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Console on the cheap, games on the free with $99 Ouya (hands-on)

The Ouya game console debuts on June 4 for $99. The Android-based device includes a single controller and allows owners to build games as well as play them.

Now playing: Watch this: The Ouya stretches far, but ultimately comes up short

After seeing it in person this week, I can safely say that the Ouya game console does indeed exist. Now, will it quickly piggyback its way into millions of living rooms thanks to its low price and free-to-try games or assume a place in the pile of wouldbe consoles that failed to mount a legitimate challenge gaming’s mainstream? My bet’s on it finding a comfortable place somewhere in the middle; however, having only spent an hour with the console this week, it wouldn’t be fair to make any final judgments.

What I will do is attempt to answer as many questions as possible about the Ouya system itself and what Ouya, the company has planned for it.

What excites me most is what Ouya represents: an near unobstructed conduit into indie gaming. Whether that’s playing games made by the increasingly interesting indie development community or -- because every Ouya console doubles as an Ouya development kit -- building your very own games and getting them onto actual televisions. That feels significant. Just don’t expect much in the way of graphical sophistication.

At this point, Ouya’s Kickstarter campaign has raised over $8.5 million from 65,000 backers. The Android-based game console is now finally shipping to its earliest supporters and will be available to the rest of us on June 4th, 2013 for $99.

Ouya in a nutshell
Ouya is a small cubed-shape video game console running on Android and powered by a Tegra 3 CPU. For $99 you get the console and one controller. There's no physical media to speak of, and all games must be either downloaded directly to the system or side-loaded.

Every Ouya console doubles as a game development kit. You can create your own games and publish them in the Ouya store for free.

Fits in the palm of your hand. Josh Miller/CNET

Design and hardware
The Ouya is a gray and black box that weighs 10.7 ounces and is small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. It features a combination of smooth embossed aluminum and glossy plastic, and its body is tapered slightly at the bottom. A circular power button sits on the top and glows with a dim white LED Ouya logo when powered on. The power button is surrounded by four unobstructed screws resting in each of the device’s four corners, allowing tinkerers to easily remove the top plate and access the system’s innards.

The four screws on top of the console should make it easy for would be modders to do what they do best. Josh Miller/CNET

Those innards include an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a full USB port, and a Micro-USB connection. Internally there’s 8GB of storage (expandable through the aforementioned full USB port), 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and support for 5.1 sound. All games and apps must be either downloaded directly to the device or installed via external storage. During my demo, the system ran as silently as a tablet; however, I've yet to test how hot it gets after several hours of play.

As for horsepower, Ouya's specs resemble that of a near top of the line Android tablet, like the Asus Transformer Infinity TF700. For its brains, Ouya uses a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU, with each core running at 1.6GHz. With a 12-core ULP GeForce GPU, don’t expect Xbox 360 or PS3 levels of performance, but something more akin to what Android tablet users currently experience.

Ouya packs in HDMI, micro UDB, full USB, Ethernet, built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 5.1 sound support. Josh Miller/CNET

The controller
Ouya’s controller closely resembles the design of the Xbox 360’s but with slightly longer handles on either side, giving it a more boomerang-like look. Like the 360 controller, the left analog stick sits in the upper-left corner, with the eight-directional cross-design D-pad about an inch lower and to the right. The right analog stick is about an inch directly to the right of the D-pad. Each analog stick features a slightly convex shape, with a subtle rubber grip texture on top. Each stick is "clickable" as well.

Face buttons are color-coded and laid out in a typical diamond shape with each cleverly corresponding with the letters in Ouya. The home button is located between the D-pad and right analog, and when pressed once, brings up an Xbox-style menu overlay. Two quick presses takes you back to home screen interface with absolutely no loading, just like a tablet. A refreshing change from the Xbox or PS3, which take several seconds to do the same. A thick black stripe runs down the middle of the controller, equally segmenting the right and left sides. At the top of the stripe are four small LED lights that designate which player (one through four) the controller currently responds to.

Every Ouya includes a pretty well-designed Xbox-like controller with a touchpad (the black strip; no, really!). Josh Miller/CNET

Along the black strip, between the LED lights and home button, is a well-hidden touch pad. The pad can be used to control cursors, but more importantly some developers are already implementing it in games. One game I played required me to vigorously rub the pad during battle sequence.

