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Category: games

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.

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.

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

 

AtariBox/VCS smells like vapor, poop

Today, UK news source The Register published an article on the new Atari VCS, formerly known as the AtariBox.  I refuse to call it the VCS, because that name is already in use, so I’ll just stick to calling it the AtariBox, to avoid confusion.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/03/22/atari_lempty_box/

I love the URL for the story.  “Atari Lempty Box” has such a nice ring to it. Like a French existentialist “L’empty Box” that smokes cigarettes in Parisian cafes, complaining bitterly about the meaninglessness of life.

Lol. OK. Here’s CNet’s slightly more forgiving coverage.

The Atari fan communities that I follow on Atari Age and Facebook have been roasting this system for months. There’s so much to signal that this is going to be a disaster.  The biggest is the lack of any hard information about hardware specs, developers, games, capabilities, etc.  What has been announced is either vague or very uninspiring.

And now this article.  After months of feeble, empty pre-launch hype, and an aborted attempt at a crowdfunded pre-order, “Atari” shows up at GDC 2018 with an inert piece of plastic shaped like their new console, and no new information.  The CNet article at least explains why — according to Atari, they couldn’t agree on the controller, and ended up rethinking the whole project, which is why they canceled their crowdfunding campaign last year, and why they still don’t have a lot to show for themselves yet.  But that’s still not a very good sign.

Putting aside the obvious con job that this is turning out to be, let’s look at why AtariBox is such a bad idea. Let’s take a look at AtariBox’s selling points:

  1. OMG the case! It has real wood grain! An Atari Logo! And lights!

    By far, the biggest selling point that Atari have presented was the attractive design of the case.  It looks nice, I’ll give it that.

    But that’s it. It has an Atari logo on it, and real wood grain.  I’m pretty sure the original Atari used fake wood grain. The hardware inside the case is what matters, though, and we still know nothing about that, other than some very vague mention that it’s going to be AMD-based.

    It looks like an original woodgrain Atari 2600 was crossbred with an  old cable TV channel selector boxes they used to have in the 80s.
    Atari 2600

    +

    Image result for 80s cable tv box

    =

    AtariBox
    I’ll grant it does look nice.  But, I don’t really care that it looks nice.  When I play a game console, I’m looking at the screen, not the case. I play the console for the games it can run, not for its brand. A game company creates a good brand by consistently creating great games.

    Focus on the games. AtariBox has revealed almost nothing about the games it will run. Over a year of hyping the new console. That’s troubling.

    We’re teased that they’re talking to developers about creating new games based on classic Atari IP.  We’re told that AtariBox will run hundreds of “old games”.  We’re told it will run “new games” too.  We’re told it will cost ~$300, so we don’t expect it to be capable of running cutting edge games, at least not at high framerates with all the bells and whistles.

  2. It runs Linux!

    Nothing against Linux, I love open source software. It’s a good choice. But so what? In 2018, anything can run Linux. It’s not a big deal.

    The real selling point of a game console isn’t the OS, it’s the Games.

    IT’S THE GAMES, STUPID.

    A nice Atari-themed desktop environment would be cool, but inherently whatever they build to run on Linux could be run on any other hardware running a build of Linux compiled for that hardware. Thanks to the GPL, Atari is required to make available the source code for this Linux build.

    Like, I could take a commodity AMD PC, slap AtariBox’s Linux distro on it, and then I could run the same software on it.

    But perhaps they’ll keep their applications that run on top of the Linux layer proprietary. (Of course they will, who am I kidding?)

    In that case, what do I care that they made use of some open source stuff? As an open source proponent, I like when open source propagates and begets more open source. Open source being leveraged as a platform from which unfree software is sold isn’t exciting if you’re attracted to the openness aspect of the system.

  3. It streams video as well as plays video games!

    Yeah? So does my TV. So does my phone. So does my car. So does everything.

    This is 2018. Streaming video over the internet is not amazing anymore, it’s basic. And just like how every home appliance in the 1980s had to have a digital clock, which no one cared about, because they already had a dozen appliances that all had digital clocks built into them, not including it would be weird because everything has it.

