In one of her first interviews since launching Ouya, the Kickstarter-darling Android game console, chief executive Julie Uhrman tells all.
We sat down with Uhrman at our New York City office to explore the difficulties of the console’s launch (reviews weren’t so kind, including ours), Ouya’s role in the gaming world, and where things are headed. She revealed that cloud gaming is coming to Ouya, and that she’s not opposed to third-party consoles.
But the biggest takeaway: Any setbacks Ouya faces only makes it stronger.
GamesBeat: What’s next for you? You have the launch set, you have the holiday season coming up, and there’s some next-gen competition coming.
Julie Uhrman: We continue to improve. We think about our company very differently, even though we’re a hardware and software and platform company. … We develop as if we’re a software company, so we’re iterating all the time. Every single month, we have new releases of functionality; we’re always improving the experience and making it faster. Last month we launched our beta test for external hardware, and we added video to discovery and additional discovery feature that are more personalizable.
Q4 is looking really good. We’re increasing our distribution footprint. We’re growing in Europe and the Middle East. … We’ll also be expanding it in the U.S. And the content’s great. When we launched back in June, we had 176 games. Today we have almost 500. … And we’re nearing on 26,000 developers.
The breadth of content is also really exciting. Every genre is represented … we’re just starting to see a bigger diversity in the developers on our platform. We’re pushing hard to get Fez from Phil Fish on the platform; Double Fine is coming out in the first half of next year with Broken Age and The Cave. We have the exclusive Android version of [Telltale’s] The Walking Dead season 1 and 2, with the first releasing this year.
GamesBeat: What have you learned from the launch?
Uhrman: For one thing, Ouya wasn’t built behind closed doors over years and years and released to the market. There are some things that we released were great, and there were other things that weren’t great, and we needed a larger audience to sort of point that out. But because of how we’ve built the company and how we develop, we can iteratively improve the product — push additional firmware updates, push additional software updates. So if there’s latency and lag in the controller, we’ve been able to push updates that improve the experience.
I think the one thing about Ouya is that feedback is incredibly helpful, because it helps makes us better, and we get better on a monthly basis. So there’s always a reason to continue to come back to Ouya, not only to check out the experience, but to check out the games. …
They’re just fun — I know it’s an overused word, but that’s what our gamers are calling it. They’re having fun playing again. They don’t have to overthink it; they don’t have to go through 20-40 hours of gameplay or go through an extensive tutorial. … They can literally just pick it up, like we used to for Super Mario Bros., and they know what to do.
GamesBeat: It seems like a callback to older arcade games.
Uhrman: That’s resonating. Ouya was never meant to compete with traditional consoles. We’re carving out our own niche. We’re offering something very unique in the marketplace, the idea of inventive and innovative games on the television that can come from any developer because we’re open. And we really believe in giving creative freedom to creators and lowering the barrier for gamers to try new developers and try new types of games. We’re the only open gaming platform on the television, and it’s resonating really well.
GamesBeat: Do you take some credit for kicking off the Android microconsole craze?
Uhrman: Absolutely. The market didn’t exist before Ouya, and we’re definitely the leader in the space, with the largest and most loyal community of gamers. … But it’s hard. And I think we’re seeing that also. It’s not easy to launch a new hardware platform and software platform and to develop a community of people that care. I always joke that it’s not called hardware for nothing — it’s possible, and it’s doable. But it’s hard, and it’s certainly hard to get right.
Our path to market — which is to be open, to put it all out there, and be willing to accept at times that it may not be perfect, and to say that “we made a mistake, and we’re fixing it” — is also not easy. But we think it makes it better, and being open is really core to who we are and what we are. And I think our audience really appreciates it.
GamesBeat: Who is the Ouya audience? And do you expect to see that shift as the console and platform evolve?
Uhrman: I think platforms evolve based on the type of content that they get, and the developers that embrace them. Our early audience is definitely the core gamer, the guys who want to be the new adopters — the gadgetphiles, the makers, the hobbyists, and the hackers. And we still have that audience as well as that independent game audience, where it’s not about playing a [first-person shooter] for 40 hours with 10,000 of your friends online … they want to play more story driven games, or games from developers that maybe only lived on mobile, like Vlambeer with Super Crate Box. That game is amazing on Ouya, because it feels like it was built for a controller, to be played on a television.
The other thing that’s been interesting to us, is that we’ve definitely had sort of a mass market following. Target has really embraced us as a retailer, and their audience has really liked Ouya. One of the first updates we added to Ouya was age-gating and parental controls, and that came directly from our audience.
GamesBeat: Are you worried at all about everything Valve is doing with SteamOS? It’s very different from what you’re doing, but it’s also about bringing PC gaming to the living room.
