The Day We Fought Space: innovative shooter

Probably my favorite new game I saw at GDEX last weekend was The Day We Fought Space, an iOS game currently under development by TursiopsStudios.

I got to play it for a few minutes, and didn’t have enough time to fully explore it, but even from what little I did get to experience, I am blown away by the creative weapons and innovative controls.

Just a few of the weapons available in the game are shown in this teaser.

Most players will use the touchscreen for controlling the ship, but I preferred playing it with a wireless gamepad as a two-stick shooter. The left stick moves your ship while the right stick very cleverly integrates both aiming and spread. The Y-axis of the right analog stick aims your guns up/down, while the X-axis allows you to spread or narrow the field of fire, to enable you to concentrate fire for big, tough enemies, or spread it out wider to take out masses of smaller enemies.

The game is just packed full of fresh ideas. I didn’t think to get an accurate count, but it looks like you have about 20 (!) different space ships to choose from, each with its own unique weapon and characteristics. It’s almost too much — I’d rather see a complete game made per ship, so that each one can have the opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

The scrolling space shooter has been a bit neglected in recent years, but TDWFS shows that there’s still plenty of life in it. I’d love to see this game ported to consoles and PC platforms.

I don’t see that they’ve announced a release date, but this will be one to watch.

Zac Pierce is destined for greatness

I’ve known Zac Pierce casually for a few years now, and I gotta say, I really like the guy. I can’t say we’re friends, because we don’t hang out and do things together, and I don’t really know him all that well. But I do have an impression of him that’s been forming over the past several years since I met him, and it’s been consistent and continually reinforced every step of the way.

We first met at a meetup of the Cleveland Game Developers, and I remember him demoing an early version of his game Bombfest, now released. Even several years ahead of its eventual release, the game was really fun, and showed a ton of promise. The animation and motion were smooth and felt very, very good. The gameplay was a lot of fun, and the graphics were splendid and cute.

The game was like playing with action figures and toys that had come to life and had the ability to hurl bombs at one another. It was something like Bomberman meets Dodgeball, with realistic physics, destructible terrain, and these sweet little digital models of toy building blocks and figurines, the sort you might have played with when you were maybe 4 or 5 years old. The goal to be the last man made it an outstanding multiplayer game, and I could tell that this game would be great at parties.

Zac delivered a talk at GDEX 2019 entitled Failing to Succeed, which was a look back at four years of developing Bombfest, which he had come to regard a failure.

I’ve never enjoyed a talk so well that I disagreed with so much. Zac is a great storyteller, and he shared his story, turning it into a masochistic confessional where he beat himself up for all the things that went wrong over the course of four years that he spent pouring his heart and soul into bringing Bombfest into the world. It was entertaining, funny, and full of valuable insights. But damn if it wasn’t hard to watch a young guy who I’ve come to admire shit-talk his accomplishments so thoroughly, just because the sales performance was underwhelming.

For certain, Zac didn’t do everything perfectly. And if a few things had been different, maybe he’d have been rewarded for his hard work more like what he deserved. But I don’t think of his story as one of failure. The Making of Bombfest story had far more success in it than failure, and far more than he gave himself credit for.

Bottom line, the game didn’t end up the hit that it deserved to be, and didn’t make him all the money he hoped it would, or needed it to. And bottom line realities are important, and they are harsh. But, despite commercial success eluding him so far, Bombfest was and is a great game, and the fact is that Zac Pierce is destined for greatness.

He’s questioning it right now, and it’s only natural, when you work as hard as he did at something for as long as he did, and it doesn’t accomplish what you hoped it would, of course you question it.

But I’m certain. While I listened to Zac tear himself down for 45 minutes, I heard him rattle off success after success, and immediately dismiss each one.

  1. He succeeded at educating and training himself in the skills and tools of game creation.
  2. He succeeded at coming up with a really fun game prototype with excellent core mechanics and a very polished visual style.
  3. He succeeded at raising funds to continue development through Kickstarter.
  4. He succeeded at completing the project and released the game.
  5. He made a lot of mistakes along the way… and he learned from all of them.
  6. He succeeded not in just releasing the game, but getting it published and ported to the Nintendo Switch.
  7. He did all of this during a period the industry has come to call Indiepocalypse, when even established independent game development studios struggled and went out of business and even bigger studios had a hard time staying afloat. And he did it with his first real project.

Zac Pierce put a game on the Nintendo Switch in his first at bat. Who else can say that, but Zac Fucking Pierce?

Zac, each morning when you wake up, you ought to go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on your face, look at yourself in the mirror, and loudly proclaim:

“I’m Zac Fucking Pierce, and God DAMN if I didn’t make one HELL of a videogame.”

Daily affirmation

The bad news, sales were disappointing.

OK, so there’s that. So despite all the litany of success, that makes Bombfest a failure? I don’t think so.

