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Category: product reviews

AdapDesk kickstarter melts down

Last April, I backed a kickstarter for AdapDesk, a portable lap desk ideal for use with a laptop computer in bed or seated in a chair without a table. It was pricey, at $125, but looked like it was so well designed that it would be worth the money to have a quality lap desk.

AdapDesk

The kickstarter was successfully funded and my payment went through on May 13. The fundraising part of the kickstarter was very successful, raising several hundred thousand dollars against an original goal of $15,000. A short while later, I was sent a survey asking if I would like to order any extra accessories, and so I sent them another $26 for a cup holder and mouse pad attachment.

Delivery was originally supposed to happen, I believe, in September. This slipped to December, then to mid-January.

Two days ago, on 1/15/18, the AdapDesk team made an announcement. I was expecting to hear that they had shipped, or that they had to delay yet again. Instead, they announced that they have run out of money, and need more in order to complete their obligations to backers. Asking for $55 per desk ordered for air shipping to USA, this is 44% over the original cost (37% if you count the original shipping).

Overruns and lateness are very common with kickstarter projects. I don’t have statistics, but you hear about them enough to know that they happen. And certainly there is always greater risk when you back a project rather than purchase a product. I can tolerate lateness — better to have a product that is late but correct and good than to have something that has problems but is on time. And I have been fortunate enough not to be burned very often by kickstarters that fail to deliver entirely. Although, certainly, that’s part of the risk of backing a project.

This is a bit different situation. The project team want to complete their work and deliver, but they say they need more money to accomplish this. Giving them money is throwing good money after bad. There’s no way that they can guarantee that they will deliver with extra money — maybe they can, maybe not, but in spite of their assurances it’s not guaranteed.

Backers are upset about not getting their reward, and about being asked to kick in even more money to (maybe) get what they paid for. Understandably, and justifiably upset.

Some have been more understanding and are actually willing to put in the additional money. Others are upset, but still want their AdapDesk and will put the money in if they must. A few are disabled/bedridden and don’t have more money, but really needed their desk. But most of us are angry and want either our desk at no additional cost, or our money back.

Both are unlikely, if the AdapDesk team is out of money, they can’t complete the project and they have no money left to refund dissatisfied backers.

So there’s talk about legal obligations and criminalizing the project’s failure by calling it fraud.

Bad business isn’t necessarily fraud. Sometimes things don’t go well and a business fails, declares bankruptcy, and people don’t get what they’re owed. That’s life.

It’s interesting to see how different backers characterize their relationship to the project.

Some backers consider themselves investors. This is false. Backers do not own shares of the company, or of the project.

Most feel that they purchased a product. Even this is somewhat debatable. Backers were promised a reward for backing the project. In this case the “reward” is the product that is the purpose of the project to create. Thus, the “reward for backing the project” closely resembles pre-ordering a product before it is produced. Arguably, it is pre-ordering a product. But technically, backers contributed money to fund the project to produce products, and their reward for backing the project was to receive one of the produced products.

Whether AdapDesk failed to fulfill orders, or failed to reward backers of a project, the results are the same, and the AdapDesk team has failed.

When a project fails due to cost overruns or other reasons, backers lose out, much like investors in a failed business lose money on a bad investment. This is a risk of crowdfunding. The AdapDesk team has offered to complete the project if they receive additional funds, but there’s no way of telling for sure that they will be able to do so.

There’s probably not much recourse at this point for backers who are unwilling to contribute further funds and just want either their reward or their money back. Credit card charge disputes may be the only way to recover money, but whether those will succeed or not remains to be seen.

Update: AdapDesk’s page on Facebook has been taken down. AdapDesk also ran a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, which has not updated its backers with information consistent with the messaging on Kickstarter, and people are beginning to ask questions. There’s a product listing on Amazon that looks like it has delivered, as there are reviews. Of course, reviews could be faked. Their web site appears to be just a rotating image gallery with a link to the kickstarter page. It’s hard to say still, but the inconsistent information between kickstarter and indigogo is suspicious. And the lack of information on their homepage, combined with their Facebook page being offline isn’t reassuring, either.

Update 2: As of 1/21, AdapDesk has updated its IndieGoGo campaign with the same information and ask of additional money from its backers. There is now a Facebook group for AdapDesk customers to connect with each other and talk about any developments arising out of this, including possible legal actions.

Update 3: Backers who paid the additional money to AdapDesk are starting to report that they have received their orders. In at least one case that I’m aware of, a backer only received a partial order: 1 out of 2 desks, and no storage bag. It’s good to see that AdapDesk are fulfilling orders, as there was a significant number of backers who feared that they would lose their money if they paid the additional amount. While it’s obviously an unfortunate disappointment that the project delays and overruns resulted in so many dissatisfied backers, at least we know now that the project wasn’t a scam.

Update 4: Today some kickstarter backers who did not pay the additional money to AdapDesk have reported receiving their desks! It remains to be seen whether everyone will get their desk; I have not yet received mine. I’m genuinely happy for anyone who receives their reward for backing the project, but I can only imagine how annoyed those who gave AdapDesk the additional money when asked must be feeling to see those who did not pay up getting theirs for the original pledge.

Update 5: On 2/20/2018, I received my AdapDesk backer reward. This was unexpected as I did not pay the additional funding that AdapDesk said they needed in order to complete the project. AdapDesk promised to deliver to all backers who paid them the additional money, but never said that they would deliver to backers who did not.

Obviously this was to incentivize the additional round of funding, because who would have paid more if they didn’t have to? But it was strongly implied that they couldn’t complete the project without the additional money they were asking for. I’m not aware how it is that they were able to ship my desk without me giving them the additional money, but I’m happy that I received what I was originally promised for the funds I contributed. Many backers are still waiting on theirs, including those who paid the additional money.

Reviewing the AdapDesk

Overall, I’m happy to have received something, and am not one to dwell on the poor communications and delays, although they did sour the experience.

I was expecting to receive an AdapDesk Standard, but received an AdapDesk Fully Foldable instead (it has a hinge in the center of the desktop that allows the desk to be folded small enough to fit into a backpack).

