Category: Console Gaming

Failure to launch, failure to thrive

What can we learn from Ouya, Atari VCS, and Intellivision Amico?

The videogame industry is highly competitive and cuthroat. There is a glut of competition. The market is vast. Games are everywhere. You can play them on your desktop or laptop computer. You can play them on a gaming console attached to your TV. You can play them on your tablet or smartphone. You can play them on a handheld device. You can play them in a web browser.

The big players: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Valve (Steam) all own hardware or distribution platforms. If you want to be a big player, you must own a platform.

Establishing a new platform that can compete in this market is incredibly difficult, and even big players with ultra-deep pockets can fail to establish a foothold. Atari and Sega couldn’t keep up and fell by the wayside. Apple and Google (Stadia) couldn’t get established and haven’t managed to build significant marketshare, but remain relevant to some degree due to the Apple App Store and Google Play Store with their vast catalogs of 3rd party mobile apps and games.

Most of the companies that have risen to the level of a top tier player in the market were either early innovators (Atari, Sega, Nintendo) who entered the market at a time when there was little to no competition and literally grew the industry up from nothing, or were already successful giant companies that could sink billions of dollars into R&D and operate at a loss for years in order to build marketshare in the gaming segment while operating profitably in other divisions (Sony, Microsoft).

There’s little to no room for also-rans. Tiny players can exist, but they don’t have a hope of cracking the “Big Three”. The best they can hope for is to establish themselves as niche players. AtGames, Hyperkin, and so forth produce clone systems for obsolete consoles that have exited the main market but still have healthy followings from large, established fan bases that will always be there.

On the side there’s some third party players who produce accessories and sometimes they can venture into creating actual consoles, although they tend to clone old systems. Semi-hobbyist and boutique projects (retroUSB AVS, Analogue, CollectorVision Phoenix, 8bitdo, Retrofighters) can be viable businesses, if they’re run right and can deliver products on time that are of acceptable quality and provide value to the consumer. Often these enterprises establish themselves first by making official accessories for the major console systems — controllers, carrying cases, and the like — and once they have a manufacturing and supply chain solution established, at some point they might try to expand by doing their own R&D to produce something beyond that.

Companies that fail tend to follow a pattern:

  • An idea or concept is announced, often a rebirth of some old, idle IP
  • They start trying to raise money, awareness, and support, by taking pre-orders and/or doing crowdfunding, but the fund raising goals are well under what would be required for a new platform to have any hope of becoming established as a big player. Nonetheless, the people behind the project push on.
  • Then they get to work developing the thing they described in their concept
  • Delays happen
  • The thing eventually releases (or doesn’t) after much acrimony, disappointment, and diminished expectations
  • If a product does get launched, it fails to meet expectations, doesn’t thrive in the market, the company fails, or drops support, and the product becomes irrelevant.

Ideas can be good and still fail. It takes more than a good idea for a thing to succeed.

A few million dollars raised, a few thousand backers, is not enough to support a new platform. It just isn’t. You need to sell at least a few million units at a minimum, and real success doesn’t come until you can sell tens of millions of units.

Ouya (2012-2019)

Ouya raised over $8 million in crowdfunding through kickstarter, which at the time was a record for crowdfunding. They had nearly 64,000 backers. Who knows how much money they raised through other means. But they didn’t have anywhere near the numbers they needed to succeed. Still, they “succeeded” in exceeding their crowdfunding goal (by over 8x), they “succeeded” in developing their console and controllers, getting them manufactured, and delivered them to backers. But that still wasn’t enough for Ouya to succeed as a new platform. They struggled to grow, they failed to gain marketshare, weren’t able to profit with their business model, ran out of money, and went out of business, went through acquisitions, the new owners tried to turn it around and still couldn’t, and today it doesn’t exist.

Ouya had no pre-existing market and didn’t try to leverage any old, defunct brands that had nostalgic mindshare. They didn’t necessarily need to, but it would have helped.

They had some problems with their controller hardware, but that could have been overcome had the company had deep enough pockets to stand by their products even if it meant taking a loss initially.

Ouya didn’t do enough to develop a library of first party/exclusive titles that would have given customers a reason to buy Ouya rather than another console. This was a strategic error. They thought they could court indie developers, who, at the time, faced high barriers to entry to get their games onto the platforms controlled by Big Gaming. At the time, though, this was already starting to change: mobile app stores, web gaming portals like Armor Games, Kongregate, Newgrounds, and the like, Steam Greenlight were all established to one degree or another, and providing indie developers with opportunities to bring games to an audience.

Soon the even the major players began to notice indie developers, court the best of them, and eventually the best indies found ways to get onto the big platforms, where they could make the big money.

Ouya’s approach was to lower the barrier of entry for everyone, including lowering the cost for consumers to “free to try” for everything, and it turns out to make a lot of money selling games, you need to sell games for money, ideally for a profit. Ouya couldn’t figure out how to do this, and even then, they weren’t the ones making the vast majority of the games that could be played on the Ouya, so they were putting in a ton of investment into creating a platform that they were not positioning themselves to monetize very effectively, while attracting indie game developers of any skill level indiscriminately to publish games of any quality onto the Ouya marketplace, where it was up to the individual consumer to try to find games that were worth buying, and then didn’t give them enough reason to buy them, and conditioned customers to believe that games should be far cheaper than was really viable to sustain their developers or the platform.

The business model seemed like it made sense, given that it followed the familiar example of countless early internet startups that gave a lot away for free, operating in the red while living off startup investor funding. It was a gold rush strategy that rewarded a lucky few, who were in the right place at the right time and figured out how to strike it rich, and was far from guaranteed of success — it was high risk, high reward. Sadly the risks didn’t pan out, and the reward never materialized.

Still, Ouya was one of the most successful and most promising of these failures.

Retro VGS/Colecovision Chameleon (2015-2016)

Some projects are out and out scams. The Colecovision Chameleon was one such.