Uhrman: I think it’s great for developers. The more platforms and channels that developers have to get their games to gamers is wonderful. What fundamentally sets Ouya apart is that we’re open to all creators. We really want to give the the creative freedom to develop the game they want to develop. They don’t need our approval to launch on Ouya. They don’t need a ton of gamers to say “Yes, we want that game!” If they believe in their game, and want it on the television, it can be there.
I’ll give you an example: One of the games on Ouya today that’s very popular is Amazing Frog by Fayju. It’s this frog that runs around, and you get points by doing tricks from jumping in the air. There’s no beginning, middle, or end. There’s no real point to the score. But it’s fun, and it’s silly, and it’s enjoyable. And that game doesn’t fit any typical genre. In fact, that game is really hard to describe and get someone excited about. You actually have to experience that game. … The majority of people on Ouya downloaded this game and love it. … It’s games like that where the promise of Ouya is playing out.
That’s what makes Ouya so great — games like that can find a home and find an audience. Whereby, if you had to rely solely on describing the game and what the story was … If those things don’t fit into the conventional descriptions of how we think about a game today, it would never have a chance. … That’s what they [Fayju] said. They didn’t have a home until Ouya, because nobody got it.
[Developer] Ryan Green is working on That Dragon, Cancer, which is a game about his family’s struggle with his 4-year-old son’s cancer. … It’s a very heartfelt, emotional story, and one might question how it’s a game. But he wants to share this experience with gamers, but more importantly he wants it to be a shared experience. The only platform that really provides for a shared experience is the television. That’s a game that would struggle to get on platforms, because it’s not going to sell millions of consoles, and it may not sell tens of millions of units. And we don’t care about that. We care about a great game and story that needs to be told. And we think gamers will really enjoy it.
GamesBeat: Are you breaking open the concept of a game, too? It used to be about all graphics and gameplay.
Uhrman: The answer is absolutely, and the reason for it is Kellee Santiago. She’s our head of developer relations, and she was co-founder and president of Thatgamecompany, which created Flow, Flower, and Journey. She helps us think about games differently. … She has us look at more than just the action of the game, but what’s the storytelling, what are the emotions it’s trying to evoke, and really help us see that there’s more to games than the genre that describes it. … We have games like Luxurious Suburbia that’s come to Ouya, that are just different, but should be experienced.
GamesBeat: Do you think there’s a future for cloud gaming in the Ouya platform?
Uhrman: There is absolutely a role for cloud gaming on Ouya. We’re talking to a number of the parties that support cloud gaming. It would bring content to Ouya that our hardware may not support today, but that will play wonderfully — and were built to be played in the cloud. … There are certain types of games where the idea of cloud gaming will work, and there are others where it won’t work. To be able to have a low price point for a box, it’s going to be great for gamers.
GamesBeat: Can you reveal who your cloud gaming partners are?
Uhrman: All the one’s you’re thinking.
GamesBeat: When are the annual Ouya updates going to start?
Uhrman: Annually … 2014! … We’re really focused on the current product today, we’ll start thinking more about it next year. We do anticipate a refresh of Ouya next year with an improvement of our processor and potentially adding more features and functionality.
GamesBeat: How are you approaching the holiday season?
Uhrman: We’re focusing a lot on retail. We want to support the retail channel, so people who walk into retail stores and know what Ouya is can find it. We’re testing some pop-up stores, specifically in San Francisco, and partnering with retail in New York. We think there’s a great benefit for people being able to touch and experience Ouya. We’re going to be much more focused online too.
Heading all of that up will be our new head of marketing Patricia Parra — she came to us from Hulu and HBO.
GamesBeat: Are you at all worried about microconsole fragmentation?
Uhrman: I’m not worried. We have a really loyal, engaged community of gamers and developers, and we’re starting to see great content come to Ouya first and then migrate to other platforms. Based on the content that we know is coming out in Q4, we feel really confident that our community’s going to grow.
GamesBeat: You seem really poised to enable third-parties to create Ouya hardware as well, is that something you’ve ever considered?
Uhrman: What’s most valuable about Ouya is the community and our relationship between gamers and developers. And the Ouya storefront is [also] of great value. So, yes, if there is a partner product on the market with the exact same specifications — so there’s no fragmentation for the developer — would I be open to putting the Ouya storefront on it? Absolutely. But what I don’t want to do is fragment my audience of developers and make things harder for them.
GamesBeat: You were also talking about potentially refreshing the Ouya hardware next year, how are you going to deal with fragmentation there?
Uhrman: Very carefully … we’re having conversations with a lot of the game engine [makers] and developers in relation to what we choose, and how do we build our tools to support devs the best way we can. … It won’t be something that we think up on our own and launch it. By the time we launch it, we’ll have the buy-in of our community, because that’s how we do everything.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the feedback you’ve gotten on the controller? And would a new controller be part of the hardware refresh?