I didn’t need or want this, as I don’t plan on travelling with my desk, and wanted it for use around the house.  The center hinge is locked into place by two rotating knobs. I was concerned that these knobs would bump into my legs when using the desk, but the desk is tall enough that this doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, the legs are not able to fold up when the knobs are in the locked position — they hit the knobs, preventing the legs from fully folding with the desktop locked open.

In use, the desk is well designed and functional. The biggest disadvantage is that the cup holder doesn’t have a bottom. It’s just a hole.  If you use a cup with a wide mouth and a narrow enough base, it will sit in the hole and not fall through.  If you use the desk on a surface like a floor or table, the cup can rest on that surface, and be held upright by the cup holder. But the cupholder would be a lot better if it had a bottom that could actually hold a container such as a soda can.

When breaking down the desk to put it away, you have to remove the accessory trays from their mounting points on the desk’s legs, and remove the plastic inserts for the slots on the desktop that are intended for holding pencils, pens, or small thin devices like a phone or calculator.  You also have to remove the center lip that attaches to the desk to prevent things from rolling off it when it is angled. (I wish there was a better name for this, I’ll have to refer to the instruction guide later and see what it’s called.)  So folding it up to put away takes a lot of steps and you can’t simply fold up the legs and leave the rest of it as-is.  It would be a lot nicer if you could do this.

Since I had given up on receiving my desk, I had also gone out a couple weeks prior and bought a different desk, which I think is nearly as nice.  It only cost around $40. it’s not perfect, either, but if I had to compare it to AdapDesk at $125, it’s certainly a better value, and of equal quality.

 

How are my kickstarters doing?

I thought it was about time I took a look back at the various kickstarter projects I’ve backed, and see how they’re doing. Over the last few years, I’ve heard so many negative stories about failed crowdfunding projects, tales of fraud and angry and disappointed backers, that I’d come to feel somewhat negatively about crowdfunding. But really, I think the projects I’ve chosen to back have done pretty well. Not all of them have been successes, but the rate of failure is less than my emotional “feel” for the rate of failure lead me to believe. And of the successful projects, quite a number of them have ongoing life beyond shipping the backer rewards. I feel good about this.

Here then is a list of every Kickstarter I’ve backed, and what happened with it.

Chip Maestero – An NES MIDI Synthesizer Cartridge – Delivered

This was the first project I ever backed on Kickstarter. It took much longer than expected to deliver. I was not surprised by this, and it didn’t bother me. I just waited patiently, and the developer came through. It’s really cool to have MIDI output capability to enable using the NES as a musical instrument.

The Jason Scott Documentary Three Pack – Still in process

This is the oldest kickstarter that I’m still waiting on, but it’s hardly surprising. Producing a documentary film takes a lot of time. Jason Scott works very hard on many different projects. Last I heard, he had to drop the Tape documentary for lack of content, but was working on editing as of last June. Since then, Jason has had a heart attack, and is currently producing a weekly podcast in an effort to pay down some financial debt, which I am a backer of. I’m confident the documentaries will be finished and released. From my experience, Jason is very scrupulous and hard working, and wants to release a first-rate effort, so I’m being patient and looking forward to viewing them when they are ready.

Code Hero: A Game that Teaches You To Make Games – Failed

This project ran out of money and went bust. Oh well. $13.37 well spent anyway.

Spriter – Delivered

I backed Spriter hoping that it would reach its stretch goal to fund development of GameMaker integration. GameMaker ended up using a similar technology, called Spine, for sprite rigging. To date, I still haven’t explored this feature, because my projects tend to be smaller and simpler than call for using Spine or Spriter, and I tend to focus more on programming than on graphic assets. I am not sure whether it has or not, because I haven’t used Spriter. But I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad that I funded it. Even after the Kickstarter project was delivered complete, it is still being developed.

Light Table – Delivered

Light Table was a fantastic idea for an IDE: Give the programmer immediate results, shrinking the feedback loop to zero, enabling instant iteration, and a more intuitive experience for programming stuff. I love the idea of seeing your code instantly interpreted and running, and not having to compile and wait. Light Table was completed, released, and is still being developed and supported.

Atari 2600 Star Castle – Delivered

This project was executed particularly well, and my copy of Star Castle was delivered within a reasonable amount of time. I don’t think it was strictly speaking on time, but it wasn’t long overdue, either, and the project communicated status updates in a timely fashion that helped to manage expectations.

Beautiful Vim Cheat-Sheet Poster – Delivered

Max is a friend of mine, and his little project exceeded his goal considerably. He did a nice job on the poster, and I really like it.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – Delivered

Anita Sarkeesian has been a major influencer since launching this kickstarter. The reaction against her project is infamous, and has helped to drive home the point that her work is very much needed. I’m proud to have contributed. Her video series Tropes vs Women in Videogames took a long time to produce, but was very well done. It’s aim to bring her Tropes vs. Women series examining various anti-women tropes in popular culture (movies, tv, etc.) to videogames was and still is much needed.

OUYA: A New Kind of Video Game Console – Delivered

The OUYA is now a dead system, but the project was a success. I received my OUYA and played with it. It was a tv-connected Android-based console, about the size of a baseball, and could play a lot of games. A lot of people used their OUYA as an emulator box, but there were a few good titles developed specifically for it, most notably Towerfall. The thing is, it was under-powered compared to everything else out there, most games are developed and launched for any and all consoles their developers can reach, so there was no exclusive “killer app” content that could compel gamers to buy one, and a lot of people who did complained about the OUYA’s gamepads for feeling cheaply built, and groused about every little thing, the way gamers do. I’m sad it didn’t survive in the market. I really liked the idea of an open console that is friendly to indie developers. Unfortunately the business model wasn’t successful, and the market didn’t appreciate it at all. I consider it a success, despite the fact that it couldn’t survive in today’s market, merely making it to market was an incredible accomplishment.

NeuroDreamer sleep mask – Delivered

My reward was shipped and received quickly. I didn’t pre-order the NeuroDreamer mask, but got a copy of Mitch Altman’s trip glasses, which I’ve used a few times. They work by using flashing LED lights and audio tones to induce an altered brain state, akin to meditation, or perhaps as a meditation aid.

SPORTSFRIENDS featuring Johann Sebastian Joust – Delivered

This project took a very long time to deliver, but I did finally get a copy of my Sportsfriends games. The one I most liked, BaraBariBall, was fantastic. I haven’t played the others.

