Indie Gamer Chick Statement on the end of Xbox Live Indie Games

Today, developers of Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIGs) were informed that Microsoft is in the process of winding down the service. The ability to publish new XBLIGs will end a year from today, September 9, 2016. Roughly a year after that, in September 2017, the XBLIG marketplace will shut-down. We all knew this was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

I started Indie Gamer Chick in July, 2011 as an XBLIG review site. It wasn’t long after that the XBLIG developer community discovered me and embraced my reviews. It’s because of them that Indie Gamer Chick is around today, and for that I owe them a gratitude that words never seem strong enough to convey. Although I’m sure some developers weren’t happy to have their game run through my wringer, I hope they all know that negative reviews never came with malice or the intent of hurt feelings. Judging by the response you as a community had to IGC, I think most of you understand that. Some of you went on to become my friends, but know this: I do love you all. Thank you so much for making this whole experience rewarding for me. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me.

For those of you who have an Xbox 360 but have never dipped your toes into the XBLIG scene, you have two years to enjoy what XBLIG has to offer. It has many wonderful games that cost as little as a dollar. Check my review index. It’s mostly made up of XBLIGs. And for those devs who has developed exclusively for XBLIG, please begin porting your work to other platforms. Even if you’re not proud of your work or satisfied with it. Those games represent our collective legacy as a community. Many of you are moving onto to great things. Future generations should get to see where you came from. That’s the lasting legacy of XBLIG: amateur developers who aspired to do great things. Although not everyone who made games for XBLIG got to taste success, I firmly believe that a community as close as ours shares in each-others success. Because of what began on XBLIG, indie gaming today shines a little brighter. And, because of what began on XBLIG, our future as gamers has never been brighter.

XBLIG developers and fans: please share your memories or gratitude for XBLIG in the comments.

Year Three Ends and Year Four Begins

For those of you that can’t stand my yearly mushy ritual, sorry. But I’m allowed to be a little sentimental once a year, ain’t I?

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of Indie Gamer Chick. While this wasn’t my most prolific year, I feel I’ve done some of my best work over the last twelve months. Even if that’s not true of me, it’s certainly true of the indie development community. The Golden Age of Indie Games is here, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it.

I haven’t exactly had the most consistent health this year, but things are looking up in a big way, so I’m playing more and more games again. A bigger problem with getting consistent reviews posted is I’m older and busy a lot more than when I started IGC. Frankly, I was 21 when this site opened. I turned 22 a few days later, but still, I was just a kid when I got into this. One that didn’t have a ton of friends and had no presence in the indie community. These days, my free time might go towards chatting with a group of developers over the direction of the indie scene, or advising a newcomer to the scene on how to best pitch their Kickstarter. Last year, I went four months between reviews in large part because I was operating a program I started on Twitter called #GamesMatter. I was really happy with how that went. I was able to help a lot of developers learn how to market their games on social media,and more importantly, believe in their ability to market themselves. To those developers who thanked me for my help, you did the tough part, making great games. Thank you. #GamesMatter lives on today under the capable hands of my friend Nelson, as I deeply missed focusing on writing and being a game critic. Thankfully, Nelson has an unmatched desire to help indies, and so I know #GamesMatter is safe in his hands. And, on a personal note, as much as I enjoyed working with indies, meeting Nelson was the best part of doing #GamesMatter. I love you Nelson, and thank you for keeping my project alive.

By the way, you can follow #GamesMatter on Twitter and bookmark the blog started for it.

I can’t possibly thank all my friends anymore. I have too many. But, of course, I have to thank Brian. Brian, I’ve got Indie Gamer Chick in large part because you never failed to laugh at my lame jokes. And you pushed me to stay with it, until IGC was a part of my life. You’re my best friend, and I love you with all my heart.

Holy crap, four years! Not bad for someone who has, quote, “the attention span of a traffic light” (thanks Dad). But it’s not that surprising. I’ve loved games my whole life, and I’m a person who loves working with entrepreneurs. Indies are the entrepreneurs of gaming, and thus the indie scene allows my passions in life to converge. It’s why what was supposed to be a silly little blog done for the sake of having a hobby has become the thing I’m most proud of. While not every review gets to be positive, and I’m sure some of my reviews can be demoralizing for some developers, I would never want to discourage anyone from reaching for your gaming dreams. You all have limitless potential, and even when I don’t like your products, I admire your efforts. It sounds sappy, but it’s true. You’re all so inspirational to me. That’s why I aspire to do better for you. And that’s why you all have my eternal love and respect. It’s all yours. For keeps.

-Catherine, aka Indie Gamer Chick
June 30, 2015.

Shenmue III’s Pitch Just Plain Sucks

Put down your pitchforks and torches, Shenmue fans. I already defended the existence of Shenmue’s campaign and your participation in it. Check my previous blog post, or click this link. Although you’ll be angry that I didn’t like the original Shenmue, because it totally matters how others feel about stuff you love. Especially if there’s a voice in your head telling you that the thing you love isn’t really as good as you say it is but you can’t just make it shut up unless you convince everyone in the world to love the thing you love as much as you think you do or convince yourself and others that their opinion on the thing you love doesn’t matter. Deep breaths, please. I’m on your side. Kinda.

Anyway, Shenmue III’s pitch sucks. Or maybe it doesn’t, because maybe it’s not a pitch at all. As some of my readers joked, they didn’t even really need to make a pitch. They just needed to post a donation box and say “we’re making Shenmue III. Give us money.” Which is pretty much what they did. And yes, that was all they needed to do. Maybe this wasn’t a campaign so much as it was a telethon. But as someone who has spent the last few years encouraging indie developers to work harder on their Kickstarters so that their campaigns don’t come across as greedy cash grabs, I sort of have to point out the lack of effort displayed. Their pitch is weak, vague, lacks transparency, and has some truly obnoxious stretch goals. When indie developers present me with campaigns this bad, it usually results in me sending back dozens of pages of notes asking for changes, with swear words and insults scribbled between the margins.

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for "Money Pit"

Fun fact: Shenmue is the Japanese term for “Money Pit”

Shenmue III’s campaign has no budget breakdown. When people ask for my advice on a campaign, this is the first thing I require. I want every cent accounted for. And it’s not just because those backing the game have a right to know (although they totally do have a right to know). It’s because it prepares those getting the money to be accountable for that money. The thing about money is, it doesn’t discriminate who gets to wield it. Once money is in your possession, you can spend it anyway you see fit. Sure, there might be consequences later down the road if you don’t use it the way you’re supposed to, but the money itself doesn’t stop you from doing so. A budget breakdown also doesn’t stop you, but having one shows a certain awareness of expectations. The more specific that breakdown is, the bigger a sign it is that consideration and maturity are possessed by the people asking for the money. It’s one of many things a campaign can do to show your money is safe with it.

Not only does Shenmue III skip this most important of steps, but they’re being cagey about who their partners are on this project, and what they are contributing. Sony we know about, though that wasn’t clear at the time the campaign launched. It’s probably not a stretch to think Sega is involved somewhere, even if they’re just collecting a royalty on the IP. Yu Suzuki isn’t answering, only saying that his studio has backers. Okay, who? How much? You’re asking strangers (and fans are still strangers) for money. They worked very hard for that money. They’re putting that money on the line for a game series with a pretty sordid history. Don’t they have a right to know where their money is going?

"So my agent says 'Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?' And to think, I could have been Sora!"

“So my agent says ‘Kingdom Hearts? Pssh, do you want to be doing Mickey Mouse projects or do you want to be in a big-budget blockbuster?’ And to think, I could have been Sora!”

