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: www.dan-adelman.com. (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?

Pac-Man

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-terminator 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 the 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.

The 10 Biggest “Oopsies” in Gaming History: Part 2

Continuing from part one.

#5 – Sega’s 1995 E3 surprise launch of the Saturn.

The History: Although Sega’s Genesis (known as Mega Drive pretty much everywhere else) did pretty good in the United States, it was a colossal flop in Japan. Hell, remember the TurboGrafx-16? In Japan, it was called the PC Engine, and it outsold the Mega Drive there when they were both in the prime of their existence. Thus, I’m sure the reaction in Sega’s Japanese offices to Saturn’s launch in their country was pure euphoria. Selling for almost $500 in American dollars, their entire launch inventory was sold in just minutes. It had no bundled software, so you can throw another $85 on top of that for Virtua Fighter, which sold at a nearly 1 to 1 ratio with it. It was the best response consumers ever had to a new console from Sega. When Sony launched PlayStation a couple of weeks later, their best software (Namco’s Ridge Racer) was not exactly as desirable as Virtua Fighter, and the response was far more subdued. To prove their alpha-dog status, Sega held some of their inventory until the day PS1 launched, so that the two would be sold side-by-side. PS1 did not sell out, and Saturn did again. Sony’s board of directors wasn’t exactly confident in this whole gaming bullshit, and Sega looked like they were going to assure their quick exit from the scene when it launched in the United States on September 2, 1995.

The Oopsie: When Sega debuted the Saturn for the American press at the first E3 in 1995, they announced it would cost $399 (probably too expensive, but far less spendy than its Japanese counterpart). Oh, and it was out now. The console had shipped to four retailers that were seemingly chosen out of a hat. Babbages, Electronics Boutique, and Software Etc (now all collectively known as Gamestop) and Toys ‘R Us. Sega came across like the biggest pussies on the planet. It stunk of a desperation move, and they had no reason to be desperate. Sony’s limited track record in gaming was hardly successful. Before making their own console, Sony’s most acclaimed gaming achievement was publishing Mickey Mania, which had been developed by Traveller’s Tales. On the flip side, they also published games using the ESPN license. These were widely recognized as being among the worst sports games on the market. The press was skeptical of Sony’s chances. So were third parties, even with Sony’s ultra-modest $10 flat-royalty. By this point, the ripples from Nintendo’s choice to go with cartridges over CDs were being felt, and Sega had the inside track to land several huge houses exclusively. Saturn was utterly dominating PlayStation in Japan. If anything, it should have been Sony coming across as desperate and grasping at straws. With Nintendo having announced that Nintendo 64 wouldn’t launch in 1995 or even be shown off at the conference, this really should have been Sega’s coronation.

It's worth noting that Sega was handicapped by their Japanese offices in other ways. Like being told to remove the "Sega Scream" from their advertising. Why? Because it was considered undignified. I'm not kidding. Love it or hate it, that was one of the most successful marketing catchphrases of the 90s. But we wouldn't want to offend the corporate suits in Tokyo, would we?

It’s worth noting that Sega was handicapped by their Japanese offices in other ways. Like being told to remove the “Sega Scream” from their advertising. Why? Because it was considered undignified. I’m not kidding. Love it or hate it, that was one of the most successful marketing catchphrases of the 90s. But we wouldn’t want to offend the corporate suits in Tokyo, would we?

Instead, Sega’s showing at E3 in 1995 officially kicked off their downward spiral that ultimately knocked them out of the manufacturing business. And mind you, Sega had no way of knowing that Sony was going to drop their $299 bombshell moments later. For all they knew, they had every single imaginable advantage going into the show. I often asked myself “what were they thinking?” over the course of writing this feature. But for Sega’s early launch of Saturn, I asked it the most. It’s the only folly on the list where you simply can’t spin it in any way where it sounds remotely logical.

The Ramifications: Sega could have hired goons to take the stage and gun down those in attendance and done less damage. The four retailers Sega shipped the Saturn to hadn’t exactly been their most important partners with the Genesis. Kay*bee Toys, a powerhouse of retail during this era, had devoted a lot of their marketing and shelf space to Sega over the previous couple years. They responded to being cut-out of Saturn’s surprise launch by dropping Sega entirely. Walmart and Target wanted to renegotiate their agreement with Sega and put significantly more marketing effort into Nintendo’s products. Hell, Walmart even agreed to carry the Atari Jaguar, well past the point where it was a viable console, and guess whose shelf-space that ate into? Sega only sent out 30,000 units, which really hammers home how last-second and poorly thought-out the decision was. The 30,000 wasn’t enough to fill all the preorders at the locations that accepted them, and some of them didn’t even give what little qualities they received to the people who had reserved them. The press was offended. Retailers were offended. Third parties were offended. Consumers were offended. People credit Sony with making few mistakes in rolling out the PlayStation, but really, Sega made it easy for them. It opened doors for Sony, both to retail outlets and to third parties. Upon launch, Sony immediately took a lead on Saturn in the United States, secured exclusivity of Final Fantasy VII for Japan (which Sega was in contention to have themselves) to take the lead there, and never looked back. Today, Sega makes games for them. And it all started with the most ill-conceived surprise announcement in gaming history.

#4 – Nintendo double-crosses Sony over the Super Nintendo CD-ROM drive known as the Play Station.

The History: Back in 1988, when Nintendo was designing the Super Famicom, they struck up a working relationship with Sony. One of Sony’s lead engineers, a fellow by the name of Ken Kutaragi, had developed a high-performance, low-cost audio processor that was exactly what Nintendo was looking for. Sony wasn’t even aware he was working on the project. They had no interest in joining the highly competitive game industry, and were actually kind of pissed that one of their guys spent so much time and resources putting it together without their approval. If Nintendo hadn’t purchased it, he would have certainly been fired. Not only did Nintendo love it, but they were so impressed by Sony’s initiative that they hired them to develop a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES.

