When Julie Uhrman was vice president of digital distribution at IGN Entertainment, the video game news site, she came to the realization that something was seriously wrong with the console industry. Sticker prices for hardware were prohibitively high, typically around $300. Meanwhile, software-makers were churning out strings of lazy, unimaginative titles that cost $60 a pop.
"If you went to E3," Uhrman says of the gaming industry's annual trade show, "you would see that there were no new consoles announced, no major new developments. All the games that were being talked about were sequels. There was nothing really exciting happening in the space."
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But she did notice that more people were spending a significant amount of time on mobile games, especially those for Android phones, where the combination of an open development platform, a huge library of innovative titles and a virtual store (Google Play) that allowed users to try before buying was attracting gamers in hordes. She had an epiphany, envisioning "this device that was built on Android that wasn't a mobile phone."
Uhrman acted quickly, recruiting game-industry veterans and designer Yves Behar to create an affordable, open-source console that could access a robust online gaming library. But there's a reason previous game consoles had been developed by huge companies like Sony and Microsoft: It's an expensive process.
After trying traditional VC channels, Uhrman turned to Kickstarter in July 2012 to see if there was any public interest in her inexpensive open-source console, which she dubbed Ouya. In the space of 24 hours, Ouya raised an unprecedented $2.4 million in funding; in fact, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company's Kickstarter venture eventually reaped more than $8 million. In May 2013 the company announced a $15 million VC funding round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
The appeal, aside from the $100 price tag, is that open-source platform. Developers are free to create games and incorporate accessories--say, a tablet from Samsung, a Kinect sensor from Microsoft--into the Ouya. It's essentially a sandbox for a huge group of tinkerers and inventors.
"I have a small team, but if I allow Ouya to be open in every sense of the word, some amazing things can happen," Uhrman says.
There's also the gaming library. "Android already had a business model in place where consumers actually could try something before they buy it," she says, pointing out that more than 120 Android titles are available to play on the Ouya.
Numbers aside, Uhrman is nostalgic for the types of gaming experiences she had as a youth and is ecstatic about bringing them back. "I love being able to try more games on the television," she says. "With Ouya I can turn it on and download five games and start playing through them. And whichever ones I like the best I can keep. Just the idea of discovery is fun. And that's what I remember as a kid."
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