I don’t really understand the caginess. There’s not a single fan that backed Shenmue III who would walk away just because Sony is involved. If anything, the truly diehard among them are probably ready to jump on Team PlayStation 4, if they weren’t on board already. As for other backers, I’m sure it’s probably boring things like banks, venture capitalists, or displaced gaming executives. You know, the types of institutions any large-scale gaming start-up gets their capital from. But, why not say it? Why leave an air of suspicion, especially when you don’t stand to alienate a single, solitary potential backer?

I’ll make a single concession to this issue: Japanese business culture is vastly different from Western business culture. Cards are often played closer to the chest. Awareness of strategic partnerships sometimes never makes the financial pages. Laws about disclosures or accounting practices differ in ways each-other’s cultures don’t understand. It’s often even a little socially taboo to talk about things like bank loans. Fine. All of that is fine. As long as you don’t ask Westerners for crowd funding. You did, so none of those cultural differences matter.

Frankly, discussing other issues I have with the campaign is a bit overkill. They missed the single most important step. I would never endorse an indie campaign that didn’t include a budget breakdown. Shenmue III isn’t an indie, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing and have reasonable certainty the project will be completed on budget (whatever that is) and on time (December 2017, assuming there is no delays, which games of this scope typically do have). And no, my dislike for Shenmue as a game isn’t why this pitch irks me.

"HA! Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!"

“Too bad Ryo, old chap. I get to be in a long-delayed third installment WITHOUT begging people off the street! LOSER! HA!”

It’s because these industry veterans should be role models for indies. I knew this day was coming. The day where a major gaming property would be revived from the ashes by crowd funding. Imagine my disappointment when the game I genuinely thought should break this new ground phoned in their pitch. Shenmue III’s campaign is shamefully lazy, lacking thoughtfulness and/or the feel of a genuine need for money. As I pointed out in my previous editorial, Shenmue III clearly couldn’t exist outside of Kickstarter. So why does the language of those in charge of it make it seem like they’ve got significant backing already? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re going to raise additional capital through traditional channels, based on the success of this campaign. We don’t know. And we should.

Above all, I hope that Shenmue III’s glorified cash grab of a campaign doesn’t inspire a new wave of indie developers to just expect gamers to throw money at them. The salad days of indies getting away with campaigns like Shenmue III’s ended about a year and a half ago. As a community, we’ve grown up. Who knows? Maybe the mainstream gaming scene wasn’t paying as close of attention to what indies accomplished with crowd funding as I suspected. Maybe AAAs will go through the same trials and tribulations with crowd funding as you guys did over the last three years. Maybe it’ll take the AAA crowd funding scene just as long to adapt and expect better of their campaigns as the indie scene did. Shenmue III certainly won’t be the last AAA to have a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe that’s why, deep down, I’m happy the Shenmue III campaign exists. Because now, for the first time ever, I can genuinely say that my beloved indie scene is ahead of the curve as an industry.

Don’t Boo Shenmue III

Shenmue wasn’t for me. I was 11 when I got my greedy little hands on it. Maybe I was the wrong age, but I found it to be incredibly slow and boring. I never finished it as a kid. Around the time I turned 20, I gave it another look-over, but by that point gaming had come a long ways. Especially open-world games. No longer a technical marvel, Shenmue felt even more slow and clunky than it did when I was a kid. So, I have no horse in this race. Shenmue III doesn’t interest me in the slightest bit. But a lot of people were moved by the franchise. I know this because the amount of butt hurt they seem to feel when anyone can’t see how they could possibly enjoy such a plodding, badly written mess leaves them very angry. They also were pretty dang pissed when the game series abruptly ended and DEMANDED that Sega continue to lose money for their enjoyment. Fiscal responsibly? Pssh, who has time for that when you left us on a cliffhanger?

While Shenmue’s base might not get why Shenmue III could never happen before now, anyone with a sense of business did. Gaming is a business, remember. If a game can’t make money, the game shouldn’t be made. Shenmue as a franchise lost so much money that you could build a decent sized cottage out of the stacks of dollars they essentially torched while developing it. Whether fans want to admit it or not, Shenmue’s budget running amok is one of the most irresponsible financial decisions in gaming history. This at a time when Sega had failed to meet sales projections for the Dreamcast, lost millions in SegaNet, and was beginning to make inroads that would later lead to them becoming a third-party publisher. To put the volume of loss in context, getting World of Warcraft off the ground, game and online infrastructure, was done for half of what Sega spent developing and marketing Shenmue.

Shenmue’s existence wasn’t necessarily looked upon by Sega as a potential blockbuster franchise as much as a token of appreciation for the man behind it. Yu Suzuki had been a loyal soldier for Sega, and they wanted to reward him by giving him the funds to make his dream project a reality. Perhaps a gold watch would have been wiser. You can’t even use the “they hoped to make the money back in the long run” excuse. With a new generation of consoles looming and Moore’s Law in effect, there was no hope that the technology created for Shenmue would be viable (even with upgrades) in the window they needed it to be. They also needed unprecedented penetration rates for Shenmue, with no bumps along the road, along with all the hype and critical acclaim games accumulate. Shenmue was critically acclaimed, and the original did meet the penetration percentage Sega had hoped for. Here’s the problem: that penetration rate was for a user base that was significantly below Sega’s expectations. Frankly, Shenmue’s chances for success ended the day Sony announced the PS2 would have DVD playback, before the Dreamcast even made it to America. When people stopped anticipating Dreamcast and started to save for PlayStation 2, Shenmue’s fate was sealed, along with Sega’s. Had Sega chairman Isao Okawa not forgiven Sega’s considerable debt to him and returned all of his equity in Sega (totaling nearly $700,000,000 in US dollars) as a parting gift before passing away in early 2001, people probably would speak of Shenmue today in the same tone they reserve for THQ’s uDraw, or Atari’s E.T. Don’t shoot the messenger, Shenmue fans. It’s true.

The cash cow certainly didn't say "Shen-MOOOOOO!" on this one.

The cash cow certainly didn’t say “Shen-MOOOOOO!” on this one.

Fast forward to 2015. Shenmue is long dormant, although fans of it never gave up on hope. Sega could never logically revive the series. Yu Suzuki certainly wanted to continue the story, but funding would have to come elsewhere, in a way where IP owners Sega would not have to put a single dime in the line of fire.

Enter Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, or crowd funding in general, is a life ring to defunct, high-risk franchises with followings that are loyal, if not legion. No franchise fits this bill quite like Shenmue. A financial loss leader that a business can’t be expected to put money towards, but whose fan base would. And has! $3.35 million dollars in just a few days as of this writing. If anything, I’m sort of surprised that it’s not higher. I predicted it would set records within just a few hours, grossly overestimating the size of the fanbase. Or, perhaps I underestimated the negative backlash against the idea of a AAA dipping its toes in crowd funding.

I expected some anger or those who wouldn’t understand, but nowhere near the scale I’ve seen on social media. I guess some feel that Kickstarter is the exclusive property of indie developers. This would probably be a good time to point out that most people who are backing Shenmue probably aren’t super likely to spend a lot of money on indie campaigns. Moreover, the notion that Shenmue fans are being duped into taking an unfair share of the risk while Suzuki and Sony are reaping the rewards is just silly. Fans of Shenmue aren’t taking a share of the risk. They’re taking all the risk. And they should. Again, this is a failed game series. They couldn’t even bring out a low-cost mobile version exclusively to Japan without having it fail. And yeah, maybe Shenmue would have done better if it had launched on PlayStation 2, or if Sega hadn’t sold the exclusive North American rights for Shenmue II to Microsoft (perplexing to this day, though to Sega’s credit, if you’re going to be financially stupid, be consistently financially stupid). Shenmue III wouldn’t exist if not for its fanbase’s eagerness to accept all the risk.