Chameleon was supposed to be a throwback to old-school cartridge based consoles, a rejection of the “release when promised, even if incomplete, and fix everything you couldn’t deliver with 0-day patches” model that too many developer studios had come to rely on because of project management that couldn’t deliver projects on time or on budget because creative productions like video games simply aren’t software engineering projects. Publishers couldn’t accept “it’s done when it’s done”, forcing developers to ship on deadline regardless of quality or completeness, and customers hated buying a much-anticipated game to find out that it sucked, or that you had to wait hours to download gigabytes of patch files to play it. Players were buying discs with outdated, obsolete, broken software, as a sort of token that would entitle them to a digital download of a 1.1 release that should have been the 1.0. Rather than simply switching to digital distribution, Chameleon’s pitch was to go back to cartridges; cartridges couldn’t be updated, so had to be complete before they shipped. Hey, it sounded good at the time.

Chameleon was so-called because it was going to have adapters that allowed you to play old existing cartridges from any game system, making the Chameleon “look like” whatever hardware was originally supposed to run those games — hence the name Chameleon. That’s not a terrible idea — imagine a multi-core FPGA system with a bunch of different cartridge ports capable of reading games from every conceivable system you could ask for, that could output HDMI and let you play your favorite games on a modern HDTV. That’d be awesome, right?

It was all smoke and mirrors. They didn’t have the rights to the Coleco trademark secured, and they tried to fool the public with an early mock-up of their hardware that was in reality a Super NES stuffed inside of a modded Atari Jaguar case. Nevertheless, they managed to fool a few people for a short time, taking some people for a little money. There’s little or no evidence the project ever had any real R&D or concept to it. It was all just mockups. People were fooled, and once the deception was uncovered, people were pissed.

I mention it despite the Chameleon not being a genuine effort, in order to underscore the point that consumers shouldn’t be pre-ordering products. Pre-ordering games was a thing for one reason: fear of missing out (FOMO). At the height of the NES’s popularity, 1987-88, a chip shortage made it difficult to find games in stock on store shelves. People scrambled to buy when they could find them, which sent demand through the roof. This was great for business and Nintendo to this day seems to like to size supply to demand in such a way that they can brag about selling out, and FOMO can persuade hungry fans to pay full retail, and use pre-ordering to feel secure that they will be able to get a copy of the next release in their favorite game franchise when it comes out.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. For digital download distribution, there will never be a shortage. You can buy whenever you want, and you can play wait and see, putting your money down only on games that deliver the quality and fun that you expect. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

Chameleon promised everything and delivered nothing. But a lot of the ideas that were part of its pitch were things that appealed to gamers who weren’t happy with the status quo at the time, and felt nostalgia for how games used to be.

It’s possible that the people behind the Chameleon didn’t set out to defraud the public, and that they really wanted to develop the concept. But it was so under-developed at the time that they pitched it, they had no working model, nor did they truly have the capability to design a working model. It was basically just an idea. An idea that seemed cool and exciting. Imagine: being able to play all your favorite old games in their original format on a new console attached to a modern TV, that can also play new games with classic flavor, delivered in the way those old games you loved were, without the perceived downsides of modern games. In reality, it’s a long way to go from a cool idea to a prototype, and the people behind the Chameleon weren’t capable of delivering that, but they maintained a charade of it for as long as they could. Perhaps they were hoping they could get real hardware engineers interested in working with them, but it didn’t pan out.

Disappointment with underwhelming games is bad enough. Outright deception and scams a la the Coleco Chameleon is terrible. At that point, people should have wised up, and many of them did. The public had been so conditioned by Nintendo and Sony’s successful products that they forgot that they probably weren’t the first kid on their block to buy a NES or a Playstation. They wanted to be the first kid on their block to own a Chameleon, even though the developers of it had nowhere near the reputation or resources of a Nintendo or Sony.

The lesson: don’t buy into something just because it sounds cool. Buy a real product, not an idea. If the hot new thing is destined to be a success, you’ll have no problem buying it. If you buy it the moment you hear about it, without seeing if it’ll prove to be a success, you have a much greater likelihood of buying into a failure. Don’t waste your money.

But as P.T. Barnun said, there’s a sucker born every minute. So this story goes on…

Atari VCS (2017- )

Initially Atari was mysterious about their AtariBox concept. It was all image and brand. This generated a lot of interest. It might have worked had they had a product ready to go, to follow up quickly on the interest their early marketing efforts had generated.

Sadly, they teased a little, waited, then teased a little more, then waited, then eventually they announced a concept for what AtariBox was. Renamed Atari VCS, reusing the original name of the first Atari home gaming console, they had a great looking design for the system, which beautifully recalled the aesthetic of the original woodgrained CX2600 system.

But it took Atari over 3 years to develop a manufacturable version of this case, put low-end commodity PC hardware into it, set up a graphical UI shell and store for downloadable games for the system, arrange some third-party deals and ship it to the retail channel. At the same time, they should have been developing games for this system, and they did work on a few, but all of it was underwhelming. Mostly you can play old games that have been available for years through other platforms on the Atari VCS.

Atari claims a library of thousands of games for the VCS through providing gaming marketplace apps for Google Stadia, Luna, nVidia GeForce Now, XBox Game Streaming, AntStream Arcade, and AirConsole, and… so what? These are all available on any Windows PC, which you already have, and probably has better hardware specs. And these aren’t free subscriptions bundled with the VCS, these are add-ons that you have to pay extra for. So why do you need a VCS, then? This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your yard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your backyard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

There are a handful of new titles, some third-party games that aren’t great and are available on other platforms as well, and as for the first-party content, they’re all warmed-over remakes of old classic Atari games which they brand as “recharged”. Mostly this means a re-skinning, updated graphics, and the original game play, which, while classic and solid, doesn’t offer anything innovative or novel. Just a slightly more polished version of some 40 year old arcade IP with some neon glowing wireframe vector graphics.

