What if Videogames Had Died in 1983?

18 11 2009

I really like Kyle Orland. As a games journalist his quiet ambition for pushing games journalism beyond what it is is matched an underappreciated talent. Sometimes though even a good writer can miss the boat. That’s what I think happened in his interesting but underthought series of What if? articles at Crispy Gamer. In the articles, Orland attempts to look at key gaming moments and ask what might have happened had a different course been taken. Some of the questions he asks are interesting ones — What if Magnavox had decided to enforce Ralph Baer’s patent for a “television gaming apparatus” and gone on to become the almost monopolistic holder of the video game industry through its Odyssey 3 system? What if Nintendo had never released the Game Boy? That sort of thing. It’s an interesting concept, but Orland doesn’t really think some of the implications of the questions he’s asking through.

Take for example his segment on what if Atari had avoided the videogame crash in 1983 and gone on to face Nintendo. He posits that a forward thinking Nolan Bushnell pushes the development of the Atari 2700 — a more advanced console replacement for the 2600 that would be backward-compatible with 2600 cartridges. The console takes the market by storm and Atari survives to push upstart newcomer Nintendo into a corner of the market by 1990. What he misses in this posit is that the Atari 2700 actually existed and it was a disaster. It was called the Atari 5200 and while unlike the Orland’s fictional 2700 unit it wasn’t compatible with 2600 cartridges, that wasn’t really the deciding factor in its eventual death. The 5200 had the horsepower to compete against both the Intellivision (which it was designed to destroy) and the Colecovision (which had more graphic power but horrible controllers). Even without the backwards compatibility, the 5200 was certainly no disaster right out of the gate and after the unit was redesigned to accept 2600 cartridges could have been a success under the care of a competently run company.

The issue was really the glut of poor Atari 2600 software, the proximate cause of the great videogame crash of 1983-84 from which the Western industry almost didn’t recover. Orland’s 2700 system — even with backward compatibility — doesn’t address this problem. Indeed, it actually makes it worse because one of the first things a 2700 user would do would be to buy the bargain basement software that was currently flooding store shelves because it would be cheaper than the newer 2700 software. That would have killed the 2700 through word-of-mouth much faster than the 5200 died in the real world thanks to corporate stupidity and neglect. The institutional rot at Atari was already a foregone conclusion by 1983 and the innovation that eventually saved the Western side of the business – the Nintendo Seal of Quality – only came about because the fledgling Nintendo of America had learned the lessons of the crash. Without the crash, it’s extremely doubtful that Atari would have come up with the idea of licensing third-party software developers for the 2700 by virtue of the fact that they never thought of it for the 5200.

More importantly, Orland misses one of the real “what if?” scenarios that jumps out of Atari’s crash and burn – the fact that even if Atari had managed to survive the great crash it would not have gone on to face off against Nintendo – it would have survived by becoming Nintendo! In 1983, Atari under the “leadership” of Ray Kassar was on the verge of inking a deal with Nintendo to distribute Donkey Kong on home computers – a deal that was designed to be the precursor to Atari distributing Nintendo products outside of Japan. Given that Nintendo’s reason for wanting the deal was Atari’s impressive worldwide marketing apparatus, it’s entirely likely that the Famicom (which became the Nintendo Entertaiment System in the West in our world) would have been Atari-branded. That would have been the Atari 2700.

The problem with that scenario would have been – once again – a glut of poor software. Without a Nintendo Seal of Quality and a system of third-party licensing, there’s no doubt that crappy software for the 2700 would have flooded the market soon after the system was released. Regardless of the quality of the games that would be produced by Nintendo itself (we’re assuming that Atari would recognize Miyamoto’s genius and not try to slap a license on Super Mario Bros., by no means a slam-dunk), the 2700 would soon be buried in a bunch of crappy Chase-the-Chuckwagon clones. Atari would still have collapsed – albeit a year or two later and this time it would have taken Nintendo’s hope of Western expansion with it.

The result would have been a videogame drought that makes our crash in 1983-84 look like the glory days of the PS2. Nintendo in our world had a hard enough time getting into retail because of how badly retailers had been burned by the crash – they invented R.O.B. the robot specifically so they could call the system a “toy” rather than a videogame. After the crash of the Atari 2700 there isn’t a retailer in the Western hemisphere that would have touched a videogame with a 10-foot pole. Most Atari 2600 gamers would have either moved on to PC gaming as I did or simply forgotten about gaming altogether – except for dropping some quarters into the occasional old Pac-Man machine at a local 7-11 (the arcades also hit a big slump in this period from which they never really recovered). It wouldn’t have been the “end of videogames” but it’s entirely possible that gaming would never have become the relevant cultural force it eventually became. PC gaming could never have taken the place of console gaming because it wasn’t gaming that drove the adoption of the PC – it was spreadsheets.