If you don’t believe me about Shenmue’s fanbase, just ask them. You can’t buy the kind of loyalty Shenmue has. It’s something you simply pick up along the way. I don’t think any of them cared about Sony’s partnership being undisclosed at the time the campaign started. If anything, said partnership is likely to cause any Shenmue loving PS4 holdouts to adopt the console. And as for some of the Shenmue fans not understanding that there’s a chance the game might get further delayed, OH COME ON! Just because they like an overrated, slow and clunky, poorly written, over-hyped, mediocre franchise doesn’t mean they’re morons. I think they probably grasp that something could go wrong at some point during development and delays could happen. Given that the average pledge is $80 as of this writing, I’m guessing they would be more than willing to wait until 2018 or later if needed. They seem slightly enthusiastic. And by slightly, I mean they’re probably pointing ICBMs at my house for saying a single negative word about this piece of shit game property as we speak.

Actually, I’m quite happy for Shenmue fans. How many fanbases get a second chance like this? Of course, with Kickstarter, now a lot of fans for properties that just didn’t make it could decide to step up and put their money towards reviving long-lost potential. During Ubisoft’s conference, fans on social media were convinced that, at any given time during the presentation, Beyond Good & Evil 2 could be unveiled. It didn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen as long as Ubisoft has to pay the bills. I liked Beyond Good & Evil, but to say it was a financial disappointment is an understatement. It received a wide release, got stellar critical marks across the board, won nearly every conceivable “most underrated and/or overlooked” game award (giving it a potential second wind months after release), and later received a digital re-release on next generation platforms. And it still didn’t sell. There’s no real reason why it didn’t. Sometimes quality products like this flop without explanation. Yes, a sequel did enter production, but it did so before the Xbox Live Arcade re-release. When that failed to grab an audience, I’m sure that signaled the end for Beyond Good & Evil as a viable franchise.

Unless they crowd fund it. So I pose this question to those angry that Shenmue III has invaded their Kickstarter space: would you back Beyond Good & Evil 2? Admit it, you would at least be tempted. Or, if you’re a Nintendo fan reading this, would you back a new 2D Kid Icarus? What about crowd funding doesn’t make it okay for financially stable AAAs to use it? If small but loyal fan-bases are rabid for revivals, let them pay with their hard-earned money to make those revivals a reality. For those who say Yu Suzuki isn’t taking any of the risk, I ask you to rethink that. The man took his share of the risk over fifteen years ago when Shenmue was being created. Ubisoft took their share of the risk a decade ago on Beyond Good & Evil. And those risks didn’t pay off. The difference between those risks and the risks gamers are taking a share of today? Gamers in general know what they’re getting into. They’re not putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. Collectively it might add up to millions, but individually, it’s a proportional and responsible share of risk. It’s a sign that gamers have matured with the industry. Shenmue III’s campaign is a milestone moment in game financing. It’s where gamers and AAAs game makers came together and said it’s our industry. It’s ironic that Shenmue fans get to test these waters. The franchise might not be with the times, but its fans sure are.

Interview with Dan Adelman – Nintendo’s Former Indie Guy

Dan Adelman. It’s a name you might have heard of recently. He just resigned from Nintendo, where he previously was, for better or worse, the man in charge of getting indies onto their platforms. I’ve been dying to interview Dan for a while. I attempted to while he worked for Nintendo, but that was a non-starter. Now that he’s out on his own, and starting his own indie consulting company (I’ll have full details on that sometime in the near future), he’s got a lot more time to talk. I had a few questions for him. He had some answers.

Indie Gamer Chick: Nintendo seems to be stuck on where gaming was five or more years ago versus where it’s going in the future. It doesn’t seem like an attitude that’s compatible with the emerging indie gaming scene. How much of your time was spent trying to convince them that gaming was going this direction?

Dan Adelman: Very little actually. During the WiiWare and DSiWare years, I don’t think many people really knew what I was working on. I was kind of left alone to do my thing, while everyone else was busy printing money with the Wii and DS business. Unfortunately, it was hard to get the changes I needed made because no one could hear me over the ringing of all the cash registers.

IGC: One of Nintendo’s more, ahem, infamous policies was that they would only look at indie developers who had a dedicated office away from home, and some kind of security system. Yes, because I’m sure Microsoft and Sony are sweating bullets over the Wii U. I guess my question is, did Nintendo as a company, a conglomeration, have any awareness at all of the realities of the indie scene? In other words, games by people who don’t have an office, or money for an office, let alone a Get Smart like security system?

Dan's virtual self, or possibly the dad from American Pie.

Dan’s virtual self, or possibly the dad from American Pie.

Dan: You’d be surprised how long it actually took to get that policy changed, since so many different groups were involved. It was like brokering peace in the Middle East. For the first 6 or 7 years I just tried to work around it as best I could. At one point, the group responsible for vetting the applications was giving a pretty well-known developer (one whose name your readers would instantly recognize) a hard time about his office in a detached garage. So I decided enough was enough and just tried to kill that policy. It still took another year. One of the compromises is that the home office has to be a dedicated workspace with a lock on the door, so the people who used to look up addresses in Google Maps are now asking for photos of locks.

IGC: We’re only just now starting to see indies release in large quantities on Nintendo platforms, but around a year ago, indies were super excited over Nintendo’s indie policies, especially compared to Microsoft’s. Now the buzz and chatter over Nintendo’s policies has all but disappeared. Why do you think that is?

Dan: Well, it’s not really news anymore. For a long time, Nintendo was the only platform where you could self-publish without going through a concept review process. Now I think all the platforms operate this way. Nintendo was the first to do a deal with Unity to pay for all developers’ licenses, but now Xbox has a similar deal in place. I think it’s great that the competition among the platforms is forcing everyone to be a lot more indie-friendly. I’ve heard Microsoft was a nightmare to deal with when XBLA was doing really well and everyone wanted to be on it. Now that it’s lost that edge, they’ve been forced to soften their approach. Chris Charla has done an amazing job making ID@Xbox so friendly. Adam Boyes and his team at PlayStation as well.

IGC: Be honest, when Nintendo first handed you the Wii U, you stared at it for an hour and then had to be talked out of throwing yourself off the roof. Go ahead, you can say it. I’ve got sources.

Dan: The Wii U itself is not a bad system at all. I wish it had a bit more horsepower, but that’s never been Nintendo’s focus. The GamePad is only as good as the games that make use of it, and I think the first party games will show the world what it’s really supposed to be used for.

IGC: Despite all the bullshit, being able to help indies on the level you have must be so incredibly rewarding. Was there any one moment where you paused to reflect and tell yourself “you know what? This is worth doing”?

Dan: When I first started working with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes on Super Meat Boy, I took Ed and his wife, Danielle, out to a diner. I can’t even remember what we talked about – mostly just excited about how awesome Super Meat Boy was going to be, I think. After dinner, Ed went to the bathroom or something, and Danielle asked me hopefully, “Do you think if Super Meat Boy does well, we’ll be able to afford health insurance?” That just broke my heart! I was already hoping to help make Super Meat Boy successful, but that conversation really hit home for me. Now Ed and Tommy are rich and famous, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

IGC: You obviously had friction with Nintendo regarding their policies. If you could change any one thing, ONE THING, about Nintendo in relation to how they handle indies, what would it be?

Dan: Everyone should have just given me the ball and gotten the fuck out of my way. I got this.

Attention any journalists planning on writing an article based on this interview – please don’t make this answer into a headline!

Dan helped bring incredible games like Steamworld Dig to 3DS. Now, he works for the whole community.

Dan helped bring incredible games like Steamworld Dig to 3DS. Now, he works for the whole community.