Other games they used to hype the project (Tempest 4K) were released on the major platforms years before the VCS was ready to ship. Atari outright lied about its relationship with the Tempest 4K developer and implied that it would be a launch title and exclusive, when none of that was true. A total embarrassment. Tempest, originally an Atari classic IP, should have been an exclusive, and a launch title. But (wisely) the developers of Tempest 4K put it out when it was ready, on platforms that existed at the time, and made money.

That left Atari with nothing, and when the VCS went to market, Tempest 4K would be a 2-year old, non-exclusive game. And guess what? You still can’t buy Tempest 4K for the VCS. It’s a Windows/XBox/PS4 game. (Which means you can sort of play Tempest 4K on an Atari VCS, if you boot it in PC mode and run Windows. You’re kidding, right?) Even if Tempest 4K had been an Atari VCS exclusive, I’m not sure that Tempest has enough draw to it to make it a killer app that would have sold consoles. Like, Tempest is a cool game for 1981, but it’s no Mario or Zelda. Nowhere near.

The VCS has been out for a little over a year now, and while it at least exists today, it is hardly compelling.

The best parts of the Atari VCS were the joystick hardware and the “recharged” games. Atari could have put all of its effort into developing these, put them out on existing platforms in 2017-2018, and built from there. Instead, they tried to build themselves a platform which would give them power to be masters of their own fate (or something) but really just made it harder for them to bring a product to market.

It’s pretty clear they never intended to go toe-to-toe with the big platforms of Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft, and they’ve always said as much. They certainly never had the capability to do so. But what then is the point of having a low-end non-competitive platform that doesn’t offer anything unique or exclusive? Atari have no real answer to this. They’ll tell you it’s a “hybrid” console that you can also boot into “PC Mode” and use as a Windows or Linux computer, but so what? Everyone has 2-3 old PCs sitting around that they can install Linux or Windows on. Probably with better specs than the VCS, or cheaper, or both.

After years of delays, people starting to question whether the project was legitimate or a scam, Atari finally launched the VCS, and it was pathetic. It felt incomplete, like a homework assignment by a kid who procrastinated until the morning the project was due, and tried to con the teacher into accepting something they were scribbling on in the minutes between classes.

Atari’s main problems were having insufficient resources to match their ambition, combined with a complete lack of strategy and planning, and half-assed execution. They hyped their project before it was even a project. If they had developed the product quietly and then launched it within a few months of their initial hype announcements, and had a launch library of new, exclusive games that leveraged their classic trademarks and provided novel and innovative gameplay experiences on par with what Pac-Man Championship Edition was to Pac-Man, or what Yacht Club Games is to the NES, it could have been a completely different story. As it is, Atari VCS has been a disappointment. Atari does have a wealth of IP that they could do something with if they had the resources and talent behind it, but instead they wasted years trying to sell a budget PC to sell games they didn’t have yet.

Intellivision Amico (2018- )

In October 2018, a group owning the Intellivision trademark lead by Tommy Tallarico announced the Amico, a relaunch of the Intellivision brand that would embrace retro-style gaming and provide simpler, family oriented gams for all ages at a budget price point. Their four word pitch: Simple, Affordable, Family, Fun.

They had a lot of good ideas: all games that would run on the system would be exclusives, that you couldn’t get anywhere else. The games would be super cheap, there would be no hidden costs like in-app purchases or DLC, and they would be designed with couch multiplayer in mind, and provide balanced play so that players of different skill levels from toddler to great grandma could get in on the action and still have fun and feel challenged. The target market was families with young children, and parents (or grandparents) who remembered the original Intellivision system from 1979.

Similar to the pitch of the Coleco Chameleon, Intellivision pitched that the present-day game industry had gone astray in so many ways, and lost sight of what we used to love about video games. This meant that a return to classic roots would tap into a latent market of everyday people who want to play casual “fun” games, and couldn’t get into big budget “hard core” games that require hundreds of hours of focused play and high skill to beat. They promised to eschew violence and adult themes, and everything would be 2D only, aiming at an all-ages family friendly audience.

In short, their vision differentiated them from existing platforms enough that it seemed like they might have a shot at finding underserved markets. The announced price point was a budget bargain $150-180, with games costing under $10. Additionally, all games were to be Intellivision exclusives.

Unlike the frauds behind the Chameleon, the people involved with Intellivision appeared to have legitimate pedigree and full ownership of the Intellivision trademark. They had physical demo units early on, and a few teaser trailers of games in various stages of development. The controllers were unique, intriguing, and paid homage to the original Intellivision controllers. It looked like they were serious, capable, and had a clear concept of what they were going to build, unlike Atari which mostly focused on superficial case design, logos, 3D model mockups, and branding.

The Amico had a unifying vision and a market strategy. It even appeared that they were already pretty far along with physical prototypes of their system, which included a unique and interesting controller design.

The controller gave Amico the opportunity to make games with unique player interaction, with motion controls, a touch screen, as well as a classic Intellivision-style thumb disc. The thumb disc was a slightly controversial and perhaps questionable design choice, considering that the original Intellivision controller wasn’t necessarily great. But it tied the Amico to its predecessor in a way that a D-pad couldn’t. It wasn’t yet-another standard, off the shelf dual-stick gamepad. It made the Amico unlike any other console. Who knew, maybe it would turn out to be strong selling point, like the Nintendo Wiimote.

You could, in a pinch, even use an Android smartphone as a controller by installing an Amico app on it, as well. So instantly you could add 3rd and 4th players to the game cheaply, without having to buy additional official controllers. Maybe not with all the features of the official control, but would provide at least something.

Intellivision issued an early release of the Amico app, which wasn’t actually the controller app, but rather a demo of a re-imagined Moon Patrol that you could play on your smartphone, without any Amico hardware. It wasn’t much of a game, but it really existed, and gave the project legitimacy. It seemed like they had the hardware ready to go, or nearly so, and just needed to complete some games to provide a decent launch library, manufacture them, and get them into stores.

