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Category: games

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.

A quick and dirty, incomplete and opinionated history of videogames and related technologies

Pre-1977

  • The Dawn of Time.
  • Pinball and other electromechanical games of skill are already popular in arcades, carnivals, and shooting galleries. In addition to pinball tables, there are games that mimic sports like baseball, bowling, race car driving, and military-themed games based on airplanes and submarines (Persiscope, SEGA, 1965). Most of these games are coin-operated, a dime or a quarter giving a credit for play, hence the term “coin-op”. These exist alongside traditional carnival games like dunk tanks, skee ball, whack-a-mole, tests of strength, and throwing games.
  • Willie Higgenbotham’s “Tennis for Two” demo (1958), played on oscilloscope. Often cited as the first “video game”.
  • The Mainframe Age. Games programmed by and played by computer scientists at universities, and scarsely known outside their world.
  • DEC PDP series minicomputer systems (PDP-1, etc.) are sold to large universities and corporations for business and research. Programmers on these systems develop games to run on them almost from the very beginning. They are “mini” compared to older computers, which could occupy an entire building, but still are large enough to occupy several cabinet-sized racks in a room.
  • Colossal Cave Adventure, Hunt the Wumpus, and similar games, mostly text-based played on teletypes and line printers, as most computers lack video displays. Text dominates for a few years, because graphics are incredibly primitive, limited, and expensive, and because keyboards and teletypes are far more common. Today there’s some (mostly) academic debate as to whether a text-only game counts as a “video” game, but it they are clearly computer games, and represent significant branch of the history, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.
  • Spacewar (1962) developed on the PDP-1, often cited as the first videogame.

1972-1977

  • At home: Magnavox Odyssey, Ralph Baer‘s “Brown Box” more or less invents controllable graphics displayed on a television screen (as opposed to oscilloscope screen or computer display).
  • Atari founded, dawn of coin-op (arcade) games. There were arcades before Atari, with electromechanical shooting and racing games, with electronic lights, bells, and mechanical levers and switches, as well as pinball tables, shooting galleries, and carnival games of skill. But videogames were a quantum leap forward, forever changing the landscape.
  • After first developing a ripoff of Spacewar in an arcade cabinet called Computer Space (which struggles to catch on), Nolan Bushnell rips off Baer’s Brown Box off, creating Pong, and with it, Atari has its first big commercial success.
  • Many pinball companies start producing videogames as well (Bally, Williams, Midway, Gottlieb). It is a natural expansion for them, as they are already familiar with mechanical and electronic gaming and entertainment, with decades of experience and distribution. Joining them are Japanese companies like Taito, Namco, Nintendo, and Sega. Each produces notable successful games, but Atari leads, innovates, and dominates them all in the videogame sector of the market, eventually becoming the fastest growing company in the history of the world, becoming acquired by Warner Communications in 1976 (just prior to the launch of the Atari VCS).
  • Some other minor oddball home games, mostly pong clones and dedicated hardware (plays a single game only, not programmable/reconfigurable).
  • Atari’s first cartridge-based home console, the VCS (later renamed the 2600) released in 1977.

