OUYA: How Not To Communicate

I didn’t get the idea behind the OUYA, and I still don’t. The idea of tying mobile gaming down to television screens seems like an idea in search of an audience, while the whole thing being the creation of an entirely new, untested company that is trying to build an entire gaming ecosystem (featuring games, apps, other content plus the physical console and controllers, plus distribution through retail outlets and so on and so on) all at once seems like a recipe for failure.

A car wrapped around a pole. It's art, or something

The single visual metaphor related to crashing that I’ll use in this article. Enjoy! (Image Source: Flickr)

The ‘untested’ nature of OUYA (the company, not the console) has been shining through in their marketing and offers a lot of good examples of what not to do when trying to enter a space as competitive as console gaming.

It Only Took One

When future historians look back at the OUYA, they are all going to mention that it could only have really have achieved its initial success due to impeccable – and likely accidental – timing. OUYA launched itself when Kickstarter was making a lot of gamers think anything could be possible, if only they cut out the big money spenders and collectively paid for development themselves. Microsoft and Sony were building up some hype about the next generation of consoles but still hadn’t really provided any concrete information about them. Nintendo’s Wii U didn’t look that inspiring. And along came a competitor offering a console for under $100.

In that environment, it shouldn’t be surprising that OUYA had a very successful Kickstarter even without really providing much more than a hype dream. Over 63 000 people backed the project, providing over US$8.5m in funding to a console that promised a lot in a very short period of time. OUYA had some heat behind it, which allowed it to pull in more funds from other investors.

Their Kickstarter was absolutely OUYA’s greatest success so far.

Are They There Yet?

The OUYA did suffer some delays, but that isn’t really surprising given the speed at which OUYA had said they were going to get things done.

Early reviews of the OUYA console weren’t that positive and deflated the notion that in buying a $100 console gamers would be really changing the face of gaming. Instead, pledgers backed an idea and ended up receiving a beta product that wasn’t quite as awesome as promised. Hype was mugged by reality to some extent.

Adding to that sense of disappointment was a vocal group of people who had backed the Kickstarter but didn’t receive their OUYA as promised. Even as of today the OUYA Kickstarter page contains numerous posts from backers asking where their OUYA is, which is an issue given that the console launched a few months ago. So much for getting any kind of early access as a pre-order bonus. OUYA has blamed their shipping company for the issue and then has said that a shipment of OUYAs was lost and so require new ones to be made:

“We are currently waiting for production to finish on a batch of Limited Edition OUYA’s and controller plates. Due to the shipments being misplaced and lost, most of the missing LE OUYA’s have yet to be returned to us. Thus we have had to make more in order to get our backers what they pledged. Once production is complete, we will get these shipments on their way.”

A girl lying face down in a pile of mail.

Some people reacted better than others about having to wait for their OUYA to arrive in the mail. (Image Source: Flickr)

This left a lot of early backers very irritated that they’d pledged money to OUYA in exchange for certain benefits and were left waiting past the point that the console was available on retail shelves. OUYA’s responses that it was someone else’s fault didn’t exactly win this group over. Backers were offered $13.37 in store credit as some sort of apology, but if you didn’t have an OUYA to use it on such a gesture is wasted.

And for those who did have an OUYA, only 27% of owners had paid for a game on it in roughly a month after retail launch. Offering store credit was a way of encouraging further purchases and increasing the chance that game developers would actually start to see some revenue from games on the platform. OUYA was subsidising its own sales around 30 days after launching.

The Gentle Art of the Tweet

OUYA has also managed in its very short life span to compose a number of tweets that they’ve needed to hurriedly delete.

There was the retweet of a message about the OUYA being a great way to play pirated emulated games, featuring a Nintendo flagship game:

A tweet promoting game emulation and a screenshot of Super Mario Brothers that went through the official OUYA twitter.

OUYA doesn’t support piracy, but it does support people playing games for free. What free games you play on your OUYA… well, that’s up to you. (Image Source: Kotaku)

There was the insensitively worded tweet promoting OUYA’s exclusive title of That Dragon, Cancer. Get some? No thanks!

The original tweet says, "The Powerfully Moving That Dragon, Cancer Is Now A OUYA Exclusive http://bit.ly/17mD6om  GET SOME."

The original tweet has been deleted, so I’m using a retweet of it. (Image Source: @alex_navarro)

OUYA’s CEO, Julie Uhrman, has also had to delete tweets, such as when she suggested a backer get a refund by charging back on their credit card. That isn’t a refund; that is Kickstarter (or Amazon, who handles Kickstarter’s money) taking a credit charge and then having to chase OUYA for the equivalent value.

The tweet says that OUYA can't start the refund process, so the backer should chargeback on their credit card to get that refund.

Julie is the CEO of a new console company and has a financial background. She should know better. (Image Source: Indiestatik)

It is currently popular to talk about how great it is to talk directly to your community and how the barriers to communication have come down. Sure, in some cases it is, but it also means you have to watch what you say.