Here’s where it gets sketchy, and also gives me pause to think Nintendo must suck at making contracts for partnership. I mean, remember the fiasco where they almost signed over the rights for the NES to Atari without making sure Atari actually had to, you know, build and sell the damn thing? Well, this one is almost as bad. The deal they made gave Sony full control over all the software licensing and royalties for games on the CD format. So, in other words, Nintendo wouldn’t be able to power-trip over third parties like they had with the NES. No, in this case, it would be Sony doing that. While Nintendo would retain unlimited rights to make games themselves at a significantly smaller royalty rate, Sony would essentially own and control all aspects of the CD-ROM. Nintendo agreed to this because it was the only way Sony would agree to the project. Nintendo, knowing that Sega was working on a CD-ROM of their own, felt that they would give up claims of technological superiority over Sega as their customer base grew older and more sophisticated. They needed a CD-ROM drive, because it’s was as high-tech as electronics got at this point. The deal was struck and Sony began work on the project. At CES in 1991, at Sony’s lavish press conference, they unveiled the CD-ROM they had spent over two years working on: the Nintendo Play Station.

The Oopsie: The next day, Nintendo announced that they had a partner that would bring a CD add-on to the Super Nintendo: Phillips. Also known as Sony’s chief competitor in almost every facet of their business. Nintendo did not give any prior warning that they were doing this. As far as Sony knew, Nintendo was pleased with what they had done and their partnership would be long and prosperous. Nintendo’s announcement left them shell-shocked. The press was right there with them. Since Sony had focused so much time at their own conference on the Nintendo project and even showed off working hardware, people in attendance at Nintendo’s presser actually thought they had simply spoken the wrong company’s name by mistake. Several times.

No vaporware has ever come at as high a cost.

No vaporware has ever come at as high a cost.

Sony was humiliated. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t swear a blood-vendetta on the spot. In fact, once they went home and licked their wounds, they called Nintendo and re-entered negotiations. Presumably the call started out with “Yo bro, what the fuck?” In 1992, Nintendo and Sony agreed to new terms that reassigned all software and royalty rights back to Nintendo, but there was too much bitterness and it never completed due diligence. Sony’s board of directors, sick and tired of all this video game nonsense, overwhelmingly was ready to vote to abandon the project. However, Sony’s CEO, Norio Ohga, swayed the board to give this Kutaragi guy a chance to spin-off the Nintendo project as their own console. After deleting the space between “Play” and “Station”, Sony began the process of deleting Nintendo’s dominance over the industry.

The Ramifications: You’re living them right now. Because the world as you know it would not be the same if Sony never made a game machine of its own. Literally every single thing would be different. Despite what people think, the PlayStation wasn’t Sony’s revenge on Nintendo. Although I’m sure they were pleased once they took over the throne, the world just isn’t that black and white. The truth is, Ohga pushed forward on PlayStation because he had taken a shine to Kutaragi. Here was a guy who took it upon himself to do a high risk project that only had one specific customer in mind. A customer that they had never previously spoken to about selling any proprietary hardware to. Hell, Kutaragi didn’t know a single thing about the Super Famicom at the time he started creating what would end up being its audio system. He just assumed that Nintendo would make a next-gen platform at some point,  and if they did, hell, why not buy something from Sony for it? The fucking gall it took quite frankly impressed Ohga. It reminded him of himself at that age. The real irony is, if Nintendo had been aware that the audio processor they had purchased from Sony for the SNES was entirely conceived by Kutaragi, without any of his superiors knowledge or approval, they would have simply hired him themselves. Sony never would have gotten into the game business, and we wouldn’t recognize the world today.

So why didn’t I put this #1, like most of my friends thought it should be? Because I’m not entirely convinced Ohga wouldn’t have just said “you know what, fuck it, let’s just make our own console” with or without Nintendo’s double-cross. You’ll note that Nintendo never came out with a CD-ROM from Phillips either. Let’s say they never sign with Philips and stick it out with Sony. Who is to say the Nintendo Play Station ever sees a retail shelf in this alternate history? PlayStation doesn’t exist because Nintendo fucked them. PlayStation exists because a man named Ken Kutaragi enjoyed playing video games with his daughter so much that he wanted to be a part of them. It makes the Oopsie list because PlayStation could have been Nintendo’s, not because PlayStation exists at all.

#3 – Nintendo chooses cartridges over CDs for Nintendo 64.

The History: This one is a lot more cut and dry than previous blunders I’ve listed. Nintendo had failed to bring out the CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, and by 1994, was the only major game manufacturer without a disc-based game system. In 1993, they announced their next console, known then as “Project Reality”, would be built by the same engineers that designed the super computers that made the special effects in Jurassic Park possible. When Nintendo released the conceptional specs, their new game machine clearly was technologically superior to anything Sony, Sega, or 3DO had built. Third-parties salivated. It looked like Nintendo would continue to dominate the worldwide gaming industry.

The Oopsie: After spending a few months leaking new details of Project Reality every couple of weeks, Nintendo announced on May 5, 1994 that their next console would use cartridges instead of CDs. Third parties, even those close to Nintendo, were dumbstruck. By this point, Sony had circulated their licensing plank around the game industry: a flat royalty rate of $10 per game, with Sony eating the cost of manufacturing themselves. Nintendo, on the other hand, would have a scaled rate and would set manufacturing parameters on game size and minimum orders for each region that would directly eat into their partners profit margins. In other words, developing a 650MB game for Sony would cost a third-party not a single cent in manufacturing. Making an 8MB cartridge on Nintendo 64, on the other hand, would cost a third-party around $20. And mind you, that’s before Nintendo’s licensing royalty came out. If you were not a studio with deep pockets, the choice of which platform to develop for was suddenly a no-brainer.

Cost of goods: $1 worth of plastic. $1.50 worth of silicon. Billions in industrial edge.

Cost of goods: $1 worth of plastic. $1.50 worth of silicon. Billions in industrial edge.