IGC: That actually was going to be my headline for this, but whatever. Despite the jokes hardcore gamers make about Nintendo (myself included), no gaming company is held in as much reverence as them. I’ve met hundreds of indie developers and many of them, the largest percentage of them, dreamed about making games specifically for Nintendo. Does Nintendo remotely realize the significance of that? That for many, seeing their game published on a Nintendo platform is a dream come true?

Dan: They absolutely do. And in some ways, I think it can limit what they do. They’re being held to such a high standard that they don’t want to mess it up. They’ve got everyone’s childhood memories at stake.

IGC: Seriously, you don’t work there anymore. Be honest, the Wii U kinda sucks, huh?

Dan: No, it actually doesn’t! And I’d tell you if I really hated it. It’s actually gotten better with time. I wish some of the firmware updates that we’re seeing now had been there from the beginning. The software lineup is finally just now starting to hit its stride. Could you imagine if the Wii U launched with Super Mario 3D World?

IGC: Despite Nintendo’s reputation, they did allow games like Retro City Rampage (which is liberally peppered with adult situations and jokes at Nintendo’s expense) onto their platforms. Were there any games you fought for that Nintendo simply put their foot down and said “No!”?

Dan: Actually, no. There was – and is – no concept approval process, so unless something specifically conflicted with a guideline, it was allowed. I actually had the opposite problem. There was a ton of shovelware on WiiWare that was cluttering up the shop. I wanted to get rid of some of the garbage to make it easier to find the good games. Unfortunately WiiWare didn’t have any ability to merchandise and showcase the best games, so clutter just made it impossible to find anything. You were either a top seller, a new release, or buried in a mass grave.

IGC: You’re dumping Nintendo for the indie scene. So I guess my first question is, how do you like the taste of Ramen Noodles? You’ll be eating a lot of them.

Dan: I’m keeping a lookout for fresh roadkill. It’s a good source of protein. Actually, I’m going into this with the full expectation that I won’t have any income for at least 6 months and that it’ll be about a year before my household income exceeds my expenses.

IGC: I’ve been a part of the indie scene for over three years now, and few non-developers are held in as high a regard as you are. You just left the security of one of the planet’s biggest game developers to work with and help support the indie scene. Why did you choose indies?

Dan: Three years? Noob.

I’ve been a gamer all my life. My first console – which I barely remember – was a Magnavox Odyssey. I moved on to an Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and then started making my own games on my father’s IBM PC and eventually got my own Commodore 64. I’ve mentioned in a few interviews that it really bothered me how boring games were becoming. Every game I looked at was so predictable. I chose to work with indies because they’re the only ones who can save gaming. I can’t do what they do, so I do the next best thing – give them whatever support I can.

IGC: If you had to give indies only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dan: Help me help you. You can get in touch with me on Twitter or find my contact information on my website: (Shameless plug!)

Note from Cathy: From what I’ve read about Dan’s business plan, I absolutely endorse it. His intention is to become a virtual member of the development team throughout the entire development cycle, as a sort of business manager for your group. Not all of you are ready to take a step forward towards having to both make games and be responsible business people. But, for those that are, Dan is absolutely qualified and capable of helping you get the business side of your new studio in order. Give him a chance.

Three Years of Indie Gamer Chick

It’s June 30, 2014. Today marks the end of my third year doing Indie Gamer Chick. It wasn’t my most productive year, but I still managed to have a few really awesome moments. I broke one million lifetime views. I hand-selected a successful bundle on Indie Royale. I helped spread the word of epilepsy in gaming. People even recognized me when I went to pick up my PlayStation 4 at Best Buy at their midnight launch and asked for my autograph. What a surreal feeling. What a wonderful year.

But it was a tough year in other ways. I had problems from September onwards. Problems with my memory. Concentration issues. My epilepsy was striking more frequently. We didn’t know what to make of it. Then I went in for a test to see if I qualified for a new epilepsy treatment and the doctors found something off. On December 31, I was told they had discovered a lesion on my brain. It was probably caused by hitting my head during seizures. It has been suggested to me more than once that, when I know I’m due for a seizure, wearing a helmet might be a good idea. I balked at that. Really, what they meant was I should wear one when I’m just walking around, warning or not. The worst head injuries I’ve had are from seizures I can’t tell are coming. The lesion probably was more directly tied to a seizure I had in December 2011. Nobody saw it, but it’s suspected that I hit my head on a table leg.

The doctors told me I was a candidate for dementia, other perception problems, paranoia, and ultimately, Alzheimer’s disease. And I don’t mean like down the road. I mean, like, within the next few years. I’m 24 years old. Do you have any clue how terrifying it is to hear that from a doctor? They said the odds were not in my favor, but they couldn’t tell for sure until late February. So I spent January and February miserable. I had informed Sabriel and former IGC writer Jerry that I would probably have to quit Indie Gamer Chick, and that I would probably be giving the site to them. Even if the scenario wasn’t worse-case, you can’t really have a game critic with perception problems. I didn’t even trust my own judgment. I had already gone from someone who never took notes when I played games for reviews to taking extensive notes and double checking every single thing I played to make sure my opinion was authentic and not some brain-lesion induced delusion. It never was. Not even once. But when something like this is happening, you question everything.

But something good did come out of those two months. I found out how much I was loved by my new friends. The ones I wouldn’t have if I had never started Indie Gamer Chick. Who, for two months straight, sent me daily words of encouragement, trying to keep my spirits up and my hopes alive. They told me they thought I would beat the odds the doctors had laid out. I agreed with them that I would, but I didn’t really believe it. I had always told people that I was the luckiest person I knew, and I was certain I had used all my luck up. Then, on February 27, I got the results from an MRI. It started with probably the most beautiful sentence I’ve ever heard: “Your brain lesion is smaller than we expected.”

I would still need treatment (and I receive it to this day), because brain damage is brain damage. It doesn’t really go away. But I’m a lot less likely to go crazy. I just got the results from my follow-up MRI and it’s looking really good. Modern medicine. You have got to love it. I’m having a lot less issues with memory (in fact, my ability to retain stuff, which legitimately scared my buddy Nate, is nearly back to full power), and I’m even doing well while dealing with clinical depression (common among people with a history of head injuries. Just ask any retired NFL player). I have a long road ahead of me. I have to eat a certain way, do cognitive exercises, and get my head scanned fairly frequently, but my doctors like my odds. Hopefully they’re right about the odds this time.

It’s strange. Facing all these problems, the thing I was worried about the most was losing Indie Gamer Chick. It has been the best thing to happen to me in a long time. It’s where I met some of my dearest friends. It’s where I found a voice that I never knew I had. A sense of pride I didn’t know I was capable of having in myself. I love gaming so much, and I’ve always been really opinionated about what makes some games work and other not. I just never had an outlet for it. Probably because I thought nobody would care what I thought. How wrong I was.

A couple of months ago, someone made fun of me on some message board because I reply to every random tweet I get. It’s not true, because I do occasionally miss some. But seriously, why wouldn’t I want to reply to everyone? I’m proud that people care enough to ask my opinion on anything. I never want to be one of those people that’s too stuck up to reply to fans. Besides, how else am I going to get you guys to challenge me when I’m wrong if I’m not engaging you?

I’m not perfect or even close to it. I’ve made mistakes. My reviews aren’t always the way they should be. Sometimes I’ve been too harsh on games and their developers. There was a guy named Will O’Reagan. Will made a game called Project Gert: Recon. My review of it was absolutely brutal. Now, I stand by every critique I made of the game. But I think I crossed a line, rubbing salt in wounds by adding a snarky song set to the tune of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as the end joke. Look, when someone works hard on a game and it’s not received well, feelings will be hurt. Nothing can be done to prevent that, short of lying about my opinion of a game, and I won’t be doing that. But I did cross a line on that review. Will didn’t handle my review well, but to his credit, I was more harsh on him than he deserved. A lot of people wouldn’t handle it well. I thank Will, actually. I learned from him. I can be a good critic, entertaining to read, snarky, etc, without being mean. Critics shouldn’t be mean. It’s not our jobs. It took me too long to learn that, but I wouldn’t have without him. Thank you, Will.