Aaron Swartz Documentary – The Internet’s Own Boy – Delivered

This documentary is fantastic, and I’m proud to have backed it and to have my name in the credits as a backer. Well worth every penny and then some.

Project Maiden – a Zeldalike in Reverse – Delivered

I only backed $1 so didn’t get any reward, but I understand this project was finally delivered, taking quite a long time longer than expected. With creative projects like video games and movies, I am pretty lenient on release dates. I get that doing it right takes time and should not be rushed. I have never actually played this game though, so I have no comment on how good it is.

imitone: Mind to Melody – Delivered

Soon after making goal, I received a license key and access to the software beta. It works, and has been updated frequently. I haven’t used it recently, but it is neat software and still being developed.

The Stupendous Splendiferous ButterUp – Delivered

This shows how serious I am about bagels, I spent I don’t want to remember how much money on some butter knives that were supposed to make spreading cold butter on toast easier. In practice, I find that they don’t work, and were basically a waste of money. They are well made, but the design just doesn’t work well. Cold butter does not press through the holes the way it shows it working in their video. Live and learn.

Beep: A Documentary History of Video Game Music and Sound – Delivered

I received a DVD copy of the documentary, watched it, and enjoyed it. I thought it was well done.

GameMaker Language: An In-Depth Guide – Delivered

I got a copy of Heartbeast’s book. The project was completed within a reasonable amount of time, and he did a great job with it. He also produces tutorial videos on YouTube, and has branched into teaching online courses through udemy.

Joybubbles: The Documentary Film – MIA? In post-production?

I backed this at a level that got my name in the credits of the film. The documentary is currently in post-production, according to the website. However, the kickstarter page hasn’t been updated since 2015, so this one appears to be missing-in-action. I’ve written to the creator to ask what the status of the project is.

Insert Coin: Inside Midway’s ’90s Revolution – In progress

Latest update was posted mid-December, they are still working on the project and are targeting early 2018 for delivery.

AdapDesk: The World’s First Portable Work Station – Late, and at risk of failure

Expected for November, they are a few months late on this one, but were supposedly finally shipping this month.

I can appreciate that mass production isn’t easy. In November, they said that they intended to ship by late December, in December they announced a further delay would push delivery back to mid-January.

It’s January 15, and today they’ve posted a new update on the kickstarter to the effect that they are struggling and nearly out of money. Cost overruns have forced them to ask for more money in order to be able to ship the goods, to the tune of $55+ per customer, depending on where in the world they are. This represents a cost overrun of close to 150% over what they estimated for the project, and I don’t think I would have backed if I knew it was going to cost $55 more than the pitch. It was already a very pricey item at $125, but since it appeared to be very well designed and since it was something I can definitely get a lot of use out of, I thought it was worth it.

Since this is a developing matter as I type this, I’m not at all clear whether I’m going to get my AdapDesk, or a refund, or screwed, and who’s going to fund that additional $55.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that manufacturing small runs of a product is very risky and prone to delays and overruns, so backing kickstarter projects like this is obviously a gamble. If they had brought the AdapDesk to market in a more traditional way, and I could have bought one from a store once they were actually manufactured, I think I would have been happier.

Doing things the kickstarter way is more appropriate for raising funds for prototyping a new product, but maybe for experimental products the reward shouldn’t be the actual product — you don’t know whether the prototype will turn out to be any good, maybe it will be great but infeasible to mass produce at a price point you can predict at the pre-funded stage when you’re not even sure how many backers (and therefore orders) you’ll have, or maybe it will suck and not be something worth making more than one of. Maybe it should be something else: stock in the company that designed the product, a t-shirt or sticker that thanks you for your contribution to making the project possible, that sort of thing.

Using Kickstarter to try to create a product that doesn’t exist yet and take pre-orders for it, using the kickstarter “reward” as the means of delivering on an order doesn’t work out well. If you’re very experienced and good at design and manufacture and logistics, then sure, maybe you can do it. But if you’re good at all those things, then you probably didn’t need to use crowdfunding to begin with, and could have used traditional venture capital, business loans, credit, or what have you instead. And if you’re not experienced at those things, chances are good you’re not going to be able to get the credit, loans, or VC, and hey it turns out there’s a reason for that — investors are smart, and know not to throw money on an unproven risk undertaking by someone with not enough track record.

In commerce, getting what you paid for isn’t a “reward”, it’s expected.

Kickstarters often fail to deliver what is expected after successfully making their fundraising goal.

Kickstarters are a way to fund dreams that no one in their right mind would get behind as a business investment opportunity, and crowdfunding works because $20 or $50 isn’t all that much to some people. There are good ideas out there that can be funded by large numbers of people each with a tiny amount of disposable cash that they can just throw away. We understand, well most of us do, that we’re not buying success, we’re buying a chance at success, and that chance is less than 100%.

Since that’s the case, maybe the better way to thank backers is through rewards that aren’t predicated on the success of the project, but on the success of the fundraising. Kickstart a rocket to Mars. Make the reward be a “I backed the rocket to mars” sticker, not a ticket on the Mars rocket with a launch date printed on it.

AdapDesk is a great idea for a product. It turns out that bringing a product to market takes more than a good idea, some money, and a lot of work. It takes a good idea, some money, a lot of work, and then a lot more work, and then some more money. We’re at the point where they need that last bit of “some more money” and they’re out, and their customers are pissed. I hope I still get my AdapDesk, but I hope I don’t have to pay $55 to get it delivered on top of the money I already paid. I certainly won’t give them another penny, let alone $55, without an actual tracking number — and maybe not even then.

Make Professional 2D Games: Godot Engine Online Course – Delivered

I’ve watched some of the videos, and they are well done. I have yet to truly immerse myself in Godot engine, but I am very happy to support an open source 2D game engine of high quality.

Next Gen N64 Controller – In Process, Late

This project from RetroFighters should be shipping soon. Early word is that the controller is very good. Originally these were supposed to be delivered in late 2017, but a month or two delay is forgivable. For $20, a newly designed gamepad for the Nintendo 64 built to high quality standards is very impressive, if that is indeed what they deliver.

Full Quiet – A New Adventure Game for the NES & PC – In Process

Expected delivery date in late 2018, but we know how this goes… waiting and seeing.