The speculation on why Nintendo chose carts includes many theories. Nintendo primarily said it was an issue of load times. In 1994, when the Nintendo 64 was being designed, load times for CD based games were brutal. Consumers were used to popping in a game, hitting the power button, and playing immediately. Nintendo felt that such load times were to blame for Sega CD’s mediocre sales. Privately, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi was not thrilled with the idea of Nintendo’s next platform being saturated by gimmicky full-motion-video titles, like what befell Sega CD, and thought going with cartridges would discourage it. The press speculated it was more about preventing piracy. In later years, Nintendo of America Chairman Howard Lincoln crowed that piracy on N64 was almost non-existent, while it was a major problem for Sony.

Most third parties, on the other hand, thought Nintendo had more sinister motivations. They believed Nintendo went with cartridges so that they could control the manufacturing and distribution of all the titles on their platform. Carts allowed Nintendo to hold all the cards. They could tell developers “you have to order X amount of cartridges at $X a pop or you can’t order at all.” This was a way of working around anti-trust issues that had landed Nintendo in court more than once over the previous two generations. Whether their speculation was accurate or not, it was being whispered. And, because the Nintendo 64 was now suddenly expensive to develop for, third parties began to rethink their business plans.

The Ramifications: Nintendo lost key third-party support to Sony, including iconic titles that ultimately gave them industrial leadership. Final Fantasy VII was suddenly a free agent. Square ultimately chose PlayStation after Sony offered to handle all the marketing for it internationally. Capcom abandoned plans to develop its remake of Famicom RPG/horror title Sweet Home for Project Reality, and instead made it for PlayStation and later Saturn as Biohazard in Japan and Resident Evil in the United States. Tekken, Ridge Racer, and Soul Edge, all by Namco, began life as projects for Nintendo’s new console, along with Rayman by Ubisoft and Tomb Raider by Eidos. Needless to say, these titles made a difference.

There were other issues. The extra cost of cartridges were passed on to consumers. Nintendo 64 games were typically more expensive than titles on PS1 or Saturn. Nintendo 64 still included memory cards, which was a little insulting.  One of the major advantages of carts is they can use battery back-up and eliminate the need for external memory. But it caused a slight increase in the manufacturing cost of the game, so Nintendo included memory cards as an option to drive those costs down. Mind you, this mostly benefited Nintendo. Third parties still had to assume the expensive manufacturing costs, and what little they did save was not passed onto consumers. Games that used the memory card, like the highly anticipated Turok: Dinosaur Hunter by Acclaim, didn’t retail for less than games that did use battery back-up.

Ultimately, you can sum up the ramifications just by the game count. There were over 1,300 games released for the PlayStation. There was just under 600 games released for the Sega Saturn. For the Nintendo 64? 387 games worldwide. Three-hundred and eighty-seven. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of those Nintendo 64 games were giants in the annals of gaming. But, the Nintendo 64 had image problems and ultimately was not the “cool” platform, like the PlayStation was. With cutesy titles like Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, Nintendo 64 couldn’t shake the image of being a children’s platform. If the N64 had been the exclusive home of games such as Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, and Tekken, it not only would have been able to overcome that issue, but Sony (whose board of directors never wanted to be in gaming in the first place) might not have stuck it out for another generation and beyond.

Then again, being on Nintendo platforms seems to have an uncanny ability to uncoolify just about anything. This is an actual screenshot of Final Fantasy VII from its days under Nintendo 64 development. As a friend told me, it looks very........... Nintendo.

Then again, being on Nintendo platforms seems to have an uncanny ability to uncoolify just about anything. This is an actual screenshot of a Final Fantasy concept from its days under Nintendo 64 development. As a friend told me, it looks very……….. Nintendo.

#2 – Atari’s inaccurate sales projections lead to the Great Video Game Crash.

The History: By 1982, Atari had become the most profitable company in the world, netting a $400,000,000 profit (after taxes, mind you). Atari alone accounted for 70% of the total operating profits in Warner Bros’ entire empire. In the weeks leading to Atari’s investor conference call in December, 1982, Warner executives had touted that Atari would post an increase of sales of 50% over the fourth quarter. Warner stock, and the stocks of every publicly traded company associated with video games, soared. Gaming looked unstoppable.

The Oopsie: The boasting of Warner executives was exaggerated. On December 7, 1982, Atari released their official projections for the 1982 holiday season: a 10% to 15% increase in sales. That’s right: games didn’t stop selling. They just didn’t sell at a fast-enough rate to satisfy speculators. Stock analysts were shocked, and they raced to see who could dump their shares the fastest.

The Ramifications: By the end of the day, Warner stock had fallen nearly seventeen points. Activision’s stock also tumbled. Mattel’s did. Coleco’s did. Newcomers to the scene Imagic, who were on the verge of having what was projected to be a very lucrative IPO, instead were cut off by banks and investors who stopped making payments to them (such actions are illegal now). Seed capital for gaming start-ups in the Silicon Valley evaporated overnight. Inventory managers working at major retail chains were told by corporate superiors that the ceiling on gaming had lowered and to reduce their orders for gaming related inventory. This came as a big surprise to them, since games were still generating the majority of their profits, and were one of the few “toy” related items that sold year-round. But they had their orders.

Pictured: something that gets too much credit for the industrial crash.

Pictured: something that gets too much credit for the industrial crash.

In short, the speculative bubble had burst and the video game industry had crashed. Despite what anyone says, poor quality games had little to do with it. The market was still growing. Sales were still increasing at a steady pace. It should be noted that in 1983, the year where the crash was at its most pronounced, video game sales were up over where they were the previous year. Seven-million consoles were sold in the United States in 1983 (not bad considering there were no new ones on the market), and 75 million cartridges were sold. That’s an increase of over 15 million from the year before. And only around 27% of them were sold below manufacturer’s suggest retail price, such as games on clearance sale. That’s only a couple of points higher than the industrial average today. In other words, games themselves didn’t die, just the money in games.