The sales didn’t meet expectations. But the game is good. Of course sales do matter. You can’t put your life into something for four years and not have it pay off, and feel great about it.

But that’s a shame, because there’s so much about the Bombfest story that Zac deserves to feel great about.

Whether he finds success and fortune in game development or in some other area, he has a bright future, thanks to his talents as a programmer, designer, and artist, his vision, and his energy.

The fact is, the biz is brutal. Indies have it harder than anyone. And there’s a glut of product. You can do everything, or nearly everything, right, and still not end up with a hit game. For his first time out, Zac Pierce did way better with his project than a lot of people do. Maybe he didn’t succeed at the biz side of bringing Bombfest to market, but he absolutely nailed the design and development of the game, and demonstrated dedication to a project that went on for four years.

Bombfest has made Zac about $30,000 so far. It needed to be more. $60,000… $100,000… $300,000… what level of revenue would be enough to tell you that you’ve made it? Enough to be on par with an entry level salary in some “real world” job that you could have taken instead of choosing to challenge yourself? Enough to put you on firm footing to produce your next project the way you want it to be without having to worry about whether it’s a hit or not? Enough to never need to work again unless you want to?

Really, people have strange ideas of what success is, what it means, and what looks like. We think of success as someone standing in a spotlight in a packed arena playing a guitar solo and then going home to a mansion and swimming in money. We think of success as something that happens suddenly, overnight, with little apparent effort, because “when you’re good, it just comes naturally.” We think that way because we don’t see successful people being successful until their success has been at work for so long that it has made them famous enough for us to be unable to fail to notice them.

But success looks a lot different from the inside. What it looks like, most of the time, is a lot like Zac Pierce’s talk on Failing to Succeed: a long story, with hard work, struggle, mistakes, goals met, challenges overcome, and a continuing battle with crippling self doubt and anxiety.

There’s two ways to read that title, as Zac pointed out himself: One, “failing to succeed” meaning literally that success was something did not happen. The other, “failing [in order to] succeed” — the things one must do on the path to success, in order to figure it out and get there. It’s pretty clear that Zac’s story is true in both senses. But in the long run, the second meaning will eclipse the first.

Untitled Goose Game is pretty good

Every year, there’s always one or two indie hits that get a huge amount of attention, and this year it seems to be Untitled Goose Game.

I’ve been hearing a lot about it since its release, but prior to a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard about it at all. My first clue was when I posted that I was excited about picking up my pre-order of Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, and one of my friends mentioned that UGG was also being released the same day.

I looked into it, and it did look darn charming.

Yesterday, I finally caved and bought the PC version and played through the first couple of scenes for a few hours.

If you needed someone to explain UGG to you, I would probably start out by saying “You know how a couple of years ago there was that Goat Simulator game that everyone was talking about and it was hilarous, because goats? Well, what’s another animal that starts with G-O?”

There you go.

But Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose are pretty different. Goat Simulator revelled in being sloppily implemented and having terrible, broken, hilarious physics. Untitled Goose, by contrast, is refined and polished. The art style of Goat Simulator recalls older 3D FPS games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Counter-Strike. Untitled Goose has a more distinctive and original art design that looks illustrated, a bit like a children’s book, if it were drawn with scalable vector graphics and used 3D models. UGG’s physics are anything but broken, and feel like the developers were going for a more realistic simulation. The animations and the sound effects are especially well done, and I love that when you honk, you can get different audio effects by honking into, say, the well, or while holding a bottle in your beak, or into a walkie-talkie. It’s delightful when you figure out how to make use of it to accomplish some objective in the game.

The humor is likewise restrained, and feels a bit British, as do some of the cues in the design of the village. The reactions of the humans that you mess about with and the musical score are what sells the mischief. I haven’t hit an absolutely over-the-top moment in the game, yet, and I’m not sure that there is one waiting for me. I would like to be able to escalate my torment of the people in the village until they have a complete breakdown and go on a violent psychopathic rage. But this never happens. It seems like you can trigger a response by doing certain things, and that’s that. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, but it never seems to go beyond that. Which is not to say that I’m disappointed, but something about playing this game makes me wish that I could push these poor people to their breaking point.

Gardner locked out of garden, looking at Goose who's nabbed his keys.
Getting to this point with the gardener was rather satisfying. Yes, I took a picture of my computer screen with my cell phone instead of taking a screenshot.

About two hours in to my session, I started feeling sorry for being such a naughty, horrible goose, and I started trying to make up for it. I went back to the gardner’s area and helped him pick all of his carrots. He didn’t like it at first, but once I put them neatly into the bin, he didn’t seem to mind, and just let me do it. But there wasn’t any reward for doing this, other than just the act of doing it. I kindof feel like the designers missed an opportunity there. Like, maybe if you torment the boy in the shopping area until he starts sobbing, you could do something nice for him, like bring him a lollipop that you steal from the shop, or bring his glasses or his toy plane back to him, and he’ll cheer up again, and not be afraid of you, and then you can be friends. House House, if you’re going to do an expansion pack, I kinda demand that you do a Good Goose mission set, where you get to make up for your past mischief by returning and do some good deeds to make amends.

