These indie gaming devices need to level up some more

August 2, 2013

(Courtesy: Ouya)

Some gamers view the forthcoming release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 as the year’s big event. But others have been excited at the potential for two new devices, the Leap Motion and the Ouya, to shake up the video game industry by empowering independent gamers. Unfortunately these scrappy start-ups have produced products that are more exciting in theory than in practice.

Ouya made waves across the gaming world last year when it announced plans to make an alternative, Android-based and crowd-funded console that would free developers from the red tape required to get an independent game approved by Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ouya chief executive Julie Uhrman said her goal is to make developers -- not big publishing firms -- into the “rock stars” of the industry by offering the industry’s first totally open console.

But the current version of the Ouya, which launched in June, doesn’t quite live up to the hype. The first generation of the console suffers from less-than-ideal build quality and a dearth of really good games. One could forgive the Ouya these flaws given that it sells for just $99 with one controller. But the console also has more serious issues.

A marked lag between the controller and system makes some of the games very frustrating to play. And it’s not actually that easy to find the games you do want to play. The console’s menu for finding new games, the “Discover” menu, often suggests the same games over and over.

Leap’s hands-free controller for PC and Mac ($79.99) is also far from tapping its full promise as a gaming device. It was created in an effort to simplify 3D modeling. The founders tried to create an interface that made building something on-screen as easy as molding it out of clay. The firm sent 10,000 free units out to developers to build up its portfolio design, productivity and entertainment apps.

To be fair, games aren’t Leap’s primary focus; the device is designed to give users hands-free, “Minority Report”-style control over their computers. But the company has highlighted how gamers can use the device for games, developing its own block-stacking game, called Block 54 to show off the device's potential. The Leap Motion has been embraced by some developers as an alternative motion-gaming option. It has the potential to provide features similar to Microsoft’s Kinect, without the red tape required to get games approved for Microsoft’s platform.

Again, the theory here is solid. Users can plug the three-inch bar into their computers and set up the device to navigate through its menus with a wave of their hands. In games such as Cut the Rope, the motions work flawlessly. It’s also a joy in shooting games, where players can relive their days playing Cops and Robbers by staring down the barrel of their pointer finger. Still, the novelty can wear off quickly, especially when the device’s sensitive sensors occasionally respond to hand twitches when it shouldn’t.

Both companies have been smart enough to embrace the indie developer market in a way that older firms just haven’t grasped yet (though the big three have made some overtures to that community). Early enthusiasm from the gamers and developers shows that these are projects people who care about games want to succeed.

But for the average consumer, it’s hard to recommend either device, at least at this stage of development. We’ll have to hope that the gaming community’s enthusiasm for the ideas behind these products holds out long enough for products that are more suited to a mainstream market.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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