A Look Back at the Ouya: A Tale of Failure
The NVIDIA SHIELD console, Razer Forge TV, and Nexus Player, all running on the Android TV platform, represent the latest efforts by Google and its OEM partners to morph Android into a competent and complete living room entertainment experience. Android TV can be seen as Google’s first serious attempt at incorporating console-quality gaming into the idea of a living room device. Other companies, however, explored their own ideas as to how to produce a gaming console powered by Android. The most notable and most infamous of these devices is known as the Ouya.
The Ouya. A product that, when mentioned today, often leads to either quieted laughter or angry thoughts of failed potential and promise. A product that did ten things wrong for every one thing it did right. A product with failed leadership, lead by clueless executives and an even worse marketing team. A product that game developers ended up ignoring, and consumers mostly rejected. A product that lead to this hilarious unboxing .gif:
But it was also a product that lead to some really neat, albeit niche, use cases, and a product that became important to the idea that Android has no bounds and can run on anything. With the recent news that CEO Julie Uhrman is looking to put the company up for sale after failing to restructure its debt, it’s time to take a look back at the history of the Ouya, as well as list some of the more useful and interesting ways to tinker with, exploit, and use the hardware to its greatest potential.
I: History of the Ouya
The announcement and pre-release era of the Ouya wasn’t seen as a joke, as it garnered a lot of consumer and market interest. It was announced on July 3rd, 2012, and a Kickstarter campaign launched on July 10th. The date is notable, as Google had just gotten done revealing the Nexus 7 2012 tablet at Google I/O the week prior, and the Ouya shared very similar specs with Google’s latest, creating a lot of buzz within the Android community. Furthermore, the company advertised that the Ouya was going to be “hacker friendly” by being easy to root (and not voiding any warranties in the process), as well as employing a design that made the hardware itself easy to open and tinker around with. The gaming community was also intrigued by the promises of the device to bridge mobile and console-style gaming, as game developers were starting to shift away from the high costs and burden of making console games in favor of mobile, leaving anything other than the most casual gamer frustrated with the quality of newer titles.
The marketing thus far had worked wonders, as the Ouya became a record-breaking project on Kickstarter, raising nearly $8,600,000 dollars when it ended on August 9th, and holding the record for the best first day performance of any Kickstarter project. Indie game developers and major publishers alike flocked to make announcements of their games being made available on the platform. In October, announcements of the physical hardware being produced, as well as the SDK being released, had consumers and project backers hopeful that a release wasn’t too far off. This is the point in time when things started to turn sour for the company.
While developer units started starting shipping on December 28th, units to Kickstarter backers did not start shipping until the end of March 2013. Reports had started to flood the internet of shipping errors and delays on these units, with some users stating that they had not received their devices until after it went on-sale to the general public, a full 3 months later. These pre-release Kickstarter units received by the tech press were not reviewed well, either. Problems with the wireless controller design, including buttons that got stuck underneath the aluminum plating and input lag that made playing games impossible, were reported by just about everybody. The TV interface was slow, confusing, and ugly, and serious concerns about the viability of the platform were starting to become apparent.
After a delay to re-work the controller, the Ouya was released to the general public on June 25th, 2013, costing $99. Availability had continued to be limited, with not much in the way of actual product able to be shipped out to retailers. Early adopters had quickly figured out that this device could have used more time in the oven. The controller, while improved physically from the Kickstarter units, still exhibited a tremendous amount of input lag and connection problems to the device. The WiFi connection was so terrible that a user’s wireless router needed to be placed in the same room. The UI was hideous and slow, with some poor decisions being made in regards to organization of both the store and the user’s installed applications. Many users returned their devices, and the early woes of the launch caused some of the launch partners to scale back or cancel their plans for Ouya support. Many of these issues needed to be resolved by hardware revisions, as the aluminum plating of both the device and controller interfered with wireless signals, and while the software had gotten better with numerous system updates, the UI remains confusing and unorganized to this day.