NESmaker – Make NES Games. No coding required – Backed

Kickstarter is still in the funding stage. They’ve already hit their goal, so it will be interesting to see how far it goes and how many of their stretch goals they can reach.

GMS2 alternative skins

So it’s little over a year since YoYoGames released the public beta for GameMaker Studio 2.

For a lot of the past year, I’ve been sticking with GMS1.4 in order to work on a project that isn’t yet ready to migrate to GMS2, but I’m also trying to use GMS2 when I can, to keep up to date with it and to get used to the changes. Overall, GMS2 is definitely better, and from a language standpoint GML is only slightly different, and what differences they’ve made to the language are all improvements.

On the IDE side, though, I constantly find myself wishing that YYG had made a less radical redesign of the user interface. I’ve had a number of issues with the new UI, from the way the new workspaces and chain-view windows work to the fact that saving works differently. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. (I’ll probably touch on those in future articles at some point.)

GMS2 Dark theme

The default Dark theme for GMS2.

One of the things that I haven’t been able to get used to with GMS2’s new IDE is the new Dark theme. For years, GameMaker has opted for a default IDE theme that uses light text on a dark background, and with GMS2, YoYoGames took this concept to its logical extreme, opting for a black background and white-on-black icons and white label text everywhere.

GMS1 GMgreen theme

The default theme for GMS1, GMgreen, was likewise dark.

I didn’t mind the dark grey background of the window panes of GMS1.x, and the resource tree’s pane used black text on a white background, and the code editor’s dark grey background with colorful, syntax-highlighted text, and the toolbas with their colored icons. While it’s not the standard Windows theme colors, it’s usable and reasonably attractive, and if you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at light text on a dark background, it’s quite good.

And to be fair, GMS1’s IDE definitely had its failings. Certain windows were “modal“, meaning that you could not switch focus to any other part of the UI when that window is open, when there was no good reason for them to be. And the user interface for the marketplace My Library had terrible performance-killing bugs with large manifests, which makes it all but useless.

But with GMS2, I feel the Dark theme has gone overboard with being too dark, particularly with the toolbar button icons. Being white-on-black only just makes them harder to read and harder to distinguish from one another, and this slows me down when I try to use GMS2, and this is frustrating, since the whole point of the tool is to make me more productive.

There has also always been a light theme that YoYoGames provides “out of the box” with GameMaker, in case you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at dark text on a white background.

GMS2 light theme

The light theme for GMS2, appeals to users who prefer reading dark text on a light background, but I still prefer something with a bit more color and contrast, and sharper outlines so I can easily differentiate between different parts of the IDE UI.

There are certain colors in the syntax highlighting that contrast poorly against a white background. These should be fixed, but YoYo’s attitude about it seems to be “you can fix it, so fix it yourself.” So they provide preferences that allow you to set the colors yourself if you want to. So, great, you can have exactly the color scheme you want in the code editor, isn’t that wonderful?

The problem with this is, if you want to take screen captures of your IDE and share them with others, your non-standard code highlighting will be apparent to your audience, and may hinder in their ability to parse the text. It’s hardly surprising that we become dependent on the syntax highlighting we see all the time, to the point that once we get used to it, someone else’s color scheme will look “wrong” to us and become more of a hindrance than an assist.

If you want a full makeover for your IDE, you have to go beyond the syntax highlighting colors, and create your own IDE theme. Doing so will give you full control over the appearance of the entire IDE. The downside is that YYG doesn’t support anything but their own themes, so if their themeing templates ever change, breaking your custom theme, you’ll have to fix it. Also, it’s possible that installing updates can either a) overwrite the theme directory, so keep a backup of your theme files. Fun! So instead of spending all your time doing game development, you can take a slice of your time hacking the IDE to do things that arguably the vendor should have gotten right, or at least implemented better so that you wouldn’t have such a temptation. Hopefully this doesn’t happen regularly.

While I like tools that can be customized, I prefer to focus on developing games, not customizing the tools that make games. Too much customizing turns me from a game developer into a game development tool developer. While the skillsets overlap, I really want to maximize the time I put into being a game developer.

Naturally, this has head to some third parties releasing their themes, sharing them with the user community, thus saving you from having to do all the work yourself.

GMS2 VS blue custom theme

Based on the default Windows theme colors and Microsoft VisualStudio, this custom theme called VS blue, is excellent. Very readable, and easy on the eyes.

I really like this Visual Studio-inspired theme. The missing option that YYG did not provide in addition to their Light and Dark themes was a “native Windows” theme, and this is pretty much that. In fact, I would love it if YoYo would embrace this theme, give the developer who created it, iluvfuz, a reward, and make it an officially supported theme. This would erase 100% of the snarkiness in this article.

It’s very similar to the GM8 theme for GMS1.x, in that it uses mostly system colors for the window chrome. The GM8 theme was my favorite on GMS1.x, so of course the VS blue custom theme is my favorite for GMS2.

GMS1 GM8 theme

The GM8 theme for GMS1.x was my preferred way to theme my IDE, because it mostly followed the Windows standard theme colors.

 

GameMaker Studio 2: My Library UX suggestions

I’ve been sitting on this suggestion for a while. I raised these concerns on the GameMaker forums some months ago, around the time GMS2 was in beta, or shortly after.

Don’t get me wrong, GameMaker Studio 2 has a much better interface for the Marketplace My Library as compared to GMS1.x, but there are a few things that I would love to see improved with it.

  1. The “New Version” category shows literally only those items for which you already have some version downloaded, and for which a newer version is available for download. It does not show items for which you have purchased, but never downloaded before. This makes hunting for newly purchased assets in My Library a HUGE pain. I contend that when you have just purchased something and never have downloaded any version of it before, ANY version that exists at all is a “new version” and thus should show up in the New Version category. Please have everything that is “new” (whether a brand new purchase, or a update to an already-downloaded asset) show up here.
  2. Every time I hit the Download button for an asset in the New Version category, My Library jumps to the All Assets view, then shows the asset being downloaded. Now, if I want to go back and find the next asset in New Version to download it, I have to go and click on the New Version category to go back to it, each time. Again, this is a huge pain — a lot of extra clicking back to the New Version category for each available updated asset that I need to download.
  3. There’s no “Select all”. So when I have all these updates awaiting download, I have to download each of them, one at a time. It would be so much better to check a checkbox to select all available new assets, and then download them all with a single click.

