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If I could design the AtariBox…

Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the AtariBox (or VCS, as they’ve taken to calling it) is underway and has reached the $2.5 million mark, with 25 days left in its IndieGoGo campaign.

My initial interest in the new console has been dimmed by the lack of concrete information about what it would be and what games would be available for it.

We now have some of that information, at least in terms of hardware specs. But we still haven’t seen much in the way of a list of new game titles that will be accompanying the launch. AtariBox will not be compelling enough to gamers if it does not offer a library of exclusive new game titles that are fun to play, and not available on existing platforms.

I’m not opposed to the idea of a new Atari console at all; done right, I think it could be great. The concept of a neo-retro game console is appealing. Atari’s approach is to use emulation to deliver the retro, and commodity x64 hardware to provide the modern.

The problem with this is that the specs aren’t impressive to modern gamers, and this amounts to a “me too” approach that will not provide Atari a means to differentiate themselves in the market. History has shown that the home console market can support at best 3 major competitors, and it’s unthinkable that a rebooted Atari can knock any of the established Big 3 out of the market.

Home consoles are dominated by Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Desktop gaming is dominated by Windows. Mobile device gaming is dominated by Google and Apple. I’m very doubtful that nostalgia alone can give Atari the leverage it needs to re-enter the market. Not when Atari’s IP has already been re-packaged and sold on every available platform to be launched since the NES.

And we still don’t really know what new games will be launched on the console.

Atari needs to deliver something unique. And it has to be good.

Here’s what I’d do, if I were Atari.

Best Legacy

To properly honor Atari’s legacy platforms, I would include FPGA implementations of the Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, and 8-bit computer line. FPGA implementation of original hardware is the best way to provide the most authentic experience of Atari’s legacy. It would quiet objections of “But I can already run an emulator!” The state of emulation is very, very good, but an FPGA would be the ultimate.

I don’t think it would be too difficult to implement, either. The Atari 7800 was backward-compatible with the 2600, and achieved this by including the complete 2600 system in its hardware design. So by implementing an FPGA-based 7800, you get the 2600 as well. The Atari 5200 was essentially an Atari 8-bit computer, stripped down to remove the disk drives and keyboard to make it a dedicated gaming console. So a FPGA solution for the 5200/8-bit computers can share a lot of common components as well. Make both FPGAs a superset of the hardware needed to support the largest system, while keeping compatibile with all systems.

We can’t forget about Atari Coin-op’s legacy. Here, there’s too many unique system architectures to be able to re-implement each of them in an FPGA, so here I think we can accept emulation.

It would be neat if Atari would sell actual arcade cabinets that you can dock an AtariBox into, and use it to drive a more authentic arcade experience for those who have the budget and floor space for it. Modular, interchangeable control decks that can plug into the cabinet and provide the exact control set and layouts for classic arcade games would be amazing. Even just selling kits or blueprints to enable enterprising hobbyists to build-their-own cabinets to an Atari-defined standard would be great.

For less well-heeled fans of the arade, the AtariBox could still be played through a normal TV, with a gamepad-type controller adapting to each Coin-op title as best it can.

What legacy game titles should be included?

Ideally, all of them, of course. First party, third party, everything.

Copyright won’t allow that, of course. But it would be great if the entire Atari library, including third party releases, could be included.

But undoutedly, any list of essential games for Atari consoles would include games published by third parties, and they deserve to be included. The rights to these games would be a nightmare to properly secure. Personally, I’m in favor of expiring copyright on old computer software much earlier than the law currently does. A 10 or 12 year copyright, non-renewable, is more than reasonable. It’s just a dream, but then this entire post is just a dream.

I suppose if we had to accept a curated list of game titles, I wouldn’t miss the terrible games, but I don’t know that everyone can agree on what’s terrible. Since the size on disk for these games is tiny, there’s no technical reason not to include everything.

While I’m thinking about it, I also want the ability to install my own ROMs. Hacks and homebrews are a part of the Atari ecosystem, and should be embraced by the new console. Installing them should be as simple as copying the files to a directory.

Along with the ROM images, customers should expect high-quality digital copies of the manuals, original box art, etc. Since this is a fully modern console, why not develop a robust social community around each game title, as well? Online high score leaderboards, discussion forums, built-in streamcasting support, the works. The community integration features would make owning an AtariBox a must even for gamers who already own all the original hardware.