Don’t get me wrong. Crappy games didn’t help. But with only a few exceptions, the quality of the games wasn’t focused on. The media’s attention was squarely on the money. Stock speculators with itchy trigger fingers are what made the money disappear. A few days after Atari’s conference call, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that Atari president Ray Kassar had sold 5,000 shares of Warner stock just 23 minutes before the announcement was made. Kassar said he needed the money for another investment, only conceding that the timing was, quote, “unfortunate.” Yeah, I’ll say. When it came out that Kassar had committed insider trading, not only did Warner’s stock take another hit, but speculators further dumped shares of Mattel, Activision, and Coleco. Again. Kassar was somehow never charged for insider trading (even though what he sold was, adjusted for inflation, more money than what landed Martha Stewart in prison for the same thing), possibly because he returned all the money almost immediately after the report of his antics came out. Kassar claimed that if he was really bailing, he would have sold more shares. Critics accused him of selling the most he thought he could get away with without making waves. Whether his motivations were intentional or happenstance, it had a devastating effect on the entire industry.

Atari never once was profitable again under Warner Bros. Ray Kassar resigned in July, 1983. By then, Warner stock had been so decimated by Atari that they were targeted for a hostile takeover by Rupert Murdoch, owner of 20th Century Fox. To replace Kassar, Warner hired James Morgan, formerly of Phillip Morris, who had been instrumental in creating the Marlboro Man. He would later return to Phillip Morris and become their CEO, then claim that cigarettes were no more addictive than Gummy Bears. As a chain smoker myself, I agree with Mr. Morgan. Quitting is easy. I do it at least 60 times a day. Morgan only lasted ten months at Atari, long enough to slash their workforce by over 70%, consolidate their facilities from fifty buildings spread across the entire Silicon Valley down to four, and dump 20,000,000 units of inventory into the market for $2 a piece. However, when he submitted his budgets to Warner, the board unanimously vetoed them each time. They told Morgan that Atari would have to fund itself through its own profits, which were non-existent. In the second fiscal quarter of 1984, Atari lost $425,000,000 over a span of only three months. Warner finally gave up and sold the company to the recently beached Commodore founder Jack Tramiel for a stack of useless promissory notes that they never collected on. Between January of 1983 and July of 1984, Atari had lost over two billion dollars. All because of stock speculation, not because of Pac-Man or E.T.

This is James Morgan, the guy who led Atari for ten months. Doesn't he just look like the type of suit who would tell people with a straight face that smoking isn't deadly?

This is James Morgan, the guy who led Atari for ten months. Doesn’t he just look like the type of suit who would tell people with a straight face that smoking isn’t deadly?

#1 – Sega does not go with DVDs for Dreamcast.

The History: Sega, having blown the inside track on dominating the Japanese game market with Saturn, licked their wounds and went about creating a new, more powerful, infinitely more easy to develop for game console. The new system, known as Dreamcast, would be based around a custom version of Windows CE and use DirectX drivers. It was higher performance than anything on the market, and Sega adjusted its licensing plank to be more competitive with Sony’s. Everything looked amazing.

The Oopsie: At this time, it was known that Sony was also developing its next generation console, and that it would likely include a DVD drive and probably play movies. This was a very attractive feature. One that Dreamcast would not include. Instead, Sega developed a proprietary media format called GD-ROM. Although GD-ROMs could store much more data than a CD, they held significantly less than DVDs. More importantly, DVDs were an emerging format for movies, and destined to explode worldwide.

Yes, including a DVD drive in Dreamcast would have significantly raised its costs. But not as much as you would think. If Dreamcast had launched with a DVD drive of similar quality to the one included in PlayStation 2, and retailed for $299.99 instead of $199.99, Dreamcast would have lost less money per unit than Sony did a year later with the PS2. That’s because Dreacmast used cheaper, less sophisticated components than PS2. Unlike PS2, the majority of Dreamcast owners over the console’s first year were very enthusiastic software buyers. Sega could have quickly recouped its losses on hardware based on the rate of software sales they had. For PS2, its primary function for most of the world was a DVD player first and a game player second. The most popular piece of software sold with PS2 at the point of sale was the Keanu Reeves film The Matrix on DVD, in both the United States and Japan. For a very large portion of the world, the PlayStation 2 was the first DVD player they ever owned. It could have, no, should have, been Dreamcast.

"I'm a killer app. Whoa."

“I’m a killer app. Whoa.”

It’s also worth mentioning that, although it was less expensive than DVDs, GD-ROMs were hardly cheap. They cost more to mint than CDs. Sega wanted a proprietary format to prevent piracy. The PlayStation 1 had a huge issue with that. Unfortunately for Sega, GD-ROMs were almost immediately cracked. Pirating of Dreamcast games began before the system even made it to America. GD-ROMs offered no advantage over CDs, besides the higher capacity that really didn’t help all that much. Sega didn’t go with DVDs because they were convinced a low retail point would give them the edge over PlayStation 2. PS2 was widely speculated to launch at $400 to $600, based on the costs of materials used in it. Sega thought they had learned their lesson with the Saturn. The problem was, the price tag wasn’t the only advantage Sony had over them. Sega didn’t realize that until it was too late.

The Ramifications: After the Japanese launch of Dreamcast, Sony announced the final specifications for PlayStation 2, including confirming the long-expected DVD drive. Dreamcast was now obsolete before it even launched in America. Sega’s only hope was to sell as many units as possible before PS2 launched, and hope like hell the its price tag would be as high-ticket as top analysts in the industry expected it to be. It wasn’t. When Sony announced the $299 price tag at E3 2000, it was all she wrote for Sega. People who had been saving for a DVD player (at a time when they were relatively expensive) now could save up for a PlayStation 2 instead. Despite Dreamcast having a fairly impressive game lineup, a PlayStation 2 simply got you more for your dollar.