In my mind, the true frontier of videogaming in such a world would probably have been the handheld system. In that case Nintendo, burned by the failure of the 2700 would have focused on expanding its Game & Watch line of products, introducing the first GameWatch Boy in 1986 (later the name would be shortened to just GameBoy) packed in with Tetris. About a year later the GameBoy would be rivaled by NEC’s Turbo Express and the two handheld systems would split the market between them, though NEC played second-fiddle to Nintendo until about 1995. Atari’s Game Gear – a joint venture between them and Sega – never managed better than a distant third in the marketplace.

In 1995 however, NEC would expand the capabilities of the TurboExpress by utilizing its heft as a consumer electronics company to link the TurboExpress into the burgeoning “multimedia” revolution by incorporating PCLink capabilities that allow users to download applications – including music and video files – into the newly renamed “TurboPod.” Eventually the TurboPod relegates the Gameboy into a niche as a mere gaming toy while NEC faces off against its real competition – Sony’s new line of Digital Walkmans that perform similar functions utilizing technology developed by Apple.

I think somewhere in that world I’m playing a lot of pinball.

Advertisements




Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Nobody Knows Anything

30 09 2009

Bookmark and Share

Here’s a little story. Back when I was working at Interplay, my then boss Bob Picunko (who’s now a big muckity-muck over at MTV) came into my office to talk about a game that he had heard that Disney was working on with Square Enix. It was called Kingdom Hearts and it combined Disney characters with Final Fantasy characters which on the surface sounds like most ridiculous combination around. Both of us dismissed the idea as something that would never work. Well, we were wrong. Kingdom Hearts turned out to be a smash hit and easily one of my all-time favorite PS2 games. Sometimes the strangest combinations come out of left field to knock your socks off (if I may mix my metaphors there).

Now of course, Kingdom Hearts is a mega-successful franchise that’s treasured and no doubt championed by many inside Disney and Square. Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan and all that. On the release of the latest iteration of the franchise though, it’s worthwhile to remember that this was not an idea that most people would have initially championed. I have enormous respect for my former boss — Bob’s the kind of smart, savvy guy I’d follow off a cliff and nobody knows games better, but he totally missed this one. Without blowing my own horn, I know gaming pretty well too and I dismissed Kingdom Hearts at first. Everyone in this industry has that kind of story — the one they totally missed.

Conversely, there are opposite stories as well. Ray Kassar, the head of Atari who presided over the original company’s destruction in the late ’70s was also the guy who essentially invented the home console port with the Atari 2600 Space Invaders. It behooves us all then to show a little humility sometimes, realizing that nobody really knows anything. We can make our best guesses, apply our facts and figures and bring all our experience to bear and still miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes we just get lucky because there’s a person or a team out there that everyone laughs at with a vision. In the mean time, if you’ve never played Kingdom Hearts — go do so and thank me later. If you have, enjoy the new game. I know I will!





Steve Jobs Going after the Gaming Market — Seriously

10 09 2009

Dean Takahashi over at VentureBeat is reporting that Steve Jobs has finally set his sights on the gaming market. Apparently Jobs emphasized in a a New York Times Interview that the new iPod Touch is being repositioned as a game machine to compete with the Nintendo DSi and the new PSP. Not a bad pivot for a product that had ceased to have any reason for existing. Based on the report, Jobs seems serious this time — or at least as serious as he can be given that the iPod and the iPhone are rapidly turning into game machines whether he likes it or not.

Steve Jobs fascinates me (as he does many people). I believe he is what Robert X. Cringely referred to as a “positively-oriented sociopath.” That means that everyone in Jobs’ world has really been placed here for him to manipulate, use and discard at his whim — and that includes his customers. His mercurial nature is legendary and the products he produces are equally legendary for being built around Steve’s quirks (think about the original Mac being unable to network). The Mac hasn’t been taken seriously as a gaming machine simply because Jobs isn’t a gamer, doesn’t take gaming seriously and has always thought gaming to be an “impure” use for his machine.

