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The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

Tempest 4000 released

Bad news for AtariBox fans:  Tempest 4000 was released today.  Why is this bad for AtariBox?  Well, Tempest 4000 is the one new modern launch title that Atari has announced for the doomed console, and the game is available today on XBox One, PS4, and Windows. Anyone who’s excited to play T4K can play it now, and will not have to wait a year plus and buy a $300 console for the privilege.  Well, at least T4K is still published by Atari SA, so whatever platform you might buy it for, they’ll get some money.

Hey, Atari, congratulations on launching a product! I’m glad to see you were able to play nice with Jeff Minter and work together to put this out.

So what else does AtariBox have up its sleeve?  Any exclusive content?  A second launch title?  An Q&A article published on Medium on July 13 is the only new PR that I’ve seen from Atari SA since the close of the campaign on June 30. Atari SA remain very quiet about it, and have not put much information out since the close of their IndieGoGo campaign, which raised just short of $3M in pre-sales for the system — well short of the amount raised in 2012 on Kickstarter by Ouya, which raised over $8.5M and had 6 times as many backers, yet struggled in the market and failed to gain marketshare due to a lack of compelling exclusive content.)

Hyperkin RetroN 77 Reviewed

The 1-line review:

It could have been so much better.

In a nutshell:

Hyperkin RetroN 77

RetroN 77 is a conveniently packaged, aesthetically attractive $70 box that allows you to play (many, but not all) Atari 2600 cartridges on a HDTV set, or play ROMs for Atari 2600 games off a microSD card, powered by Stella, the most popular emulator for the Atari 2600.

HDMI output is cool, for ease of connecting to modern TVs, and for image quality. But that’s really the only truly good thing about this.  And it’s no better than running Stella on a PC.

The other things I liked about this when I first heard of it:  the cartridge slot, and the DB9 joystick ports, (which are the same as on the original system, allowing for play with original controllers).  But both of these features are compromised — many games will not play on cartridge in the RetroN 77, and the included joystick is, while a nice design that feels comfortable in the hand and includes ambidextrous buttons, is fragile and too clicky in use.  Fortunately those original controllers can be plugged into the RetroN 77 and work, but they still should have did better with the included joystick. And frustratingly, Hyperkin knew it, and yet they still shipped this product.

Also worth mentioning, the system offers saving and restoring your game state at the press of a button.  But the button is located on the console, where it’s less than easy to reach, not on the controller, where it would have made more sense (although, to be fair, I don’t see how they could have done this while preserving compatibility with the original DB9 controller port, and I definitely would not want to give that feature up just to have easier access to a save/restore button.) But the worst thing about the Save and Restore buttons is that they’re identical to each other, and to the adjacent “game select” and “game reset” buttons.  If you want to save your game, you must quickly hit the correct button, and if you screw up and hit any of the other buttons, you’ll either restore a previously saved gamestate, or reset the game, both of which will be ruinous to your current progress.  So this feature is just not very well thought out, and not very useful.  Also, the RetroN 77 can only save ONE gamestate per game cartridge or ROM file, making this feature extremely limited.  This is sad, because the included SD card has a 128MB capacity, and the entire Atari 2600 library will fit easily into less than 2MB, meaning that the memory card potentially has room for virtually infinite save files.  So none of that extra space will ever be put to good use.  All they had to do was add a menu to the Load button so that you would have to choose which save file to reload, or delete, and it could have been so much more.

RetroN 77 may be worthwhile to own — if you just want to take something simple out of the box, plug it in and go, with no software setup and configuration and have it simple and just work, except of course for the many games it doesn’t support on the cartridge slot. But ultimately it will not satisfy a serious gamer who wants to play his entire library of Atari 2600 games.

Even so, I’m glad that a company is at least trying to make something like this. The original hardware won’t last forever. I just wish that the execution were better.

Let’s get into the details.