I put this #1 because the other Oopsies on this list don’t necessarily turn out better if the company goes the other way. If THQ doesn’t make the uDraw, they still eventually go bankrupt. If PlayStation 3 launches at $400, Microsoft had enough high-profile games to still sell a LOT of Xbox 360s and probably lives to fight another day. If Atari comes to terms with Nintendo, the Famicom still does good enough in Japan for Nintendo to do follow-up console and presumably not make the same mistake it made before. If 3DO launches at $300, it still lacks a first party to make killer exclusive games that differentiate itself from its competition. If Atari doesn’t sit on millions of unsold Pac-Man and E.T. carts, mouthy Warner Bros. executives would still probably over-inflate sales projections and speculators would still have bailed, crashing the industry. If Sega doesn’t launch the Saturn early, they still have to compete using inferior hardware to Nintendo’s iconic first-party games and Sony’s ultra-aggressive licensing program. If Nintendo doesn’t double-cross Sony, it doesn’t necessarily mean Super Nintendo’s CD-ROM ever sees the light of day, and Sony likely still would have developed their own platform. If Nintendo chooses cartridges over CDs, Sony’s aggressive licensing program (and all the ill-will Nintendo had built up over the years) still makes PlayStation a more attractive platform for third parties. If Warner executives never open their yap, Wall Street analysts had projected Warner would post 30% increases for Atari and speculators would have bailed anyway.

You'll note that Sega tried to distance themselves from the "Sega" name as much as possible, using minimum amount of branding when promoting Dreamcast. Even the jewel cases of the games typically didn't have the name "Sega" anywhere near "Dreamcast." It was so awkward.

You’ll note that Sega tried to distance themselves from the “Sega” name as much as possible, using minimum amount of branding when promoting Dreamcast. Even the jewel cases of the games typically didn’t have the name “Sega” anywhere near “Dreamcast.” It was so awkward.

Dreamcast lacking DVDs is the only “Oopsie” where you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that things would have been better for Sega if they had gone the other way. A Sega Dreamcast with a DVD player survives well beyond year two. A highly acclaimed system with one of the most diverse and fucking awesome lineup of first-party games of all-time? PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox launching against a console with one of the highest software sales penetration rates ever? I weep for the incredible battle we all missed out on. The Dreamcast is probably my favorite game console of all time. And if it could have played Forrest Gump, it doesn’t die an early death. What can they say? Oopsie!

The 10 Biggest “Oopsies” in Gaming History: Part 1

Some of my readers are idiots. I mean, I love you all. I really do. But a lot of you guys have your heads so far up your ass that you could floss your teeth with your small intestines. Especially when you say stupid shit like this.

THE WII U IS THE BIGGEST DISASTER IN GAMING HISTORY!

Holy hyperbole, Batman! Have you ever looked into the history of gaming? Companies have made a lot of really stupid moves. I said I could come up with at least ten things worse than Wii U, and I think I have. And I’ll share them with you. Now, we don’t know what the long-term ramifications of Wii U will be. Maybe it will ultimately be the biggest blunder in gaming history. But it’s too soon to tell. With the ten examples I’ve come up with, we can definitively point to them and say “those mistakes had significant consequences.”

Here’s what DID NOT make the list.

Virtual Boy – Yes, it flopped. But Nintendo certainly did not over-manufacture it. And nobody can say they waited too long to pull the plug. It’s a black-eye on their record, but Nintendo has never come remotely close to giving up their title of most successful portable gaming developer. If Virtual Boy was in any way consequential, they would have.

32X - 32X was bad, but it could have been a lot worse. Originally, it was going to be an entirely new console called “Genesis 2″ with the only improvement being a slightly upgraded GPU that was capable of displaying more colors. Sega of America hated the idea and pushed for an add-on instead. It was over-priced ($179.99 at launch) and the games for it were mediocre (one title, Cosmic Carnage, was so bad that Sega’s development team circulated a petition to have it cancelled). Sega was also slightly dishonest, implying that a Genesis with 32X and Sega CD would be compatible with its upcoming Saturn console. When Trip Hawkins of EA and 3DO (more on that later) said it wouldn’t be, they said he didn’t know what he was talking about. But, of Sega’s MANY problems, this wasn’t that high on the list. Even when it was cleared out at $19.95, it wasn’t losing THAT much money (possibly even breaking even). Most of the money lost from 32X was the result of over-manufacturing software for it, and the ensuing inventory crush.

Shaped like a mushroom, in honor of the substance taken by the guys who built it.

Shaped like a mushroom, in honor of the substance taken by the guys who built it.

Microsoft Buys Rare – At the time, this sure seemed like one of the biggest coups in gaming history. Rare was fresh off creating some of the most iconic games for Nintendo 64. They were Nintendo’s single most important partner for the N64, and helped Nintendo cap off the SNES successfully with its Donkey Kong Country series. Ultimately though, it was inconsequential to Nintendo and fairly costly for Microsoft. Rare’s early efforts on Xbox flopped, and Microsoft ended up looking like they were sold a bill of goods. It’s widely believed that executives at Microsoft thought they were also acquiring the rights to Donkey Kong. I’m not sure how even the most dense person could not know it wouldn’t be part of the package, especially after going through the type of due diligence acquisitions like this are subject to, but that’s what people say. The Rare of today is, for all intents and purposes, a new studio completely different from the one Nintendo sold Microsoft. But it didn’t really hurt Microsoft, so it doesn’t belong on the list.

So what did make the list?

#10 – THQ over-manufactures the uDraw tablet, for the wrong platforms.

The History: THQ was a giant among third parties. They owned some of the most lucrative licenses in gaming. Nickelodeon. Pixar. WWE wrestling. All of them resulting in top-selling games. And, unlike Acclaim near the end of their existence, THQ’s games tended to be higher quality. And then they made uDraw.

The Oopsie: Let’s be clear about something: uDraw was a modest success on the Wii. At least the initial hardware bundle was. The software for it was never a big seller, in part because the games were a bit weak. I did have a uDraw and Pictionary for it, and my family enjoyed it quite a bit. However, I think convincing them to give Disney Princesses a try would have been a tough sell.

Having said that, THQ wanted to recoup their investment in the R&D for the project and decided to give it a kick at the can on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Even though it just didn’t seem like the demographics would match up at all on those platforms. Although they only manufactured it for a relatively short period of time (four months), they ended up with over $100,000,000 in inventory crush, which might be the largest amount of crush any third-party game company has ever had. What the HELL were they thinking?

What a fiasco. Thankfully, no game company would ever be crazy enough again to release a gimmick tablet as a console controller with a silly "U" stuck in the title for no damn reason ever again.