Over time, though, the project seemed to stall. The COVID-19 pandemic lead to economic disruption and supply chains stalled. The electronics industry was disrupted by chip shortages, the effects of which rippled through the economy and were widely felt by many industries.

With Amico development, not much happened for months on end, deadlines slipped, news announcements appeared to be using recycled footage and showed little to no actual progress. Worse, it appeared that some of the games they demoed were using stolen graphical assets. Tommy Tallarico leapt into action with excuses and damage control. The graphics were placeholder, not final, and so on. Some of this might have been legitimate, but a lot of it was suspect. Tallarico’s personality rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and his tendencies to get into petty internet wars with minor “influencers” on forums or social media didn’t look good.

Today, the future of Intellivision appears to be in doubt. Tallarico has just been replaced as CEO, and there’s a lot of concern among the community following the project that the delays may prove fatal as cost overruns and lack of revenue due to not having a product to sell will doom the console, which never had much of a chance of becoming a major player alongside the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, but might have been viable as a B-grade market alternative.

Lessons

  1. Startups shouldn’t launch platforms as their first product.
  2. It takes billions of dollars and vast resources to develop and launch a successful platform. Only a mature, thriving company can properly support a console and bring it to market.
  3. Even then the chances are good that it will fail in the market.
  4. History shows that at most there is room for 2-3 successful platforms.
  5. If you can’t knock out Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony, you’re going to fail. Google failed.
  6. Hitting a crowdfunding goal is not success. It’s a very early step along the road.
  7. Success means in 5-7 years, you have enough profits that you can self-fund R&D for your next generation console without having to crowdfund or court investors.
  8. The best time to launch a new console is 5-7 years after the successful launch of your previous console.
  9. The best time to announce a new console is within weeks of retail launch, and not more than 1 year ahead of time.
  10. If you can’t take money and ship immediately after your announce your product, you’re probably going to ship late and disappoint a lot of people after they spend a lot of time hyping themselves up to a point where nothing can possibly meet their expectations and dreams.
  11. Don’t let them dream too long, give them a reality. Or when you deliver your real console, it will reality-check their dreams and inevitably lead to dissatisfied customers. Those who once sang your praises will suddenly call for your head.
  12. It takes longer than you think to develop a console. It takes longer than that to manufacture and distribute that console.
  13. Don’t try to combine pitching to investors and marketing to customers. Crowdfunding is not the way.
  14. If you don’t have a previous console in your past, perhaps consider not trying to develop a platform. Develop other things — games, controllers, accessories. Perhaps in time you can gain experience from doing these things that can allow you to develop a console.
  15. If you have a vast, successful business with R&D, manufacturing, distribution, logistics, software development, marketing, and customer support all figured out, and sufficient reserves and revenues that can afford to pour billions of dollars for several years without realizing a profit, you might have a chance of developing your own console platform. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: do you have a lot in common with Microsoft, Sony, Google, or Apple?
  16. If you can’t do something unique and better than what already exists, why are you even bothering? If you want to make games, make games. Pick any of the existing platforms, or all of them.

Atari “recharged” will it be warmed over or hot?

Atari just announced some actual new game titles this week. Well, “new” in the sense that they are “recharged” versions of classic Atari games: Breakout, Centipede, Black Widow, and Missile Command. That’s sort of new, right?

We’ve seen Breakout demoed for a while, but these others I haven’t heard about previously. They all feature vector-like wireframe graphics in neon colors that evoke vectorscan CRT graphics, much like the classic hit Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I like the aesthetic.

It’s nice to have something interesting coming out of Atari after years of underwhelming-to-disappointing announcements regarding the VCS console project. It’s really good to finally see something new offered, this is what I would have wanted to see a lot sooner.

Curiously, these Recharged titles are not VCS exclusives — they are all available on Steam, the Epic Games store, Switch, XBox Series X/S, and Playstation 4+5. While I think this approach makes the most business sense — you want to put games in all markets to sell the most copies and maximize revenue, it seemingly undermines the “true believer” customers who invested in the VCS crowdfunding, only to find that they could have just bought the games on any other platform. I’m unclear but it may be that they will be available on the VCS sooner, but even if that’s the case, getting the games a few weeks earlier on a relatively expensive, less powerful hardware platform still doesn’t sell the VCS to me very strongly.

I’m most interested in the Black Widow: Recharged game, as this is the least well known classic Atari title out of the four, and therefore has the most potential to offer as a reboot.

I’ve been pretty critical of Atari for the past few years as the disappointments with the delays and inadequacies of the VCS have mounted, so it’s really nice to finally see something happening that looks like it might actually be cool.

Weirdly, although I’ve seen announcements from various videogame news sites about these titles, Atari’s own website looks like it’s only pushing Centipede: Recharged at the moment. Where’s the other games? Are they holding back so they can focus on each one at a time? Or is the Atari Recharged site just that hard to navigate?

“Atari VCS” launches

“Atari” has finally shipped a physical product to its Indiegogo backers.

I didn’t back the campaign, because I didn’t have faith in the company calling itself “Atari” these days to deliver value. One of the backers received theirs already and has published an unboxing/review on YouTube.

And there’s a lot of rough edges. The controllers work differently, depending on whether they’re connected via USB cable or by Bluetooth? Hitches in the e-commerce experience, getting double charged for a failed download? You have to pay for Atari Vault Vol 2, a collection of 30+ year old games? Browser accounts aren’t properly connected to the local user? Really? I wish I could say I am surprised.

The launch library is, as expected, sparse and uninspiring, offering nothing new beyond a warmed-over Missile Command remake. I haven’t seen the new Missile Command in detail — it looks OK, I guess — but having participated in numerous game jams, and knowing the original Missile Command, I know enough to say that a Missile Command reboot could be tackled with a game jam’s worth of effort — in other words, 2-3 people, 1 weekend, bam, playable new Missile Command game. Realistically, to be completely generous, a game like that could be developed in a month or so.

