Farewell, Ouya

I thought about actually titling this piece RIP, Ouya but thought hey, let's save the hyperbole for the body. What's actually happening is that I'm taking my Ouya back to Gamestop and washing my hands of this whole experience. Maybe I'll buy one used later, when the Mad Catz console comes out and they all end up on eBay for a song; by then perhaps there will be a CM port. Unfortunately, the Ouya console is deficient in basically every area.

I had high hopes for Ouya, because of nVidia's involvement and because Android is fairly hard to screw up. Unfortunately, they screwed it up anyway. Most of the failure revolves around their controller interface system, of which they are inordinately proud. I say this because it addresses basically none of the problems with game controllers in Android, while in fact creating new problems. They also broke support for other non-controller devices that work fine with other systems, like the PS3 BD Remote (tricky to pair, but works with Android once you accomplish it) and even managed to botch keyboard support. Not only is the mapping wrong when I attach my bog-standard Logitech keyboard to the extent that I can't even use the control key, but the keyboard often becomes controller #1 and then I cannot use the Ouya controller for most software. While the idea behind their controller system is that they abstract away differences for games, the reality is that games have to make changes to directly support PS3 and Xbox controllers. When you plug in a PS3 controller to pair it, bluetooth fails and does not come back until the system is rebooted. And due either to the way keyboards are mapped or to the way the Ouya launcher and replacement dialogs are configured, you cannot actually navigate them with a keyboard because you have no way to press the buttons without the controller.

It's difficult to overstate just how bad the Ouya launcher is. The launcher fulfills the same purpose as the dashboard and the store on an Xbox. The store, sadly, is not even up to par with the functionality of that of the original Xbox. There is no way to see what a game will cost before downloading it and there is no queue management whatsoever. In order to stop a game from downloading, you have to find it in the list of games again and select it before you can get a cancel button. New games stop downloading when you play a game since the last system update, and this functionality cannot be disabled even if you are playing some rinky-dink game that doesn't give a fig if downloading occurs in the background. Even a mouse can not click on many UI elements in the launcher. There is no categorization of downloaded games (or apps) and while the store is displayed in a many-row view, the library is shown in two long rows in most-recently-used order (left to right) which stretch off to infinity once you have very many titles installed. There is no support for installing APKs other than sideloading.1 "Free the Games", my foot.

Another thing which makes the Ouya less useful to me is the lack of proper use of the scaler. Many of us use used LCD monitors as a "television" because we do not consume any broadcast video. Most of these devices which are both cheap and relatively sizable have a resolution of 1680x1050, which does not correspond to any HD resolution. If your display does not readily report support for 1080p60 or for 720p60 then Ouya will scale straight to non-interlaced VGA, 640x480 at 60Hz. That's right, it's not even a wide aspect resolution. While it does this, internally it still renders at 1080p rather than 720p even though it's not even really displaying 480p, which means the GPU has to work hard to render detail which you won't be able to see. The display is also compressed so as to properly display on a 4:3 display, but the system has only digital out which means you're most likely to be connecting it to one which is 16:9 even if it doesn't support an HD resolution.

If the problems with scaling were due to a hardware limitation, that would be one thing, but that's not what's happening here. Tegra 3 can support a very broad range of resolutions (including some well in excess of 1080p) but you won't see support for any of them here. And in the bargain, HDCP is always forced on. Ouya's slogan "Free the games" is more and more hollow, the more you examine the system. A halfway decent HDTV is $100 or more, and needing a new one to replace the 20" 1680x1050 LCD with VGA, DVI, S-Video, composite and component inputs that I use when the main television is otherwise utilized significantly increases the cost of the system. There's no reason why they couldn't scale to another resolution; they simply chose not to. Even the original Xbox would scale your games from whatever resolution they were actually being rendered in to any resolution supported by the system, which ranged from SDTV resolutions (480i) all the way up to full (if interlaced) HD, at 1080i. You could choose a supported resolution, no less.

I mentioned previously that everything about Ouya is deficient, and the controller is another exemplary demonstration of this inadequacy. Controllers have traditionally been something very difficult to get right, which is why Ouya's support for PS3 and Xbox controllers was such a critical feature, and why it's so sad to see them get both that wrong, as well as their controller itself. The controller's one great feature is battery life, and it will run for at least six weeks on the packed pair of Alkaline AAs. After that, it all goes steeply downhill. The controller includes a touchpad (like the upcoming Playstation 4 from the gaming-rapists at Sony who took away Lik-Sang and put a clamp on Geohotz) but it's beyond tiny and does not seem to have a wide aspect ratio in spite of the system's total lack of support for 4:3 displays aside from VGA fallback.2

