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October 2013 Retro Gaming Article

October 9, 2013 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

Is the Oton-X an AI masterpiece or the SaladShooter of game development scams?

FYI - The Oton-X game console rears it's head under a company name Engeniux every few years. Various failed crowd funding campaigns have occurred and no one I can find has ever seen one. I file this project under "Fantasy" as a kinder term than "scam". If the Oton-X's premise excites you, do your research! this is not likely to ever come to fruition and it seems heavily based on conjecture and wishful thinking.

Putting pixels in your Presto SaladShooter = Streets of Rage For your enjoyment...

If I had to choose between a juicer or a SaladShooter, I'd have to go with the SaladShooter. I don't care for fresh juice or salads, but Presto locked in the cooler name. Who wants to drink a cucumber when you can shoot it?

Ostensibly, both products share a similar concept - dump stuff into the top and something derivative comes out the bottom. Being a beverage or a side dish simply depends on which button you accidentally leaned on while watching QVC on your Smart-TV.

What if Presto went pixels instead of lettuce? What if that As-Seen-On-TV miracle could spew out a video game? No, really. Just as you control which veggies you put into your SaladShooter, what if you had similar control over game elements?

Derrick Samuels may have just what you've been looking for, but he's doing it without violating any Presto patents. No stranger to hardware development, his company began by making the EVO Smart Console in November 2008. Running linux as a multi-use game console it also did a variety of media tasks. Interestingly, it ha a wide variety of ports including DVI, HDMI, SD card, 2 USB2, 2 Ethernet as well as DVD support. It was released in very limited quantities - far fewer than needed to attract game developers. Interviews suggest that the EVO Smart Console may not have been intended for public domain, but as a stepping stone toward something bigger.

The EVO Smart Console was to be followed up by the EVO 2 in 2012 (initially called the GameBox) which added Android gaming to the mix. Alas, Julie Uhrman and her Ouya crew amassed millions on Kickstarter eclipsing the EVO 2 and it's Android fanfare. Samuels stepped up his game and went to work on his next project the Oton. The EVO 2 was cancelled.

What Makes the Oton Unique

I've been seeing online mention of the Oton gaming console in various forms for a while and decided it was time to find out what it is... and if it will be released to the public.

Oton Console mockup Oton Console pic 2 EnGeniux was formed as the company to build the Oton... post EVO 2. Oton is an abbreviated variant of "autonomous". The gist of the Oton is it's ability to generate games on it's own - autonomously - without human interaction. Going back to our SaladShooter metaphor, the Oton combs a database of game elements from backgrounds & sprites to physics & goals then creates games on the fly. This would enable endless unique gaming experiences.

I'm fascinated by this idea from a technical standpoint. We've seen that grand masters don't stand a chance against chess computers and IBM's Watson can rule the roost at Jeopardy. Can a series of gaming elements be assembled on the fly to create an endless array of compelling possibilities? Technically speaking it must be possible, but is it possible to do this in a hardware format (as a game console) at a reasonable price point?

Nintendo, Sony & Microsoft have established a $300-$400 expectation for 8th gen game consoles. For that price you get a piece of hardware that aims to do more than just play games and the games they play range from downloadable indie titles to blockbuster games from the industry's most successful game developers. That's a hefty price tag, but you get a slew of games that are proven winners. Can an unknown company carve out a niche with games that are randomly assembled? Even the Android-based Ouya had a few renown publishers on it's roster. That won't be possible for Oton without some fairly complex licensing agreements with the Big Boys.

Crowd Funding the Oton

Kickstarter is the darling of crowd-funding and upped their cred by insisting hardware be shown in "present state" as opposed to all those bar-napkin sketches that amounted to a lot of fund raising and no end result. Not being that far along, EnGeniux went the way of Indiegogo to obtain crowd-funding.

They raised $1,099 of their $750,000 Goal. I won't bother doing the math, but that's not a very good ratio. Their intro video struck us as being more about wow-factor than reality. They mentioned a hardware option that contains a built-in projector enabling the console to project onto any flat surface - no TV needed. They freely admit, in the Risks & Challenges section, that "The biggest challenge with OTON X was producing its next generation software and a functional prototype." Not having a functional prototype may explain the dismal outcome of the crowd-funding campaign. It's anomalies like this that caused many online forum speculations that the Oton was perhaps a joke or a scam. The folks at Polygon critical and skeptical of the Oton as early as January 2013.

Can Meaningful Games be "Assembled"?

We think the "Are video games art?" question has been answered, but now we have to raise the question of can art be created by robots or algorithms? Sure it can! We've seen both music and visual art created out of similar algorithms and rules. But very often the motivation behind such projects boils down to - because we can.

When you look at the motives and skills of an artist, the argument changes a bit. Artists create art, but you don't have to be an artist to create art. Therein lies our sticking point. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so art can be many different things. In gaming, I feel the human element that creates a game adds elements that make us care. Whether playing a seemingly simple 8-bit game or an epic modern game, our ability to bond with characters and care about outcomes begins to separate good games from mediocre ones.

Oton Console mockup It was imperative to nail that Last descending Space Invader just as protecting the last remaining city made Missile Command tense, engaging and important. Modern games like The Last of Us draw us in and we care for and fight for our characters and their companions. Despite being pixels on the screen we bond with these characters. I think that the human element of crafting characters and their stories has a great deal to do with our interest in these games.

It is hard to believe that an algorithm assembling various elements, on the fly, would be able to make a compelling game that would have lasting value. Even with the promise of more gaming assets being added into the Oton over time, it seems as though such randomness defeats the premise under which so many of us love playing console video games. We bond with the characters and play as them and alongside them!

The Oton is a very compelling idea, yet there are too many unknowns about this console which is partly due to it's large scope. I'm curious to see where this goes and who follows along. You'll find more Oton info on their Website which will link you to their social media. Should be an interesting ride!

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