About OUYA, the obvious and paradox of choice

Leia esta digressão em português.

Ah, the OUYA. Huge promises, huge dreams. And now, at the center of the attention, but not for a good reason. But what’s the relation between OUYA, obviousness and the paradox of choice? Well, let’s digress!

The dream of a cheap and democratic video game console based on an open source platform. 63k people believed and rooted for it, millions of dollars were raised, making it the second most funded Kickstarter (KS) campaign ever (as of the time of this digression) and it was finally released. With problems in logistic of delivery for early buyers and other issues, but it came to be!

Yet my digression is not about the idea of an open console, for-modding and such. I want to digress about their FTG campaign and how obvious its problems are.

Simplifying, FTG (which stands for Free The Game) is a campaign launched by OUYA to motivate the development of exclusive games. A developer starts a KS campaign for the game and if the funds break the US$50k mark, OUYA will double the total funded at KS in exchange for a 6 month exclusivity contract. In other words, double the money you earned (to a maximum of US$250k) in exchange for tying your game to OUYA for 6 months.

There are loads and loads of big sites arguing against it and there are also another huge number of commentators doing the same. There surely are problems with this campaign and how it was set up. There’s room for cheating, the money doesn’t get to the ones who really need it, the “voting system” is really flawed. Anyway, lots of obvious problems…right?

Sure they’re obvious! Lots of people agree, their arguments seems quite convincing, some data also support it and basic knowledge of human behavior is enough to foresee the problems.
How obvious is the obvious?
But what if your obvious is not everybody else’s obvious? I mean, is everything that is obvious for you, obvious for everybody else? Maybe not! (Though we could argue about the level of stupidity and lack of basic cognitive capacity of some, but not here.)

Maybe the obviousness of something is not as uniquely perceived by each individual as, for instance, colors are, but you’ll probably agree that the perception of what’s obvious and what’s not varies from person to person. What is it that allows you to say that something is “obvious”? Most likely your previous knowledge, experience…and belief! A problem may look obvious for you because you have the knowledge to pin-point the problem, you’ve already been there and done that, but maybe the most important thing is whether you believe it is a problem or not.

So what if the minds behind OUYA had the knowledge and the experience to see through many points that people are raising against FTG, but decided to keep the campaign that way because they didn’t believe those were actually “problems”? What if they actually wanted to keep smaller game developers from the pool? “Oh, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that! If they want to be open and democratic and all indie, they have to look at the small players, not the big ones!” is what some would say (or something along those lines, mainly arguing that it’s a self harm to keep small studios out).

I remember I read a comment that stated their disapproval to the message OUYA had for those game devs that couldn’t make it to the US$50k mark, which was something like a dismiss message, implying that, maybe, they should give up making games. And in fact the message is still there and yes, I also agree that it’s unnecessary.

But still, maybe they don’t want to give a direct help to the “small fries” out there (which can be argued for, considering the message). And it’s possible to argue that it’s a logical course of action in order to help OUYA grow, making their proposed campaign possibly a consistent choice.

And why would not helping the smaller studios be a logical choice? Well, maybe it’ll make more sense to ask why would helping the bigger studios be a logical choice. Of course we’re not talking studios the size of Square, Capcom, Rare and so forth. They likely don’t see any reason to join the OUYA fever (which may actually not be a good fever) even if they’re paid a good sum of money. We’re talking about bigger “indie game” studios that work on a budget of US$50k. “But indie game studios normally don’t work with that size of budget and given the OUYA’s numbers, it’s close to impossible to raise that kind of money!”. Yes, and that’s most likely OUYA’s mistake. But let’s leave that argument aside for a moment.

Let’s be fair. Answering why they should help bigger studios, although quite easy to answer, does not necessarily answer why they shouldn’t help smaller studios. Why should they look for bigger studios?

But before we start, let me point out one belief of mine which will be used to make the next argument. What defines the “size” of the studio? Money and fan base. And it’s possible that fan base is a more important asset than money in defining the size.

Ok, back to the question.