2222937340_43d91899d2

His influence was so powerful over the character of Apple as a company, that even when he wasn’t around, no gaming initiative Apple ever launched could find any traction. Every few years Apple announces that it’s finally taking gaming seriously and will be providing developers with the support and the APIs they need to turn the Mac into a world-class gaming machine. The result is always the same — the effort fizzles out and PC gamers go back to their beige boxes and the thousand shocks they’re heir to.

This could be different. The Apple iTouch could be the lower-priced entry to the world of the App store and with iPhoen games being cheaper to produce and sell, they’re starting to look really attractive to big game companies who are starting to seriously support the platform. Given that the huge pile of money that Nintendo floats on is produced in large part by their dominance in the handheld space, I’d imagine that there are a lot of sweaty and uncomfortable meetings happening in Japan right now. The irony of all this, of course is that if Apple does become a big player in the gaming market, it’ll happen despite, not because of Jobs’ genius. Of course if it works, he’ll still get the credit and claim this was his plan all along.

Knowing Jobs, he’ll probably believe it.

Update: Just got this Tweet from a friend over at IGN:

Phone just failed the impulse gaming test. Tried to buy 2 games but they were too big to download over the air. Sales lost.

Yeah. That’s a problem and something that if Jobs is really serious about turning the iTouch into a gaming platform. He’s going to have start imposing some uniform standards for apps in addition to actually providing developer support. It should be interesting to see just how serious he is with this.

Bookmark and Share





Pride Goeth Before Sony’s PS3 Fall

20 08 2009

There’s all kinds of stupid in the world, but there’s a special place in my heart for the kind that comes out when stupidity mixes with hubris. Case in point: Sony’s genius decision to not allow backwards compatibility on the PS3 Slim. Seriously, what’s the thought process that’s going on here? “Well we’ve got a really expensive console here with a slim software library that getting it’s ass kicked by the Wii, the 360 and our own PS2. Why don’t we put out a cheaper version of the PS3 that doesn’t bother to leverage our single-greatest asset, the PS2’s back catalog? That’s the way back to market dominance!”

It seems to me that Sony’s biggest problem is that it took a couple of stupid competetive decisions and fortuitous timing in the last console generations as an indication that Sony was filled with infallible geniuses and would be the dominant gaming platform forever. The original PlayStation leveraged the favorable economics of the then new format of CD-ROM into a gaming powerhouse. They faced off against the Nintendo 64 which was dealing with the massive cost-of-goods mistake that was sticking with the cartridge format and Sega’s 32X decision not to cut the Genesis off at the knees. The PS2, on the other hand, was a great piece of hardware, but it was also launched at precisely the right time into a gaming drought, becoming the defacto platform of choice against a weakened Sega and a Nintendo who, as always, operate in their own little pocket dimension.

PlayStation-3-Slim-Not-Backwards-Compatible-With-PlayStation-2-Games

Things have changed. It’s now Microsoft’s 360 that holds the dominance amongst the hard-core and Nintendo who is blazing a new trail amongst casual gamers. That leaves Sony with a firm grip on exactly one asset — the past. Specifically the absolutely enormous PS2 back catalog. Perversely, that’s actually not a bad place to be. The PS2 is a pure profit engine at this point and the fact that new games continue to come out for it every month means the the PS2 is hardly a dead platform. A PS3 with backwards compatility provides a clear upgrade path for people who don’t want to lose the investment in their PS2 games and create an instant (and cheap) gaming library for people who want to take the plunge at the lower price point.

Heck, if it were me, I’d take a few lessons from Microsoft’s Arcade at this point and start investing in re-issuing some of the classic PS2 titles revamped with new downloadable content and whatever the Home equivalent of Achievements are. What exactly is the rationale for not leveraging the huge marketshare that the PS2 continues to command? We’re in a worldwide recession and the huge PS2 library looks like an awfully good bargain these days. If I can get that plus new PS3 games plus a Blu-Ray player, suddenly the PS3 looks a lot more competetive against a 360.

As it stands now, I have a 360, a Wii and a PS2 and a PC and all my gaming needs are met for the forseeable future. There simply aren’t enough compelling reasons to buy a PS3 when I can get a cheap Blu-Ray for about $100 less than a PS3. No, the PS2 catalog isn’t the way forward, but it’d be enough to make the PS3 viable until they figure out what to do. This decision basically throws away one of the few weapons Sony still has. Like I said — hubris. Sony’s not the king of the world anymore. It’s time they started acting like it.

Bookmark and Share