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Xbox Creator Speaks On Ouya

Ed Fries started his career working for Microsoft, where he worked up to become the head of Microsoft’s Game Division. Now Fries is acting as an advisor on the Kickstarter-funded Ouya project – which aims to put a custom-based Android operating system into a console box. The system is set to release early next year, but we briefly chatted with Fries about his thoughts on the Ouya and how it compares to the release of the original Xbox.

You’re on the advisory board for Ouya. What drew you to that project?
A lot of times why people want me to be an adviser these days is just cause I am pretty connected in the gaming business, so I can help hook them up with different developers who might be interested or maybe hardware companies who might also be able to help, or I can just give advice from my experience in working in the console business. I try to do all of those things with Ouya. It’s fun to be part of a small team, small project, that was Kickstarted. It’s a great example of something that just couldn’t happen a few years ago. You couldn’t build competitive hardware just like that using off the shelf parts; you couldn’t fund it through crowd-source funding. The big cool developers wouldn’t have been interested in that. All these pieces had to fall into place to make Ouya possible. So, to me it was more like an opportunistic thing, these guys saw, “Ah, all these little pieces that we need to do this are all lying out there, what if we just do it?” It’s not even risky really, it’s like, “We’ll put it up on Kickstarter and people will like it or they won’t, if they like it then we’ll make it.” It’s almost sort of a free-to-play attitude up around a console launch, put your game out there and see what happens early on, as opposed to building it in secret for years. 

When you guys started working on the original Xbox, the concept was to put Microsoft Windows and Direct X in a stand along box. Now, Ouya is looking to put Android into a console box. Do you see that as a kind of spiritual successor in a way?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think the thing about Ouya that’s interesting to me, there’s sort of this obvious need that’s not being met. There’s sort of this need for this open console that’s digitally distributed, and it’s just not there. Apple isn’t doing it, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo aren’t really doing it. And so, Ouya is just kind of stepping into this opportunity for various historical reasons that no one else wants to go into. So I don’t know, Xbox was a little different than that I think.

Ouya had a Kickstarter goal of less than a million, but it ended up raising over eight; did the response to the Ouya concept surprise you guys at all?
I asked the CEO that, Julie Ehrman, the other day and she said absolutely, it absolutely surprised her. I guess I didn’t think about it enough at the time to have an opinion about whether it would work or not. It was kind of like, “Let’s just try it and see,” but it has been exciting to watch it grow and be part of it.

Do you feel that the process of launching a new console in the market has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years?
I think it’s going to have an impact on the way consoles and developers interact in the future. It’s getting harder and harder for the traditional consoles to ignore the Apple kind of experience. Anybody can develop for the platform, certification is a relatively cheap and painless thing, and in the old days of consoles there are all sorts of myths and legends that say that’s a bad thing to do. That’s why the game business melted down in ’84, there was too much junk on the market, but now you’ve got guys who make games like Fez who can’t do an update to their game because it costs too much, if that game was on iOS that wouldn’t be a problem, but because it’s on XBLA it’s a problem. Those kinds of ideas have to go away in the next generation. They’ll go away in Ouya, they’ll go away if Apple brings some kind of product into this space, the console makers like Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, they have to respond to that, it’s just the future. Likewise they have to respond to the free-to-play game model, the world is changing, people want this free-to-play experience, game developers want to build free-to-play experiences and the console ecosystem has to adapt to that. It can’t just be $50 product in a box all the time.

Do you see Ouya as a direct competitor to Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, or is it kind of like it’s own thing?
No I don’t think they see themselves that way, I think they see a market niche opportunity, they don’t know how big it’s going to be, but it’s already big enough just through Kickstarter to make it happen. We’ll just see how it goes. 

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