Months after launch, consumer and developer complaints alike continued. The propriety Ouya store remained barren, outside of a handful of key game releases from the likes of Sega and Square Enix. The hit indie game Towerfall was first released on Ouya as a 6-month exclusive, but was later re-worked and ported to the more popular game consoles. The store had become littered with low-quality games, and the platform had stopped attracting high-quality developers, mostly due to lack of consumer interest. Developers also scoffed at ridiculous policies, such as the requirement to release a “free-to-play’ component to each and every game found on the store, a policy that was later reversed with little to no impact. An ill-thought marketing scheme entitled the “Free the Games Fund”, where the company would match the Kickstarter funds for any Ouya exclusive title being developed, was abused by scammers and further damaged the integrity of the company and its relationship to consumers.
Furthermore, some users had felt that the company was backtracking on the “truly open” philosophy that was detailed on the company’s Kickstarter page. Root access on later software revisions became hit-and-miss, as OS updates which ran automatically acted to strip root away, requiring exploits in order to restore it. While SU access is available out-of-the-box on early units, doing anything useful with it requires workarounds to install SuperSU and busybox. Side-loading .apk packages, while the ability is there, is cumbersome and time-consuming, and there is no guarantee of app compatibility. ADB and fastboot access is granted natively, however the bootloader remains locked. And since there is little consumer or developer interest in the device, the Android community at large is vastly uninterested in finding new exploits.
By the time the device was released and major bugs worked out, the internals were completely obsolete. The entire company structure from top to bottom was seen as incompetent at best, and consumer trust nosedived. In the end, the company decided to allow the Ouya experience be embedded onto other Android devices, such as the Mad Catz M.O.J.O console, and into televisions sold in the East. And now, we’re left with news stories regarding the financial collapse of the company. Claiming that the Ouya was a disastrous failure is not a far-reaching or untrue statement to make.
II. Get the Most Out of your Ouya
While the device can no longer be recommended for purchase (if it can even be found for sale, as it has been removed from most retailer shelves), there are some neat things you can still do if you happen to own one.
Notes/Warnings: Some of these use cases require the use of root access and a custom recovery. Most of the root and recovery installation guides and software out there are out-of-date and were written for earlier versions of the firmware. If your console has not been updated in a while, turning it on with an active internet connection might trigger the automatic download and installation of the recent firmware images, which can remove previous root access and/or make it impossible to regain root in the future. The legality of software emulators and ROM images for classic console games varies by country, so please consult your local laws before obtaining such software. You assume all responsibility of your device moving forward.
Natively, while the Ouya platform itself offers very little compelling games, the store does contain some useful stuff. Emulators for classic consoles are plentiful, and most run fairly well on the platform. You’ll find both free and paid emulators, including Super GNES, FPse, NES.emu, Mupen64, MAME4droid, and reicast, among others. The app Nostalgia serves as a unification hub that merges all of your emulators together into a single app. While the paltry built-in storage won’t hold much in the way of ROM images, external USB storage is supported by most, and some will even access them over cloud storage accounts such as Dropbox. It is also recommended to use a USB controller to get around the input lag issue if you own the first revision of the device. Also found on the store are media applications such as XBMC, Plex, VLC, TwitchTV, Vimeo, TuneIn Radio, and Pandora. FilePwn is great if you need a basic file manager app.
You can also natively side-load, install, and execute .apk files to your Ouya with varied results. Going to Make->Upload allows you to remotely upload an .apk file from your computer’s web browser, but I’ve yet to get this feature to work reliably. You can also transfer via ADB command, or load the .apk file onto a USB storage device and install from there. A helpful trick is to install the Dropbox app via this method and use the cloud storage platform to transfer .apk files with little hassle.
On the more advanced side, there does seem to be a bit of developer activity on-going in the form of custom recoveries, mods, and ports of popular Android ROMs. Our XDA sub-forums for the Ouya, while not listed on the forum’s main page, contain some recent activity, and can be found by visiting these direct links:
A couple of good threads to get you started:
Included in the Development sub-forum are a myriad of different hacks and ROM ports in varying states of completion. Most recent of these is a work-in-progress ROM port by XDA Senior Member werty100 of the popular OmniROM, based on Android 5.1.1. You can follow the progress of this port here: [5.1.1][LMY47X] OmniRom UNOFFICIAL
There is also a great community to follow all things Ouya at the Unofficial Ouya Forums
You can also visit the official Ouya site
Are you an Ouya owner, or do you develop for the Ouya platform? Do you know of any other cool tweaks, hacks, or mods that aren’t listed here? Is your console currently being used, or is it collecting dust at the bottom of a closet? Please let us know in the comments below!