Android-based gaming console Ouya launched on Kickstarter with a bang in 2012, crowdfunding more than $8 million and raising much more in venture capital before the software was acquired by hardware manufacturer Razer in 2015. Despite the promising start, Ouya wasn't long for this world.
Now, Ouya is shutting down for good and a group of game preservationists and Ouya fans are racing to preserve the console’s games before they’re potentially lost forever.
In late May, Razer announced it will shut down Ouya’s servers on June 25, disabling all the games available on the platform. Razer said in its announcement that “access to the Discover section will no longer be available,” and that games could still work “if they do not require a purchase validation upon launch.” Some free-to-try games may still work if you've already downloaded them, but the takeaway is: games will no longer be available via Ouya.
Razer’s ForgeTV and MadCatz MOJO game stores are being shut down, too. These platforms were linked to the Google Play store, however, and players will still have access there. Spokespeople for Razer didn't responded to VICE’s request for comment by publication time.
Self-described amateur video game historian Vojtěch Straka of the Czech Republic, who runs a preservation effort called Game History Association, is leading the efforts to preserve Ouya’s games before the system shuts off.
“It’s a perfect example—a cautionary tale—about the modern gaming landscape and how ephemeral it is,” Straka said. “The Ouya is not even a decade old and already we are talking about it's ultimate demise, leaving most of its library unplayable even for people who paid for it.”
The low hardware cost of $99 for the Ouya made it easy for developers (or aspiring developers) to access. Ouya’s goal was to make games “less expensive to make,” and it advertised on its Kickstarter that "every Ouya is a dev kit.” It’s all you needed to start developing games. Ouya created tutorials on how to make games, including one aimed at going from creation to uploading a demo in 15 minutes.
Not all games were Ouya exclusives, but many of the more obscure games were. That makes for a lot of weird, interesting indie games that could be lost forever once Ouya shuts down.
It's a familiar story in an area of e-shops for games. Early this year, Nintendo shut down the Wii Shop Channel. The company also intends to stop supporting all services for the Wii Shop Channel, which means that players will lose access to any purchased games that they haven’t already downloaded. And that’s how piracy has become necessary in preserving these games; there are just no other options in these instances.
For the Ouya project, Straka created a Discord group called Ouya Saviors shortly after Razer’s announcement to organize a team of volunteers to save what they can before June 25. Despite not actually being an Ouya user, Straka said he “gasp[ed] in horror” when the announcement was made—so he started combing his contacts for like-minded folks passionate about Ouya.
“Ouya is kind of a joke among the gaming community,” Straka told VICE over Discord. “It promised an alternative to traditional console ecosystems, made a whole lot of buzz, raised tons of money, and showed the strength of Kickstarter for projects like this. And then it was this magnificent flop.”
The system’s delayed launch, flawed controller, and new “free-to-try” model plagued Ouya’s release and development. The free-to-try model was contentious, because it added extra work for developers that needed to create a demo specifically for Ouya. The company dropped this payment structure in 2014 and gave developers the option to use a paid-first model.
“It’s, at best, a historical footnote, and, at worst, laugh-fodder,” Straka said. “But it has touched a lot of lives.”
The first thing the Ouya Saviors are doing is scraping metadata about all the games released on Ouya from the internet and the console’s software stores. That information is stored on a spreadsheet, and grouped into games that are free-to-try and games that must be purchased. The group is also downloading the games themselves for preservation, and buying the ones that aren’t free. For games that have been delisted from the shop, the group is crowdsourcing from Ouya players that might have it on their consoles.
Martin Štochl was among the game preservationists called to action by Straka. An early Ouya Kickstarter supporter, Štochl helped kickstart the preservation project on the Discord group. Now, he said he’s tasked with “scraping the e-shop information” and buying some of the more obscure Ouya games that no one may have bought. “Turns out there was quite a lot of those,” Štochl said.
“Since the barrier for indie developers was so low, there were a lot of very small games and one-developer projects,” Štochl said. “We find these tiny projects fascinating. They really show off how the developer was thinking. They’re very personal in nature, even if the game looks silly and was probably done in a few afternoons.”
The last step is to ensure that these games can still be played once the servers are shut down. Some Ouya Savior Discord users are tasked with researching ways to fool the games into playing offline. “This work will likely continue for many months in the future, even after the service shuts down,” Štochl said. At this point, this is the hardest job, which will require expert-level knowledge.
“The truth is, without piracy, a whole lot more games would be lost to time"
Once it’s done, preservationists won't publish the whole archive of scrapped data and playable game files due to legal concerns, Štochl and Straka said. However, they plan to publish a public list of the games and their metadata, but not the playable files, potentially alongside a guide for Ouya users to play games that no longer work on the system after the shutdown.
The Ouya Saviors have attempted to contact Razer for help in the effort, Straka said, but the company has been largely unresponsive save for a message directing the crew to the individual games’ developers. The team behind the preservation efforts has been in contact with developers, Straka said, but they’re struggling to get through the list of hundreds of developers who’ve created games for the console. A few Ouya developers are in the Discord server helping with the preservation efforts, however.
An estimated 80 percent of the Ouya library has been accounted for so far, Straka said—but not all versions will be the latest release version, nor are all the delisted games available. But without the Ouya Saviors effort, many of these games could be lost forever.
“Obviously I cannot be encouraging sharing of copyrighted material, but we need to be sure that people can back up their games for the future, and, at best, that every game is counted for so that nothing is truly lost,” Straka said. “The truth is, without piracy, a whole lot more games would be lost to time.”