Will is hardly alone in this. Back in November of 2011, I reviewed a game called Angry Zombie Ninja Cats. Again, I crossed the line, targeting the developer more than the game and hurting feelings that didn’t need to be hurt. Most developers aren’t thin-skinned and are anxious to learn. That was true of Angry Zombie Ninja Cats’ developer. But when you dig in and make things personal, you’re neither servicing the community well, nor helping the developer. The guy in question here, a man by the name of Shahed Chowdhuri, he didn’t need to forgive me for it. Not only did he, but Shahed is on the short list of my very best friends. I don’t deserve him. But I’m happy I have him. He’s an amazing human being, and a wonderful friend. When I was going through the crap with my brain, he was there for me, every single day with a kind word and amazing encouragement to keep fighting. I have much love for him. Most importantly, I learned a lot from him.

That’s the strange thing about this Indie Gamer Chick stuff. I met most of my best friends after I was not so kind to their games (though 90% of the developers got less harsh reviews than Shahed and Will). I met Kris Steele after I ambushed him in an interview and then murdered his game Volchaos. Kris has stood by my side through some very dark times in my life. So has Brian Provinciano. I destroyed his sleeper hit Retro City Rampage. Brian has become my indie guru. Here’s a guy who nearly killed himself making his game. He’s still feeling the ill effects of it to this day. He actually used some of my feedback to improve Retro City Rampage. And it’s actually a really great game now. I keep bugging Brian Provinciano (no relation to my Brian, the man I intend to marry) by telling him he would make a wonderful community leader. So would Mike Bithell, the creator of Thomas Was Alone, another amazing person I’m privileged to call a friend. The community needs guys like this, who are down to Earth, easy to talk to, and passionate about not just their games, but every game by every indie developer as well.

It’s what XBLIG was missing, in my opinion. Someone that became the face of the platform. Most people say that person ultimately was me. And maybe it was, but if  I was the face of XBLIG, I was wrong for the part. It should have been a developer. Although I’m flattered that so many people put so much stock in my ability to promote games and spread the gospel of indies, the truth is, you guys and gals are the ones with the real talent. You’re the ones who make our imaginations run wild. Who take us to worlds we’ve never imagined. I don’t do that stuff. I just talk about my experiences playing your stuff, and spice it up with dick and fart jokes. Maybe I inspire you to make your games better or more refined, but I’m not a creator. I have no talent for that. The talent belongs to all of you. And it’s up to you to step up and challenge us all. To give us inspiration. It’s your community. I’m just a guest.

I do appreciate what the community has done for me. You guys have welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I’m something special. I’m not so sure I am, but I’m flattered nevertheless. The best part of being Indie Gamer Chick has been meeting so many wonderful friends who challenge me, and inspire me. Not one of them was my instant friend. I had to work to earn these friendships. And now I treasure them. They’re my most precious possessions. I don’t mean to sound sappy, but I have to let the world know how much I love these people.

Bob Reinhard: You make me laugh. You make me think. I hope one day you realize just how talented a writer you are. Way better than me.

Bob also made me this, while playing Terraria. Awesome.

Bob also made me this, while playing Terraria. Awesome.

Cyril Lachel: You’re such a pure person. I learn a lot from you. If I ever need to know anything about gaming before I was a gamer, you’re the guy I can count on. More important than that, you were my first really good friend I made through Indie Gamer Chick, and you’ve stood by me to this day. I love you, Cyril.

Paolo: We just met, but I feel like we’ve known each other for years. I’m so proud to have you at Indie Gamer Chick, and I’m even prouder to have you as a friend.

Dave Voyles: I’m so proud of you. You have your dream job, and you earned it. One day, it will be you and Shahed giving the big Xbox presentation at E3, just you watch.

Shahed: Again, I don’t deserve your friendship, but I’m happy I have it. You’re such a pure soul. You think of others before you think of yourself. Every time I need someone when I’m reaching out to the community, you’ve been there. You’re a natural leader. Your employers are lucky to have you.

Jonathan: Oh Jonathan. My favorite Nintendo fanboy. Another guy who has stuck by me through some dark times. Whose friendship and loyalty has always been unconditional. I love you, Jonathan.

Jesse Chounard: I owe this guy so much. He’s one of the three main people (along with Dave Voyles and George Clingerman) who helped me become a part of the XBLIG community. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s the guy who helps me when I need to know about Kickstarters. Yea, yea, I’ll get to Chickstarter Part 2 sometime soon. Now’s the time to tell Jesse I love him.

George Clingerman: I think I owe my success more than anymore else. It was you that told the community that they had me pegged wrong, that I wasn’t a troll. That was someone who was real and loved gaming, and stood to help them. You had so much respect that it totally changed people’s perception of me. Over half my readers and followers on Twitter are developers, and I think I owe that to you.

Jerry Bonner: I miss your writings at Indie Gamer Chick, but thankfully your friendship has been consistent and full of love. And thankfully, you’re so fossilized that, even with a birthday coming up, you remind me that I’m still young. (Kidding. I love you so much Jerry)

Sabriel: You know, Bri, I’m so happy I met you. When it looked like I would be forced to quit Indie Gamer Chick, I knew the site would be safe in your hands. You’re a talented writer and an amazing friend. I’m proud to have you on board.

Jim Sterling: I just met you, but you’re a reminder to me of how surreal this whole experience is. I was such a big fan of yours, and now we’re buddies. When does it stop being surreal? But you continue to make me think, and strive to be better at what I do.I hope some day to be as big as you. I mean as a writer, obviously :P

Jim Perry: We didn’t always agree about the state of XBLIG, or political stuff, or religious stuff, or most stuff for that matter. But if I didn’t have friends like you who stood their ground and challenged me, I would be very bored. I love you Jim. Also, you’re totally my bitch at Bejeweled Blitz.

Alan, Steven, and Nate: I used to talk to all three of you so much, and now you guys are such strangers. Thankfully, you check in just enough to make me feel loved and missed too. But seriously, I want to hear more from each of you. My birthday is a week from Friday. A chat would make a great present.

Kyle: You’re one of the kindest, most sensitive and caring men I know. When I need someone to lean on, you’ve always been there. I treasure our friendship very much, and I hope we’ll have it when we’re both decrepit.

Benjamin Ryan: I wish you had stuck it out at IGC as well, but I’m happy to have your friendship.

MasterBlud: We had a complex relationship, but these days, it’s 100% friendship. I’m proud of you and I’m proud to have you as a friend.

Michael Hartman: You’re one of the most talented people I know. An incredible friend, with a huge heart. I would say your name if fitting, but “Hartman” actually comes from people who were deer hunters by trade.

Adam Wallyhawk: You have such drive and so much energy, I know someday you’ll be very successful. And when you are, just remember, I still have more money than you :P (Kidding, I love you Adam).

Ian Stocker: You put this in your game. To say I value our friendship is an understatement.

My mascot "Sweetie" making a cameo in Ian's latest game, Escape Goat 2. Just, wow.

My mascot “Sweetie” making a cameo in Ian’s latest game, Escape Goat 2. Just, wow.

Edward: You’ve set me straight on so many development issues. I’ve always said I like to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, and you’re unquestionably that. I have much love for you, my friend.