Just follow what seems to be the most obvious reasoning. Bigger studios means more money, therefore they have access to better staffs and equipment and can make a better quality game (yes, the [more money]=>[better quality] causality is not always true, but we’re going for the most obvious reasoning, remember that). A better quality game means higher chances of attracting more people to the console and more people spending their money to help it live. The more people have it and buy games for it, the more attractive it becomes as a platform for game devs, creating a virtuous cycle. Also, bigger studios means stronger names and possibly a larger fan base that are willing to follow the studio to a new platform and are willing to spend money on that platform, which also helps the virtuous cycle. Pretty obvious, right?

And why shouldn’t they focus on the smaller studios directly?

“Many “backyard game devs” have proven themselves and made a big hit game with little to no funds! Can you imagine how much more they could have done had they more money when they were starting?”

That’s a reasoning and a valid one, with valid examples (say hi to Cave Story, IWBTG, Minecraft and others). But still, how many “backyard game devs” are there? And how many of these have a large fan base? There are probably lots of small game devs scattered around the world, with a similarly scattered fan base. If they have a large fan base, they’re most likely not considered that “small”. Also, maybe it’s better to have 4 games that can bring 10000 new players each than having 20 games that can bring 2000 new players each.

But I believe there’s another argument against bringing loads and loads of games to a console (which is what would happen if they were to distribute their US$1M fund to 100 or 200 devs) and it goes along the lines of the so-called “paradox of choice”, backed up by the “jam experiment”. The “paradox” is that more choice means less action. Barry Schwartz presents some interesting arguments for this in one of his talks. And there’s also the well-known “jam experiment” which is said to have concluded that people were more willing to buy a jam when they were faced with less jam variety (6 options) than when faced with lots of variety (24 options). Yes, the study has been contested and replication of the experiment actually showed no sign of correlation between number of choices and willingness to buy.

Yet, this article from the National Review delves a little more into the studies and gives extra arguments. The jam experiment may not confirm the paradox of choice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that more options is the best scenario. It depends who is your target. For the well-informed and with strong preferences, having more choice is likely better. In other words, for the hardcore gamers, having more options is likely better, but for the casual gamer (hello Nintendo), having fewer options could be better. And it seems logic.

If you’re a hardcore gamer, you already have your preferred style and genre of game and you know what cues you should look for when choosing which game you’re going to buy so having more options means having a higher chance to find a good one. For the casual gamer, who just wants to play a game every once in a while without worrying too much, having fewer games means fewer headaches and faster decision-making.

Schwartz’s argues that more choice means that the decision maker is more accountable for the low outcome of the decision. It’s obvious that if you have 100 choices, there ought to be one that fits your needs, all you have to do is research and search for it. If you bought one that doesn’t fit your needs, it just means that you didn’t do your homework. Specially now a days, where you can access the internet pretty much everywhere so you have access to all the information you need to make a decision (except during tests, but that’s another topic). But you just want to have some fun, why should the phantom of guilty haunts you even before you buy a game? It’s so much easier to just pick the one based on the sheer number (which brings us back to why having fewer games that brings more players each is better than more games that brings fewer players each)!

Maybe OUYA (and other companies at some point of their existence) is thinking this way. Bring in fewer but “bigger” game devs so they can bring more people to the console without expanding the game catalog too much because it could hurt even more the sales that already aren’t that good. Maybe they gave more thought on how their sales would go up by bringing bigger players and didn’t think it wold be hard for game devs to reach the US$50k given OUYA’s user base.

Still, even if they’re thinking this way, their choice on how to pick who receives the money is most likely a failure. Or is it?

How could this be useful for OUYA? Isn’t it obvious? Ok, maybe not.

By allowing only the devs with money to receive more money, they pretty much get rid of most of the possibility of smaller studios having any chance. They’ve delimited fairly well the scope of their applicants. Is it prone to cheating? Yes, it is. But it’s prone to cheating only by the bigger studios, the ones that have enough money to break the US$50k mark or the ones that have a fan base that has enough money to help them break that mark. Obviously this does not mean that the games these studios develop are the best ones. But still, it’s consistent with the goal of attracting only bigger studios.

All in all, I also think it’s flawed. Mainly because it gives room for poor quality games to receive the funds. And it leaves room for games that are not wanted to receive the funds. Just like how it seems to be the case for the now infamous Gridiron Thunder. Other criteria should be added to try to keep track of quality and desirability of the game. Is it easy to find a good criteria for that? Well, I believe many have already suggested some criteria in the sea of comments in the other sites. But again, if the people behind OUYA don’t believe their choice is a problem, well…

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