It's hard not to be impressed with the Ouya so far.
First unveiled in July, it's a full-fledged home console system powered by the Android OS
. Every Ouya is a developer's kit, turning every owner into a potential developer for the system. It costs $99, hooks up to your TV, comes with a gamepad, and is the size of a Rubik's Cube. Pretty compelling stuff.
And in large part, gamers have agreed. The little console that could popped up on Kickstarter a month ago with the lofty goal of raising $900,000 -- a figure that would have put it in the crowd-funding site's top 15 earners of all time.
It passed that goal within a day. And by the time all was said and done, backers had donated more than $8.5 million, making it the second biggest earner in Kickstarter history.
It turns out, though, that the fundraising might have been the easy part. Over 63,000 people reached in their pockets to make Ouya a reality. The company says it plans to begin sales in the first quarter of next year.
But people expecting the system to have a significant impact on the reign of the Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii are likely to be disappointed.
Ouya, for now, will be sold as an online exclusive, which will limit its exposure to the general public (who buy the majority of consoles). Talks are already underway with retail giants, and if they're successful, it could dampen that problem, but to not have an initial presence at retail will undoubtedly hurt.
A $99 console is certain to turn some heads, but it could still be a hard sell to the masses with no physical games to accompany it in stores. Ouya, of course, relies strictly on a digital distribution model for its software. While core gamers (those who make up the majority of the system's backers) are largely on board for that transition, it's taking a little longer for the rest of the world. The future might be digital, but the present still prefers the tactile sensation of a physical disc.
Additionally, the company's insistence upon a free trial for every game could backfire, say analysts.
"It's the business model that concerns me," says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst for M2 Research. "They have to get people to pay to get free to play to work. They haven't worked that out yet. Ultimately, this is about the software, not the hardware."
Ouya also faces a challenge that has been known to fell other would-be console challengers: Lack of third-party publisher support. To date, EA, Activision, Take-Two and most of the other major video game publishers haven't shown any sort of real interest in the system. (Square Enix is one of the few exceptions.)
The gaming market has changed radically in the past few years, though. The rise of the mobile market -- and the rise of the bedroom app developer -- may open a door for Ouya that other failed consoles never had the opportunity to walk through. The system, after all, is Android-based, giving it potential access to a huge catalog of existing games (although only a fraction of those are optimized for play on a big screen).
Ouya has also smartly enlisted game streaming service OnLive as a partner, which brings those big publishers back into the picture. Through OnLive, EA doesn't have to build a version of Madden or FIFA for Ouya. It's already there.
Ultimately, Ouya's focus on free-to-play games and independently-developed games could have a effect similar to that of the mobile market: leeching away some die-hard console gamers who have grown tired of paying $60 per title.
It could also attract some game makers, both professional and garage teams that have historically focused on the mobile market. Ouya will come with development software included, so anyone with game making skills will be able to create a title using Android's open-source software. Ouya will take a 30 percent royalty on all game sales on the system.
"What I'm wondering is whether they're too early or if they're right on time," says Pigeon. "I think eventually this thing is going to work -- maybe not Ouya, but eventually this has the potential to disrupt the way things are done. … [That said], I don't think being the first is necessarily a huge advantage. There's a really low barrier to entry for competitors. If it does work out, anyone can do it."
That's a big if.