1977-1982

  • Sometimes referred to as “the Golden Age of Video Games” or the Atari Age. The early 8-bit era, dominated by processors like the Zilog Z-80, MOS 6502, and Intel’s 8088/8086.
  • Space Invaders (1978) creates a coin shortage in Japan.
  • First color graphics in a coin-op arcade game, Namco’s Galaxian (1979).
  • Atari dominates in the of the arcade; coin-operated games continued to shift from mechanical or electro-mechanical (eg pinball, etc.) to fully electronic and digital.
  • At home the Atari VCS revolutionized home entertainment, tens of millions of units sold. Largely on the strength of home versions of their top coin-op titles, but many unique titles developed as original games.
  • Warner Bros. acquires Atari in 1977. Warner Bros. struggles with Atari to manage this success, and a uniquely Californian anything-goes business culture. Nolan Bushnell exits Atari. New CEO Ray Kassar takes over, immediately getting to work transforming Atari into a business and destroying much of the original culture (which was not in need of much help when it came to self-destruction, to be honest). Atari becomes the fastest growing company in the history of the world at the time.
  • Also-rans in the early home console market include: Fairchild Channel F (1976), Bally Astrocade/Professional Arcade (1977), Magnavox Odyssey2 (1978), and Vectrex (1982).
  • Later in this era, ColecoVision (1982), Mattel Intellivision (1979) rise to viable competitors to dominant Atari, but fail to unseat the king of console games. Arguably these later consoles belong to a newer generation to the Atari VCS.
  • To stay competitive, Atari releases its new 5200 console, which is hampered by poor controllers, lack of backward compatibility with VCS (an 2600 expansion module was available for the 5200, ColecoVision, and Intellivision, however) and limited library of mostly better fidelity ports of coin-op titles that already existed on the 2600 and other consoles) and soon flounders in the wake of the Crash of 1983. Atari struggles to continue supporting the new and older consoles, the massive install base for the 2600 sustaining the company through the upcoming Crash of ’83.
  • The rise of home computers: the Apple II, Commodore 64, Vic-20, Atari 400/800, the MSX, ZX Spectrum. These systems are all largely incompatible with one another, their hardware and software varying widely, but many successful games are ported to run on all of them.
  • Early personal computer games are dominated by text adventure games from companies like Infocom and Sierra On-Line.
  • Mainframe games still popular in computer labs and universities, and are now being ported to home computers, arcade, and home consoles in various ways. The genre-spawning MUD (multi-user dungeons) the earliest ancestors to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, soon followed by Rogue, which spawns the rogue-like genre, including HackNethack.
  • Graphics range from primitive to very primitive, especially on business PCs (monochromeCGA and EGA graphics).

1983-85

  • The Crash. Major downturn in the market as a glut of poor quality games causes a massive drop in demand by consumers. At the time this was misread by many to mean that videogames were a passing fad that had had their day, but really people wanted new, better games.
  • Many companies went out of business or shifted to other industries. Out of the “Big 3” of the day (Atari, Coleco, Mattel), only Atari comes out of the Crash still in the videogames market. The void left by Coleco and Mattel will be filled by Nintendo and Sega in short order. Atari readies its 7800 console, only to shelve it due to Warner’s sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel, owner of Commodore, who sits on the technology until years later Nintendo’s NES takes the market by storm, way too late for it to have a chance of being anything more than an also-ran system. Nintendo flirted with Atari, eyeing a partnership for a US launch of the NES as an Atari branded console, before deciding that they could do just as well if not better on their own (and they did.)
  • On the home computer front, Apple, Commodore, Atari remain strong gaming platforms, with increasing competition from generic IBM PC and PC-compatible clones.
  • Floppy disk-based software gives rise to a subculture devoted to hacking copy protection to violate copyright and distribute free copies of software, known as “warez“. Underground BBS and FTP sites carrying warez and cracks on the rise. Copy protection hackers start “signing” their work with “tech demos” to show off their skill at controlling the hardware, giving rise to the Demoscene, where circumventing copy protection and product activation goes by the wayside, and all focus goes into creating cool technical demos that stretch the limits of hardware to display killer graphical and audio demos, for lulz and bragging rights.

1985-1990

  • The late 8-bit era. The new “Big 3”: the venerable, obsolescent Atari 2600, NES, Sega Master System. Atari, a distant third place by this point with its newly released 7800 home console delayed until it is too late to head off the exploding popularity of the NES, and aging 400/800/1200 line of home computers. The success of the NES effectively buries Atari and wins Nintendo a monopoly in home game consoles.
  • The golden age of the arcade has dulled to a “silver age”; arcade games are still popular, but are receding as many arcade locations go out of business, and the era of arcade games literally everywhere, including outside in front of convenience stores and gas stations, soon phases out.
  • IBM PC clones, Intel x86 and 286 hardware generations. DOS. The early years of the Apple Macintosh, still with only b&w graphics. Pre-WWW internet consisted of things like Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), IRC chat rooms, FTP sites, Telnet, NNTP (usenet/newsgroups), Gopher sites, etc. mostly limited to people at large universities in technical departments (comp sci, physics, math, engineering, science) and home computer enthusiasts who direct-dialed to specific systems via modem to access a specific system, rather than dial-up ISP for a gateway connection to “the internet”.
  • Virtual Reality first conceptualized, as early flight and military vehicle simulators inspire a concept of “total immersion” (where the subject can’t discern a difference between real experiences and virtual ones) as the holy grail that VR R&D will strive for. Nothing much as far as games technology at this point, but the Atari coin-op’s 1980 3D wireframe tank simulation game Battlezone is their great-granddaddy.