“Atari” have spent $3 million and 3 years creating a cool-looking case and joystick for a commodity PC that runs a Free OS and have developed a front-end for it that could be used to deliver new original games, first-party exclusives, if Atari had them. but all they currently offer is Google Chrome browser, Netflix, and a couple bundles of emulated games that have been available for 30+ years, and absolutely don’t need a new console to deliver them.

Pac Man Championship Edition NES Demake

In 2007, Pac Man creator Toru Iwatani gave me all the reason I needed to buy an XBox 360 when Namco released his farewell game, Pac Man Championship Edition.

The original Pac Man Championship Edition for XBox 360

Easily the best Pac Man game ever made, it was a fantastic modernization of the classic game which updated the design to maximize Flow, the zen-like state of consciousness sometimes called being “in the Zone”. Featuring a split maze, where completing one side spawns a prize on the opposite side, which, when eaten, refreshes the completed side, the game is perfectly set up for non-stop maze running and high score runs, where your goal is to maximize points in a timed run through a combination of eating dots, prizes, and ghosts.

I learned yesterday that a NES demake of Pac-Man CE has been released on the latest Namco Museum anthology, available on Nintendo Switch.

Graphical glitches aside, this is absolutely amazing!

The demake has actually been around for several years, and is available for download if you can find it.  You can play it in a NES emulator, or on real hardware, if you have an Everdrive. It’s implemented on MMC3 and weighs in at 257kb.

The original Pac Man CE was designed for 16:9 TV screens, while the NES is obviously engineered to display its graphics on an NTSC 4:3 display at 240i resolution. So to work around the limitations, the demake uses an ingenious programming technique to scroll the maze, using the NES’s video buffer to create an infinite horizontal wrap when you use the warp tunnels.

This is a must-play, must-own if you’re a fan of Pac Man or the NES. It’s also worth owning on the Switch. Apart from online leaderboards, it is fully featured, quite faithful to the XBox 360 original, and extremely well done.

Intellivision Amico Club smartphone app gives first look at the upcoming console

Intellivision launched their Amico Club app for Android and iOS recently. I gave it a try, and got to experience… well, I’m not quite sure what I experienced. Let’s talk about it.

The app, at least so far, seems like a teaser advertisement for the Amico console. It gives a 15-second demo of a re-vamped Moon Patrol, which was a well-received game in arcades in 1982, and a game I liked to play back in the day. This version provides nicer graphics, some better jumping physics, and a power-up that gives the player more firepower.

The original was a game that is notable for being one of the first to employ a parallax scrolling background to create an illusion of depth, one of the first games to feature a full background music soundtrack, and was essentially an endless runner before there was such a genre named.

With such a brief glimpse at the game, I don’t want to jump to a premature conclusion, but so far I am not quite impressed yet.

Since this game is running on my smartphone, I have no idea what it’ll actually be like running on real Amico hardware. Presumably it should offer an even better experience. I would expect that the real Amico controller provide a far better experience than the provided touchscreen controls possibly could, but I can’t really guess how I will respond to an Amico controller until I’m holding one in my hands.

The actual gameplay was OK. I don’t think there’s really a whole lot to Moon Patrol. It’s jump, shoot, and not much else. You have to watch above your moon buggy for alien saucers that will try to bomb you, and ahead of you for craters to jump and boulders to shoot or jump over. You can slow down or accelerate, but there’s no stopping. It looks like there’s possibly some novel twists that they could add to the game to reinvigorate it, but from what I see so far, I’m not quite sold yet.

Hey everybody, remember Breakout?

Yes, Breakout, the mid-1970s game about bouncing a ball against a brick wall with a paddle because there’s no one around to play Pong with, remember? It’s back.

And, well, it brings some enhanced visuals, and some power-ups… nothing that wasn’t possible 20-25 years ago.  If you remember Arkanoid, you’ll see a lot of the “enhancements” aren’t really new ideas, either. But it’s sideways.  Because a 16×9 screen would be sadistic to bounce against in a vertical orientation.

And, I mean, this looks decent.  I’m not sure that it’s going to light the world on fire… pretty sure it’s not, actually, but hey.  If you like Breakout, now you have another version you could play, if you wanted to.

So far, what I see is that Intellivision is delivering, and that they are staying true to their word that they will be publishing simple games that are easy for casual gamers of all ages to pick up and play without having to invest a lot of time in getting to know characters, learn a background story, getting deep into the worldbuilding lore, or figure out controls on a 13-button gamepad. And I think that if they can deliver that, with published games in the $8 per title price point that they had announced a little over a year ago, this could be a fun system.  

At least it has evidence of actually existing.  It’s nice to see the INTV guys actually doing something and showing tangible progress on developing their product, in contrast to the AtariBox “effort” that has shown little beyond some conceptual artwork and pre-production prototypes of the hardware with nothing at all mentioned or shown when it comes to exclusive new games to be released for the platform.

AtariBox entering “pre-production” phase as architect quits

This morning, my email inbox greeted me with another announcement from Atari, explaining how excited they were that the VCS is “going into pre-production.”

I’m not entirely clear what this means, given that the normal understanding of the term “pre-production” would seemingly cover the entire history of the AtariBox project, given that nothing has gone into production so far.

Some more teaser images showing prototype hardware in various stages of assembly, and some explanation of the design/layout of the motherboard, apparently in response to the reaction to the first announcement where they showed an image of the motherboard, which lead to speculation about whether it was real, or complete, or might have been hastily created by a company that specializes in rapid turnaround in order to give Atari something tangible to show backers while they continue to delay more meaningful steps toward release of a product.