Complaints:

  • System isn’t instantly on when you flip the power switch to ON. There’s a several second delay, long enough to make you wonder if the thing isn’t broken. Every time.
  • Way old version of Stella running on this thing.
  • Stella is a great emulator, and even this old version is very good. But emulation just isn’t as cool as ‘real hardware’ or an FPGA implementation of real hardware. In this case, it’s because the RetroN doesn’t REALLY play the game that you plugged into the cartridge slot; it copies the ROM off the cartridge and temporarily loads it and runs it in Stella, but for some reason (maybe because the Stella version is old?) it’s not capable of running cartridges that have extra processor chips in them.
  • Doesn’t support many games on the cartridge slot (basically, any of the later cartridges that packed extra chips to extend the capabilities of the obsolescent Atari 2600: Pitfall II, Mountain King, etc.) Update: A Retron 77 user has created a public list of tested games. It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have created this list, themselves, at least for the majority of games, rather than leaving it to users to figure it out for ourselves.
  • The joystick feel could be better, and durability is unacceptable. Everyone is reporting that the joystick breaks mere hours into playing with the system. Hyperkin acknowledged this is a known issue and promised to replace broken controllers, and to release a re-engineered controller that will be more robust. But why didn’t they just wait and release when it was ready? This shitty joystick will do nothing for Hyperkin’s reputation or to sell the system.
  • They really should have made a modern paddle controller, since original paddles are so fragile and need reconditioning in order to avoid jitter and work properly.
  • System should remember the aspect ratio mode it was last in rather than default to 16:9.
  • Button layout for the console switches could have been better (ie, more like the original Atari 2600 6-switch model’s layout, same type of switches would have been so cool).
  • Limited number of “slots” for ROMs on the SD card (this is supposed to be fixed in a future firmware update.)

But this is a Hyperkin product, so what did you expect?  Right?

If you have any PC or Mac built in the last 20 years or so, or a Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to a decent monitor, buy a Stelladaptor and plug in an original CX40 joystick, you do not need the RetroN77 — unless you are a completist or enjoy being disappointed.

If you have original working hardware, you may not need the RetroN77, either, depending on if your HDTV can handle the video output, or you can mod your console, or if you still have an old NTSC CRT TV that works.

There’s hope Hyperkin can salvage this with a firmware update that updates Stella to the latest release available, ship replacement controllers that aren’t fragile, but even so it’d be better to hope this sells well enough for them to maybe bother with a “deluxe” 2.0 system that is FPGA-based and addresses the issues I listed above (and supports 5200, 8-bit, and 7800 games!)

But really, it would have been much better if Hyperkin had waited and worked out these issues and released the product when it was ready, rather than push something out to hit the 7/7 release date.

(Did anyone ACTUALLY care that the RetroN 77 was officially released on 7/7?)

No.  No one did. Except the marketing department at Hyperkin.

It was pretty nice of them to include a 128 MB SD card with the unit, fwiw.

Not recommended.

I will revisit the recommendation once Hyperkin are shipping the improved joysticks they’ve promised, and once they’ve released a firmware update, or some firmware hacks are available to give a better user experience. When a firmware update is available, it will be found here. But as is, out of the box this is a device that feels like it needed more development and refinement before it should have been considered for release.

And if you just gotta have a quantifiable rating…

5-star rating: 2/5 stars
Grade: C-

I’d give the RetroN 77 a full star or letter grade better rating if/when they replace the fragile joystick, and another letter grade if/when they release a modern paddle controller.  The actual console is not bad, for what it is, but when you understand it as a simple dedicated Stella box, running a rather outdated version of Stella, it becomes much less compelling, particularly with the current limitation of the number of ROMs on SD card that it will display in its UI, and the compatibility issues with various games on cartridge.  It’s just not good enough to make me recommend it over downloading Stella, plus as many ROMs as you care to find, and playing them on a PC hooked up to a HDTV, using a Stelladaptor with authentic controllers.

Hyperkin now taking Retron77 pre-orders, shipping in July

As if to show Atari how it’s done when a real company develops a real product, Hyperkin announced today that they’re now taking pre-orders for their Retron77 console.  The $69.99 retro-console is expected to start shipping to customers on July 7, 2018.

Hyperkin Retron77

While the Retron77 doesn’t promise to usher in an era of newAtari games, it looks like it will be pretty awesome for a few important reasons:

  • It actually exists,
  • it’s shipping in less than a month,
  • it’s reasonably inexpensive,
  • 720p over HDMI,
  • real cartridge slot for playing actual Atari 2600 cartridges,
  • real controller ports for using your favorite vintage controller,
  • and a nice-looking joystick that features an often-requested feature: an ambidextrous fire button!

I had heard rumors about a year ago that Retron77 would be an FPGA-based implementation of the Atari 2600, but it’s not stated in the product description on their website whether this is so, or if it will rely on emulation.  If it does use emulation, it’s my hope that the system will prove to be hackable to emulate other systems, such as the Atari 5200 or 7800.  But I would be more excited by a FPGA-based system due to the fidelity to the original hardware made possible by FPGA technology.

