Even after its rocky beginning, Julie Uhrman thinks OUYA can handle Amazon and the coming explosion of set top boxes

By James Robinson , written on April 10, 2014

From The News Desk

As far back as its launch, people have been looking at OUYA’s future and making dark predictions. The Kickstarter-wunderkind faced shipping issues with its game consoles and has since battled mixed customer reviews and PR malfunctions. Others in the briefly hyped independent game console space have gone under and outsiders have consistently dismissed OUYA’s competitive viability.

The odds against OUYA seemed to get steeper with the release of Amazon Fire TV last week, which comes complete with built-in gaming capabilities. Google is also expected to work games into its own box this year. It hasn’t been an easy run for OUYA already and in 2014 the competition gets exponentially stiffer. To many looking on, doom was a fair conclusion.

Julie Uhrman, OUYA founder and CEO, of course argues otherwise. “This isn’t a game over situation,” she says. There’s a touch of Mark Twain in her stance: she really does believe that the rumors of OUYA’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and will argue it intensely.

The numbers are in OUYA’s favor, Uhrman says. There’s 250 million game consoles worldwide but less than 30 million set top boxes. Amazon Fire TV’s gaming platform launched with 100 games, one of them developed exclusively for the device, all powered by a $40 controller that has to be bought separately. OUYA has seven times as many games, around 100 of which are exclusive and a community of tens of thousands of developers. Uhrman thinks Amazon has added games because they can but hasn’t given it much thought past that, which misreads what it takes to succeed with the gaming community.

“Gamers are a different audience. They’re vocal and want to feel a part of a community. Just creating a device where you’re indiscriminate about quality and not building those relationships, that’s not going to work,” Uhrman says.

OUYA is set on its games-first approach. The value it provides with its games is its reason for existence, Uhrman says. She thinks it would be dangerous for the company to distract itself by trying to become a media player. She isn’t bothered by the rush to centralize all content - games and otherwise - inside single devices and the near ubiquitous demand for Netflix and Hulu across all our screens.

Uhrman argues that many Smart TVs come pre-loaded now with the ability to stream Netflix. She adds that she has no doubt that Netflix and Hulu will eventually end up on OUYA at some point, it is just not a focus now. OUYA already has Vimeo and “Streaming content isn’t unique any more,” she says.

Part of the doomsday cries directed at OUYA regarding Amazon Fire Uhrman attributes to the misguided idea that there’s only space for one set top box or console in our living rooms. “We all say we don’t want another box, but then we bring Sonos and Apple TV and Roku in. A product that offers greater value than you already experience, you’re going to use it. OUYA wasn’t built to replace a game console. A big percentage of gamers have multiple consoles,” she says.

It’s an earnest articulation of how Uhrman sees the market, but unfairly or not, many people can’t see OUYA as a long term force. The company announced its OUYA Everywhere plan last month, to offer its games on other devices, which it keeps expanding out with new partner announcements. Uhrman wouldn’t even rule out a future where OUYA was available on a major set top TV box, like Amazon’s. She wants to find gamers with OUYA wherever they are playing.

But to people looking on, what Uhrman eyed as an expansion, others saw as a pivot, an admission of defeat and a concession that OUYA didn’t have faith in its hardware. She says it was a ridiculous response and that OUYA was following almost exactly what Amazon did with its Kindle. It built the hardware and then followed that with a Kindle app for iOS and Android so it didn’t limit the market of people buying its books. “We will always have a reference device. But you’re also going to see us on other things,” she says.

“You start thinking about a company one way and they change. Change is hard. OUYA can double and triple our audience by bringing our device to gamers this way. We’ve never tried to tie people into our hardware,” Uhrman says.

OUYA’s sales increased the week that Amazon Fire went on sale, Uhrman says. But sales had been increasingly steadily before that. The company has global distribution and is growing out its ecosystem.

Of course, how loudly Uhrman needs to yell this message for people to take it on as gospel, or whether these external protestations of good health mark more internal strife than Uhrman lets on, is a mystery.

Uhramn thinks that for all of the journalists that see OUYA drifting peacefully off into the night, the proof is in the OUYA product. It has improved massively since June, in her eyes. “Boot it up and try it out,” she says. Her words sound like half battle cry, half sales pitch. Given the daggers that have been thrown at OUYA, survival alone will be enough to prove critics wrong.