1990-1995

  • Arcades still popular, but to a much lesser degree than the late 70s/early 80s; as coin op cabinets recede from literally everywhere to dedicated businesses, which are increasingly struggling as improving home console technology makes coin-op games less and less appealing value proposition by comparison. Many gamers prefer the lengthier, more complex style of play offered by home games, with puzzles and story lines, and adventure and RPG genres, simulation and strategy games gaining in popularity.
  • In the arcade mega hits Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat rejuvenate fading arcade market. 2P vs. fighter games and 4P side-scrolling beat-em-ups such as TMNT, X-Men, and The Simpsons very popular in arcades in the early 90s. Driving/sit-down vehicle games and light gun games also remain popular.
  • Movie, comic book IP licenses adaptations to videogame medium begin to increase in popularity, and fidelity to the source material. It’s increasingly common for a movie release to be accompanied by a video game version that closely follows the story, rather than just being about the character.
  • Nintendo GameBoy (1989) ushers in a golden age of handheld gaming, to be followed up in future generations by GameBoy Color (1998), GameBoy Advance (2001), DS (2004 and onward), and ultimately converging back to television-based gaming in 2017 with the Nintendo Switch. Previous portable/handheld electronic games were single-title LED-based hand held games that were barely videogames. Previous generations of handheld electronic games from the early 1890’s were insignificant (Tiger LCD games, Nintendo Game and Watch, Coleco LED based games, etc.) Atari Lynx (1989) and Sega Game Gear (1990) attempt to compete, but Nintendo dominates the market, continuing until the present day, despite efforts from others over the years such as the Nokia N-Gage, Sony PSP and Vita, WonderSwan, etc. Nintendo will dominate handheld gaming for the next 20+ years, challenged only by the rise of iOS and Android smarpthones and tablets in the mid-2000’s.
  • The 16-bit era. SNES, Sega Genesis, NEC TurboGrafx-16 home consoles in the early 90’s, giving way to Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation in the mid-90’s.
  • Game developer SNK straddles the arcade and home console market with its NEO GEO system (1990), popular in arcades as a modular coin-op platform, but too expensive for most home gamers, with individual game cartridges selling for $350 per title.
  • Nintendo makes an infamously huge business blunder by flirting with Sony to partner in developing a CD-ROM peripheral for the SNES, and then canceling the project after Sony had committed millions in development costs.
  • Betrayed by Nintendo, and committed to its investment, Sony goes alone, and the PlayStation brand is born, creating a massive new rival with deep pockets and very mature technical and manufacturing capability.
  • Just about every hardware maker except Nintendo releases a CD-based console: Philips CD-i (1991), 3DO (a 1993 attempt at licensed standard to be manufactured by various companies), NEC TurboGrafx CD (1990), Sega CD (1991), Sega Saturn (1994). Most of these are commercial failures, enter and exit the market without much fanfare, attempting to compete with Sony PlayStation, but too expensive and too weak game libraries.
  • By the mid-90’s the 16-bit consoles give way to 32-bit consoles and computers. Bus-width captures imagination of marketing, resulting in bizarre, distorted claims about the specs and capabilities of certain systems.
  • Sega’s poorly timed hardware releases keep the company off-kilter as they continue to struggle, dropping to 3rd place in the market. Sega 32x, an expansion module for Sega Genesis, and then Sega Saturn the following year, released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Sega struggles with the design and timing of launch for its consoles, undermining their success by designing hardware architecture that is difficult to program for, and then too quickly obsolete to recoup investment.
  • Atari’s last gasp, the Jaguar (1993), fails and Atari exits the stage, ceasing to exist as a real company. Sony replaces it; the Big 3 now are Nintendo, Sega, Sony. Fun fact: Atari continued producing Atari 2600 consoles and new games right up until 1992, making it by far the longest-lived home console of all time. Atari sells off intellectual property rights which pass through various companies that attempt to cash in on the early IP by re-releasing collections of classic arcade and home console titles.