The Ouya controller features both shoulder bumper buttons as well as analog triggers on the top. The bumpers are wide and taper in toward the controller, while the triggers are slightly rounded.

In order to access the dual AA battery required for each controller, removing its faceplates is necessary. Josh Miller/CNET

Each controller uses dual AA batteries for power. There's a small space on the bottom of each handle just wide enough to insert a fingernail and pry each side's faceplate off revealing a battery chamber underneath. Batteries fit quite snugly in and must be ejected using the attached nylon pull tabs. Getting my fingernails in the correct position to pry it open was sometimes a challenge, but others, including our photographer Josh Miller, had no problems. It’s not the best solution (the Xbox’s battery pack is far more elegant), but it's doable once you’re used to the mechanic.

The controllers are comfortable and while I feared the handles would be too long, my long finger wrapped around them snugly. It’s light enough without feeling airy, but there did seem to be a slight hollowness to them. All the buttons felt responsive, but I much prefer the more triggery design of the Xbox 360's trigger buttons, and the controller could use a bit more space between bumpers and triggers. The analog sticks felt well-calibrated, but I didn’t get a chance to try any racing or FPS games to really test their mettle. Also, the D-pad felt a bit too tight on first use.

Ouya's controller goes with less triggery triggers than I'm used to, but it feels well-calibrated. Josh Miller/CNET

Based on my admittedly very limited exposure, Ouya got the controller right. It has all the pieces gamers expect, (unless they’re expecting motion control), and Ouya seems to have brought them together in a comfortable, responsive package.

The games: Unmistakably indie (mostly)
Currently there are nearly 500 games confirmed for Ouya. That’s an impressive number, but I think one of the biggest challenges the company has to face is managing the expectations of the uninitiated. The Ouya game console won’t provide Xbox 360 levels of graphical sophistication. The Tegra 3 CPU just isn’t that capable and potential buyers should know to adjust their expectations accordingly. This is a $99 system and in my time with it, I saw nothing that couldn’t be done on a top of the line Android tablet. Just know that going in.

Ouya will see its fair share of original titles, but expect to see ports and lots of them. Josh Miller/CNET

All games on Ouya are free to try, meaning you can download a version of any game from the Ouya store at no charge; depending on the game and the developer’s business model, there are a few options to get you to fork over some cash. Some games will start in demo mode only, allowing you to play through only a small portion before asking you to pay in order to continue. Other games will use microtransactions, where certain features or items in the game can be unlocked with a real-world fee. At least one donation-based game is free for as long as you want, but does give you the option to pay if you feel so inclined.

I spent only about 25 minutes playing a wide variety Ouya games earlier this week, from ports to never-before-seen Ouya originals. Both Final Fantasy III and Saturday Morning RPG are already known quantities and didn’t look much different from earlier versions of the games; however, as a person who’s struggled playing Final Fantasy games on my iPhone, I definitely appreciated having a controller. According to Ouya, the art assets in FF3 have been up-ressed, but I didn’t notice much of a difference compared with previous versions I’ve seen.

Oh indie games. You're so self-aware. Fist of Awesome knows not to take itself seriously. Josh Miller/CNET

Saturday Morning RPG also benefits from controller support and makes good use of Ouya’s touch pad during some of the scratch and sniff phases in battles. Its intentionally retro pixelly graphics scaled comfortably onto a 40-inch plus HDTV.

My favorite game, however, was Deep Dungeons of Doom (also coming to Android and iOS). It's part roguelike, part rhythm game, with simple mechanics and rewarding gameplay.

Saturday Morning RPG makes good use of Ouya's touchpad. Ouya

I have no problem with retro pixelly graphics, as they seem to be a trend among many indie games these days, but I can definitely see some games like Fist of Awesome -- an incredibly self-aware beat-'em-up with tight controls -- being dismissed prematurely because of its art style.

From what I can tell, the first crop of Ouya games will follow a particular pattern: lots of simple, quick, and possibly inventive games with a lack of graphical sophistication but oodles of charm. These will be supplemented with more-polished ports.

Gun Slug is a Metal Slug throwback with (surprise) an intentionally pixelly art style. Ouya

Neither achievements nor leaderboards will be ready by launch, but Ouya says to expect them later this year. Profiles and multiplayer games are supported, but I didn’t get an opportunity to experience setting up a multiplayer game first hand.

Look for more-detailed impressions of games when the system launches in June.