12-month license moves GameMaker Studio toward SaaS business model

YoYoGames recently announced a new edition of GameMaker Studio 2. Called the “Creator Edition”, it is $40/year subscription.

I’d pointed out earlier in the year that YoYoGames had taken all the necessary steps to make ready to abandon perpetual licensing, and this announcement proves my assessment was right on. See, reddit? I was right.

Permanent subscriptions are still offered starting at $99, although the software license is active only as long as the machine it’s installed on is able to log your YoYo Account in with YYG’s license server. Which is to say, if they want to they can disable your license, and if they go out of business, or if the license server goes down, you won’t be able to use the software.

AtariBox update: who is Feargal Mac?

I learned more today about Feargal Mac, real name Mac Conuladh, one of the guys behind the AtariBox. And what I found out wasn’t so good.

It looks like this guy has been involved in a number of dubious crowd funded tech gizmos before. And by dubious, I mean disastrous. This guy’s LinkedIn profile reads like a character from Silicon Valley: a CEO of various incarnations of rapidly pivoting smoke/mirrors vaporware startups that promise a lot while having nothing.

If you look at Mac’s twitter profile, he still lists his website as gameband.com, one of the crowdfunded gadgets he was involved with. Here’s a screen capture that I took of the page today:

gameband.com screencap

Not quite as exciting as zombo.com, but give it time!

Based on this track record, it’s going to take a LOT of evidence and convincing to get me interested in the AtariBox. Maybe it’ll be different this time, after all people do fail, try again, and succeed, and maybe this time they’ll deliver something worth owning, but until I see some substantial evidence of this, I’m no longer interested in the system.

[Update 3/26/18:] I’ve just learned according to this interview with current Atari CEO Fred Chesnais that Feargal Mac Conuladh is no longer with Atari as of 12/14/17.

Game Programming for Artists

Game Programming for Artists by Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady

Game Programming For Artists is a new book about to drop by my Cleveland Game Developer colleagues Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady.

It’s a book that intends to introduce artists to computer programming for games. Oftentimes artists and programmers come to the problems of game development from a very different set of skills, and it can be a challenge for them to understand each other. As well, often artists have ideas for games that they need help to program, and this book should help them to start to become a little more self sufficient.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know that they’ve been working hard on it for the past year plus. I’m looking forward to seeing it in print.

Top Atari 2600 games still worth playing

I don’t like to do Top N lists, because it’s always arbitrary. For whatever value of N you select, there’s always a game that doesn’t make the list that’s just as good as some of the others that did. Why limit yourself?

Released in 1977, the Atari VCS turned 40 this year. So there’s no better time to look back at the games that are still worth playing today. The VCS catalog is vast, and there were so many bad games released on it, particularly in ’82-’83, but despite its primitive, minimal hardware specs, there were many outstanding games released on the platform over its life.

These aren’t in any particular order. I considered ranking them in terms of greatness, alphabetically, and in order of release, or grouping them by categories such as arcade ports, shooters, etc. but there’s no one way to do that. It’s also hard to separate games that were historically significant, or first innovators, or important evolutionary steps, or have high nostalgia value, from games that are worth playing today purely for their own merits. I guess there’s a little bit of all of that wrapped up in these recommendations.

I took a look at Wikipedia’s List of Atari 2600 Games and skimmed through it, and picked the games that in my opinion are good plays, and on that first pass, I came up with over 50 titles. But don’t take this to be “The Top 50 Atari VCS Games”. I’ve decided to list them alphabetically, because it’s the laziest way to do it.

This list excludes homebrews, which I really shouldn’t because some of the best games ever produced for the VCS are homebrews. But they weren’t on the wikipedia page, and this is already taking too long. But seriously, check out the homebrew scene. Some of the games that have been published in the last few years will blow away the games that we had in 1977-83.

There’s surely a few titles that didn’t make this cut that are still good plays — either games I am not familiar with, or games that I underrated.

I’m not going to try to do justice to reviewing these games in full in this article. And I think a brief description isn’t of much value, either — just go play them. But what I will do is state why I think they’re worth playing.