  • All the other competitors exit after a few years of insufficient sales attract little third party development, resulting in weak game catalogs.
  • 1995 marked a transition from DOS to Windows 95 and ushered in the home internet era, with ISPs like CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy bringing dial-up access to the internet to the masses. No longer just a university/academic thing, the internet boom happens. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser integrated and bundled for free with Win95 results in massive anti-trust lawsuit which Microsoft eventually wins despite clear guilt as a harmful monopoly, as a result of shifting political winds after George W. Bush narrowly defeats Al Gore in a highly controversial 2000 presidential election.
  • IBM PC: DOS continues to remain popular with gamers until about the time of Windows 98 or 2000, as it is faster, more stable, and more tune-able for getting the most performance out of the hardware for a time. Communities of hardware enthusiasts come together online to seek the ultimate performance tweaks and secrets for getting the most out of their system, resulting in a sub-culture of “overclockers“, many of whom go on to tech careers or become hackers of one stripe or another.
  • IBM PC: Intel 386, 486, and Pentium, Pentium II, chips rapidly increase the performance and capabilities of PC-compatible hardware. CD-ROM drives started to become standard on PC’s in the mid-90’s, giving rise to larger games with greater multimedia content, pre-rendered video, etc. The CD-ROM game Myst (1993) is a major mover of CD-ROM drives.
  • 1996 is a major milestone year as this is when the internet became popular and started to become used by developers to distribute games. Home dialup services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online bring internet access from computer labs and dorm rooms at university to the middle-class households across America.
  • On the PC, the addition of SoundBlaster soundcards and hardware-accelerated graphics increased the capability of PC games, giving rise to a new emphasis on 3D games, especially 3D first person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, Marathon, and Duke Nukem 3D.
  • Microsoft studies Apple’s mouse-driven UI and desktop metaphor, and rips it off, releases Windows, initially a graphical shell that runs on top of DOS and is generally terrible, but runs a vast majority of business applications. The sheer size of the PC install base makes it an attractive market for games, despite widely varying hardware specs from one PC clone manufacturer to another, and from one generation to the next. The difficulty of programming games on such varied, yet standardized hardware means that compared to console and arcade games, PC game are mostly inferior tech-wise. Console technology is so much more consistent in spec that developers can write code much more tightly coupled to the hardware, getting the absolute most out of the systems’ capabilities, resulting in far superior games despite the fact that console hardware generally has slower, smaller hardware specs. It’s how you use it.
  • Apple struggles to survive, hanging in there thanks to very loyal Macintosh user base, and a truly superior user experience (although the underlying OS is still terrible), clinging to 1-5% of the personal computer market, and failing to make inroads against commodity priced generic PC-compatible hardware. Macintosh moves from Motorola 68000-series CPU chips and NuBus architecture to IBM PowerPC based systems. Despite superior technology, they can’t get cheap enough to compete with the generic commodity PC.
  • Start of the Emulation scene, old hardware emulated in software to create a compatibility layer to enable play of software designed for older systems on newer platforms. Emulation scene offshoots ROM hacking and homebrew game development. (Still later in the 20-teens, game hackers will start experimenting with teaching AI to play old, emulated video games, via genetic algorithm and other machine learning techniques).