There’s some more information in Atari’s latest Medium article — it is capable of running both Linux and Windows (hardly surprising, given the AtariBox is an AMD x64 system); it will have a fan-based cooling system (to me this is disappointing news, as I would have hoped for a silent running system, but again not terribly surprising, given that most computers these days are fan-cooled); default RAM will be 8GB (2×4) and user upgradeable, some frankly boring talk about plastic injection molds… and they’re still working on the actual software that will run on the system, although they had teased something at E3, it’s not ready to run on this hardware yet. Which is really bizarre — if this AMD x64 system is capable of running Linux and Windows, and if they can tease the front-end that they’ve been working for on some type of computer system, then what’s so different about the AtariBox hardware that Atari can’t run it on the machine they’re designing it for right now? Why couldn’t they all along, every step of the way? Something is not right about their software delivery lifecycle if they can’t create builds that will run on their target hardware.

I guess if there’s one positive thing to take from this announcement, it’s that Atari are apparently stepping up the frequency of their announcements, which may be a good sign that they are actually making progress with bringing their vision closer to reality.

That is, however…

Today The Register is reporting that Rob Wyatt, the architect of the VCS, has quit the project, and claims that he hasn’t been paid in 6 months. It was reported earlier that Wyatt was starting a new project, and after Atari’s previous announcement, rumor boards were awash with speculation about whether Wyatt was still on board with Atari. Atari’s PR deflected questions about it, but it’s clear now that Wyatt is no longer working with Atari on the VCS project.

The Register’s reporting on this project has been very thorough and is to be commended.

Sadly it’s looking more and more like AtariBox has been smoke and mirrors, underfunded wishes, and — let’s be frank — lies, and appears to be increasingly unlikely to launch. And even if it does, there’s no indication that it will be worth buying, due to a lack of first-party exclusive game content.

Intellivision Amico at T-minus 1 year

Intellivision’s revival was announced a year ago, at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, and they’ve been fairly quiet since then. But it looks as though, unlike Atari, they have been working steadily toward product viability. They are now a year away from their announced release date, and they actually have some games in the works.

A recently posted teaser video showed a number of games, purportedly being played on Amico hardware, that look like re-skinned versions of popular early-80s classic games such as Moon Patrol, Asteroids, and others, but with modern graphics.

I’m not sure what to make of these games yet, but if they’re merely re-skins of old games, that will not be enough to make the Amico successful.

To be compelling, Amico developers need to imagine (and then realize) an alternative history. In the same way that steampunk is a retro vision of what science fiction could have been from the perspective of the 19th century worldview, Amico games should be an expression of the vision of what videogames could have been from the perspective of the late 70’s/early 80’s worldview.

This is a really difficult thing to envision correctly. There really is no one right way to do it, but its a rich space within which different designers could allow their imaginations to run wild, and come up with better or worse visions of what this alternative history might be. Really, we would not have a single alternative timeline, but rather a seeming infinity of branching alternatives.

There are several interesting main branches for this alternative future history.

Platform Steady State

Imagine that the original Intellivision never stopped production, that a new generation of computing hardware never arrived, but that games for the 1979 INTV system continued to be developed, using the same hardware, and the same constraints.

What would the games being developed in 1990, 2000, 2010 or 2020 look like for such a system? To answer that, we need look no further than the homebrew community. Or more broadly, look at the homebrew community for that generation of systems: Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision. Over time, developers can become very familiar with the hardware, discover programming tricks and techniques to get the absolute most out of the system, and refine the quality of the software to its ultimate state.

Now try to envision the present day homebrew community, with the approval of copyright and trademark holders, creating authorized works. This gives us sequels to our favorite games, not just original new games, or thinly veiled “homages” or “parodies” of our favorite games.

This is one potential alternative history, and since it is one that we already have, in large part, in the form of the homebrew gamedev scene, it’s certainly viable. But it’s probably not the most interesting branch. The homebrew scene is awesome and it would be great to see it promoted on a modern platform that has mass appeal. But my hunch is that the appeal of the homebrew scene is narrow and niche. That is to say, the homebrew audience today is limited to a relatively small number of enthusiasts who have an old system that still works, and this number is most likely to dwindle as the enthusiasts die off and as the hardware breaks.

Unlimited Budget, 1979 tech

Now let’s go a bit further, and envision an Intellivision-like system that has just a little bit more capability. Not enough to put the system into a “next generation”, but more like what Intellivision could have been with an unlimited R&D budget and no compromises, subject to the limits of 1979’s tech. Whatever that tech is, it still has to fit inside a console-sized box, but it can be a no-compromises design within that box.

To properly envision this, we’d need to know the internals of the INTV rather intimately, as well as what other components were around at the time that could have been chosen for the system instead, but weren’t due to, primarily price considerations.

I don’t really have such an understanding, but imagine that we had a computer and electronics catalog from 1979, and it had all the components that went into the production of the INTV. Most likely, these parts were not the most expensive available, but the cheapest that could still do the job. Maybe in some cases they had to drop features entirely, in order to get the design to fit within a price point.

But you have unlimited budget, so you can select the top end parts, and include all the features. So maybe your CPU is speedier, maybe you have a bit more RAM, and the RAM is faster. Maybe this gives you the capability to do slightly higher resolution graphics modes, or more colors on screen from a larger palette. Maybe the IntelliVoice expansion module is built-in as standard equipment, and maybe it’s capable of speech synthesis that’s a little better. Games can have more sprites on screen without flicker, larger sprites, more animation frames, bigger levels, more items, etc.

Essentially this describes something like an “Intellivision III Plus” — the INTV3 was a backward compatible system released in 1982, which had a faster CPU, better graphics chip with double resolution capability and more sprites and colors, and yes, integrated IntelliVoice.

So this branch of alternative history more or less actually existed, but its life was cut short when Mattel canceled the INTV3 in 1983 due to the Crash. As such, we didn’t really get to see the full potential of what the INTV3 could have delivered. I’m not familiar with the homebrew community centered around the INTV3 hardware — most homebrew development focuses on more popular systems, such as the Atari 2600 or the NES, but to the extent there is one, the games it’s producing are essentially what this branch of alternative history might have looked like.

Moore’s Law Goes Linear

Let’s envision a future world wherein Moore’s Law failed early, and computers grew slightly more powerful, rather than exponentially.

