OUYA Shifting Away From Free-to-Try Business Model

Earlier this week, OUYA announced via its blog that they will be giving developers the option to not include a free-to-try portion of a game. This move came as a shock to many since one of the things they’ve used to hype the system up in stores is that everything on it is free to try. As someone who enjoys being able to record OUYA footage for Youtube videos just to get it out there since there isn’t a lot available, the free-to-try model is very convenient for me. I can just cue up a game to download, it does its thing, I launch it, check it out, and footage is out there for something that otherwise wouldn’t have much available. While that also means I check out stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have, like rogue-likes, it’s still a small-scale benefit though. The bigger picture is that developers do have to think about just how to approach a free-to-try model.

This issue came up last year when it was revealed that download-only Xbox One games wouldn’t have free demos available. The Xbox 360 got people used to free demos for XBLA and Indie titles, while the actual practice of demos fell out of favor towards the latter-half of the 360’s lifespan as devs faced the same challenge there that OUYA devs are facing now. Figuring out just what to make free is tough, and you don’t want to run the risk of delivering so much via a demo that someone has minimal incentive to pick the game up new. Sure, someone will likely pick a game up for $5-$10 after enjoying a demo, but that doesn’t help the developers or publishers – only the retailer.

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OUYA as a company is stuck in a no-win position by eliminating the free-to-try mandate, but it’s far from doom and gloom. The system’s been out for a long enough time, with the free-to-try part of things front and center that it’s evident it isn’t going to make the system anymore successful when it comes to reaching the mainstream. It makes the system an easier sell to those  on the fence about it, but the changeover to making the demo optional is clear evidence that it’s not making enough people interested in the platform to move numbers in a major way.

The company has always shown a passion for development – as evidenced by every system being capable of game creation, and making the barrier of entry only $100. That was a revolutionary move that set the standard for Android consoles, and has allowed developers like the folks behind Wrecking Balls Arena to finally craft games that they’ve dreamed about making since childhood. Sometimes, like an album, they want everything to be experienced a whole. If you think of a demo like a single, it makes sense. Some singles are released that bear no resemblance to anything else in the album, and while they might be good songs, they can also paint a picture that the artist didn’t intend. If you’ve got an album of 90% relaxing music and 10% rock, and the rock song gets out there, everyone’s going to expect rock and dismiss the rest of the album because it’s not like the song they heard.

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The best thing about this choice is that it is still up to developers to make the final call. If they’d like to make a demo, they can. If they don’t feel like it’s within their power, or their game’s format simply doesn’t work in demo form, then they don’t need to make one. So much hate has been spewed over this being the end of the free-to-try system and it really isn’t. It’s just the end of that business model as it existed before.  Every game on the platform now, roughly 700 titles, has a free option. That number will continue to grow as games will continue to have demos – it just won’t be 100% of the library. Hopefully, developers that go without demos will at least put a wide variety of screenshots up on the storefront, along with a trailer – extended trailers would be greatly appreciated as well. They’re always useful, but less so when something is free to try and you don’t really need something like that to get an idea for the full game.

Between this and the OUYA Discover store coming to other devices later this spring, it’s an interesting time to be an owner of the system. This move is controversial, but could lead to game quality as a whole getting better since the whole “well, it’s free to try” mentality won’t fly. Just like on the regular app marketplaces, something that costs money will be held to a higher standard than something that is free in some form, and who knows, maybe we’ll see ad-supported free console games on the system as a way for devs to make some money while still going with the free model. The worst thing that could happen with this move is that it alienates existing system owners, and while that will likely happen to a very small degree, it’s impossible to see it making a marked difference in sales. My hope is that it leads to developers holding themselves to a higher standard and then everyone wins. Gamers get better games for their system, the OUYA’s reputation improves as a result, and developers get more money which then encourages more developers to sink time and effort into an OUYA release.