The CEO of OUYA discusses copycat products, curation, and why Android won’t matter to OUYA buyers
Julie Uhrman is the founder and CEO of OUYA, and she’s very much aware of my past skepticism of the product. “It’s good to finally meet you!” she told me warmly as we sat down to chat. I’ve since talked to developers who are using real, working OUYA hardware, and I’ve seen her speak about her love of the television. I’ve thawed somewhat, but there are still challenges to what the company is trying to accomplish.
My first question is simple: Are they making money selling just the hardware? “We’re really happy with the business model. We can make it work,” Uhrman said politely, and then looked me in the eyes. I smiled. She smiled. It’s clear I’m not going to get a breakdown on what her unit costs are, but I was curious about other aspects of the OUYA business.
The perils of being open
If the company isn’t making money on selling just the hardware, and that’s an open question, are they scared of gamers buying a unit only to root it and begin running a competing app store such as Google Play?
“I’m not scared of it. It’s a possibility whether you say your box is rootable or not,” she explained. “Typically when you make something a challenge, more people are willing to do it. But our box is going to be as secure as other Android devices, in fact we’re putting in measures to make it more secure, to limit whatever you do to just your device. But ultimately to embrace being open, we have to be open. We hope our audience will support all the good aspects that it brings.”
Their plans for curation of the app store are also unconventional. She claimed that it’s not just a matter of quality, which is a subjective measure.
“We look at curation based on engagement. We don’t believe that number of downloads, or the amount of dollars spent on the game, is actually a good indicator of whether or not it is a good game. What we think is an indicator of a good game are the metrics that signify engagment.” So things like how many times a game is played, and for how long. How often you’ve told your friends about the game, how long the game lived on your system before you deleted it, and whether you downloaded it again. That’s all well and good, but what about the first round of games that will be offered on the system?
“We have a lot of great gamers at the company, thankfully. We also have a lot of great friends. Ed Fries, Brian Fargo, Adam Saltsman, Zach Gage, Phil Fish… we have a number of close friends whose opinions I rely on. If they don’t know it, they will soon,” she said. “We plan on using them, and they’ve been incredibly supportive.” I’m making a mental note to call Zach Gage and ask if he knows he’ll be playing an important role in choosing what games are coming to the OUYA.
Selling the hardware in stores
The OUYA hardware will be in physical retail in June of this year, and I asked Uhrman if she thinks there needs to be education about Android. It’s one thing to sell the hardware to readers of sites like this one, you guys know what you’re in for. Will someone understand the product if they bought it at Target?
“The education process is about the great games that are on the OUYA. It’s not about that it’s being developed on Android. It’s not about that it comes from a mobile developer. It’s about the immersive, exciting, inventive game play of this particular game, or this new genre, or this new character,” she said. “What is going to make people want to buy OUYA is the content that we have on the box.”
That’s a rather large bet, and it’s placed on the quality of the software. That works if the system has enough games in its early launch, and the software is stable enough that so-called “mainstream” gamers feel comfortable putting their credit card information in to begin purchasing games. If the software is inviting and works well, who cares about the OS? People will simply enjoy hooking up the little system and playing some games. That’s a rather big “if,” however.
Roll your own
There is nothing proprietary about the OUYA’s hardware. It uses existing parts, put together in expected ways, only with a form factor and controller that’s designed to be used with the television. So what’s stopping other companies from taking the idea and creating knock-off products?
Uhrman chuckled. “There’s absolutely nothing that prevents somebody from creating the next OUYA. To be honest I’m shocked there aren’t more out there!” she told the Report.
“What makes OUYA unique and what will make us successful is the relationship we’ve built with players and developers. It’s about creating a great ecosystem. We want to be known as the most developer friendly platform. I think we’ve started the ball rolling and we want to keep doing that. There are already more powerful platforms out there… We’re going to do everything we can to support developers to make them want to bring their games to OUYA,” she continued.
This is another big risk. What OUYA offers that’s unique right now is a well-known brand after the success of the Kickstarter campaign, and hardware that is actively being used by talented developers. Anyone can swoop in and try to take their crown with their own version of this hardware design, and in fact Uhrman has said that we can expect yearly hardware updates. That strategy works in the world of mobile devices, but every time a new version of the OUYA is released, consumers have a chance to take a look around and decide if they want another OUYA system, or if they want to go with a competitor.
And if the hardware is popular, there will be strong competitors, and not just from products like GameStick. An inexpensive, open platform that attaches to your television is an attractive idea for anyone from Apple to Google and everyone in between.
The challenges are real, but so are the opportunities
These are the challenges for the OUYA. The hardware is real. Developers seem excited. The price point is great. It will be in many big-name retail stores. Now it’s a matter of delivering a digital storefront that’s easy to use and stocked with great games and apps.
The challenge will be in keeping players inside the OUYA ecosystem, on a piece of hardware that makes it easy to leave for pirated apps or other app stores. While they’re juggling these challenges, they also have to fight off the other companies who may only be waiting to see if the price point and form factor are attractive before moving in. None of these are easy challenges.
What’s interesting is that the OUYA became a sensation due to the success the company found on Kickstarter. Uhrman claimed this approach validated the business model early on, and it allowed the audience to become part of the story. “It allowed us to talk directly to the audience, find out what they want, and build this dream together,” she said. “I don’t know where we’d be without Kickstarter, but I’m so thankful I don’t have to think about it.”