Imagine that Mattel released a new system in 1983 or 84, and again in 1988, and then in 1993… and so on, until today. But rather than each generation of hardware roughly doubling in speed, memory, and so forth, the advances were merely linear. So, imagine that 40 years of integrated circuit micronization R&D results in a CPU clock speeds increasing from 1MHz to 40MHz instead of 4000 MHz. RAM increases from 2 KB to… just a few megabytes.

This is basically what personal computers were in the early-mid 1990s, only it happens 30 years later in the alternate history than it did in the real world. I had a Macintosh Centris 610 purchased in 1993, which had a 20MHz Motorola 68000 series CPU, 4MB of RAM (upgradeable to 16MB or so), and an 80 MB hard drive. A game console in the mold of the Intellivision likely wouldn’t have had a hard drive, so swap it for a cartridge slot, but let each cartridge hold ROM images of around 1-4MB on average, with maybe a spectacular, premium game topping out around 12-16MB. Graphics on my system were limited to 8-bit or 16-bit color depth, depending on resolution mode, and I think my 14″ monitor did 800×600, but maybe it was only 640×320.

If you programmed a system with specs like that at the bare metal, in assembly, dedicating the hardware fully to running the game, and not an operating system with layers of services for applications, that’s actually quite a powerful system, which would be very capable, even without hardware accelerated 3D graphics.

Keep in mind that software developers would have a very strong incentive to push hardware to its limit, and much more time to perfect performance optimization techniques for a stable hardware platform that doesn’t fall into obsolescence after 18 months. There wouldn’t be the mentality of just making software that’s good enough and shoving it out the door, and trust that next year’s computers would be powerful enough to run it acceptably. In such an alternate history, software craftsmanship would be highly advanced compared to in our world, and developers would work in low-level languages.

The thing is, I feel that a few generations advanced version of what Mattel could have evolved the Intellivision into doesn’t really feel like an Intellivision. It feels like… well, like an early 1990’s pre-PowerMac Macintosh. But it’s not really what Intellivision would need to be going with the Amico for if they wanted to tap into nostalgia for what Intellivision was in 1979-1982.

Something else then?

To do this, we need to understand the resource constraints of the Intellivision in a bit more detail, and then come up with some way to relax only one or two of them, in just such a way that it enables some new possibilities for games that are similar to the games that typified the Intellivision era, yet were just out of reach of what the console was actually capable of.

As an example, we might look at what sort of games we could have seen with twice the resolution, or an extra color per sprite, or removing the limitation on the number of sprites per horizontal scan line. Or ROMs that could be an extra 4KB in size.

Another way to think about it would be to think about ways we could augment the Intellivision by granting one capability from present day systems. For example, what sort of games could an Intellivision have played if it had always-on, low-latency network connectivity, that enabled it to connect to the internet and communicate high scores or enable online multiplayer? But (since the games are still based on EEPROM technology that is not re-writeablee) cannot apply updates or patches (other than new content). Or what would an Intellivision game look like with WSVGA resolution and thousands of sprites instead of NTSC resolution, but the same color palette?

We’d want to remember that these are not actual limitations we’re designing into the actual hardware, but rather artificial limitations we pretend to exist, accepting them as design constraints, in order to force us to come up with creative solutions for the problems that would arise in game development as a result of them, so that we could end up with games that have a distinctive flavor to their style that evokes an Intellivision aesthetic.

So summing up:

Do I want a game that plays exactly like Astrosmash, but has 4K resolution graphics, with 32-bit color depth, and the sprites look photorealistic, but it’s just a re-skin of the original Astrosmash? Nah, I’d probably rate that about a 4/10 (and the original Astrosmash is easily an 8/10). You don’t get a better game just by multiplying the graphical output.

What I would be excited about is a spiritual successor to Astrosmash, with extended play mechanics, and blocky, low-res graphics that evoke the original, but have enhanced effects, maybe some trails or motion blur, some neon glow, something like that. Something like what Tempest 2K was to Tempest.

A retro-inspired game like Geometry Wars would be a good fit for the console.

I’d also love to see a game that looks like it could have been drawn by an INTV or Atari 2600, but which is much larger in scope than what those games were capable of. Think Pitfall 3, and it looks like Pitfall I and II, but it has a larger world, more variety of obstacles and creatures, and additional play mechanics that weren’t possible on the original hardware.

Intellivision’s FAQ on Games suggests that this sort of thing is pretty well what they have in mind for the console, although what the games actually end up like obviously remains to be seen. They are looking to launch with a catalog of about 40 games, which is a respectable number of exclusive titles to start out with.

It is still a very difficult market to establish a new console in, though. Intellivision’s approach is to target a different market segment, rather than try to compete directly with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Google, and this seems smart, but whether it will succeed is up to Intellivision’s execution, and the market to decide. The casual/family gaming market is already pretty well served by mobile devices, and it’s difficult to say whether the Amico will appeal enough to consumers to get them to buy enough to make it a commercial success.

Atari: We now have games for the VCS! (Not really…)

After being stung recently and repeatedly for their lack of progress on the AtariBox project, Atari released their Big Announcement about the games that will be available on the console.

TL;DR, the announcement is very underwhelming. Atari is packaging a bunch of old classic games for streaming to your AtariBox. They’re not even doing it themselves; they’re partnering with another company.

That’s right, they still have ZERO new exclusive launch titles for this system. You know, the thing that tends to drive people to buy new systems? They still don’t have that.

Let’s be generous, the three word elevator pitch for this is: “Netflix for videogames”. Only, no Netflix Originals, just re-runs of games you’ve played a million times already, and already have access to through a variety of other platforms. If you aren’t lucky enough to have lived through most of the history of video games and have a library devoted to that history, you might find this enticing.

