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AtariBox hype, speculation

I’ve been around long enough to know how the Hype Machine works with videogame launches.

First, there’s a teaser announcement. It doesn’t tell you anything, but it’s designed to make you very curious, excited, and speculate about what it could be. The AtariBox website currently has a simple video showing the famous Atari Fuji logo, and the suggestion that a new game console is coming soon.

Next, there’s a bit more information leaked to the right media outlets; Joystiq, Kotaku, Polygon, etc. A few more bare details are leaked, but mostly as unconfirmed rumors. This creates a lot of buzz among the most dedicated followers of games. Gamers are incredibly demanding and fickle, or else ultra-apologist fanboys who will eat up (and forgive) anything. Everyone starts talking about what they hope the new product will be.

Gradually, more mainstream media starts to pick up on the story, and reporting on it. We’re at that point now.

I read the Forbes opinion. The author’s take on it is that gaming consoles have become indistinguishable from each other, there’s too much sameness between Xbox and PlayStation, so (he thinks) maybe Atari can make room for itself in the market by differentiating itself… somehow.

And it’s true. In the old days, there was a lot more variety in game consoles. The hardware developed by various big players and also-rans (alsos-ran?) was widely divergent in its engineering and capabilities, especially in terms of how they handled graphics and sound. Most systems were built around one of two chips: the MOS 6502 or the Zilog Z80, but had vastly different approaches to generating sound and drawing pixels to the TV screen, resulting in characteristics that could not be replicated by any other game console, meaning that each system necessarily had to take a unique approach to implementing a port of a given game design, resulting in vastly different experiences for the same title on various systems (when a title was even released on multiple systems, which wasn’t always a given).

But as engineers iterate, designs gradually converge on what works best. And in 2017 with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, we’re currently at the 9th generation of game consoles.

The thing is, the old consoles were different because their hardware was very different, AND because games were coded in ASM so that they could get every last bit of the very limited hardware’s capability. Neither of those is true now, nor will it ever be again. Computer hardware is extremely expensive to R&D, so open, commodity architectures that are well known to developers will be favored, leading to a convergence in hardware. Games are programmed in high-level languages so that the same code runs on multiple platforms. The result is uniformity.

No new modern console will support some non-standard resolution or unique color palette that will give their games a look uniquely its own. It’ll be 32-bit RGB color, 1080p or 4K, 60Hz or better. Controllers may vary, slightly, but the fact is if a game cant sell on multiple platforms, it won’t get developed (except by Nintendo). So having a unique controller only means you’ll secure a small segment of the market for yourself, while conceding the bulk of the market to games developed to more common/standard controllers. That’s what Nintendo’s approach has been since the Wii. And while NIntendo was successful with the Wii, they stumbled with its follow-up Wii U, and most people believe that Nintendo are only able to continue to be successful on the strength of their first-party IP that they keep exclusive to their platform.

What does that leave Atari? If they think they can go toe to toe against MS and Sony, they’re dreaming. Atari’s R&D and innovation more or less stopped in 1983, despite the last gasps the Lynx handheld and Jaguar console represented. Atari does have some strong IP in their arcade classic titles, but these have been re-released and re-hashed probably on the order of a dozen or more times already, mostly as nostalgia bundles that have been put out for every next-gen console since the SNES, occasionally as “reboots” or “sequels” that never seem to recapture the original magic.

The Ataribox *could* be a cool console, if it embraces retro. I have no interest in a 9th-Gen game system just because it happens to have the Atari name on it. What I *am* excited about is the possibility of a “what if” console, where imaginative game developers do a kind of speculative retro-future take on where 8-bit style games that Atari were known for in the 70s and 80s could have gone — a bit like what steampunk is to science fiction, the Ataribox could be to modern-retro gaming. Think an graphics processor constrained to 8-bit index color graphics, driven by a modern 3+GHz CPU with gigabytes of RAM instead of a few kilobytes, and beautiful (but limited-palette, low-fi) graphics without the sort of severe limitations such as sprites per line, etc.

That’s kind of what I hope it turns out to be. I have no idea, but that would be cool and truly different. Not just another Xbox/PS with a Fuji logo, please.

A Pitfall III that looks and feels like Pitfall I and II, but has all kinds of cool new challenges would be kind of awesome. (Of course, we already have Spelunky… but that’s just it, there’s a ton of retro-inspired modern indie games that could feel right at home on a modern retro console. A few years ago, I had high hopes that the Ouya would be that console. I still think the concept has merit, but whether it can survive and thrive in the market is largely in doubt.)

The thing is, there’s no reason to design special hardware constraints into such a system; a designer can voluntarily impose any such constraints on themselves to produce “retro style” games. That’s what we do now, when we want to.

I’m interested in seeing what the AtariBox is, but my enthusiasm is held in reserve. Why? Simply because at this point we know nothing about it, and because everything about the history of the videogame industry strongly suggests that it’s unlikely to succeed at a level needed to support a large company, and small companies tend to fail.

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