Other Retron consoles by Hyperkin have been spotty, with problems ranging from terrible controllers to poor emulation quality to violating open source software licenses, so it remains to be seen if the Retron77 will be worth buying. But their more recent offerings have been better, and they seem to have hit all the right notes with this one. I’m looking forward to having one that I can test with soon.

Either way, it is a real product, and will ship in less than a month, and for under $100. By contrast, the AtariBox may come out in about a year, for $300, with unknown developers lined up to release unknown new titles at launch.

Update

Youtube videogamer Metal Jesus has posted a review of the Retron77, providing more details.  The most important revelations:

  1. System plays the games via emulation, using Stella, which Hyperkin properly licensed for the product.
  2. Lag is minimal, nearly imperceptible.
  3. Retron 77 does have a SD card slot, as rumored.
  4. Not all games can be played via the cartridge slot (notably, Pitfall II) for some reason, but if you have a ROM you can put it on an SD card. However…
  5. Retron’s GUI for the SD card menu limits you to seeing only 20 ROMs, max.  According to Hyperkin it’s a measure intended to curb piracy, and the feature is intended to allow users to play the occasional homebrew game. This explanation makes no sense, because homebrew games are also copyrighted (although many homebrew developers put their ROMs out for free download for the benefit of the community), and also available on cartridge in many cases (though per point 4, above, they may not play through the cartridge slot…)  This is really limiting and annoying, and will be one of the first things hackers will want to fix.  With a game catalog of over 700 games, it would be the preferred way to play games — particularly given the apparent failings of playing every game through the cartridge slot, not to mention the difficulty of getting 40 year old EEPROM carts to read.  Update: I’ve read that Hyperkin have reversed course on the limit, and have decided to remove the restriction.  Hooray!
  6. The joystick in the review unit broke, apparently it is fragile. But, Hyperkin say they are aware of this issue and already have a more robust version of this controller that will be included with the production model, and they will replace any that break.
  7. Metal Jesus echoes a sentiment expressed by many: that a multi-system Retron that covers Atari/Intellivision/Colecovision or early 8-bit computers would be a must-buy.

John Hancock’s review shows more extensive testing, reveals additional shortcomings: Grand Prix driving controller not supported, Harmony Cart and homebrew carts not supported (but this isn’t such a big deal, considering you can load ROMs onto the SD card).

Is the AtariBox fake?

Editor’s note: [I’m calling Atari’s new VCS “AtariBox” to differentiate it from the original 1977 Atari VCS (2600)]

Last night, Youtube Gaming channel RGT85 broke news that a developer of Tempest 4000 made public statements which cast doubt on whether the AtariBox is real. There is a discussion thread on Reddit with additional information and speculation.

A year ago, news circulated that Tempest creator Jeff Minter had reconciled with Atari on a dispute over the rights to Tempest, and that he was going to work with them to bring Tempest 4000 to the AtariBox. But according to Llamasoft developer Ivan Zorzin, Tempest 4000 has been in development for PC, XBox, and Playstation 4 platforms, and he knows nothing of any development of a version for AtariBox. According to Zorzin, Atari’s use of footage of Tempest 4000 is not footage of it running on an AtariBox.

At this point, I can only regard these as rumors, but it is definitely a concern that the Tempest 4000 developer and Atari aren’t on the same page. Since the AtariBox hardware is commodity PC hardware, it’s feasible that Atari could have run a Windows build of Tempest 4000 on Windows on AtariBox hardware, or in WINE on Linux on AtariBox hardware. Or it could well be that the footage is not from a running AtariBox at all.

This calls into question whether Atari even have an actual, working prototype yet. Earlier this year at GDC, they did not. Their case was only a mock-up. The case designs that they’ve shown look good, but for the longest time Atari only showed renderings of 3D models of the case. More recently, they seem to have produced a physical example of the case, and supposedly it has working hardware inside it, but these new revelations cast even that into doubt.

When Atari launched their crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, they published specifications for the system, but I’m not aware of anyone reporting that they’ve seen an actual working AtariBox. It would not surprise me if they haven’t started manufacturing them as yet, but are running the internal hardware inside of generic cases, and if that were the case it wouldn’t worry me too greatly, provided that they had confidence that the final product case would work from an engineering standpoint (for thermal dissipation, RF shielding, etc).