1996-2000

  • Nintendo tries to leapfrog everyone with it’s 64-bit Nintendo 64 (1996), but finishes 2nd place in sales to Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation. Nintendo sticks with cartridge format in its next-gen system , struggles to retain 3rd party developers as a result. Many 3rd party game development studios move to support Sony PlayStation due to greater storage capability and cheaper manufacturing cost of the CD-ROM format.
  • Nintendo continues to garner a reputation for being a G-rated games company for younger children. This started with the 16-bit console wars between “family-friendly” Nintendo and the older teen/young adult market targeted by Sega, now Sony, and (later) Microsoft.
  • Demise of Sega as a hardware company, their final console the Sega Dreamcast (1999), initially to strong sales, only to be blown out of the market months later by the Sony PlayStation 2 (2000) and the Microsoft XBox (2001).
  • Emergence of the 3D First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, with games like Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal leading the way. There were 3D first-person games before Doom, but the genre reached maturity and achieved dominance in the gaming market around this time, and has remained one of the most popular types of games ever since.
  • Apple comes as close to exiting the business as it ever will, before Steve Jobs returns from NeXT and reinvents the company with iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad over the next decade. iOS platform becomes an important platform for game developers, with the App Store becoming an important distribution vehicle for indies and established studios alike.
  • Macromedia‘s Flash and Shockwave technologies make the web browser an important game platform during this time. Adobe later acquires Macromedia, in 2005.
  • Virtual Reality as a concept enters mainstream public consciousness, but remains very primitive. Nintendo’s early VR console experiment, the Virtual Boy, is a notorious flop. But VR as a concept gets a lot of attention from science fiction writers and Hollywood.
  • Rise of game modding scene, as game software architecture becomes more modular and therefore easier to modify and re-use. Companies develop engines that are used to drive many game releases. Game players get into the act by modifying published games, adding new life and replayability to them by creating new maps, items, in some cases entire new games, and sharing them with the online community.

2000-2006

  • Sony releases its PlayStation 2 console in 2000. Gamers camp outside of stores like Best Buy in the hopes of getting theirs before they sell out.
  • Microsoft XBox (2001) is released as Microsoft attempts to muscle their way into the industry. Microsoft was already strong as a gaming platform due to the popularity of DOS and Win9X as a gaming platform, XBox was a strategic move into creating a standardized hardware platform dedicated to gamers and home entertainment. Bulky and ugly, the initial XBox is essentially a Intel Pentium III PC with nVidia graphics, only with a gamepad as the only input, instead of a keyboard and mouse, running an OS based on Windows but stripped down in order to focus on game software. Macintosh-era AAA game developers Bungie acquired by Microsoft, who steal Halo from Apple fans and put it on the XBox.
  • Nintendo releases its first optical disk system, the Gamecube (2001), almost a decade after their original plans with the SNES fell through.
  • In the face of two competitors with very deep products and more powerful hardware, it holds its own, largely on the strength of Nintendo’s strong appeal as a first-party developer, with games like Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kartand Metroid Prime.
  • Most internet gaming is done on PC, thanks to the emergence of widespread adoption of broadband internet in homes.
  • HDTV exists during this time but is not widely adopted yet, so consoles of the day do not yet support HDTV resolution. NTSC 480i or 480p are the best resolutions supported in this generation.
  • Consoles are still mostly not internet capable, for practical purposes, although there have been attempts throughout most of the previous generations to try to make use of networking capability in some fashion. (Even back in the early 80’s there were online services for consoles such as Intellivision PlayCable, Nintendo Broadcast System, Satellaview, Sega Mega Modem, and others, but these were too ahead of their time for most consumers to take notice of them, with very limited support for a tiny number of games, in limited markets.) This starts to change with the PS2 and XBox, but online gaming services for PlayStation Network and XBox Live will not come into their own for one more generation.
  • Rise of internet gaming and digital distribution for PC games.
  • Videogames starting to become increasingly respected by academics and critics as a valid medium/topic of academic study.
  • Valve launches its Steam platform in 2003, coinciding with the release of Half-Life 2. Steam will become a major player in marketing and digital distribution in the years ahead. Steam marks the rise of the “software as a service” business model.

