Gaming the System

How an upstart video game company crowdfunded millions and disrupted an industry

written by Rachel Swaby
photography by Amanda Friedman

 

Julie Uhrman The "Top Secret Gaming Company" placard outside OUYA's shared office space on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, is not a gag, but it may as well be. With some 63,416 Kickstarter backers, a recent $15 million infusion of venture capital and the June 25th launch of their brand new video game console-one poised to disrupt an industry largely unchanged for twenty years-the fledgling company is anything but undercover. 

A visit to OUYA's Los Angeles office in mid-June lands just one week before the $99 Rubik's cube-sized system shows up at Best Buy, Target and Amazon alongside the Xbox and PlayStation. The culmination of eighteen months of work will soon be in the hands of gamers, who will ultimately decide the product's fate. That is to say that on this Monday morning, UCLA Anderson alumna Julie Uhrman ('04), OUYA's founder and CEO, is fast-talking and effective, if a bit distracted. (Her phone's gravitational pull feels very real, even to me.) Uhrman is fresh on the heels of an eventful Electronic Entertainment Expo showing, and she talks as if she's discussed nothing but the promises of OUYA since the company's founding. But that's exactly the intense focus that has brought OUYA so far, so fast. 


"It takes a lot of guts and courage," says Uhrman at the kickstarter video's close. "And if I wasn't a female, I'd say big balls." 


By the time the idea for OUYA struck Uhrman in January 2012, she had amassed over a decade of experience in the gaming industry, including posts at IGN Entertainment and Vivendi Universal Games-enough to be confident she had spotted a gaping hole. "Gamers were moving to mobile and Web platforms because of their business models and the creativity of games. Games are easy to get into and accessible, most being free to play. Game developers were leaving their traditional console shops to build games for these platforms because they didn't require huge amounts of capital to make great games," explains 

Uhrman. "It was hard for me to reconcile that shift in the industry with what I love, which is playing games on my television." Access to the home's biggest screen had long been reserved for industry behemoths, but Uhrman recognized that it didn't have to be.

Making space in the living room for an inexpensive, open-source gaming system required no less than the creation of a brand new hardware company, the launch of a software platform and a gaming ecosystem cultivated from scratch.  So Uhrman got started immediately, making quick work of researching the market by polling game developers and players about her idea. The feedback was almost universally enthusiastic. Venture capitalists were also encouraging, but wary about investing so early. The feeling, Uhrman recalls, was that "it's a lot to get right." The central conundrum was traction. Gamers won't buy a console without substantial participation from quality developers; developers won't invest their time and money in a game unless there's a robust audience to consume it.  OUYA's highly persuasive pitch on Kickstarter resolved the catch-22. In the campaign's video, San Francisco-based designer Yves Béhar, who was commissioned by Uhrman in May 2012, explained his firm's approach to the product's design. By applying knowledge from several facets of the design world, they'd developed  a controller focused on the gamer's experience: "precise controls, tactility, the right sizing." 

Controller Sketches

The project passed the $1 million dollar mark in A mere 8 hours and 22 minutes-the  fastest climb the crowdfunding platform had ever encountered

Then, independent developers explained how OUYA, thanks to its open-source Android operating system, would finally give them the opportunity to code games for the television. Uhrman did not shy away from explaining the massive undertaking. "It takes a lot of guts and courage," she says at the video's close. "And if I wasn't a female, I'd say big balls."  Favorable press ignited the first wave of backers, which got the project to its goal and past the $1 million dollar mark in a mere eight hours and 22 minutes-the fastest climb the crowdfunding platform had ever encountered. In that first day, when 20,000 Kickstarter backers purchased a console, game developers saw their audience. As OUYA rolled out announcements that the video game developers Robotoki and Square Enix had signed on, hundreds of comments poured in. After 30 days, OUYA had grabbed $8,596,474 from their Kickstarter campaign and had grown a vast community of supporters in the process. Since last August, Uhrman has been hustling to make good on her company's promise. "Traditionally, you have this great idea for a product, then you sit behind closed doors, you build it out, you launch in beta, you pivot a number of times, and then you launch it again to the public and say, 'Here it is, it's perfect,'" says Uhrman. "We took  OUYA to market very differently. First, we asked gamers and developers if this is something they wanted. Then, we built it. We are developing OUYA in the open, with our supporters, sharing every part of development." With over 60,000 individual financial backers, OUYA has seen its hiccups spill out publicly onto dedicated Reddit pages and over Twitter. But on the flip side, they've also built a fan base invested in OUYA's success. Finally, traditional VC funding came around. In May of this year, OUYA closed a $15 million round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. 


Heading back to her office after coffee, Uhrman emphasizes that the milestone doesn't mean it's time for her to take a breather just yet. She is dogged in her quest for OUYA to thrive. After the console's release, she explains, the company just needs to keep improving. As always, the goal is to avoid two familiar words: game over.