Atari have been promoting the IndieGoGo campaign heavily, bragging about having raised $2.7 million from over 10000 backers in 8 days, but the rate of buy-in has slowed dramatically — the first 24 hours saw $2 million of that come in. This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s paltry. A real console launch from Microsoft or Sony takes about a billion dollars to do. Manufacturing needs millions of units in order to have a hope of being profitable. 10,000 backers is tiny. Obviously, more customers may line up to buy an AtariBox once it’s actually available, but if their initial manufacturing batch is only in the tens of thousands, there’s no way Atari will make enough money on it to create a viable brand ecosystem for developers to create new games for it.

The worst thing about this (if AtariBox is indeed real and actually ships on time) is that if Tempest 4000 isn’t really an AtariBox exclusive, then once again we have zero first party exclusive launch titles for the console.

It’s shameful if today’s “Atari” are perpetrating a fraud on consumers, exploiting the good will and nostalgia for the real Atari brand that the current company owns the rights to. If this does turn out to be a massive hoax, I can only hope that it doesn’t destroy the Atari name forever, and that the guilty parties are prosecuted and punished. It might be fitting for Atari’s brand to be dissolved in such a situation, and given to reputable and responsible people to curate. People such as Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, who have created a niche cottage industry around homebrew development of new Atari carts would be more deserving of ownership of the brand.

Update: According to Hardcore Gamer, Ivan Zorzin has now confirmed that Tempest 4000 will have an AtariBox port. If this is indeed true, it’s amazing if Zorzin continues to be an employee of Llamasoft after the damage to Atari’s reputation as a result of the confusion his original post sparked.  Regardless of whether T4K is going to be a launch title or not, there’s still plenty of good reason to remain skeptical of Atari’s claims for the system, and even if Atari delivers fully on all of their promises, the system will have its work cut out for it to carve a niche out of the current videogame market.  Atari will need everything to go completely flawlessly and better than expected if is to have any hope of lasting success.

Steam and Censorship

A recent announcement by Valve on Steam’s community blog has created a great deal of controversy.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, but my inclination is that Valve is trying to do the right thing, in a situation where they cannot possibly please everyone, and prefer to be neutral and let the market sort this out, allowing gamers to play games they want to play, and developers develop games they want to develop.

I tend to agree with their stance and reasoning.  I haven’t thought about it a whole lot, and I haven’t looked into specifics of what problems have been going on within the Steam community that gave rise to this decision, so this is just a preliminary reaction.  But I like free expression, I don’t like censorship in any form.  I think people should use their discretion when it comes to what they say, and what they choose to experience as entertainment.  I want games to be as powerful a medium as film or literature, and I believe in their potential to be more powerful than either.

Obviously, there’s a lot of nuance to this — we don’t always get to choose our experiences.  Games can surprise and shock people. But I don’t believe that games should be simply light entertainment that never offends anyone.  Part of what makes art powerful is its ability to shock, offend, or even traumatize.  When an authority attempts to exercise control over ways in which it is permissible to shock, offend, and traumatize, you end up with art that is safe for the establishment and promotes the interests of the powerful, and serves to persist the status quo.  Whether that’s good or not, depends on whether your values align to that of the authority.

I believe in authority that defends the rights of individuals to speak out in ways that contradict the establishment, challenge it, and can force it to re-evaluate, change course, and reform as needed, as times and prevailing attitudes change.

Obviously, people can be and are sometimes hurt in the course of this.  This is something I think most of us try to avoid.  Even so, it happens — occasionally deliberately, but often not.  Perhaps some degree of mitigation of this is not bad.  But it is dangerous, and needs to be considered very carefully.  I’d rather allow the offensive, controversial content to exist, and surround it with robust discussion, than to prevent it from being published and distributed.

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.

Atari launches IndiGoGo pre-order for AtariBox (VCS)

Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the AtariBox (VCS) launched earlier today.  [Editor’s Note: I am refusing to call it the VCS in order to avoid polluting the namespace with the original Atari VCS, launched in 1977.]  With a fundraising goal of just $100k, by 10AM they had already exceeded their funding goal by almost 8x.  $100,000 is barely one full-time employee salary for a project like this.

Despite the lack of detailed information about what the AtariBox is, and the loud skepticism of most of the gamer community, it seems that thousands of suckers are eagerly lining up to pre-order a videogame console that Atari don’t plan to release  until mid-2019.