  1. Adventure: Adventure (1980) (Atari)The “first” (famous) easter egg. My vote for best original game on the system. I spent endless hours investigating and experimenting with the various objects in the game. See my article on Adventure for more details.
  2. Asteroids: Asteroids (1981) (Atari)An arcade classic, free flight screen-wrapping shooter with acceleration and inertia. Blast big space rocks into littler space rocks, while watching out for unfriendly UFOs. A solid arcade port of a classic, great game, with 66 variations.
  3. Astroblast: Astroblast (1982) (M Network)Basically a mashup of Asteroids and Space Invaders; a vertical shooter where you blast space rocks falling towards you from above. In Asteroids, space wraps toroidally around the edges of the screen; rocks that drift off the edge appear on the other side. In Astroblast, you lose points for rocks you fail to shoot, which can result in a negative score. In a weird way, you can think of this as analogous to the spatial wrapping in Asteroids; in Astroblast space doesn’t wrap — the score does.
  4. Berzerk: Berzerk (1982) (Atari)A fantastic, faithful port of the arcade game. Run around an endless maze, fighting mindless robots programmed to kill you, and fleeing from the invincible Evil Otto. The only thing missing is the digitized speech. (And there’s a homebrew for that!)
  5. Boxing: Boxing (1980) (Activision)A basic, competent sports simulation which shines in 2P. More so than most consoles, the Atari 2600 offered a lot of very good 2-player vs. games, which made it a more social console than the NES, which tended to feature long-form 1P action-adventure games.
  6. California Games: California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx)Featuring a chiptune cover of “Louie, Louie”, that and the surfing event are more than enough to make this worth playing. But the hackey sack mini game is pretty good too. The other events include half-pipe skateboarding, and a BMX downhill run.
  7. Combat: Combat (1977) (Atari)Going all the way back to the beginning. The original pack-in title, and a very worthy 2P vs. game. Battle a friend for a two minute round with a variety of dueling tanks, bi-planes, and jets.
  8. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (1984) (Atari)One of the more interesting games influenced by the dot-munching Pac-Man, you control a bear as he gathers gems in a 2.5D map while avoiding a variety of whimsical baddies such as skulls, a witch, a swarm of bees, animated trees, and giant gem-eating caterpillars. The 3D-looking levels are particularly well done, considering the hardware capabilities. Elevators and tunnels are present which give the game a true 3D feel. A fantastic port of the arcade classic.
  9. Dig Dug: Dig Dug (1983) (Atari)Dig Dug was another popular game influenced by Pac-Man, but was one of he more original designs to take direct influence from the popular maze game. In Dig Dug, the “maze” is created by the player as they dig through the dirt. Instead of energizer pills, Dig Dug is armed with an air pump that he can use to defend himself against monsters, or he can undermine a rock which can fall, crushing his enemies.
  10. Frogger: Frogger (1982) (Parker Bros)Yet another great arcade port. Hop your frog across a road and river, avoiding cars, snakes, alligators, and drowning, because for some reason frogs aren’t able to swim in this game.
  11. Frostbite: Frostbite (1983) (Activision)Similar to the more well known Q*Bert, in that you hop around on things, changing their color. In Frostbite, you jump on ice flows to collect material to build an igloo. The mechanics are quite different from Q*Bert, howeverIn a way, it reminds me of another Activision game, SeaQuest. If SeaQuest and Frogger had a baby, it might be Frostbite.
  12. Galaxian: Galaxian (1983) (Atari)Another arcade port, what it lacks in graphics it more than makes up for with gameplay. Galaxian was a spiritual successor to Space Invaders, and followed its vertical shooter, no scrolling, waves of enemies in rows and columns formula, but added dive bombing (and, in the arcade, full color graphics). I enjoy this version of Galaxian more than the arcade, by a wide margin. Full review.
  13. Gravitar: Gravitar (1983) (Atari)A free-flight shooter similar to Asteroids, but with more complex game play involving destroying bunkers on planets. The planetary gravity adds a dimension of difficulty to the game. Watch your fuel, and take care with your inertia. It’s really challenging.
  14. Gyruss: Gyruss (1984) (Parker Bros)Another arcade port, Gyruss is a twist on the Space Invaders formula that has you shooting into a faux-3D field where sprites shrink and disappear into the distance, a bit like Tempest but without the wireframe tunnels. Like Galaga, enemy ships fly into the screen from the side/behind the player, doing acrobatics before taking up formation in the center of the screen. And like Galaga, there’s a double-shot power-up. The arcade game had an awesome soundtrack, based on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The VCS can’t quite replicate this, but it does have a (for the technology, decent) musical soundtrack, one of the few Atari VCS games to do so. Graphically it also lags behind the arcade original, but that’s to be expected — it’s an Atari 2600.
  15. H.E.R.O.: H.E.R.O. (1984) (Activision)Fly through caves wearing a helicopter backpack, blasting through walls and killing cave denizens with a laser in order to clear a path to rescue people who didn’t have enough sense to stay out of caves.
  16. Haunted House: Haunted House (1982) (Atari)I never played this game as a kid, because I never knew anyone who had it. But even if I did, I probably would have been too scared to play it. I’ve tried to play it recently, and couldn’t figure it out. This is one of those games where you have to read the manual in order to understand the cryptic messages the graphics and sounds are trying to convey.
  17. Joust: Joust (1983) (Atari)The original “flappy bird” game! One of the best two player games of the early arcade era, and a fantastic arcade port. Jockeys mounted on flying ostriches compete in an arena by “jousting”. The higher lance wins the contest – the loser is a rotten egg. The 2P mode is a cooperative affair, or you can compete against each other by PVP kills.
  18. Keystone Kapers: Keystone Kapers (1983) (Activision)A proto-platformer by Activision. You play as a keystone kop, chasing a burglar through a multi-story department store full of obstacles. Jump and duck and gradually gain on the thief, hopefully catching him before he escapes.
  19. Kool-Aid Man: Kool-Aid Man (1983) (M Network)Originally, to get a copy of this game, you had to drink a huge amount of kool-aid, and send in proofs of purchases. I think it must have been available in stores as well, because this game is not as rare as it would have been otherwise. It’s a decent game to play. You play as a pitcher of kool-aid, who is guarding a swimming pool full of water which is under assault by swarms of “Thirsties” who slowly drink it up. If you collide with a “Thirsty” who isn’t drinking, it will bounce you around the screen out of control. But if you collide with a “Thirsty” that is in the act of drinking, you eliminate it, getting points and protecting that water. You can gain a few seconds of invulnerability by grabbing symbols of the ingredients for kool-aid (icons representing Water, Kool-Aid mix, and Sugar). When the swimming pool runs out of water, the game is over. Seriously, it’s better than it sounds.
  20. Mario Bros.: Mario Bros. (1983) (Atari)A very well done arcade port. After Donkey Kong, Mario made a career shift from carpentry to plumbing, and started battling sewer turtles and collecting coins. The direct sequel to this game, Super Mario Bros. would set the industry on fire and change the world forever.
  21. Megamania: MegaMania (1982) (Activision)One of the most finely tuned shooters on the system. I’ve written extensively about it already.
  22. Missile Command: Missile Command (1981) (Atari)Near perfect arcade port. Although the arcade game featured track ball controls, this version of Missile Command plays every well with a joystick.
  23. Montezuma’s Revenge: Montezuma's Revenge (1984) (Parker Bros)A brutally unforgiving platformer with greater dimensionality than Pitfall, but not as well remembered today.
  24. Mountain King: Mountain King (1983) (CBS Electronics)An exploration quest platformer with interesting audio mechanics, not to mention what’s probably the best use of music in a game of its era. Gather diamonds, find the Flame Spirit, offer it to the Skull Spirit who guards the temple, steal the crown, and escape to the top of the mountain to become the Mountain King. Beware the terrifying giant spider in the basement. There is a glitch world hidden in the upper reaches of the sky, accessible by an impossible leap.
  25. Ms. Pac Man: Ms. Pac-Man (1982) (Atari)A far better port than Pac Man was. Homebrewers have been working on worthy Pac Man ports for the VCS for years, with extremely impressive results, but in 1982 this was as good as it got (unless you had an Atar 5200).
  26. Pete Rose Baseball: Pete Rose Baseball (1988) (Absolute)Another game to come very late in the life of the console, Pete Rose Baseball is easily the most graphically impressive baseball game on the VCS. However, looks aren’t everything. RealSports Baseball actually plays better, with better fielding and baserunning controls. But this is still worth playing just to see that it was possible to make a game on the Atari that looked like this.
  27. Phoenix: Phoenix (1982) (Atari)One of the better successors to Space Invaders, featuring one of the earliest boss battles. The other innovation present here is shields, which make you immobile but invulnerable for a few seconds. Very handy for when you were trapped in a corner by a divebombing bird, or under heavy fire from the mothership.
