Ouya's Latest Scheme Tries to Crowdsource Its Console Exclusives

It hasn't been a great first month for Ouya. The best reviews of the console have been mild in their praise. Lots of day-one backers (mostly overseas) didn't get their unit until after it was commercially available. Ouya offered store credit as a make-good, but no one is buying anything online.

Maybe Ouya can turn its fortunes around with its latest initiative, though it looks to me like a variant on the usual Kickstarter shell game in which products that don't exist are bought sight unseen. Ouya's "Free the Games Fund," beginning today through Aug. 10, 2014, is self-interest disguised as philanthropy—the self-interest being there are currently very few games worth playing on Ouya, and the philanthropy being Ouya itself.

Yes, the fund promises to lavish game developers with up to $250,000, and there's a $100,000 bonus out there, though Ouya is capping its commitment at $1 million, first come, first-served. The money only starts flowing if a Kickstarter game meets its funding target, and that target has to be at least $50,000. Then the game has to be exclusive on Ouya for six months before the maker gets the full payout. There are other eligibility requirements.

The requirements set by Ouya's fund may have analogues in traditional console exclusive contracts, and certainly, they shouldn't throw money at games with no appeal or to studios that can't bring their ideas to market. The whole thing, however, is so very Kickstarter to me, in the way it distributes the accountability for paying for video game development. Now, instead of ordinary donors simply being the ones to, collectively, fund a project that may not appeal to the industry's gatekeepers, they're effectively called on to crowdsource an exclusive arrangement for a console maker.

Meeting a funding target of $50,000 indicates some kind of preloaded acceptance for the idea. (It's why the Veronica Mars Kickstarter was such a brilliant scam marketing idea. It's an Internet petition where people literally vote with their money—money you get to keep!) The hundreds or thousands who donate this money have, with their dollar votes, vetted the project for Ouya. Check mark, boss. Additionally, rather than Ouya itself identifying this project, or any other, as something it is willing to fund to go steady on its platform, and then negotiating the freight for that, it's also hoping developers opt in to an exclusive relationship, for promises of a doubled budget.

Given that the platform is routinely knocked for a lack of compelling titles, I'm sort of wondering why, if Ouya has up to $250,000 it's willing to spend on an individual developer to be exclusive, why it couldn't or wouldn't spend some portion of that on existing titles or projects underway—say, Polarity to keep it on Ouya.

I also have to wonder how running a Kickstarter as an Ouya-only title will work, though. For starters, sure, Ouya only requires the game to be exclusive for the first six months, and then it can release on any platform. OK, what backer without an Ouya is going to wait six months after release to get the thing on his? If he's not going to wait, then he must factor in the $99 cost of the console to his funding decision. Ouya's campaign strikes me as trying to take the purpose of a console exclusive to a new frontier—sell a machine before the game exists.

If, however, this is meant to create projects for Ouya only and pitch them to Ouya's installation base, then the people who just bought the thing are now asked to do the legwork in finding games that make their purchase relevant—and, again, pay for them before they're even available.

My history of opinions on Kickstarter, as it applies to gaming, is well known and it's quite clear I'm put off by a lot of it, especially by the pleadings for publicity pumped into my email every day. As it figures with video games, I think it's all due for a Groupon-class beatdown, soon. But Ouya's move here plumbs new depths of cynicism to me. Ouya's playing pretend-console maker, dressing up a lottery like venture capital and abdicating its administration to users that aren't buying anything it sells.

Free the Games Fund [Ouya]

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