What peripherals devices should be supported?

This is a tougher question. I’m inclined to want every port and connector to be replicated on the new box, so that the old devices can be plugged in and work, since it’s unlikely that Atari would ever resume manufacturing all of them. But that’s highly impractical, and cost-prohibitive.

Perhaps some kind of USB-to-legacy port adapters could be produced, so that the console itself can have just a small number of USB ports, and any legacy hardware can be routed through it.

Better would be modern production of updated classic designs. I really like Atari’s new take on the CX-40 joystick, and I wish they’d also produce a modern paddle controller as well.

Retro Modern

I really don’t want to play Skyrim or PUBG on an AtariBox. If I want to play modern games, I already have plenty of systems to do that. If it can do it on the AtariBox, then fine, whatever, but I don’t care.

Oyua tried to court Indie game developers, hoping that an open platform with low barrier to entry would be attractive. This approach had merit, but utlimately failed, and so I don’t endorse Atari taking the same approach.

I think it’s interesting and worth a sidebar to examine why Ouya failed.  There were more reasons than what I’ll go into here, but I think these are the ones that are most relevant to Atari in 2018.

First, Ouya tried to market itself as an indie-friendly console, that was easy to develop and publish for.  Every Ouya was a devkit.  The thing was, Ouya came at a time when it had already become incredibly easy for indie game developers to publish games. This wasn’t true several years previous to Ouya’s launch, but it was true by the time Ouya hit the market, and is even more true today. Maybe consoles were still hard to develop and publish on in 2012, but in the PC and mobile space, self-publishing has been very easy, and that’s where indie developers had thrived.

It still remains difficult, however, for indie developers to publish games that are financial successes.  There are a tiny number of notable successes where indie games have made their developers wealthy.  Most developers struggle to make enough money to cover development and operating expenses. Designing and making a very good game is still fairly difficult, but publishing it is comparatively easy. But it’s not enough to simply publish a very good game. You have to know how to market it. A lone indie developer has an almost impossible time doing it all well enough to stand out among thousands of games being released every year.  Many newly released games drown in a maelstrom of other new releases, failing to secure the attention they perhaps deserved.

Second, Ouya didn’t provide indies with a compelling reason to release their games exclusively on Ouya, and the lack of exclusive titles gave gamers little reason to pay attention to Ouya. Ouya started with a lot of crowdfunding hype, but tiny marketshare, and it needed to grow marketshare quickly to be viable.  But they lacked first-party games, and this was a major mistake.  Ouya failed to command market attention, didn’t build marketshare, and thus wasn’t attractive as a market for third party game developers to target with exclusives. It could run games that already ran on other platforms.  But it wasn’t particularly powerful, so couldn’t play everything.  Atari seems to be doing exactly the same thing with AtariBox.

Ouya was based on Android, which in turn was based on Linux, so game developers who wanted to reach the widest possible market were better off developing games for Android which has hundreds of millions of devices, or Linux.  AtariBox is also based on Linux. Ouya lacked the deep pockets that would have been needed to pay developers for exclusive rights to a game, so Ouya never had a “killer app” that would compel gamers to buy Ouya.

Until I see them announce some exclusive new first-party titles, I see the same happening to Atari. Atari can and must learn from this if it wants the AtariBox to be successful, and I haven’t yet seen indication that it has.

The AtariBox we’re getting from Atari is just a nice looking x86/64 system, meaning it’s generic PC hardware that can play games developed to run on this hardware, which means potentially a very large library of pre-existing games. But pre-existing games aren’t enough to compel users to buy a new device. It’s good for developers because they don’t really have to do much to make a game run on the AtariBox, but it’s bad for AtariBox because the same games can be compiled to run on Xbox One, or Playstation 4, or Nintendo Switch, or Windows, or Android, or iOS, and people already own those.

What I would have liked from Atari would be imaginative interpretations of what could have been, if Atari had stayed in business.

In the early 80’s, the differences between different systems were much more apparent. A game might be developed and released on Atari 2600, 5200, ColecoVision, IntelliVision, Oddyssey2, Commodore 64, Apple ][, and IBM PC, ZX Spectrum, MSX, etc. but it would be written from scratch, or ported to each specific hardware architecture, each of which had its own distinct capabilities and limitations. Limitations which, especially for the more primitive sysetms, gave all games for that system a somewhat distinct appearance. This meant that, even if you had never seen a particular game before, you could look at a screen shot for a game and have a pretty good chance of being able to guess what system it was running on.

