware could have been an interesting endeavour.
But most of all, Nintendo can heave a sigh of relief that the Switch launches tomorrow officially. And it can go to bed tonight, snuggle up in its Wolf Link blankey and tell itself, as it drifts off to sleep… “We at least beat the Ouya.”
I suppose it’s something.