Uhrman: I’ve been thrilled with the feedback — it means that it’s working, that this relationship we’ve developed with gamers and developers is working. They care enough to tell us how to make it better. The controller has improved drastically since we first debuted in March. The substructure of the action buttons have been firmed up. The tension of the triggers have been firmed up. The feel of the thumbsticks have been updated.
The fact that people didn’t know batteries go under the faceplates, we’ve improved by putting a sticker showing it. … The controller has gotten significantly better — also in terms of improving the latency and lag and making it the best experience gamers can have. That’s one of the things that’s great about Ouya. We’re never finished, it’s always going to get better. And it gets better because our community cares enough to tell us how to make it better.
GamesBeat: TowerFall seems like the closest thing you’ve got to a “killer app” right now. Are you thinking about how to bring more to the platform?
Uhrman: Killer apps are important. TowerFall was by far the first game most people were really excited for on Ouya, and it continues to be one of our most popular games. The most popular game today on Ouya is Fists of Awesome by Nicoll Hunt, which was a Kickstarter game that was a demo on our platform. … That speaks to the value of having a demo and getting an audience behind you for when you’re ready to launch.
There are games that have come organically to Ouya in our top 5 that we didn’t find by going to a festival,or going to a conference, or soliciting developers. Our killer apps will always be a combination of us going to find great developers and bringing their content to Ouya, and just the nature of what Ouya creates by giving creative freedom to developers. They have the platform of their choice, the I/O device of their choice, to build the game they want. And as a result it will become a hit. Amazing Frog is one example. BombSquad is another.
When we have this conversation three months from now, the killer app we’ll be talking about, I don’t even know what it is today. But it’ll be the killer app. We’ll find it together.
GamesBeat: Will you be working with Yves Behar again on the next Ouya? [The renowned designer of Jawbone’s products, and plenty of other gadgets.]
Uhrman: We are. Yves is our creative cofounder, he’s a very important member of the team, as we think about our console and the controller, and incorporate feedback from the community, he’ll play a very strong role.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about how the “Free the Games” fund has gone so far?
Uhrman: I’m thrilled that the Free the Games Fund is live and is doing well. We had our first funded game last month, Neverending Nightmares, which had a $100,000 goal. It’s a great story that Matt Gilgenbach is making about mental illness, and it’s an important story that he’s bringing to Ouya.
Free the Games did go through an evolution, the idea behind it was that we wanted to find great content. We felt like with a team of three on our developer relations team, going to conferences and festivals and scouring the web, we were going to miss something. So we thought, given what a jumpstart Kickstarter was to our existence, and being such great platform for game developers to find their audience, we thought it would be a great way to support game developers and find great content for Ouya that we might not have found on our own.
It’s one way we find content, it’s not the only way. The spirit behind the fund was really, if a game received enough support, we would love to bring it to Ouya. The reality was we didn’t put enough controls in it [the fund]. We allowed people to game the system. And it took us a while to figure out what the best way to update the rules would be to make it work for everybody. Initially we really wanted people to follow the spirit of the rules. When people said that wasn’t going to happen, I naively and idealistically still held my ground and said, “Give it time, it’s really going to work!”
What really turned the tide for me is we read the feedback was developers saying, we know what you’re trying to do, but it’s not really working. And at the end of the day, it’s not going to benefit me. That’s when we knew we had to change the rules. The whole point of Free the Games was to benefit developers. Then we spent about a week — probably a week too long in many peoples’ eyes — talking to developers and finding out how can we make this work for you. What are the best rules?
And when we looked at the average dollar we spent funding games, it wasn’t $50,000. So we lowered the goal to $10,000 and said we wouldn’t fund you above and beyond your goal, because it was disincentivizing the spirit of our fund. We wouldn’t do the $100,000 bonus at the end. … We tied the exclusivity specifically to the amount of dollars we gave you. We’re very pleased to see with how it’s resonated with the community.
One of our more vocal detractors during that period was Sophie Houlden who brought us Rose and Time. We had a great relationship with Sophie. … She just felt that, regardless of our best intentions, the program wasn’t working and the fact that we were holding firm to it just sort of made it worse. And she ended up pulling her game from Ouya and she wrote a really long blog post saying she wasn’t happy about the situation. …
Yesterday, she asked us to bring Rose and Time back to Ouya, and she wrote a great blog post basically saying I didn’t think you guys could pull it off, but everything you’ve done and everything you’ve showed me proved you really listened to developers. …
I think that’s a great testament to what we’re trying to do. We may not get it right the first time, but we are going to keep at it until we do.
Additional reporting by Eric Blattberg.