With today’s computers, and their 64-bit, multi-core, multi-gigaHertz CPUs, multiple gigabytes of RAM and Terabytes of Storage, 32-bit color and 1080P or 4K resolution, there is nearly limitless capability, but barely any constraints. Game developers are free to make games that look like anything. But yet they mostly make games that look the same — only, the constraint is the market success of whatever the best selling games are — design tends to converge on the look of the top AAA titles.

Those constraints that the old systems had often served to inspire creativity, out of necessity to work around the limitations of tiny, slow systems. In recent years, “fantasy consoles” such as the PICO-8 have turned back to this idea that small systems with harsh constraints can inspire creativity while achieving a greater unity of aesthetic.

It would be very cool if Atari embraced this, by designing a “fantasy console” to run neo-retro Atari games on. This fantasy console could be a virtual machine, and run on commodity hardware, which would help keep costs down and also give the AtariBox capabilities where and when it needs them — for things like media streaming and so forth.

I think that Atari could design a flexible fantasy console, with soft constraints that are configurable, to be managed by the game developer, who could relax them by degrees to simulate hardware constraints that would have been in place in 1977, or 1982, or 1984, etc. A configurable fantasy console could impose limitations such as: number of sprites that can be drawn to the screen, number of colors per sprite, number of colors displayed simultaneously in one frame, number and type of sound channels, specific color palettes available to the graphics system, amount of memory available to the game program, and on and on.

This would give AtariBox games a specific flavor, and make its games look and feel distinctly unique from the current modern-day look.

We won’t be getting any of that, but I think it’s an interesting idea. And there’s no reason Atari couldn’t give us a neo-retro fantasy console to develop for and run exclusively on the AtariBox hardware, without changing anything else about how they’re doing the actual AtariBox.

The way to attract developers to create exclusive titles for the AtariBox is simple: Pay them, and respect them. I doubt that Atari has the pocket book for this, but if they could pay indie developers say, six figure salaries, and/or royalties, to create unique and exclusive games for an AtariBox fantasy console, I’d be very excited — both as a gamer and as a developer. The current industry is incredibly competitive and harsh, and the way it treats developers is not sustainable.

What about the GAMES?

The most important thing about the AtariBox, as with any game console ever released, is the games it plays.  AtariBox must have good, unique, exclusive games that excite the market and make people feel compelled to own the console, or it will be a flop.

I can’t answer the question, “what do people want?”  But I can say, if AtariBox’s new games are just the same modern titles that are available on existing consoles, it will not excite the market or compel buyers.

I can better answer the question “what do I want?”

I don’t really want Atari to try to do modern AAA games with old classic IP.  You can easily envision Atari putting a Pitfall Harry skin over Lara Croft Tomb Raider, or making “Combat 2018” as a Call of Duty/Medal of Honor/Battlefield FPS.  I don’t want more of the same, “me too” games like that.

What I would rather have is new games that continue the aesthetic and style of the early 80’s Atari. That’s the main reason I suggest AtariBox use a “fantasy console” approach, to constrain developers to those limits.  There isn’t really a word for it — I guess retro is it — but if you can imagine what Steampunk did for science fiction based on an 1890s world, I’d like AtariBox to do for videogames based on a 1980s world.  I want games that answer questions like: “What would Pitfall 3 have been like, if they’d done it on the 7800?” “What kind of games could have been made for an Atari with 1 megabyte cartridges and 128 kilobytes of RAM?”

Games like Solaroids and Rashlander would be right at home on a console like this.  Pac Man: Championship Edition, which came out over a decade ago on Xbox 360, would also be a natural fit for this console.  (I bought my Xbox 360 solely because of Pac Man CE.) These titles already exist though, and that kindof begs the question of why the AtariBox is even needed.  Retro games already exist, and exist on multiple modern platforms.

But I do think AtariBox would be best off targeting the market that wants to play that kind of game.  Atari has trademarks that they can reboot, and if they do it the retro way, rather than trying to bring them up to date, with the right talent behind it, it could be awesome.  As AtariBox exclusive titles, it could make the system a success.  And without them, I don’t see how it can be.

Updated: 2018-Jun-07 — 3:18 pm

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