I also wish that I could hop onto things, and fly. I can well understand why this was not permitted. Waddling is way more humorous and flight would be difficult to control. But I still would like to be able to hop up on certain things, like the park bench, or tables. I imagine it’d be quite a lot of fun to waddle along the shelves and countertops in the shop, knocking things over, breaking them, and causing a mess and a ruckus.

I’m not sure how large the game is; so far, I’ve managed to solve the puzzles on the To Do list in the first two areas, and I can see that there’s at least one more area beyond, but I haven’t quite figured out what I need to do to gain access to it. And there’s a page on my To Do list that is all question marks, which leaves me wondering what I need to do next.

To be honest, I’m a bit torn by the existence of the To Do list. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have some kind of guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. On the other hand, I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from a game like this is figuring out what is possible, and discovering the things that the developers put into the game for you to do all on your own, without any guidance. To me, it would be far more special to figure these things out on my own, even risking missing something very clever, or not discovering after many hours spent with the game, than to have a list telling me to do all the things, and then the only challenge left is for me to actually do it.

Shoplifting haul.
It took quite a while to figure out how to get all the items from the shop into the cart to complete the Shopping Trip mission. The shopkeeper kept finding them and putting them back, so I just stole the basket and dragged it around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind! And then of course I had to loot the entire store! It’s fun that the lady is more frustrated when she can’t find the broom to shoo you away with because you’ve stolen it. Lol!

There’s probably a lot of things that I have yet to figure out in the game. Which is to say that although I’m trying to resist the temptation to look for walkthroughs, I could maybe use a bit of a clue with some things.

For instance, I found a coin somewhere in the village, and picked it up. I later walked past a well, and of course I tried throwing the coin down the well. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to drop it. I didn’t hear any splash, which made me wonder why that didn’t happen, but then I walked a bit further own the path, and came to the river that you have to cross to get out of the introductory area of the game, and saw the coin floating down the river! I deduced that the well actually connects to a sewer drain that I had discovered earlier when I was swimming up and down the river. And yes, if you honk into the well, or into the sewer, they both echo in the same way, which was a subtle clue to this connection. I love details like that. But it makes me wonder all the more why there was no splash for the dropped coin, and why “Dropping a coin and making a wish” wasn’t one of the To Do items.

For another, at the very start of the game, there’s a whole bunch of bells strewn about on the ground in an area that you can’t quite get into. I have no idea what their significance is, or why they’re there. The game’s camera seems to direct its focus to them, so they must be important for something or other, but I can’t figure it out.

What is up with the bells?
What’s up with the bells?

Overall, it’s a delightful, relaxing, humorous, fun puzzle/stealth game that’s not very like anything else I’ve played, and it’s worth the $20 they are asking for it.

Recommended.

AtariBox entering “pre-production” phase as architect quits

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

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

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

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

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

That is, however…

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

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

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

Intellivision Amico at T-minus 1 year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platform Steady State

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

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

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

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

Unlimited Budget, 1979 tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moore’s Law Goes Linear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something else then?

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

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

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

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

So summing up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atari attempts to answer this by assuring us that:

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

Atari

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

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

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

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

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

The AtariBox story continues to be dismal

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

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

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

Ancient Technologies accepted into Open World Arcade at Akron Art Museum

My game Ancient Technologies, originally created for Ludum Dare 36, has been selected by a panel of judges into the Open World Arcade at Akron Art Museum.

Open World is an art exhibit of contemporary art influenced by video games. The Open World Arcade is a one-day event, to be held on December 7th, 2019, from 11 AM – 5 PM. Games presented in the arcade are judged by a panel of museum staff and video game professionals based on novelty, professional polish, aesthetics, quality of game experience and “wow factor.” 

My game Ancient Technologies was an homage to the “ancient” technology of videogaming’s past, and re-creates the experience of setting up an Atari 2600 video game system. If you “win” the challenge of setting up the system correctly, your reward is that you get to play a somewhat faithful re-creation of the game Asteroids.

I created the Ancient Technologies in about 25 hours using GameMaker Studio, Stella, and Audacity. The Asteroids game that you play inside of Ancient Technologies is a simulation, not emulated. I used graphic and audio samples generated by Stella to create the simulation. I also sampled pixel art renderings of the Atari 2600 six-switch console and joystick created by pixel artists, and a partner provided the TV image, while I created the background of the living room. The simulation is a reasonably faithful re-creation of Asteroids’ gameplay, and feels pretty authentic in many respects, although it is not completely accurate. Most notably, it is missing the UFO and Satellite enemies, which I ran out of time to implement in the game.

Further reading

  1. Ancient Technologies postmortem
  2. Ludum Dare 36 is at an end

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.  

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

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

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

Of course I said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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