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Category: games

If I could design the AtariBox…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’d do, if I were Atari.

Best Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

What legacy game titles should be included?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What peripherals devices should be supported?

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

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

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

Retro Modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the GAMES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atari launches IndiGoGo pre-order for AtariBox (VCS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludum Dare 41 results

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

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

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

InvadTris 1.0

InvadTris 1.0

InvadTris 1.8

InvadTris 1.8

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

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

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

InvadTris: A Ludum Dare 41 Game

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

Play and Rate InvadTris

Post-mortem article

 

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…)

The Todd Rogers Dragster Controversy

In recent weeks there has been a growing controversy in the world of competitive gaming about some very old records.

I’m pretty far removed from all of the principle players in this, and don’t really know what to believe is true.

The controversy began with the oldest record, or one of the oldest records, on record: a score of 5.51s in Activision’s Dragster for the Atari 2600, held by Todd Rogers, obtained in 1982, 35 years ago. For some reason some people still cared about this game enough that they devoted an insane amount of time and resources into trying to replicate Todd’s feat, and, it is now believed, have proved that the record score is impossible. A tool-assisted speed run of the game could not replicate the score. Ben Heckendorn hacked an Atari console to allow a tool-assisted attempt on physical hardware, and still couldn’t tie Todd’s record. The only reasonable conclusion seems to be that the record is likely fake.

Except that, Todd performed this feat on three separate occasions, live, in front of judges. Activision certified Todd’s score authentic by “the standards of the day”. It could be that Rogers managed to cheat in such a way as to avoid detection by those standards back then. There really is no way of knowing. (It’s still possible that there could be a way to achieve the score that the BenHeck attempt simply didn’t find. And, even if the score can be replicated or exceeded by someone today, such evidence wouldn’t prove that Rogers actually achieved it in 1982.)

Back then, videogames were a long, long way from being recognized as a competitive sport. Feats in videogaming were more like publicity stunts than they were like Olympic competitions. The stakes were not particularly high, and this was in an era where doctored videos and photographs were not as easy to produce as they are now. But neither were the verification methods as sophisticated as they are today.

But what would Rogers have had to gain by cheating, beyond what at the time could only have been anticipated to be some incredibly trivial, short term bragging rights? What methods could have have employed to fake his verified scores? Why would someone continue to cling to his fraud for 35 years, turning his whole life into a lie?

This raises a epistemological question of how can a record ever be measured, and once it has been performed, how can it ever be verified? Methods that were once acceptable: a live performance on certified stock hardware witnessed by an official judge, photographs, and even videos are all subject to various forms of cheating or corruption. We can trust recording and verification measures to a degree that is reasonable, but what is reasonable?

Records ultimately seek to preserve a moment in time, for all history. But ultimately, won’t all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain?

The further removed from the actual event we become, whether by time or by proxy, the less we can believe what was witnessed. But even witnesses cannot be trusted, even if they are honest. Memory is faulty. Perception is faulty. Recordings can be manipulated. So does anything really happen? Well… of course it does. But how anyone prove any of it?

The story goes deeper. Rogers holds many other records in Twin Galaxies’ database. In many cases, his scores are unbelievable. In some cases, literally unbelievable as the score in the record is literally impossible by the scoring rules — a game where the score increments in multiples of 100, with a record that is not evenly divisible by 100. In other cases, figuratively unbelievable, as the second place score in the Twin Galaxies leaderboard is far distant from Rogers’ supposed record.

Well, it so happens that Rogers was at one point a Twin Galaxies referee, and had access to their database, and has admitted to entering his own records into the books — on his own, without supervision.

In response to these facts coming to light, Twin Galaxies struck all of Rogers records from their databases.

Regardless of whether the Dragster 5.51 score is legitimate or not, the numerous obviously falsified records alone should be enough reason to ban Rogers from the recordbooks. The integrity of the entire Twin Galaxies database is compromised by the lax practices of the past. Even if some of Rogers record scores are real, the actions he took as a Twin Galaxies judge cast doubt on the integrity of all of his records, and indeed on the entire body of Twin Galaxies’ recordbook.

Todd’s public response to being banned by Twin Galaxies and having his records vacated is long and rambling, but also fascinating.

The obvious solution to the 5.51 controversy is to see if Rogers can replicate the feat today. If he can, the record is re-proven; if he can’t, it doesn’t really mean anything, but would be taken to lend weight to the record being false.

Supposedly, Rogers was prepared to defend his record by replicating the feat, but has since reconsidered due to numerous threatening messages that he says he and his family have received.

I don’t know what to believe here, either. On the one hand, it’s really, really hard to believe that anyone cares so much about this record that they would threaten someone for cheating and lying about it. On the other hand, we live in a post-gamergate world, and it’s entirely believable that there are those who would do exactly that.

But then again, it’s an extremely convenient excuse for Rogers to walk away from this whole thing with the shreds of what’s left of his dignity intact.

Which is to say, if Rogers is a fraud, and it certainly looks like he is, then using the hostile gamer culture as a reason to walk away from further embarrassment is exactly what a reasonable person would expect him to do.

There’s an interesting thread on the Atari Age forums that goes into surprising depth discussing the controversy.

Robo Radio: a Global Game Jam 2018 game

This weekend, I participated in Global Game Jam 2018. The theme was Transmission. I worked with my Cleveland Game Developers pals Bobby Lauer and Ian Faleer on this little game:


Robo Radio title screen

Robo Radio is a game for two players. Requires 2 gamepad controllers (XBox 360 controllers tested).

Controlling radio-controlled robots, you battle your opponent with lasers and bombs. The controls are deliberately laggy, as the instructions to your robot have to be transmitted from your radio tower to your robot, and this takes some time. Also be aware that your radio tower’s signals can control the opponent’s robot if they get between your robot and your transmitter.

First player to die 3 times loses.

Robo Radio gameplay

Programmed in GameMaker Studio 1.4, built for Windows.

csanyk.com © 2016
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