    But do you need to buy another thing that streams video?

    No, you don’t.

  4. It plays old games AND new games!

    Old games:

    I like old games. I’m glad new devices can play old games. If you didn’t have that, old games would die off. So I’m glad there are new devices that can play old games.

    But here’s the thing: This is another solved problem. We have Stella. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the old games that you can play on an AtariBox will be played through Stella. After all, why would they bother to develop a competing system to run Atari games, when Stella is stable, mature, open source, and amazing?

    It’s remotely conceivable that rather than emulating the Atari 2600 in software, they could have their hardware include an FPGA implementation of the Atari 2600 hardware, which would be pretty cool, since it would be that much closer to the original hardware, and could perhaps do things that Stella can’t do. But I can’t think of anything that Stella can’t do. I’m sure Stella must not be 100% perfect, because nothing is, but I have been using it since at least 1996, so 22 years, and it was pretty damn good even back then, and I couldn’t tell you something that I wished it did, but doesn’t do as well as I want it to. Granted, I’m not a hard core user who deeply groks the hardware it emulates and can discern imperceptible differences between original hardware vs. emulator. It’s possible that there’s something Stella can’t do, or can’t do well, that would make an FPGA Atari worth it.

    But it’s probably useless to speculate about it, because it’s all but given that the AtariBox isn’t going to be an FPGA system.

    Even if it was, AtariBox almost certainly won’t be selling you every ROM ever released. No single entity, not even Atari, owns the IP rights to the entire Atari 2600 library. At best, they’ll be offering a good chunk of the total library. And granted, out of the 700+ titles developed for the Atari 2600, a huge proportion of them are not good enough that anyone is going to miss them. Still, the entire library is under a megabyte. So what the hell, you might as well include everything.

    But this is where “abandonware” (software “piracy” of “dead” systems) shines.

    (Of course, Atari never died, if people never stopped playing it, did it?)

    But it did exit the market, and that’s what I mean by a “dead system”. Even notwithstanding a brilliant homebrew community continuing to publish new titles for the system, I still think it’s reasonable to consider the Atari 2600 dead, and not just dead, but long dead.

    Once it was no longer viable to sell in the mass retail market and sustain a company, if our copyright laws were just, old obsolete games should have been ceded to the public domain, say abandonware proponents.

    Of course, legally, that never happened.

    And so, year after year, we see various attempts at re-incarnating Atari’s classic library of games. This never really stopped happening.  NES killed Atari, but many classic titles of the Atari era have NES ports.  And SNES.  And anthology collections on every generation of game console since then, until now.

    See what I’m getting at?  Why do we need an AtariBox to “bring back” the classics, when this stuff has never gone away?

    But the thing is, these commercial repackagings that we get re-sold again and again, are always inferior to what you can get if you aren’t encumbered by intellectual property laws and can treat 30-40 year old software as having entered into the public domain.  Go to a ROM site, download 700+ Atari 2600 ROMs in one click, unzip, launch Stella.  You’re good to go.

    New games:

    I like new games, too!  But there’s no shortage of platforms to play them on already!  What does AtariBox offer that’s new or different from XBox, Playstation, Switch, PC, Android, iOS?  What could it offer? The company calling itself “Atari” doesn’t have the deep pockets of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, Google.

    Exclusives? Nobody wants to be exclusive on the smallest upstart competitor’s box.  Successful games that people want to play are generally ported to as many platforms as possible.

    Nintendo doesn’t port their first-party titles to Xbox and PlayStation, but that’s because they’re very well established, and well-heeled, and they can afford to.  That’s what it’s like when you never went bankrupt.

    Atari has some very iconic, classic IP, which they could conceivably bring back, but it’s not nearly as attractive as Nintendo’s A-list. Tempest 4000 looks pretty cool, but Tempest is not Mario, Zelda, or Metroid caliber, not even close.

