Bonnie Cha

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Hands-On With Ouya, the Tiny Gaming Console With Big Aspirations

Nine months ago, Julie Uhrman had an idea for a gaming console. The goal behind it was twofold: To give consumers an affordable video game system, and to give developers an open platform for building games for the television.

Without any notion of whether people actually wanted such a device, she took her idea to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and within a month she had more than 63,000 backers and $8.5 million in pledges.

Today, the first set of consoles started shipping.

Uhrman is the founder and CEO of Ouya, a $100 game system built on the Android operating system. It consists of a pint-size console that connects to your TV via HDMI. Unlike traditional consoles like the Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation, there is no optical drive. Instead, all games and apps are made available through Ouya’s built-in store. A wireless Bluetooth game controller is also included in the package, while additional controllers are available for $50.

Though today’s shipment is limited to the backers of the Kickstarter campaign, Ouya will be available to consumers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. starting June 4. It will be sold through various retailers, including Amazon, Target and Best Buy.

I got a chance to check out Ouya this week during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and the hardware is impressive.

Designed by Yves Behar, who was also the mastermind behind the Jawbone Jambox, the console is about the size of a Rubik’s cube and is wrapped in brushed aluminum. The controller features matching aluminum accents, and has two standard analog sticks, eight action buttons, a d-pad and a built-in touchpad.

Uhrman, who has worked in the video game industry for more than 10 years, said the company wanted to build something beautiful that people wouldn’t necessarily want to hide away in a media cabinet, and I’d say they were successful in that.

I was relieved to see that the cheap price didn’t equate to a cheap design. It’s a solid device, and the controllers were comfortable to hold and use. Ouya is also attractive in its simplicity.

Inside the Ouya is a Tegra3 quad-core processor, one gigabyte of RAM and 8GB of flash storage. The back of the device houses all the various ports, including the HDMI connector, USB 2.0 port and Ethernet jack. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are also onboard.

Like the console itself, the Ouya user interface and storefront is pretty simple. From the main menu, you have four options: Play, Discover, Make and Manage. Play is where you can find all the games that you’ve downloaded, while the Discover section takes you to the games store. Manage is basically the settings menu.

The Make channel is where things get interesting, and is also what sets it apart from the competition. Ouya was built to be a console for developers just as as much it was built for gamers.

“We want to be seen as the most developer-friendly platform there is,” Uhrman said in an interview with AllThingsD.

As such, publishers can go to the Make channel and use the built-in software development kit to build and test games for Ouya. Eventually, the company wants to evolve the section so that developers can have a direct relationship with gamers, where they can, for example, post different demos of games they are working on and have people vote on which is best.

Anyone can create a game, and there’s no cost to do so. Ouya’s only requirement is that there be some free element to the game, such as a free demo. Other than that, the developers can monetize their apps in any way they want, whether it’s through in-app purchases, donations or upgrades.

The open nature of Ouya’s platform should make it an attractive option for independent developers looking to bring their games into people’s living rooms. In turn, it’s a great gateway for discovering indie games.

But the big challenge for Ouya will be attracting customers outside of the indie gamer community. Sure, the $99 price tag is appealing, but is it going to have the titles that people want?

There are about 500 games already confirmed for Ouya, but Uhrman said it’s hard to say how many they’ll actually launch with. She said on Monday there were about 40 titles in the store, and then by Wednesday, it had jumped up to 67.

During my brief time with the system and storefront, I found that most games were of the retro-style arcade type or those you’d find on smartphones or tablets. Uhrman said they are working to bring AAA title games from big studios to Ouya, but she also believes that its unique content will be a major draw.

“There’s going to be innovative, creative, exclusive content on Ouya that you won’t be able to find anywhere else, and that alone is going to be the reason to buy Ouya,” she said.

I’m not fully convinced of that just yet, but we’ll see in a couple of months if I’m wrong.

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