In a way, this is cool. For only about 25 years now, gamers have had to resort to piracy and emulation to play thousands of arcade game titles for free. Now, they can pay $10/mo + $350 for the console for the privilege of doing it guilt-free, albeit restricted to just those titles that are available through Antstream. And that’s something, isn’t it? 

No, I know that sound sarcastic, but it really is. For only 25 years or so, the problem of preserving historic videogames has been ignored by the industry that created them, and was left to be solved by dedicated fans who recognized the importance of such an effort. But this was always an ethical quandary, and enthusiasts were forced into a dilemma: literally preserve history before it was too late and games were lost forever, and violate copyright for a bunch of outdated products that companies refused to continue to produce or make available in any format? Well now for just $10/mo our consciences can finally be clear. And our reward for this will be that only the games deemed worthy of preservation for their long-tail commercial potential will be preserved. Shut down the MAME project, everyone, and rejoice: we’ve won.

OK, ok, that’s unavoidably sarcastic, but it’s true. This service creates value by ripping the hard work of emulation preservationists, and by graverobbing what rightfully should have by now been the public domain, to provide games-as-a-service to you, so that you can pay for them forever, without ever owning them. Because in the new economy, ownership is theft. There’s literally no reason you would ever want to own anything anyway, this is a post-scarsity economy, after all.

Antstream itself kickstarted into existence in April of 2019, and, well, isn’t it telling that a physical “not-a-console” gaming system that kickstarted TWO YEARS earlier and STILL doesn’t have any exclusive launch titles lined up, kept silent about this deficiency for all that time, until fed-up backers had a mutiny about it on Reddit, and so had to run out and find something, anything, so they could claim that they will have games, and picks something that only became a thing this year?

It makes you wonder what the hell Atari have been up to for the past two years, apart from rendering the shell they’re putting their components into, and re-releasing the same empty hype announcement every 6 months or so. According to their Kickstarter page, Antstream have been developing their service for four years now, so the Kickstarter is more an effort to do viral marketing for the launch of the service rather than a no-product preorder like Atari’s VCS Indigogo was. Yet, if Atari had planned all along to make use of this service, and had to remain quiet about it all this time, one wonders why they couldn’t have said something around the time that Antsream launched their Kickstarter campaign. Why the need to remain silent for another 6 months?

Still unanswered: Is anyone actually developing any games that will run only on this system, so that there will be a reason to buy it? Any first party game development, at all? (Well, it’s a silent NO, that’s the answer.) Atari 2019 is a brand name only, not a developer of anything substantial. In trying to establish a platform, they’re leveraging the work of others and passing it off as their own. AMD for the hardware. Antstream for the content. Maybe there’s some internal work being done to create the GUI to do configuration management and launch apps, but that’s not exactly exciting, now, is it?

It’s worth mentioning that around the time Antstream announced itself — about a month before, actually — Google announced Stadia, and there’s literally no reason any of the games that you might have access to through Antstream couldn’t also be streamed to your screen through Stadia. Other than, I guess, some exclusive rights deal that would preclude availability on other platforms. But then, Stadia is still in pre-order, too. Sigh.

So for the time being we’re still safe from the future hell of games-as-service, that you can never own, and which will be preserved for all time only to the extent that a company decides to preserve them. Which is to say, any old versions will be superceded by the latest patch, even if earlier releases are historically relevant. And games that aren’t attracting sufficient interest will be dropped unceremoniously, and probably not many people will care, except the small audiences for games who really love those games even though they’re part of a small audience not big enough to be considered commercially viable. But who cares about them, anyway?

Even if Antstream is great — no, especially if their service is great– it’ll be available on all platforms that its client can be ported to, there’s still no compelling answer to the question, why get an AtariBox?

Atari attempts to answer this by assuring us that:

When Atari VCS users log in or subscribe to the Antstream service using their Atari VCS, it will immediately unlock an exclusive and enhanced version of the Antstream app engineered specifically for the Atari VCS. The Atari VCS Edition of the app will house the largest collection of Atari games available anywhere and ready for immediate play. This enhanced collection will be exclusive to the Atari VCS at launch and will not be available on other Antstream platforms without an Atari VCS account.

Atari

Re-read that last sentence. You can stream Antstream’s exclusive AtariVCS content to any Antstream-capable platform, provided you have an Atari VCS account. My guess is that you’ll be able to get one of those without buying the AtariBox hardware, if not immediately then eventually. No word on whether that will cost a monthly subscription on top of whatever Antstream will cost.

But this leads me to wonder what’s up with Atari’s earlier announcement that the Atari Vault would be available to VCS owners? I mean, I don’t really wonder, because who cares. The AtariVault is on Steam and I can buy it and play it right now through my Steam account on my PC, and I don’t have to pre-order and then wait 3 years for some outdated low end PC in a pretty case to do it, either.

But lets say I did decide to wonder. Well, is the Atari Vault still going to be part of the picture, or did they just shitcan it and replace it with a subscription-based streaming service?

Oh, and there’s a picture of their motherboard. Suck on that, haters! I bet everyone who doubted that AMD Ryzen board could have an Atari Fuji logo custom silkscreened onto its PCB are all eating crow now!

Well, it’s something, anyway. Not enough. But at least it’s something.

The AtariBox story continues to be dismal

Update from the Register… It’s sad that this is the reality but it’s about exactly what I expected, and have been warning the public about since the crowdfunding campaign pitch.

Don’t give these people money until they have a product. Promises and hype are nothing. Shame on the people who continue to abuse the Atari name for continuing to string gullible fans along with so little evidence of any actual work happening toward delivering on the vision they pitched over 2 years ago.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Collectorvision’s Phoenix console is shipping in October, and was announced after Atari first announced the AtariBox concept. The Phoenix not only plays ColecoVision games through a cartridge slot, it also has an FPGA core to play Atari 2600 cartridges as well. It’s not trying to be a next-gen console or a brand reboot for a dead company, but it exists, it works, it plays classic games with incredible fidelity to the original hardware, and I’ve touched one.

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand. I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same. He was. I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.