Patrick Scott Patterson: You’re one of those guys that helps me bridge the gap from the gaming generations before my time to the generations yet to come. I’ve learned a lot from you, and I’m sure I will learn more in the future.

Alex Jordan: One of my first friends, and certainly one of my dearest. I hope you stick it out as a developer. You’re so talented, you have no idea.

Michael Connolly: Another guy who I wish had stuck around longer than he did. But you’re an awesome friend, an incredible talent, and someone who reminds me that variety is the spice of life. Even if I don’t get the whole speedrun thing.

Adam Sawkins: I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished, and I know you’re continue to be a great friend.

There’s so many more people, if I had to list them all like that, I would be here all day. Andy Esser, David Walton, my new writers Bernard and Angel, and Kalle, who just returned to IGC. Malik, Rose, Jason, Michelle, Laura, Graham, Jordan, Scott, Thor, Russ, and so many others that I can’t even keep track of them.

And finally, Brian and Sydne. My best friends in the whole world. Brian is going to be the man I marry. He’s been my rock for four years now. He’s why I’m still standing today. Sydne, you’re such a kind soul. I’m so lucky to have you both in my life. Brian, I love you with all my heart. You’re the best thing to ever happen to me. I’m sure you already know that, but I want the whole world to as well. Without you, I wouldn’t be doing this.

So, three years later, and my love for the indie scene is as strong as ever. Once I wrap up the main part of my treatment cycle for my brain, I plan on getting back into the routine that got me attention in the first place, with many reviews every week that hold nothing back, and from the heart editorials. Thankfully, I’ll have no shortage of material. The indie development community has been so amazing to me. I don’t make games. I probably never will. I’m going to star in one in 2015, but my involvement in creating it will probably be minimal. No, it’s you guys. You’re the ones that make indie gaming work. For many of you, you’ve dreamed of this since you were kids. And now, whether your games are successful or not, you’re making your dreams come true. I envy you guys for that. Just like I envy your talent, your imaginations, and your limitless creativity. It’s what made me honored to do Indie Gamer Chick for the last three years. It’s why I’m excited that I get to be Indie Gamer Chick for thirty years to come.

I love you all!
-Catherine Vice, aka Indie Gamer Chick
June 30, 2014

The 10 Most Costly Games in History – Part One

As a follow-up to my feature on gaming’s ten biggest mistakes, here are the ten single most costly games in history. I’m doing this list a little different, since it’s impossible to quantify the potential damage a game by itself can cause. Thus, I’ll be listing these in the order they were released.

I should note that this isn’t a list of the most expensive games of all time. You can go to Wikipedia for that. These are ten games that came at a different kind of price. They might have bankrupted a studio, or tainted a developer’s image, or made the industry as a whole look bad. As always, I debated the picks with my friends and asked for their suggestions. I dropped one from the list (Daikatana, which will be covered in the next top 10) and added one that was suggested initially by my buddy Jesse. A couple of these were mentioned in the previous feature. I’m not double-dipping to be lazy. But in a list about games that came with a heavy cost, I can’t ignore them just because I already talked about them. However, I’ll try to include new material and anecdotes. I aim to please.

Gran Trak 10

Developed by Atari in 1974
Platform: Arcades

The Game: First, there was Pong. Then, there was a lot more Pong. And then even more Pong. Everybody else was doing Pong too. When Atari tried something different (like a maze game where players groped a pair of pink rubber titties to control the action) it flopped and they went back to Pong. There was Doubles Pong, Pin-Pong, Quadrapong, Pong in a Barrel, Puppy Pong, Doctor Pong, and Do Wah Pongy Diddly Pong Diddly Pong. Okay, I made the last one up, but I bet if they would have done it if they thought of it. Obviously something had to give. So Atari owner Nolan Bushnell hired a consulting firm in Grass Valley, CA to come up with new ideas. After smoking a metric fuck ton of weed (they don’t call it Grass Valley for nothing) someone came up with the bright idea of making a driving game. And behold, there was Gran Trak 10. I’ve never played it, but I’m sure it was revolutionary for its time. It must have been popular. It was Atari’s best-selling game of the year.

It looks, um.. old.

It looks, um.. old.

What Happened: The Grass Valley team Nolan hired were very good at doing computer specs and programming. Industrial engineering, on the other hand, was not exactly their forte. The blueprints they sent for the cabinet were simply not commercially viable. The machine wouldn’t have been capable of withstanding the type of abuse arcade cabinets get. Thus, Atari’s lead engineer Al Alcorn had to redesign the entire thing with more expensive components, some of which had to be built from scratch, which well exceeded Atari’s modest operating budget. And Atari wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine when it came to assembly. They would place an empty cabinet in the middle of the facility and, one by one, people would come in with their components and affix them to the machine. They were starting to get better by time they were working on Gran Trak 10, but the process was still slow. Atari’s assembly workers were poorly trained, usually hired from an unemployment office with little to no vetting, and often were junkies or bikers that did drugs at work and stole equipment they could fleece to support their habits. Thus, a lot of the completed machines didn’t pass inspection and poor Alcorn had to fix them himself before sending them out.

An over-budget game designed by an outside consultant (later purchased by Bushnell, but not by this point) which had to be redesigned, that was manufactured at a slow rate. What else could go wrong?

An accounting error led to Atari selling the game at a loss. It cost $1,095 per unit to make Gran Trak 10. Atari sold it to operators for $995. Yep, I bet that stung. And again, it was their best-selling game of the year. Needless to say, Atari had a lot of communication problems by this point. On the bright side, Gran Trak 10 was a much-needed wake-up call for the company. They paid closer attention to their books, reorganized their assembly process, and stuck to their budgets much better.

For what it's worth, my father swears this was the coolest thing he had ever saw in his life up to that point. Mind you, at the time this came out, he had just arrived in Cuba, where the electricity would often go out for days at a time and where he lived in a building that had one toilet for all 100 people that lived in it. He wasn't exactly hard to impress at this point. The first time he saw a washing machine, he felt to his knees and cried. I'm not even kidding.

For what it’s worth, my father swears this was the coolest thing he had ever saw in his life up to that point. Mind you, at the time this came out, he had just arrived from Cuba, where the electricity would often go out for days at a time and where he lived in a building that had one toilet for all 100 people who lived in it. He wasn’t exactly hard to impress at this point. The first time he saw a hotdog stand, he fell to his knees and cried. I’m not even kidding.

The Cost: We’re going to enter the Marty McFly Zone a bit here. If Atari doesn’t sell Gran Trak 10 at a loss, it doesn’t sell as well as it did, but it probably still becomes their best seller of the year, and maybe their most profitable game ever. Atari accumulates a larger war chest with the profits. When they start the process of manufacturing Home Pong in 1975, they might not need to seek a venture capitalist to acquire the funding needed to build their inventory. Or, at the very least, they would have gotten much better terms that left them with more negotiable equity. Thus, when the time comes to do the more expensive Video Computer System (aka the Atari 2600), they would be able to do a round of venture capital instead of selling the company to Warner Bros. Nolan Bushnell would have never been fired from Atari and the video game world would be totally different today.

I guess an argument could be made that it wouldn’t necessarily be better today, at least for us. Bushnell never intended the Atari 2600 to last more than a couple of years. In fact, one of the disagreements that led to his dismissal from Atari was he thought they should discontinue the 2600 and begin working on a new console. This was almost immediately after it launched. And licensing Space Invaders from Taito, which is what ultimately blew up Atari, wasn’t his idea. It was Warner’s CEO Manny Gerard who thought it up after Nolan was gone. At the time Bushnell got beached, the 2600 was a flop and Warner had actually hired Ray Kassar (who became Atari’s CEO after Nolan was gone) as a consultant under the assumption that he would advise them to dump the company, not run it. I’m sure someone, somewhere would have eventually come up with the idea of licensing third-party arcade hits for home consoles, but still, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?


