By John Walker on September 11th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Something strange is afoot in the land of OUYA. The Kickstarted console, running on Android, is obviously not usually in RPS’s purview. But a recently launched incentive to get developers to create OUYA games is treading on our toes, and merits a look. OUYA’s Free The Games Fund offers to match money raised by Kickstarted games, if they can reach a minimum of $50,000, in exchange for six months OUYA exclusivity. It’s hard to know where to begin pointing out what’s dumb about that. And OUYA’s failure to recognise why is causing a number of indie names to loudly complain, some to even stop developing for the console. We’ve spoken to a few of them to find out why.
OUYA’s Free The Games fund is the ironically named project where they are offering to match Kickstarter successes over $50,000, until a pool of $1 million is used up, in return for six months of platform exclusivity. And it’s leading to problems. With accusations of Kickstarter fixing rampant, and the whole concept inherently flawed, indie developers who previously expressed their dismay at this promotion are now threatening to boycott the Android system entirely. Among them indie champion Sophie Houlden, who has stated that she’s withdrawing her games from the OUYA marketplace, despite loving the console, because she no longer feels comfortable supporting the business. “I can forgive some major screw-ups (they are expected even),” Houlden told us when we got in touch. “So long as you own your screw ups, come clean ASAP and look for better solutions. I didn’t see what I hoped to see in the response to these problems and I wasn’t comfortable having my game supporting such an evasive PR. I like things honest, up-front and open and I wasn’t getting it.”
So what’s so wrong with the Free The Games Fund? Let’s list it out.
Many indie games don’t cost $50,000 to make. Especially when that game is designed to run on an Android operating system. Bedroom coders, small one or two person teams, even the smaller studios, often aren’t aiming to make projects with budgets anywhere near that. The kinds of developers OUYA has been courting since its launch are working with much smaller figures. But even still, figures they may not have. Rob Fearon of Retro Remakes makes it clear. “[It's] an amazingly big ask for most people. Most projects won’t get there.”
Setting the minimum funding level at such an enormously high figure prohibits the vast majority of indie developers from even attempting to receive the cash. Having to pitch concepts that would cost so much money on Kickstarter, and being able to deliver on such large-scale ideas, simply wouldn’t be feasible. Let alone so massively restrict their chances of being successfully funded, and thus receive nothing. Fearon suggests the whole concept is badly thought through. “There’s the whole, ‘We’ve got a million dollars to give away to developers but rather than just hand it out, we’re going to mess a load of people around whilst we do some grandstanding,” aspect to it.” Instead he suggests it would have made far more sense just to distribute the cash to developers in smaller chunks. “Imagine what Sophie Houlden could do with a percentage of it or any number of other indie developers who are sitting there making games whilst barely scraping by. Just a few grand can make a difference to a lot of people, it’s the difference between some quality music, some more beautiful art or in a lot of cases, teabags.”
Exclusivity is rarely beneficial to a developer, unless they’re receiving direct funding from a major publisher or manufacturer in order to make the game in the first place. And even then, many developers have been stung by deals in the past, especially those who embraced Microsoft’s empty promises for promotion on the 360. So where does the OUYA deal fall? Is exclusivity any use to developers? Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell says not.
“Six months is ridiculous,” he tells us. The developer’s next project, Volume, will be exclusive to Sony’s PS4 for a month, but he explains this was not a requirement from Sony, and was mainly done so he doesn’t have to simultaneously release on four platforms. But he says the OUYA deal doesn’t compare. “Limiting yourself to such a tiny platform for such a ridiculous time is just not going to happen unless the game would be profitable enough to justify it not going wider.” Something he says would be incredibly unlikely. “No up-and-coming indie should limit their audience in this way, and no established indie would risk pissing off their fans by forcing them onto a platform. I don’t see who this works for, except OUYA.”
Swift*Stitch developer Sophie Houlden somewhat disagrees on the details. “Platform exclusivity is almost always beneficial for developers,” she argues, adding the proviso, “assuming they aren’t giving it over for free, that is.” Houlden explains that often taking an exclusivity deal can often be the only way to ensure the cash is available. “The rewards customers give you for being idealistic when it comes to platform choices just don’t measure up to the rewards you can get by giving one platform preferential treatment.” Houlden would be happy to develop an OUYA exclusive in the future, were the terms correct, and were their behaviour to change.
Fearon takes a very different position. Saying there was a time a few years back when he could see the advantages, he’s certain they’re no longer there. “It’s insane to ask for exclusivity in the main now,” he tells us. “It’s insane because people just want to play games on the platform of their choice and the technical hurdles to that are down now thanks to the uptake of Unity, GM and what have you. It’s asking developers to throw away free money.” So when it comes to an OUYA deal he’s even more severe. “Why would I sign up for six months exclusivity to a platform which doesn’t have enough people buying games on it across the board so that I’d be able to afford to eat with their spends?” he asks. “I mean, I don’t have much of the stuff but I definitely like money because it helps me eat and stuff. That’s an enormous ask of someone.”
A conservative guess at the number of OUYAs out there puts it at around 100,000. We know that the project received just under 60,000 backers who pledged at the levels to receive a console, but OUYA aren’t willing to disclose how many they’ve sold since launching in June. Very low game sales, however, don’t suggest an enormous customer base at this point. Houlden notes there just aren’t enough customers out there for this model. “Even if every person who owns an OUYA contributed to the Kickstarter you’d have trouble reaching the minimum $50k,” she explains to us. “There are much better ways to help great developers get onto your console and it seems like nobody at OUYA thought to ask us what those might be before launching this fund.”