    Various incarnations of Atari already have re-packaged and licensed that IP to anyone and everyone over the last 20+ years.  They could try to create some brand new titles inspired by their old IP, and keep it reserved as exclusive content to help sell their platform. This is probably what I would be most interested in.  Not playing “new games” from a couple years ago, like Skyrim or Hotline Miami on AtariBox, but playing an all-new Pitfall! that looks and feels like the Atari 2600 game, and just has some more to it. Give it to the guy who did Spelunky, maybe.  Let him see what he can do with it. Or maybe bring back David Crane if you can get him, and see what he can come up with now.

    But the thing is, if those games are any good, they would sell far better, wider, and more copies if they were made available on every platform. We learned this a few years ago from Ouya. Ouya courted indie developers, but indies released anywhere and everywhere they could, and in the end no one gave a shit about Ouya.

    The AtariBox hardware is all but certain to be less powerful than the XBox One, PS4, or even the Switch.  So it’s not going to play cutting edge new games, but will play “new-ish” games from 2-5 years ago that we’ve already seen and played through.  Why would we want to buy them again, just to play them on a box with a Fuji logo on it?

As much as I would love for there to be a viable Atari console in 2018, I just don’t see what possible niche they could occupy that would work for them well enough to enable the company to compete in today’s market.

AtariBox rebrands itself to “Atari VCS” in an apparent attempt to sew confusion^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H reboot brand

Ataribox is now Atari VCS, preorder date revealed soon

In a move that endears me to the new gaming console not the slightest bit, Atari has announced that they are re-naming their upcoming AtariBox console to the already-taken name, “Atari VCS”.  Henceforth, people who want to search for the 1977 Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, will have to wade through hits for the modern AtariBox-Atari VCS that will be released sometime in 2018 (maybe). And vice versa.

That won’t be completely annoying to fans of either console.

“Null Room” hidden in Superman (Atari, 1979)

Atari gamer Marc Gallo has found a secret hidden Null Room in the game Superman (Atari, 1979). Accessed via direct manipulation of memory addresses in emulation, the room does not appear to be accessible through normal gameplay.

I believe this “room” is really just a memory location intended to store objects when they are off-screen, which can be displayed as a “room” in the game, but isn’t meant to be.

It’s interesting to me since I spent considerable time playing this game, and wrote an article some time ago, about the central role that the map and movement plays in the design of the game.

Ability use frequency vs. payoff in the original Legend of Zelda

My friend Douglas Underhill wrote an interesting article about game design, dealing with the frequency of an ability’s use with its reward payoff. Doug’s question comes down to, given that there are hundreds of abilities to potentially pick from in character design, and that certain abilities are either useful much more often and in a much wider range of situations, or else provide a much greater payoff than others, what can be done in designing the rules system and/or world to encourage diversification in putting a finite amount of skill points into skills that are useful less often, or which provide a lower expected payoff.

Underhill asserts that, ideally, less-used abilities should be higher in their payoff, in order to encourage players to put character building points into them at all, while frequently used abilities should be low in payoff, to offset their wider applicability and to prevent the game from falling out of balance. But it’s an inherent problem because the feedback of high reward will encourage the use of an ability.

Essentially, though, game design encourages the use of abilities that grant a high reward, and the higher the reward, the more likely the player is to use and rely on that ability (barring some other limiting mechanism that mitigates or suppresses over-use).

But beyond unbalancing the game, or making the player’s strategies predictable and boring due to min-maxing, the reward weight/use frequency of abilities in a game’s design will determine and shape what the game is about. Dungeons and Dragons is nominally about role-playing and fantasy adventure, but its rules systems make it a game largely about dice rolling and fantasy medieval combat.

Tabletop RPGs are inherently flexible, though, so a given group of players might opt to make their game (or at least a particular game session) about negotiation and barter in a fantasy medieval economy, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But it’s much more likely that the typical group of D&D gamers will spend most of its time fighting and questing for objects and abilities that make them ever better at fighting and surviving in exotic, hostile fantasy environments.

After reading Doug’s article, it got me thinking about how this principle applies in video game design. (more…)

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