  28. Pitfall:Pitfall! (1982) (Activision)A run and jump action game, and a proto-platformer, Pitfall was remarkable for its time. Exploring the procedurally generated screens of a pixellated jungle in search of treasure such as bags of money, diamonds, and silver and gold ingots. A lot of the fun of this game was in seeing how far you could go, but also in discovering through repeated play that the screens in the game weren’t random, and that as you played more and more, you could map your way through the game, taking shortcuts through the underground tunnels.
  29. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns: Pitfall II (1983) (Activision)The sequel to Pitfall!, this game went beyond the side-scrolling adventure, and introduced a huge, cavernous world with vertical scrolling sections as well as horizontal. The game featured swimming and balloon-assisted flight, and new hazards such as condors, poisonous frogs, and bats. It had a musical soundtrack, and if that wasn’t advanced enough for the Atari 2600, the music was dynamically linked to the in-game action, turning sad when you got hurt, and jubilant when you grabbed a treasure. It was also one of the first video games to feature save points and instead of having “lives”, when Pitfall Harry “died” he returned to the last save point he touched, loosing points for his trouble. Full Review.
  30. Pressure Cooker:Pressure Cooker (1983) (Activision)You’re a short order cook building hamburgers by catching ingredients flying out of boxes on the right side and adding them to burgers on the assembly line. Get the order right and drop it into the bin. Memory, concentration, and quick thinking are needed to succeed.
  31. Private Eye: Private Eye (1983) (Activision)I never played this title back in the day, but discovered it recently, decades later. It’s confusing to play, reading the manual is necessary in order to understand what’s going on, but you’re a private eye driving around a city in a car trying to solve a crime by finding clues. The mechanics of the game are weird, you can jump your car, which is a convertible, and when your car jumps, you jump much higher, and fall back down into the car. This is required to dodge obstacles and enemies and to collect clues and other items. Figuring out how to navigate the map and understand the clues in the manual are the keys to fun in this game.
  32. Q*Bert: Q-bert (1987) (Atari)A remarkably good port of the arcade action-puzzle game. Hop on blocks arranged in a pyramid shape to change their color to the correct color to complete the level and advance, while dodging an assortment of weird enemies. To play this game correctly, you need to hold the joystick at an angle, so that the fire button is at 12 o’clock, and you’re essentially using the diagonals as up/down/left/right.
  33. Radar Lock: Radar Lock (1989) (Atari)Released late in the life of the console, in 1989, this sophisticated jet fighter simulation game takes you from the runway takeoff, to dogfighting, and even features mid-air refueling. Multiple weapons systems are activated with the 2P controller. The graphics are pretty good considering the hardware. Compared to Top Gun on the NES, or Sega’s Afterburner, this game isn’t all that impressive, but on the Atari 2600 it more than holds its own.
  34. RealSports Baseball: RealSports Baseball (1982) (Atari)An impressive simulation of the game of baseball, the first baseball game on the Atari that was a full implementation of baseball’s rules, rather than an impressionistic “interpretation” of a “baseball-like” game. Even the infield fly rule is implemented. You can only fully appreciate this game with two players; the CPU controlled opponent in a 1-player game is nearly unbeatable.
  35. Riddle of the Sphinx: Riddle of the Sphinx (1982) (Imagic)An early questing puzzle game that demands you read the manual, loosely based on ancient Egyptian mythology. To pass various points in the vertically scrolling world, you must find and offer the correct treasure at one of the various temples. Clues found in the instruction booklet make this a bit easier to do. Along the way, you must fend off marauding thieves and scorpions and thirst. There were numerous items to be found, through trading with merchants or by digging in the desert sand, and these gave you various abilities.
  36. River Raid: River Raid (1982) (Activision)One of the best scrolling shooters of its day. Continuously scrolling, procedurally-generated stages.
  37. SeaQuest: Seaquest (1983) (Activision)A great action game from Activision. You control a submarine, trying to rescue divers who are being chased by sharks you can destroy with torpedoes. Fill up your sub with 6 divers and return to the surface before you run out of oxygen. It’s very simple, but a lot of fun as the speed increases with each time you return to the surface.
  38. Secret Quest:Secret Quest (1989) (Atari)Another late title for the system, this one was designed by Nolan Bushnell himself. I never knew about this game when it was released because by the time it came out the NES was ruling the world. Walk around a space station infested with aliens, looking for a self destruct mechanism. Your main armament is a Energy Sword, but there are other weapons as well. I’ve only played this one a little bit, but it’s clear this is a sophisticated quest game for the Atari.
  39. Solar Fox: Solar Fox (1983) (CBS Electronics)Another great arcade port. Solar Fox is like Pac Man, in that you have to pick up dots (“solar cells”) on the screen in order to advance to the next screen. But there’s no maze. You just fly around on an invisible grid, at slow or fast speed, avoiding stuff that shoots at you from the edges of the screen. And you can’t shoot back, only dodge. The challenge is to collect all the cells in the shortest amount of time possible, and there are optimal flight paths to take in order to have the best chance at doing that.
  40. Solaris:Solaris (1986) (Atari)A first person space shooter published late in the life of the console, at a point when the obsolete Atari VCS was competing against the NES. There were a lot of similar games for the Atari, but this was perhaps the best of them, with more variety and better graphics. Check out Star Raiders, Star Voyager, and Star Master if you’re a fan of the genre.
  41. Space Invaders: Space Invaders (1980) (Atari)A fantastic arcade port with over 100 variations. Clear wave after wave of invading aliens who march across the sky in lock-step formation, speeding up as their numbers dwindle. Hit their mothership for bonus points.
  42. Spider Fighter: Spider Fighter (1982) (Activision)Extremely fast-paced shooter with extremely smooth motion that will make you twitch.
  43. Star Master:Another cockpit shooter, like Star Raiders and Star Voyager. Which one is my favorite? Which one is which?
  44. Star Raiders:Star Raiders (1982) (Atari) One of several first-person cockpit shooters, it came out the same year as Star Master, and is very similar.
  45. Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator:Star Trek - Strategic Operations Simulator (1983) (Sega)An unusual multi-view shooter with a 3D first person view combined with a top down view. The graphics are fantastic, with recognizable depictions of the USS Enterprise and Klingon Bird of Prey spacecraft, and even music from the TV show is represented. Warp from sector to sector, fighting Klingons and protecting Federation bases. This is an outstanding shooter with depth.
  46. Star Voyager: Star Voyager (1982) (Imagic)A cockpit simulator 3D space shooter. This was about as real as it got in 1982. See Star Raiders, Solaris, and Star Master for more of the same.
  47. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back (1982) (Parker Bros)A very well done scrolling shooter, re-creating the battle on the ice planet of Hoth. You pilot Luke Skywalker’s snow speeder, and try to give the Rebels enough time to escape by battling Imperial AT-AT walkers. It’s a repetitive game that has an inevitable doom at the end, but the controls and sound effects are excellent, making this a worthy shooter if you like games like Defender and Stargate, definitely a must play if you’re a Star Wars fan.
  48. Stargate: Stargate (1984) (Atari)An especially faithful port of the arcade sequel to Defender, it’s one of the best rendered arcade ports on the Atari. Uses dual joystick controls, one for flight and shooting, the other for the special weapons.
  49. Superman: I’ve written extensively on Superman elsewhere, and this remains one of my favorite games on the system, and of all time.
  50. Surround: Surround (1977) (Atari)Another solid 2P vs. game with numerous variations. It’s basically a “snakes” game, where you control a pixel that draws a path that both players must avoid. Think the light cycle scene in Disney’s classic, Tron. Surround offers a number of variations to keep the action fresh.
  51. Tac-Scan: Tac-Scan (1982) (Sega)In most space shooters, you get to control one ship at a time, and a couple of reserve ships that represent your extra lives. In Tac-Scan, you control a formation of up to 5 ships, essentially putting all of your lives in play at once. This is an arcade port, and a pretty good one, although it’s a bit simplified with fewer types of enemies.
  52. Threshold: Threshold (1982) (Tigervision)A vertical shooter often compared with Megamania as the best of the genre on the console. The enemy motion in this game is especially frustrating. Enemies will dance just out of reach of your bullets, and then kill you after embarrassing you and frustrating you with your futile attempts to connect a shot with them. Whoever programmed it is a real bastard.
  53. Warlords: Warlords (1981) (Atari)The evolutionary zenith of the pong/breakout type games. Defend your crown by bouncing a ball away from your castle walls and into your enemy’s. Four player is the best way to play.
  54. Word Zapper: Word Zapper (1982) (U.S. Games)One of the more novel game concepts, based on spelling. Shoot letters in a scrolling marquee to spell a word. Reflexes, spelling, and memorization are all important, particularly on the difficult random letter sequence levels. It’s more fun and more challenging than it sounds.
  55. Yar’s Revenge: Yars' Revenge (1982) (Atari)A remix of the basic concepts of Star Castle, and somewhat overrated in my opinion, but still a solid, innovative game, with outstanding audio and good graphics.