So let’s say you’ve got yourself 100,000 potential customers – well, we can’t. Because in July, of all the OUYA owners, only 27% paid for a game. So we’re closer to 27,000 potential customers. But then, the biggest selling game on OUYA in July was OUYA-exclusive Towerfall, and that had sold a total of 2,000 copies. That indicates that a big hit on the machine could look likely to see around 7% of owners buy your game. Your finished game.
Now let’s look at the figures with a game that’s not been made yet, because we’re on Kickstarter to raise our funds, with six months of exclusivity to the OUYA platform. At the most, we can expect around 2,000 people to buy it. So let’s be unrealistically generous, and suggest that half of these people might pledge. That’s 1,000 people, in our slightly deluded fantasy. And let’s say our game costs $15, because that’s quite a lot but we need the cash. Even at that price, we’ve now only received $15,000 on Kickstarter. We’re going to need some pretty impressive tier rewards to convince people to throw more in. In fact, we need people to pledge three times as much if we’re going to get close to the $50k to qualify for OUYA funding.
So you’ve got an audience so small, and so unlikely to pay for anything on their open platform, that being able to raise enough money from OUYA customers seems enormously unlikely, even if your game is somehow needing that much cash.
Fancy $50,000 for free? There’s this great get rich quick scheme I can tell you about! Put $50k of your own money into your Kickstarter, and OUYA will give you another $50k! Withdraw the lot, and gosh, look at all the free money!
It may sound a cynical response, but it’s one that’s extremely easily exploited. The incentive is put in place for the less scrupulous to take advantage of. Hell, it could tempt the scrupulous too. Retro Remakes’ Rob Fearon seems pretty sure most could be tempted. “There’s bound to be outliers,” says the Death Ray Manta developer, “But in the main, you can’t seriously expect to include humans and then expect this sort of thing to not happen. Given the terms, it’d be almost insane not to just raise the money elsewhere and bung it in because OUYA are giving you free money, so why the hell not? Honestly, if I had access to $50k right now, I’d be seriously tempted. I could buy a lot of videogame with the match funding.”
We have absolutely no evidence that Gridiron Thunder’s Kickstarter project has done anything wrong. What we do have is a bunch of very odd looking information that doesn’t seem to make sense. A project that’s own Kickstarter page made it clear the game was almost complete already (it was due to release only a week after their fundraising ended), asking for $75,000, and very peculiarly managing to raise an epic $171,000 with only 183 pledgers. That’s an average pledge of an incredible £934! In fact, it was nowhere near that spread out, with perplexing pledging spikes throughout the campaign. On the fifth and sixth day the game received $10,000 from 6 and 3 backers respectively, then come day 12 $25k appeared from just 4 backers.
Another $25k arrived five days later, this time on a day with 29 backers. Then came another $25k on day 24 appeared despite only 9 pledgers, two more $10k entries on days 29 and 30, and then an extraordinary $45 on the final day, with just 12 people providing it. Coo. Those are some generous people, eh? Also rather oddly, on 20 of the campaign’s days put together, only $3,707 was raised. One industrious commenter also spotted how many accounts there were donating that had the same names, and how 61% of the pledges had requested no reward! Right now this project stands to receive another $171,009 from OUYA, plus a further $100,000 for being the highest funded game to have entered the promotion so far. We’ve contacted creators MogoTXT for their perspective.
And it’s not the only game to come under suspicion. Elementary, My Dear Holmes!, whose Kickstarter video won us over, has had its funding suspended by Kickstarter, although they won’t say why. However (as reported by Gama), in this case the developers contacted Kickstarter themselves to say they’d heard of concerning reports, and have stated that were suspicious donations have brought them over their funding goal, they’d fully accept that they shouldn’t receive the money.
So after just a month of this FTG Fund, there are two examples of its being exploited, and rather concerningly, no comment on any of it from OUYA, despite much demand from developers and customers. In fact, visit their site and it still loudly boasts about how it’s “freed two games!”, despite one of them having had its funding suspended, and the other looking enormously suspicious. It’s complete denial, with their recent non-comment on the matter utterly ignoring the issues.
No we are not changing the Free The Games Fund. We are sticking with it. :) https://t.co/KxczV2da6i.
— Julie Uhrman (@juhrman) September 10, 2013
But this is a PC site, and this is a console issue, isn’t it? Well, only kind of. Because the developers OUYA have been courting (and they have an outreach team contacting them directly) are the ones who create us many of our favourite indie games. They’re after the PC developers who thrive on open platforms. And they’re attempting to convince them (albeit very poorly) to become entangled in six month contracts that prevent releasing their games on other platforms, currently including the PC. (Despite rumours that they may change this, at the time of writing the offer still requires OUYA-only exclusivity.)
And frankly, we care about indie developers, and we don’t like it when they’re not being treated well. And a deal like this doesn’t seem to be helping anyone who needs the help. Bithell thinks it’s not even helping OUYA. “Indie games aren’t system sellers (yet),” he explains. “I can’t think of many indie developers I’d buy a $100 console to play. So why would you put up a barrier like this for support? If I was OUYA, I’d be using half of that pot of money to fund small cool games for good will and to maybe find a hidden gem, and the rest courting the big indies into bringing across their back catalogues. As it is, we’re getting a shoddy football game no one wants, which will likely cost them a quarter of a million dollars.”
We contacted OUYA (as best we could – they’re not exactly forthcoming with contact details) earlier today, but have yet to hear anything back.