2006-2012

  • The HDTV era. Increasing popularity of HDTV enables consoles to move from NTSC TV resolutions to 720p and 1080p.
  • Home consoles: Sony PS3, Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii. The Wii notably does not support HD resolution, but the PS3 and XBox 360 do.
  • These newer consoles are increasingly internet-integrated, many games rely on the internet to work at all, to validate the license, download updates, connect to multiplayer and social/community servers, etc.
  • Games increasingly go digital for distribution; physical media and brick-n-mortar retail decline.
  • The Wii dares to innovate with motion controls, Sony, MS follow suit half-heartedly with PS3 motion controller and Xbox Kinect. Despite the weaker hardware specs, the Wii outsells both Sony and Microsoft, regaining the market lead.
  • The mobile gaming era. Introduction of iPhone and Android platforms, smartphones and tablets. Rise of touch screen technology creates new input and control opportunities.
  • Rise of indie developers. At first doing direct sales through shareware business models, DIY e-commerce. First Global Game Jam (2009), Ludum Dare (2002, but not widely popular until this period) events happen in the early part of this period, paving the way for countless other game jams to follow.
  • Curated “walled garden” marketplaces (Apple’s App Store, Google Play, Steam, etc.) welcome indie developers, early adopters who initially are rewarded, followed by hordes of also-ran developers who struggle for any attention at all, resulting in “Indypocalypse” by 2015, as shifting business models and reduced barriers to entry create business and marketing challenges that most are unprepared to face and incapable of handling.
  • Rise of Valve’s Steam service, introduced in 2003 with Half-Life 2, as an increasingly important distribution platform for AAA and indie developers alike. Indie studios especially depend on Steam to release, distribute, and market their games. Steam Greenlight program allows indies to reach wider audiences more easily than previously possible.
  • Steve Jobs’ refusal to support Adobe Flash player on iPhone is the harbinger of death for Flash-based web content, although the end won’t come for a good decade and more.
  • Rise of “retro” style games that harken back to the 2D era and simpler styles of games, hook into gamer nostalgia.

2012-current

  • Nintendo Wii U (2012), Sony PS4 (2013), Microsoft XBox One (2013), and Nintendo Switch (2017). Wii U is a short-lived failure for Nintendo, but the lessons learned from it give rise to the hot-selling Switch. HDTV and internet now mainstream and assumed to be standard features of nearly all games. UHD (4K) TVs exist, are already relatively inexpensive, increasingly common, and gaining support from PS4/XBone. Nintendo continues to take a “less is more” strategy, opting for innovative design and popular IP to sell less-expensive hardware of significantly lesser capability.
  • Indypocalypse in full swing. Humble Store introduces the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want business model for a bundle of popular indie titles that had already sold well. It is a viral sensation and generates millions in revenue despite the fact that you can get the bundle for free; a “beat the average price paid so far” incentive for an extended bundle does the trick. In the mobile world, a race-to-the-bottom approach brings prices for many games to free or nearly free; revenue streams from in-game advertising, in-game purchase, “DLC” (downloadable content) packs, subscription-based licensing etc. struggle with varying success to replace revenue lost from retail sales of copies of physical media. Steam announces end of Greenlight program in 2017.
  • Nearly 100 yers old, Ralph Baer dies in 2014, marking a point at which videogame history begins shift from a period where everything can still fit within living memory to a phase where history will increasingly consist of what can be recorded and preserved. Historical preservation efforts by Jason Scott at the Internet Archive, increasing scholarly attention by notables such as Ian Bogost, Henry Lowood, and others.
  • Maturing HTML5 technologies finally start to erode Flash marketshare, resulting in Adobe announcing in 2017 the sunset of Flash is in sight, currently slated for 2020. Future of preservation of Flash-based games uncertain.
  • VR and AR (augmented reality) technologies start getting better, but still very niche. Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, Google Cardboard, etc. Pokemon Go (2016) is an early standout augmented reality title, and briefly one of the most popular videogames of all time.
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