Bossa Studio's Deep Dungeons of Doom should appeal dungeon crawler and roguelike fans. Bossa Studios

The interface
Upon booting up Ouya, you’re greeted by a simple home screen, with four options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. Each is presented with large, clear fonts.

Play is where you’ll find all the games you’ve downloaded, each represented by a large graphical tile. Discover is the games store. Titles are categorized into regularly updated curated channels. Channels can range from developer top 10s to games that Ouya decides to promote. There's also a search feature for finding more-obscure games.

This is what greets you when turning Ouya on. A very streamlined and minimalist interface. Josh Miller/CNET

Under Make, you’ll find development resources and the latest build of whichever games you’re working on (more on this later). Here you’ll also find resources uploaded by other developers about making games and well as tips on how to deliver your game to the widest audience possible. Any side-loaded video content will show up here as well.

Finally, Manage houses your Ouya’s system settings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to discover the extent of customization options here, though.

The interface was responsive, streamlined, and thankfully devoid of ads; Ouya says it’s keeping it that way.

A console for would-be developers
As previously mentioned, the Ouya console is an actual game development kit as well. Simply download the free SDK (or ODK, as Ouya refers to it), connect your computer to the system, and start making games. The SDK comes free with the Unity engine used recently in games like Year Walk.

Once your game is finished, you’ll submit it to the company for approval (a process it says takes only 1 to 2 hours, with approvers apparently working 24-7). According to Ouya, the process is less about relative quality and more about preventing nongames, porn, or products with IP infringement from reaching the store.

Ouya's digital game store will surface the more interesting and successful titles. Josh Miller/CNET

Games available from the Google Play store can be ported over to the the Ouya with a few changes: the developer must implement Ouya’s payment API, make the game compatible with the Ouya controller, and send it to Ouya for review.

Once approved, all new games will go into the Sandbox. Games will remain in the Sandbox until they gather enough acclaim from users or Ouya decides to promote it themselves. Different engagement metrics like user thumbs up, how many times the game has been played, and how long it’s been played contribute to it being promoted to the top level, where players are more likely to see it. It’s Ouya’s way of reducing the amount of shovelware and bad ports in the store. If you want to get promoted (and actually sell games), engaging users with a quality product is probably the best way.

For budding developers, Ouya is the easiest and cheapest way thus far to get your games into people's living rooms and onto their TV screens. Let’s just hope the quality level remains high.

Right now, Flixster is the only video-streaming choice, but Ouya hopes to add services like Netflix and Hulu in time for the system's launch in June. Josh Miller/CNET

Video streaming
While Ouya is capable of both standard- and high-definition movie streaming, there currently aren’t many options to take advantage of its capability. Right now there’s a Flixster app and XBMC support. Thankfully, Ouya says it's currently talking to companies like Netflix and Hulu, but no official announcements have yet been made.

First thoughts
I liked what I saw during my brief time with Ouya. The idea of an indie-focused device that nearly obliterates the barrier of entry for would-be console developers gets me excited as a gamer. Its low price, small size, and free-to-try model should appeal to families on a budget as well; however, how your kid will respond to receiving an Ouya for his or her birthday after requesting a PS4 should be interesting.

Those enamored with the indie gaming scene (to be sure, there’s a lot to be enamored with lately) will find Ouya especially appealing, but if you have your heart set on the next Xbox or PS4, Ouya will probably not satisfy your cravings, especially if you’re at this level of graphical fidelity. But, as long as your expectations are reasonable, and you’re cool with smaller, simpler games for the most part or are looking for a low-cost way to break into the games industry, it's hard to beat that $99 price.

It's far too early to predict whether the system will reach beyond the hard-core early adopters and graduate to the mainstream, and Microsoft and Sony aren’t exactly ignoring the indie scene. Sony especially is making strides to streamline the process of getting indie games onto its systems. There’s also the exciting prospect (especially for old gamers like me) of Ouya becoming the go-to spot for 8- and 16-bit emulation, if copyright laws don't get in the way of course..

Beyond the mainstream consoles, Ouya will also have to compete with a number of "microconsoles" launching soon, including Nvidia's Shield, the Wikipad, Gamestick, and Steam Box. Ouya has the advantage of being the first out of the gate, and that super-appealing $99 price point doesn't hurt. However it turns out, it should be interesting to watch it all unfold. Look for a full review of the Ouya in June.

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