The controller's analog joysticks are mediocre but usable, but the D-Pad is the worst thing I've seen since the Sega Saturn. The D-Pad on the Xbox 360 controller seems like a work of art by comparison. Not only does the Ouya D-Pad have sharp corners that will have you either sore or callused in short order, but it has apparent dead points during transition to diagonal movement caused by the excessively tall cross on the D-pad working as a lever when you slide your finger. Unfortunately, it has far too much travel to "tap" conveniently, and it must be rocked. The combination is agonizing. The first generation of controllers had too-narrow button holes that were part of the delay in the system's launch date, but the second generation has inadequate firmware which must be flashed and there is no easy way to tell what firmware your controller has. There is a test pad on the controller which is visible when the right battery cover is removed, which presumably is the means used.

I knew that there would not be a lot of good games at launch time, and that has in fact turned out to be true, but there was significant hope that XBMC would be working out of the box. Not only do you have to sideload it, but it also doesn't work very well. Libstagefright support, required for GPU-accelerated video support on Android, is still an alpha-test feature of XBMC and there is no apparent fruit from the alleged "partnership" between XBMC and Ouya. There is no non-sideload version and it does not work properly. Both the on-screen keyboard and an attached bluetooth keyboard work poorly in the current libSF alpha.3 This was a major advertised feature, and it is simply not there, much like the rest of the system.

What else can I say about Ouya? Bluetooth range is very poor, probably due to the metal case. Crank up the power to get through it and you get noise and reflections, but they have already increased bluetooth power once in a system update. WiFi range is beyond poor and many report that it is unusable, failing to connect to their AP at all when their Android phone has "Excellent" Wi-Fi signal in the same place. This was unacceptable in the MK802 series and it is even more unacceptable here, where the case used has an order of magnitude more volume. Soft power is unreliable and the console is often unwilling to turn itself back on from a controller press. Volume controls are present in the Android preferences, but do nothing. Root access is command-line only and the user must manually remount /system and overwrite the su binary, then manually sideload superuser in order to get root for applications. Because there is no Play Store integration, you cannot use the purchased versions of your applications from the Play Store due to the DRM.

Both as an advocate of Free and Open Source software and as an avid gamer, I wanted to believe that Ouya could succeed. They received multiples of their kickstarter funding targets, so the problem ought not to be lack of money. It must either be interference or failure to deliver on the part of partners like nVidia, or their own indifference or incompetence. Unfortunately, another example of Ouya's lack of actual openness is their tendency to keep their mouths closed. On one hand, a closed mouth gathers no foot. On the other hand, it is the opposite of open, and "open" is how they wanted us to believe their little software ecosystem would be. I am profoundly thankful to have purchased my console at Gamestop and not to have been a kickstarter backer, because those are the people with the most to complain about. Ouya not only did not put forth a strong effort to get consoles into the hands of backers before the general public as promised, but they also have communicated very poorly with the community, and are continuing that tradition with email sent to support going unanswered literally for weeks in some cases. When you combine this failure to execute with Google's announcement of deeper gaming support in the Play Store, and their intent to produce their own game console, the future looks bleak for Ouya with their proprietary (if open) controller interface and their overall poor hardware and software support.

A lot of people say that you shouldn't be too "hard" on Ouya, because they're trying to do so much with so little. But in fact, they're trying to do very little with a whole lot (of money.) They're using an off-the-shelf SoC, with what should be more than adequate assistance from its vendor. Where they went wrong was trying to own too much of the platform in the name of collecting 30% of all sales of both games and in-game-purchases, and instituting their own game controller library in an attempt to institute lock-in. What will happen instead is that Google's gaming store will be supported by everyone else, and it will control the market and Ouya will go away, or at best become a section in the Play store someday. Their mediocre effort will be a footnote in the history of Google STB's including Google TVs, Android "stick" computers, and the oncoming wave of Android-based game consoles with more polish.

  • 1. If you sideload a decent file manager, like ES File Explorer, then you can install APKs from there.
  • 2. VGA resolution, in spite of lacking VGA signalling. This makes no sense.
  • 3. Gotham Alpha 4.

Comments

Nail.. On.. Head. Even recently updates of games, by companies like Half-Brick studios, have games that STILL have controller 1 set as the keyboard (and Moga support is abysmal) in 2015/ The ouya has a tiny little group of followers, even though some "large" games like "Strangers' Wrath" have come out for it. The lack of refund policy, poor controller support, lack of demo for (most?) games on the system, the flood of awful crAPPS (mediocre games even a 90's flash site would be ashamed to host) and ever-degrading quality of the Ouya's online shop/launcher have helped it to remain dead. I'm tally looking forward to what Nvidia release for Android TV, though...

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