What a fiasco. Thankfully, no game company would ever be crazy enough to release a gimmick tablet as a console controller with a silly “U” stuck in the title for no damn reason ever again.

The Ramifications: They went bankrupt. Now, I don’t mean to imply that the only thing THQ did wrong was uDraw. When a company the size of THQ goes bankrupt, it is never one thing. They had tons of issues on a managerial level. But there’s no denying that uDraw was the tipping point. It’s like how saying the Titanic sank because it hit an iceberg is grossly oversimplifying things. The ship couldn’t turn fast enough, was going too fast at the wrong time of day to be trying such speeds, at the wrong time of year, in the wrong part of the ocean, with not enough lookouts. Hitting the iceberg was practically inevitable. uDraw was THQ’s iceberg. At a time when the company’s financing was shaky at best, being stuck with over one-million units of relatively expensive dead inventory was simply too much to overcome. The way they were being managed, they were destined to sink anyway, but you sort of have to give credit to the iceberg.

#9 – PlayStation 3 launches at $599 (or $499).

The History: Sony had a very storied legacy of surprising the game industry by modestly pricing their hardware. In 1995, at the first E3, Sony shocked the world (especially Sega – more on them later) by announcing that PlayStation would retail for $299.99. In fact, “$299″ was the entire speech given by Sony’s American president Steve Race at the show. It was, and probably still is, the biggest bombshell ever at E3. Analysts predicted that PS1 would retail for at least the same, but likely more, than the Sega Saturn’s $399 tag.

Fast forward to 2000. Everyone knew for sure that PlayStation 2 would have to retail for around $500. After all, it was a DVD player, at a time when those were still relatively new and expensive. Not only that, but it was a fucking super computer! George Lucas claimed it was more powerful than the computers used to create the special effects for Star Wars: Episode 1. When Sony announced they were once again launching at $299, it is said that Sega chairman Isao Okawa turned to his assistant and said “it’s over.” In 2006, at E3, people had come to expect the $299 price tag, no matter what analysts predicted. Or, at the very least, it would be priced to match the $399 Xbox 360.

The Oopsie: At E3 2006, Sony announced that PlayStation 3 would have two SKUs. One would include a 20GB HDD for $499, and one with a 60GB HDD for $600. On the bright side, they managed to shock the crowd at E3 again. But this time, it was for the wrong reasons.

"Wait, did they say $600?" "What? I didn't hear. I was too busy admiring the Spider-Man font. Classy shit that font is."

“Wait, did they say $600?” “What? I didn’t hear. I was too busy admiring the Spider-Man font. Classy shit that font is.”

The Ramifications: I had friends argue that the price ultimately didn’t matter. Sony is still around, and the PS4 is outselling the Xbox One. To which I say, tell Microsoft the PS3 launch price didn’t matter. To them, it was like a presidential pardon. Sony had dominated the previous two console generations, so much so that they knocked Sega out of the manufacturing business altogether. The absurdly high price tag on PS3 opened the door for Xbox 360 to ultimately outsell the PS3 (though it was very close, with just a couple million units separating them worldwide). This just a generation after the PS2 outsold the Xbox by over 130 million units. And let’s not forget Nintendo, who ultimately won the generation in terms of hardware by a comfortable margin (over 20 million units more than Xbox 360 and PS3). In the previous two generations, Sony’s consoles sold a quarter-of-a-billion units combined to Nintendo’s measly 55 million combined for Nintendo 64 and GameCube. Anyone who doesn’t think Sony’s price tag cost them a chance to put one or both of those players out of the market forever is kidding themselves.

#8 – Atari fails to come to terms with Nintendo for the rights to NES, then does it again with Sega years later.

The History: Nintendo had a tough time breaking into the US arcade market. And, when they did with Donkey Kong, they were immediately dragged into a lawsuit by Universal Studios. In 1983, the Nintendo’s Famicom console had taken Japan by storm. They knew it could be successful in the United States, but they had found the experience of handling everything themselves to be bothersome and infuriating. So they decided they would seek a partner. Internally, they briefly discussed going with Coleco, who they had licensed Donkey Kong to for the Colecovision’s launch. However, the lawsuit with Universal had soured them on that, as Coleco spinelessly settled without attempting to put up any fight, and they did so behind Nintendo’s back. So, Nintendo decided to offer the worldwide rights (excluding Japan) of the Famicom to Atari. After haggling for a couple of days in Japan, Atari’s lead attorney Skip Paul got the go-ahead from Ray Kassar (President of Atari) and Manny Gerard (President of Atari parent Warner Bros) to make the deal. The contracts were drawn up and the two companies entered due diligence.

The Oopsie: The deal never finalized. The first problem came at CES in 1983. Nintendo had sold the home computer rights for Donkey Kong to Atari, while Coleco owned the rights to Donkey Kong on cartridges. At that CES, Coleco debuted their pet project, the Adam home computer. And the key piece of software they demonstrated on it? Donkey Kong. Mind you, Coleco never cleared this with Nintendo. Atari felt double-crossed and was furious. Nintendo later strong-armed Coleco into cancelling the game, even though they had no leg to stand on. Games on Coleco Adam used cartridges, not floppy discs, which is all Atari had the rights to. However, other issues arose, especially when Nintendo discovered that Atari had misled them about developing a new system of their own (later released as the Atari 7800). Both sides walked away, the game industry crashed, Ray Kassar was fired, Atari was sold to Jack Tramiel, and Nintendo later released the Famicom in the United States on their own as the NES.

I almost included the Adam Computer on the list, since it pretty much killed Coleco. But really, Coleco was swallowed up by crash with everyone else. Adam could have shit jewel-encrusted geese that laid golden eggs and they still would have folded. Coleco's ultimate demise was due to over-manufacturing Cabbage Patch Kids long after the fad had ended, then overpaying to acquire Trivial Pursuit. But Adam certainly helped.

