Ouya's Free The Games Fund is a bloody mess


They need to admit defeat and move on

[Update: so it seems Ouya has taken note of articles like this one, and has just updated the Free The Games terms. Now instead of a $50k minimum there will be a $10k minimum. There also needs to be a minimum number of backers, and there will be a maximum amount of funding based on the goal. Instead of a flat six month exclusivity deal, it’s down to one month for every $10k raised. You also won’t get all of your money upfront (50% upfront, 25% at launch, and 25% after the exclusivity. Oh, and Gridiron Thunderwon’t get a $100,000 bonus for being the top project, as they pulled out of the fund itself (presumably because they realized the jig was up).

All of this is a noble effort, but Ouya is still refusing to ignore the problem, putting a band-aid on top of a mortal wound. The solution isn’t to re-tool and rework this terrible program to be more confusing with more arbitrary provisos attached — it’s to get rid of it entirely and set up a simple transparent indie pub fund, or explore other ways of enticing indie devs to contribute. – CC]

Let’s talk about the Ouya.

After a ton of buzz, the Android-based console kind of came and went with a questionable amount of fanfare. But a lot has been going on with the Ouya team besides sanctioning horribly conceived commercials and dealing with 73% of its users not buying a single game. Most notably, a few developers have been under fire for supposedly extorting money from Ouya’s “Free the Games” campaign, which will match a successful Kickstarter’s earnings — but only if they raise $50,000 at minimum, and agree to a six-month exclusivity deal.

So people may ask — why is this controversial? Ouya can run the project the way they want to, right? Well, this is the problem — what happens if an indie studio puts in $50,000 or more of their own money to fund their own project to essentially extort another 50 grand from Ouya in the process?

Yeah, that’s a rather big problem.

While the Free the Games Fund could have gone about its business rather quietly, two major red flags came about that drew attention to it: Gridiron Thunder, and Elementary, My Dear Holmes. Specifically, both of them roused suspicions after raising quite a bit of cash with a relatively low amount of backers. While Elementary had a number of fictional backers and was stopped by Kickstarter before any potential Ouya involvement could arise (although the developers have stated that they will continue on with the project), Gridiron was fully funded — and then some.

While I would never outright accuse the project of fraud, look at the facts and see if you raise an eyebrow or two. At closing, the project earned a total of $171,000 — with 183 pledges. That’s roughly a little less than $1,000 per pledge. So not only is Ouya matching the funds raised, but Gridiron Thunder also gets the Kickstarter money and a $100,000 bonus from Ouya for being the “top earner” in the Free the Games fund.

This is the game that has raised half a million dollars of funding.

But despite how you feel about Gridiron‘s quality, even if nothing shady is going on with these projects, the total lack of transparency isn’t helping. While exclusivity requirements are up for debate, it’s obvious that the $50,000 requirement itself is causing a ton of problems. So after a rather lengthy wait and some self-back patting, Ouya fired back an official response saying that nothing was changing, and that the fund would continue. But it was not a sufficient enough for a number of Ouya owners and developers like Sophie Houlden, who claimed she was going to pull all her games from the platform.

Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell commented on Ouya’s post directly, noting that it makes him “sad for a lot of reasons.” He said that the post wasn’t an acceptance of criticism, but rather a “press release from a console company locked into a foolish policy and using aspirational language to shift the blame, weirdly, onto its critics.”

Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker had a bit to say about the subject as well, noting that the $50,000 requirement is a major problem in and of itself. As he points out, limiting your potential pool of games to more affluent indie developers is contrary to the independent spirit as a whole.

Walker also points out that the top-selling Ouya title so far is Towerfall — a game that sold 2,000 copies since it was last reported, and is coming to PC later this year. Hardly an audience to justify a $400,000+ payout for Gridiron Thunder. Houlden has since talked to Ouya Founder Julie Uhrman and smoothed things over, but the damage has already been done to the Ouya organization.

More controversy has recently arisen, with Ouya pulling out of a Free the Games Fund match with Dungeons The Eye of Draconus, claiming that the campaign was illegitimate — with no mention of the equally suspicious Gridiron Thunder. Developer William McDonald is not happy, stating, “It appears we were thrown under the Free the Games bus. Ouya gets their fall guy and Gridiron Thunder keeps their money.”

So what do you do at this point? Well, you pick up the pieces and move on. The Free The Games Fund was a bad idea in execution, and as an astute commenter points out in Ouya’s response blog, they are under no obligation to continue with the project, and can scrap this current incarnation at any time.

Bithell has the right of it — creating a giant “indie fund” pot like Sony did is a great idea. Giving out Wii U dev kits or relaxing stances like Nintendo and Microsoft have recently done are also great ideas to entice indies. But when you force independent developers to raise $50,000 and arbitrarily judge who is deserving of it even if they reach that high goal, it’s going to cause problems.

I was a backer of the Ouya because I thought it had promise initially to do things a bit differently. But it turns out they’re just throwing ideas to a wall to see what sticks, and that won’t get them anywhere. To those of you who are running the show at Ouya, stop putting walls up and preventing more great games from reaching your already limited platform. Instead, find ways to bring those walls down.