Caught a Nasty Viral Ad

OUYA has also attempted a shot at making a viral ad. Following initial reactions it was deleted very quickly, but someone kindly saved it for posterity.

Watching that ad, I’m struck by the question of, “Who’s that aimed at?”. It appears to be insulting the very hardcore gamers that OUYA would want to attract. Plus do you really need to get to the stage where you are swimming in your own vomit in order for the OUYA to look like a good idea? It really seems that OUYA was aiming to having something shocking and controversial that would go viral, but ended up creating something awful instead (as is the case with a lot of attempted viral campaigns).

OUYA claimed that it was an unofficial ad hosted on their official channel that they were briefly showing off to gauge community reaction. That doesn’t even make any sense.

Who You Gonna Call?

Sure, Breaking Bad is popular right now. It’s A Thing. But I’m not sure that makes OUYA’s decision to have an official email address in a legal document as “bettercallsaul@ouya.tv” as a good idea. Especially since the character Saul Goodman is a crooked lawyer who specialises in laundering money and helping criminals. That’s not the kind of legal reference that gets people comfortable in signing those contracts.

The marketplace agreement that clearly lists OUYA's legal contact address as bettercallsaul@ouya.tv

I wish I was joking. (Document available here)

A developer is directed to the bettercallsaul@ouya.tv address for legal queries.

Developers have been directed to this address as well by OUYA representatives. (Image Source: @KelleeSantiago)

Free The Games! Collect The Cash!

Six projects, four of them with less than a week to go and none are near the $50000 level.

As of right now, these are the projects listed on the OUYA Free the Games Fund page. None of them are anywhere near that $50 000 level. Neverending Nightmares (only title not shown) is at $41k, but has 11 days to reach their target of $99k. (Image from: OUYA Free The Games Fund page)

OUYA needs games. They need good games and exclusive games (and hopefully some kind of overlap between the two) that get people buying the console. So OUYA started a Free the Games Fund, where (in short) selected developers who raised at least $50 000 in a Kickstarter would have those funds matched by OUYA in exchange for getting a six month exclusive launch window.

The first two games eligible for the Free the Games Funds were Gridiron Thunder and Elementary, My Dear Holmes! who very quickly hit their $50 000 target. However it was noticed that these games had attracted excessively generous donors and also appeared to be attracting a lot of financial support from suspicious looking account names that featured celebrity mash-ups and even missing people.

The Elementary, My Dear Holmes! developers asked Kickstarter to investigate and got their Kickstarter suspended as a result. (Remember: Kickstarter doesn’t investigate their own projects, they let “the crowd” bring issues to their attention.) Gridiron Thunder have continued to power along and not ask questions, raising $171 009 from 183 backers on Kickstarter; an amount that OUYA will match.

A third title, Dungeons: The Eye of Draconus, admitted to gaming the Fund by having family members pour money into their Kickstarter in order to react the $50 000 level. As a result of this admission, OUYA indicated that they wouldn’t support this title with extra funding, so the developers have cancelled their Kickstarter.

OUYA’s response to allegations of potential fraud within their Free the Games Fund was to talk about openness and transparency while not mentioning the word ‘fraud’ at all. Some people were looking at OUYA as the source of the suspicious funds, so there would have been some sense – if OUYA was being open – to at least touch on that allegation. Instead OUYA’s blog was just another attempt at promotion for the Fund. A number of developers were disappointed with OUYA’s response.

The Lesson Here

As a new console company, OUYA needs to rely a lot on gaming goodwill if it is going to be successful. Gamers have to trust that the company is going to have a future and is safe to spend money with. Yet it seems that at every opportunity OUYA manages to damage its reputation and undermine confidence through ham-fisted implementation of weak communications. It shouldn’t be – Julie Uhrman was formerly in senior positions at IGN. She should have some idea about how the gaming press will react to certain information and posturing. As the face of OUYA, it appears that she (and by extension the entire company) is tone-deaf on these issues.

The OUYA might come back from this. (Personally, I don’t think it will, but that’s because I don’t ‘get’ the OUYA and see it as pretty pointless.) But they’ve squandered the easy lead they had and will now have to work at rebuilding their image at a time when Microsoft and Sony are in a pitched screaming battle over which console is better to buy. For the OUYA to succeed it would need to have some creative marketing approaches ready to go that will stand out over the next 12 months.

Given recent events, it appears highly doubtful that OUYA has that kind of ability available to it.

UPDATE 19 SEP 2013: Okay, a couple of things happened in the time after this post went up.

  1. Gridiron Thunder announced that they won’t be taking OUYA’s Free the Games Fund money.
  2. OUYA has put in some more rules about its Free the Games Fund to increase its flexibility and stop some of the issues it has thus far seen. Ironically by shifting from a 50% of the Fund payment following a successful Kickstarter to 50% provided on the provision of a functioning beta OUYA has just taken a step towards being one of those awful Big Publishers who actually want to see something working before parting with their development cash instead of just throwing money at dreams.


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