Developed by Atari in 1982
Platform: Atari 2600

The Game: Only the most successful arcade game of all-time, at least until its sequel hit. And one that Atari had secured the rights to for pennies on the dollar. In 1978, Atari was having a tiff with Namco, who had manufactured Atari coin-ops for distribution in Japan without paying royalties. Namco’s position was essentially “the check is in the mail.” Atari sent a low-level executive named Joe Robbins to negotiate a settlement with them, with strict orders from Atari lead attorney Skip Paul to not sign anything. Not only did Robbins not listen, but he agreed to pay Namco a million dollars, renew their distributor agreement with Atari (Namco had no hits by this point and made most of their money from Atari-produced games), and wave a right-of-termination clause, meaning Atari couldn’t opt out of his crummy deal. In exchange, Atari received a small royalty from Namco’s arcades (really small, as in less than a single percentage point) and the exclusive home rights to all of Namco’s arcade games for a ten-year period.

Robbins was almost immediately fired. But, in a story reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk, one of the magic beans Robbins brought back from Japan was the rights to Pac-Man, for a royalty so small it might as well have been non-existent.

What Happened: Unfortunately, Atari didn’t pass its incredible savings onto the development or manufacturing of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. Because of the complexity of the game, engineers told Atari CEO Ray Kassar that the game couldn’t be done properly on a 4KB ROM cartridge. They said without 8KB, too many concessions would have to be made, rending it unrecognizable from its arcade heritage. By this point, Atari was the most profitable company in the entire world. Kassar was obsessed with setting records for net profits in a single year, and wanted to maximize Pac-Man’s potential, so they saved a few bucks per unit by going with 4KB instead of the 8KB everyone insisted it would take. People pointed out that Atari could afford to spend a little more, since they were paying Namco around one-tenth the royalty they paid Taito for Space Invaders. But Kassar had spoken, and after seeing the prototype programmer Tod Frye had come up with, he decided it was Pac-Manish enough and ordered it into manufacturing, with an initial order for an insane twelve-million units.

I love the cover art for this. It looks like Pac-Man eating a piece of taffy while being attacked by popsicles with eyeballs.

I love the cover art for this. It looks like Pac-Man is eating a communion wafer while being attacked by popsicles with eyeballs.

Unlike the other games I plan to feature in this article, I’m certain that Pac-Man for the 2600 turned a profit for Atari. Seven million units of Pac-Man 2600 were sold, a record at the time. I guarantee you it’s the most profitable licensed game ever made, even when stacked against the hottest movie or sports properties. I’m also sure Namco, who made almost nothing on the deal, spent at least one afternoon looking for a nice ledge to jump off of. The raw materials Atari used were relatively cheap, and even with five million units of dead inventory, Atari didn’t exactly take a bath in the crush they were left with.

The Cost: It was the game that cooled Atari’s jets and shook consumer confidence. It was the first time that consumers went back to stores demanding refunds because the game was so different from the arcade counterpart. Only ten million people actively used Atari 2600s at the time it was released, with the assumption being that people would buy the console just to play it, like they had for Space Invaders and Asteroids before it. I asked a friend of mine who is the main buyer for a big box chain in the San Francisco Bay Area if it was remotely reasonable to expect the type of penetration Kassar expected from Pac-Man 2600. He’s been in retail for thirty years, and he said, for a product that had already been on retail shelves for five years, it would be unfathomable. That no rational person would ever expect that, even if you had the single hottest product on the market and the single most desirable accessory for it. Kassar’s manufacturing of twelve-million units, and as reminder, he expected to call for an additional eight-million over the following twelve months, was basically him betting on a penetration rate that anyone else would deem to be impossible. His superiors at Warner should have fired him for the recklessness he showed. It’s only because of luck with timing (the cost of goods for manufacturing Atari carts had dropped significantly over the previous fiscal quarter) and licensing (thank you Mr. Robbins) that Atari’s dead inventory didn’t cripple them on the spot.

I can't even watch a video of Pac-Man 2600 (or most Atari 2600 titles for that matter) because of my epilepsy. Oh, you mean I'll never be able to play it myself? Oh um, what a shame or something.

I can’t even watch a video of Pac-Man 2600 (or most Atari 2600 titles for that matter) because of my epilepsy. Oh, you mean I’ll never be able to play it myself? Oh um, what a shame or something.

A quirky side note which you can add to the cost of Pac-Man: in a roundabout sort of way, it’s the reason Atari chose not to license Donkey Kong from Nintendo. Atari paid Taito about $1.50 per unit for Space Invaders. This became the standard price Atari paid for other licensed properties, such as Berzerk or Defender. Because of the deal Joe Robbins got from Namco, the royalty for Pac-Man was a piddly 15 cents per unit. When Nintendo was shopping around Donkey Kong, the second most popular arcade game (behind Pac-Man) at the time, they wanted $2 per unit. Ray Kassar balked, saying they were paying a fraction of that for a more popular game. Coleco, needing a killer app, gladly took Nintendo’s offer (and also gave them an addition $1.50 per unit for a table-top version). When Warner Bros. CEO Manny Gerard found out they didn’t get Donkey Kong, he blew a gasket on Kassar. Without it, they would have used Mouse Trap as its pack-in title, and the Colecovision would never have caught on. Atari would have had a closer relationship with Nintendo and an even better shot at securing the worldwide rights to the Famicom, and history would have played out totally different.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Developed by Atari in 1982
Platform: Atari 2600

The Game: This is the last entry that was also talked about at length from the previous list, I swear. We all know the story. It’s one of the worst video games ever made.

What Happened: Like I wrote about last time, it was Warner’s top executives (Manny Gerard and CEO Steve Ross) who struck the deal that landed Atari the E.T. license. The deal was more about securing Spielberg to direct movies for Warner, with the E.T. game being little more than a dangled carrot. Which is not to say Spielberg was only looking for a paycheck. He enjoyed gaming (and would later help design Boom Blox, one of the Nintendo Wii’s unsung gems) and looked forward to working with Howard Scott Warshaw, the man who had made Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600. Warshaw, who took the assignment on short notice, had only a few days to come up with a concept to pitch to Spielberg, and came up with a relatively ambitious adventure/collect-a-thon idea. When he showed it to Spielberg, the director didn’t like it. He thought it should be something similar to Pac-Man. Howard was like “meh, it’s been done.” Later, he admitted that in retrospect, it might not have been a bad idea. Anyway, I’ve never played it, but I hear it wasn’t the most well-received game.

It looks more like

It looks more like dinosaur with its head turned to the left.

The Cost: $25,000,000 up front to Steven Spielberg, plus a royalty for him and for Universal Studios (the guys who actually made the movie), all of which negated the game’s earnings from the 1,500,000 units it did sell. Contrary to popular belief, the 2.5 million units of dead inventory wasn’t that costly, since Atari carts were relatively cheap to manufacture, and the costs of making them had dropped in 1982. But you’ve all heard those numbers before. So I’ll give you another number to chew on: zero.

That’s the number of games for Atari platforms (besides pack-ins) released after E.T. that sold one million units. Not one. Nor did any sell 500,000 units, and no games for the 5200, 7800, Lynx, or Jaguar sold 250,000 units. Of course, the crash helped with that, and all of Atari’s horrible policies under Warner and later Jack Tramiel afterwards. So while E.T. (and Pac-Man 2600, for that matter) doesn’t shoulder all the blame, you have to admit, it’s kind of telling that the last game for an Atari platform that anyone could describe as a “best seller” was this, possibly the worst game ever made.