I almost included the Adam Computer on the list, since it pretty much killed Coleco. But really, Coleco was swallowed up by crash with everyone else. Adam could have shit jewel-encrusted geese that laid golden eggs and they still would have folded. Coleco’s ultimate demise was due to over-manufacturing Cabbage Patch Kids long after the fad had ended, then overpaying to acquire Trivial Pursuit. But Adam certainly helped.

The Ramifications: Nintendo would not exist as it does today if Atari had just stayed the course. Internally, Atari had no intention of ever marketing the Famicom as anything but a last resort. The deal they made with Nintendo included no provision of good faith. In other words, they were under no obligation to actually try to market the Famicom. Instead, they would push their own 7800 out and smother the Famicom globally. However, if the 7800 bombed, they would still have the rights to the Famicom and could use it as a lifeboat. Alas, it was not to be.

Amazingly, history repeated itself in 1988. Atari was a different company by then, owned by Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel. Atari was never as successful as it had previously been, but the Atari 7800 was hugely profitable for them and opened the Tramiels eyes to the video game market. However, they struggled to create a new generation console of their own. Sega, learning of this, offered them the worldwide (excluding Japan) rights to their 16bit Mega Drive console. This time, a deal was close to being completed but never entered due diligence. Every time Sega thought they were ready to draw up the contracts, Tramiel decided to change the terms again (something he was infamous for). The process dragged out so long that Sega started having second thoughts. Sega went out on their own and launched Mega Drive in the United States as the Genesis. The rest is history.

#7: The 3DO launches at $699.

History: The 3DO was developed by the same two people who designed the Atari Lynx. That probably should have been a clue that it wouldn’t turn out so well, but you couldn’t convince EA founder Trip Hawkins of that. He bought into the technology, then came up with a novel (and absurd, but still novel) way of marketing it: he would simply create a hardware standard and license it to other companies. Thus, there would be no “first party” games for 3DO, and multiple different manufactures all offering essentially the same console. Also, Trip’s license agreement stipulated that he would set the price.

The Oopsie: That price was $699, over four-times the price of its two main competitors, the Genesis and SNES. Hawkins was inspired by the Commodore 64’s $599 price tag. He figured, since the 3DO was more powerful than Commodore 64 (top-selling computer of all time), and could do more stuff, it should be priced higher. Why not? I guess he forgot that the Commodore 64 was a computer and the 3DO was a glorified video game machine. Mind you, the 3DO was mostly made out of cheap, off-the-shelf parts. In fact, expensive components (the same ones that would later be used in the PS1 and Nintendo 64 that allowed for higher polygon counts) were dropped from the initial design in order to keep the cost of manufacturing down. The 3DO could have sold at $300 or possibly even $200 and turned a profit. Again, the Commodore 64 (which could have been sold profitably at $100) inspired Hawkins. His inspiration was tragically misguided.

Also worth noting: the controller was just awful. Diagonal movement didn't work properly unless you loosened the screws on the back of it. They also only included three face buttons, and this is after fighting games forced a six-button standard.

Also worth noting: the controller was just awful. Diagonal movement didn’t work properly unless you loosened the screws on the back of it. They also only included three face buttons, and this is after fighting games forced a six-button standard.

The Ramifications: These days, the 3DO is looked back on as somewhat funny, somewhat sad footnote in gaming history. But before it launched? The hype on it was unreal, at least on the same level Xbox had when Microsoft entered the console business. Time Magazine named 3DO “Product of the Year” for God’s sake, the only pure gaming device to ever receive it. And the media had an infatuation with Trip Hawkins. People Magazine even named him to their annual 50 Most Beautiful People list. It was the first, and let’s face it, the only time the mainstream media was actively cheerleading a new game console. Yes, the lack of any first party software hurt, but if the system had been priced at $300, the 3DO almost certainly would have exploded. The landscape of gaming today would be unrecognizable. Greed is not good.

#6 – Atari rushes Pac-Man and E.T. into production, then over-manufactures them.

The History: The Atari 2600 was kind of a bust. And then Nolan Bushnell got beached by Warner Bros for calling a board meeting without Warner representation, Ray Kassar took over, licensed top arcade hit Space Invaders for the console, and sales exploded. By a stroke of luck, Atari already owned the home rights to all of Namco’s arcade games, and when Pac-Man became the new cock of the walk, Atari was elated.

The Oopsie: At the time the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man went into production, developers hadn’t learned how to fully optimize the console. Tod Frye, a developer who wasn’t considered especially skilled among his colleagues, was selected by Kassar to deliver Pac-Man within the four-month deadline. His selection inspired huge jealousy among his co-workers, who circulated a memo asking “Why Frye?” He was paid a ten-cent royalty on every unit sold, which meant he stood to become a millionaire whether the game sucked or not. And suck it did. Pac-Man enthusiast and Atari marketing manager Frank Ballouz told Kassar that fans would hate Atari’s port and they should postpone it until it was better. Kassar ignored him and ordered twelve million copies to be manufactured. Just under ten million people owned Ataris at this point. Kassar figured that, like Space Invaders before it, people would purchase Ataris just to play Pac-Man. He was wrong.

To Kassar’s credit, he did learn his lesson, and Atari eased up on over-manufacturing games. That is, until E.T. That one wasn’t Kassar’s fault. Manny Gerard, president of Warner Bros, wanted to secure Steven Spielberg to produce movies for their studio, and thus, as an incentive to secure the director, included a deal to make a game based on E.T. For it, Spielberg netted $25,000,000, plus a hefty royalty. Under the terms Gerard secured, there was no way Atari could profit on the game. Kassar really got a shit deal. Gerard wanted Warner’s movies to do well, and screwed Atari over in the process, since they would end up posting a loss for the benefit of the unrelated movie division. Gerald also guaranteed Spielberg the game would be out by Christmas, giving Atari only five weeks to produce the game. Gerald then made Atari manufacture four million copies, without doing any market testing. I mean, it was a game based on the highest grossing movie of all time. What could go wrong?

Yeah.

Yeah.