 

Mega Maker

Mega Maker is to Mega Man what Mario Maker is to Mario. Except, it’s not an officially licensed Capcom product, and it’s free. Built by fans using GameMaker, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever seen built out of GameMaker.

It’s awesome.

It’s very easy to use, and a lot of fun. Not that you really need it, but there’s a tutorial that explains everything in the editor with great style. Actually, the tutorial is very well done and I recommend using it to understand some of the finer points. But most of the point and click interface is intuitive to anyone who’s used a mouse-driven interface and knows a thing or two about Mega Man.

Mega Maker

I had my first level built and running in about ten minutes.

Unfortunately it only includes a small sample of the Mega Man resources from the first six games on the NES, but even so there’s a lot that you can do with the designer. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for designing your own enemies, bosses, or adding your own sprites or music. On the other hand, there’s zero coding needed, and it’s easy enough to use that an average grade schooler could get up and running designing levels in no time.

There’s an online community for uploading your level designs and downloading and playing the designs of other players.

So much work has gone into this, and it holds so much promise. I hope that Capcom sees fit to muzzle their legal team. If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic MM game, you really need to download this and give it a try.

“Atari” releases new images of upcoming, mysterious AtariBox console

As soon as I found out about it, I signed up for announcements about the AtariBox. Today, the company currently owning the rights to call itself Atari released some new images of what the console will look like. I think they look quite nice, for what it’s worth. It’s tough to say, but I’m not convinced that these are photographs — they could very well be 3D models from the mock-up phase, that have been approved for production.

AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox

From the announcement:

Our objective is to create a new product that stays true to our heritage while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.

Inspired by classic Atari design elements (such as the iconic use of wood, ribbed lines, and raised back); we are creating a smooth design, with ribs that flow seamlessly all around the body of the product, a front panel that can be either wood or glass, a front facing logo, indicator lights that glow through the material, and an array of new ports (HDMI, 4xUSB, SD). We intend to release two editions: a wood edition, and a black/red edition.

We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so. There are a lot of milestones, challenges and decision points in front of us in the months ahead. We’ll be giving you lots more information and status updates as we progress, and we are thrilled to have you along for the ride!

The HDMI is not a surprise, but it’s good to see that the AtariBox will use standard USB ports and an SD slot. Proprietary ports are all too common on game consoles, in order to lock consumers in to buying officially licensed peripherals at considerable markup.

What the console looks like isn’t all that important, but from what I see so far, this isn’t bad.

We still don’t know what the consoles hardware capabilities will be… but what the console’s specs are isn’t all that important, even.

What matters is what games it’ll play, and if they’re any good.

How can Atari create a unique platform for games that is simultaneously contemporary yet pays good homage to the past? It remains unknown.

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