Tetris (Tengen Version)

Developed by Atari Games in 1989
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System

The Game: It’s Tetris. I seriously doubt anyone here needs an explanation on it. However, I will note that most people consider Tengen’s version (developed by Ed Logg of Asteroids, Centipede, and Gauntlet fame) to be superior to Nintendo’s port for the NES.

What Happened: You practically need a flow chart to explain how Nintendo ended up with the exclusive rights to Tetris. It starts in 1986 when Robert Stein, president of a UK-based software company called Andromeda, contacted the Moscow Academy of Science, where Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov. Stein wanted to negotiate with the creator directly, thinking he had the rights to sell his software. However, in the USSR, you didn’t own anything you created, which meant that Pajitnov neither owned Tetris nor could negotiate the rights to it. Stein didn’t know that, secured the rights to Tetris (or claimed he did), and started licensing it before signing any official deal. Then, the people who he was merely licensing the game to started selling the Tetris license themselves. Spectrum Holobyte sold the rights to a man named Henk Rogers, who was a freelance game designer that sometimes acted as a liaison for Nintendo. Meanwhile, a company called Mirrorsoft, sold their rights to Atari Games, which was the former coin-op division of Atari before the company was divided in two and the home division was sold to the Tramiels. Are you confused yet? Just wait.

Henk Rogers, believing he only owned the console rights in Japan, realized nobody apparently had the rights for handheld devices, and Nintendo wanted Tetris to be the showcase game for their new Game Boy system. Rather than deal with any of the other people who claimed to own the rights to Tetris, Henk, with Nintendo’s authorization, was sent to Moscow to secure the handheld rights directly from the Soviets. When he got there, they surprised him by offering the worldwide video game rights to Tetris, which he had been under the impression had already been sold and were owned by Atari. Rogers, realizing he was in over his head, called Nintendo of America heads Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln, who secured the international home video game rights to Tetris on March 22, 1988.

I'm pretty sure this was the only time the Russians caused an international incident.

I’m pretty sure this was the only time the Russians caused an international incident.

Nine days later, Nintendo, aware that Atari Games (who published unlicensed games for the NES under the name Tengen) was making their own version of Tetris for the NES, sent them a notice that Nintendo had exclusive rights to Tetris. Atari Games rejected this, having already bought what they believed was the home rights to the game, and filed for a copyright on their product weeks later. Nintendo and Atari Games had been going at each-others throats over Atari Games releasing unlicensed games for the NES. The two companies ended up in court, where it was revealed that Atari Games was able to access the security code Nintendo used to lockout unauthorized third parties by forging documents and presenting them to the US patent office. Had Atari Games not done that, it’s likely they would have won their lawsuit and set a new precedent for third parties in gaming (which would later come to pass when a company named Accolade sued Sega and won on an appeal). While they were in the middle of this, the Tetris case came up. Nintendo, with direct authorization from the USSR, had such an airtight claim to the rights that Judge Fern Smith cancelled the trial and declared Nintendo the sole owner of the rights to Tetris.

The Cost: Over 250,000 units of Tengen Tetris were recalled and destroyed, making the surviving copies a treasured rarity for NES collectors. The Tetris fiasco also shook the confidence of stores, most of which dropped Tengen products from their shelves. Initially, they had the support of retailers during their ongoing trial with Nintendo. Instead, Tetris set off a domino effect, at a time when parent company Warner was being merged with Time Inc. Warner slashed Atari’s budget, it took several years for the lawsuit (which was won by Nintendo) to resolve, and in the meantime, Tengen was practically persona non grata in the industry. Eventually, the bottom fell out and they were sold to Midway for a piddly $10,000,000 (they were generating a multiple of that during their heyday as an NES publisher). Tetris isn’t single-handedly responsible for all of that, but it unquestionably got the ball rolling.

Night Trap

Developed by Digital Pictures in 1992
Platform: Sega CD

The Game: Do you want me to describe the actual game or the game the United States Congress seemed to think Night Trap was? In real life, it’s a horrible full-motion-video title where you have to activate boobytraps to capture novice vampires (wearing ski masks for some reason) to save girls at a slumber party, or something like that.

If you’re the United States Congress, it’s a game where you murder girls. SHUT UP IT TOTALLY IS! No, Mr. Zito, we don’t wish to hear from you. We saw the footage. We know what we’re talking about you shameless smut peddler, you.

Kill it! Kill it with Fire!

Kill it! Kill it with Fire!

What Happened: Seriously, watch footage of someone playing Night Trap. This shit is positively tame. Your average Disney cartoon has more violence. Yet, Night Trap somehow became the prime exhibit in congressional hearings on video game violence in 1993. When you read the transcripts of the hearings, it’s pretty clear nobody (especially Joseph Lieberman, the pseudo liberal from Connecticut who initiated the whole thing) had ever played Night Trap, or seen footage of it outside of one very specific game-over clip where the vampires use a gizmo to suck the blood out of a girl wearing a (quite frankly, very modest) teddy. During the hearings, it was made out like you were the one controlling the vampires and the object was to murder the girls. Whenever anyone from Digital Pictures or Sega tried to explain that wasn’t what the game was about, they were told to sit down and shut up. Things went really downhill when a nutty feminist precursor to Anita Sarkeesian named Marilyn Droz took the stand. Someone was finally able to point out that the scene everyone kept referencing was actually game over scene. She responded that was actually worse, because if you lose and someone dies, it is bad for self-esteem. And now I have a concussion from banging my head on my desk, repeatedly.

The whole thing was basically a witch-hunt against Sega, who also had an uncensored version of Mortal Kombat (next on this list). Nintendo had made ties with a senator named Slade Gordon, who acted as a liaison for the company to purchase the Seattle Mariners to prevent them from relocating to Miami. When Lieberman discovered Mortal Kombat, Gordon told him that Nintendo were the good guys, the company that kept tight regulations on their games, and that it was Sega who was tarnishing the industry’s image. Mind you, Sega was the first company to actively put ratings on their titles. During the testimony, Nintendo had an air of innocence (and arrogance) about them, with Howard Lincoln in particular going off on Sega, claiming that they were lying about having an older audience than Nintendo. This whole clusterfuck eventually led to the creation of the ESRB.

What a douche.

What a douche.

The Cost: I’m not going to go off on the ESRB, even if they are shady as all fuck. No, I’m going to focus on real costs against Sega. The notoriety of Night Trap helped it sell significantly more copies than it likely would have if everyone just ignored it for being a piece of shit of a game. But, because Sega came across so bad during the congressional hearings, a lot of stores dropped the new and fledgling Sega CD, which Night Trap was exclusively on. Sega, who had been planning to slash the price of it, was now stuck with millions of units of inventory and a smaller network of retailers to distribute them to. Thus they had to delay their price drop, which they had planned to center around the release of the hotly anticipated Sonic CD. Ultimately, the add-on’s dead inventory was too much to overcome and it was phased out, having lost millions for the company.

And then the Japanese offices got pissed off over Sega of America causing them so much trouble with these wacky FMV games that they were never big fans of. Sega’s Japanese leaders demanded that their American branch significantly tone down their marketing and attempt to appeal to a younger audience, with less focus on violence. You can see the ramifications in the Sega Saturn, which lacked many of the more mature Genesis properties like Streets of Rage. Even the Sega Scream was ordered to be removed from advertising. This kinder, gentler Sega (which granted, still was about to base its next system’s launch around a fighting game) lost its older demographic to the PlayStation. They also had almost no chance to claim the younger demographic away from Nintendo. So, in a way, you can lay claim that Sega’s downward spiral actually began with these hearings. And, if Night Trap had never existed, there’s a good chance it never would have come to that.

 To be Continued in Part 2.


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