The announced specs for this system are more than adequate to serve as an emulation box for vintage 80’s game systems, but that’s hardly surprising, considering that emulation of the Atari 2600 has been around for at least 22 years (Stella was released in 1996, when computers were considered fast if they had 133Mhz CPU and 16 MB of RAM.  The MOS 6507 CPU that drove the Atari 2600 had a 1Mhz CPU and could access up to 128 bytes of on-board RAM.  That’s bytes, not kilobytes.)  But as to its “modern” gaming capabilties, thehardware specs of the AtariBox is about on par with a high end gaming PC from 2006 (4GB RAM, 32GB onboard storage).  The AMD Bristol Ridge CPU and Radeon R7 GPU — I would have to assume based on Atari’s form factor this will be an R7 240 — are obviously more current, but still old (AMD’s Bristol Ridge was launched in 2016, so still pretty current, but the Radeon R7 line dates from 2014, and is decidedly midrange and budget at a sub-$100 pricepoint today).

It appears that coincident with the launch of the pre-order, Atari is also, only just now, starting to work out a process for game developers to submit titles to Atari for publishing on the AtariBox platform. This gives the console a distinctly OUYA-like feel. I liked the idea of a console that was open to publishing for any indie developer, but in practice this strategy proved unsuccessful as Ouya attempted it, with hordes of low-quality shovelware published to the system by developers who weren’t yet ready for prime time.

AtariBox Developers Announcement... This seems rather vague and "to be determined" for getting third-party developers on board, and they're ALREADY taking pre-orders?

This seems rather vague and “to be determined” for getting third-party developers on board, and they’re ALREADY taking pre-orders?

This gives me the feeling that Atari have no real clue about how to successfully launch a console in 2018.

Still, you can pre-order just the controllers, and I do kindof like the design of Atari’s contemporary take on the classic CX10/CX40 joystick.  If the build quality is good, and if it will work with any PC over USB or Bluetooth, then it might be worthwhile to get one.  But putting $$$ down on a pre-order and then waiting at least year for it, if they are able to launch on time, is definitely a gamble.

Beyond that, I can’t recommend pre-ordering anything.  Wait for launch, and see whether Atari has any decent first-party launch titles supporting the AtariBox, and if there are any killer exclusive titles that make the console a must-own device.  It seems unlikely to me — pretty much any game developer wants to maximize sales, and you do that by publishing to any and every platform that you can, not by going exclusive.  Exclusive titles tend to happen only when the owner of the platform wants to pay the developer a mountain of cash to keep the title exclusive.  Think Microsoft buying Bungie in order to keep Halo exclusive on the XBox.  I haven’t seen any indication from Atari that they have the inclination or the deep pockets to do this.

Ludum Dare 41 results

Ratings have been posted for Ludum Dare 41.  InvadTris received these scores:

Overall: 761st (3.298 average from 54 ratings)
Fun: 537th (3.346 average from 54 ratings)
Innovation: 659th (3.265 average from 53 ratings)
Theme: 554th (3.647 average from 53 ratings)
Graphics: 930th (2.817 average from 54 ratings)
Audio: 755th (1.894 average from 35 ratings)
Humor: 935th (2.162 average from 39 ratings)
Mood: 1002nd (2.689 average from 47 ratings)

The rankings may not look very high, but the numbers I earned in Overall, Fun, Innovation, and Theme are all solidly above a 3, which I am proud of.  I think I might have done even better in the ratings had I completed the project in the window of the jam weekend.  Due to my schedule, I was only able to put in 17 hours during the Jam, and submitted a game after deadline, which was playable but lacked considerable polish that I added over the next week+.   A lot of people rated the 1.0 release, which according to the rules is proper, but I can infer from the score I received in the Audio category that at least some reviewers rated one of the later builds.

InvadTris 1.0

InvadTris 1.0

InvadTris 1.8

InvadTris 1.8

Considering I wasn’t necessarily planning on completing anything more than a design document this time around, I think this is more than OK.  I received ratings from as many as 54 peers this time, which I think might be a record.

Importantly, I took away from the weekend a renewed enthusiasm for game development and took great joy in the work.  This project was very fun to work on, and progress was steady and came more easily than in many of my other Ludum Dare projects.

I have still more planned for InvadTris, and will continue to develop it in the days ahead.

InvadTris: A Ludum Dare 41 Game

Over the weekend, I participated in Ludum Dare 41. The theme for this Ludum Dare was “Combine 2 incompatible genres”.  The game I produced, InvadTris, is a mashup of Space Invaders and Tetris, combining the static shooter with a block puzzle game.  I’m very happy with it, and am continuing to develop it. It’s already a lot of fun to play.InvadTris

Play and Rate InvadTris

Post-mortem article

 

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