The Ramifications: Atari sat on some of the largest quantities of inventory crush by volume in consumer electronics history. Both games sold very well, and if they hadn’t been over-manufactured, you would have to include them on any list of the most successful games ever, regardless of quality. In Pac-Man’s case, Atari probably did turn a profit on it despite of the crush. They paid Namco a very, very low royalty on it, and it did sell millions of copies. Its top consequence was it shook consumer confidence in Atari’s ability to have decent home translations. Space Invaders on the 2600 was a very close facsimile of the coin operated version. Pac-Man was like a bad bootleg.

In the case of E.T., Manny Gerard’s deal with Spielberg not only cost Atari millions in revenue due to inventory crush, but they also had to swallow Spielberg’s insane signing bonus. Warner as a whole ultimately made out pretty decent in the deal (which led to the production of the hit films Gremlins, the Color Purple, and The Goonies), while Atari got left holding the bag. These two games alone did not crash the industry, but they contributed to the action that actually did do the job. But that’s going to be covered in the next part.

Continue to Part 2

Policy Update: Review Copies for Multi-Platform Releases.

At Indie Gamer Chick, we pay for every game we review. Even when we take a review copy because the game is not on the market yet and the only way to access it is by accepting a token, we still pay for the game when it is released. This feature has been extremely well received by both indie developers and gamers. I truly feel it’s one of the main reasons why this blog is so popular. It makes us stand out in a crowded field. When I offered to wave the policy for Miko and Indie Family Man, they turned it down. Why? Because it’s what makes this site unique.

However, now that so many indies are being released on multiple platforms, it’s becoming expensive to cover some games. The policy needs to be updated in a more reasonable way. So, if developers wants a review to include details on every platform a game is on, we’re going to start accepting review copies. We will still purchase the game on the platform the game costs the most on, or whatever platform we intend to primarily use for our play-through. For all other platforms, we’ll ask for review copies.

In the past, we only accepted review copies if it was the only way to access a game before it’s release, or if the game had online multiplayer. For online games, the review copy was given to a friend so that we would have someone to play against. That person had little to no feedback in the review. Under our new policy, we might need more than one code for some platforms.

Because of this new policy, we can introduce two new features to Indie Gamer Chick.

Multi-Platform Comparison: If we strongly prefer one version over another, a sidebar will be placed in the review that will explain why. It might be because one version runs smoother, or because we thought a particular system’s controller made a game play better. We’ll also compare the different online experiences. If there’s not a significant difference between the platforms, it will be noted during the wrap-up, under the game’s price-line.

Review Updates: As of this writing, IndieGamerChick.com has reviews for 524 games. 488 from me and 36 from members of Indie Gamer Team. Most of those games are now available on multiple platforms. If developers would like, we can update those reviews to include thoughts on the game on other platforms. We will need review copies for this. If you want us to update the old review, hit us up on Twitter: Indie Gamer Chick, Miko (we really need a name for her), and Indie Family Man. We won’t turn away any requests for a multi-platform update, and this will not count as a game’s Second Chance.

We’re coming up on the third anniversary of Indie Gamer Chick. We’ll be celebrating in multiple ways. We’ll be introducing Miko’s Leaderboard. I’ll be updating my Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time feature. I’ll be bringing in more writers. And finally, there will be another Indie Gamer Chick Bundle at Indie Royale. It’s been our pleasure to serve indie game developers and indie game fans with our no-holds-barred approached to reviewing, and we look forward to many more. Much love to the entire community, and thank you for your continued support. Game on!

7 Reasons Why You Should Quit Making Games

There have been a few articles lately blowing the trumpets that the game industry’s sky is falling. It certainly doesn’t help that Flappy Bird and its attack of the clones has been touted as the herald of the apocalypse. There are now voices from some people saying that since it’s impossible to make money, that it’s time to grow up and be an adult, to grab your life jacket and abandon ship because the party is over.

Abandon ship!

Abandon ship!

In the “spirit” of these voices, I am going to join in and give you seven reasons why you should stop making games. But, I’m going to use the example of another industry facing similar challenges and maybe you’ll see why quitting isn’t the answer.

7 Reasons Why You Should Stop Making Music

  1. Don’t learn the piano, guitar, violin, or learn to sing because chances are you’ll never be a star.
  2. People can listen to music almost everywhere, on every device, and even for free on the radio. The airwaves are oversaturated with music. With such an abundance of music, why should you even bother because you will never be heard?
  3. Even if you are heard by a small audience and are lucky enough get one or two articles in local newspapers, the media coverage isn’t enough and most people will never hear about you again. Even with media mentions, what are the chances that people would hear about you?
  4. Music is pirated all the time and with all these musicians pushing prices lower, or even playing music for free on the streets, how can anyone be expected to make money in this market?
  5. Most music is derivative and fairly unoriginal with thousands of remixes and covers. How can anything original truly survive and be protected?
  6. With so many people not making money with their music, there is no reason to try.
  7. Since not everyone can be a rock star or make a living wage on their music, it is irresponsible to encourage people to learn or make music.

Dreamcatcher

I think anyone would see how wrong all these arguments are for discouraging people from learning a musical instrument or from creating new music. But these are the same reasons people are using to give up our passion for making games.

“It’s too hard.” “Not everyone can make a living wage off their passions.” “No one can make any money, abandon ship!”

I, for one, do not believe that our generation is full of entitled brats who expect a trophy for just showing up, but damn if these naysayers don’t sound like it.

Game development is a risky and highly competitive field. Of course it’s going to be difficult!

But is that any reason to abandon your passion? To be clear, let me break down why these reasons are wrong-headed both for the music industry and for independent game development:

  1. The skills for learning a musical instrument are valuable just by themselves. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a professional musician. Musical skills, like any other artistic skill have merits beyond monetary value. Game development is the same. It involves problem solving skills, coding, and a whole array of artistic disciplines coming together as one. How could it not be a valuable by itself?
  2. The very air we breathe is full of music in radio waves, but people still tip the street musician, pay the dance hall, attend the orchestra, patronize the club’s rock bands. People pay for what they connect with and are happy to celebrate. The same goes with games.
  3. Marketing is hard. It is unrealistic to believe that one good review at a local newspaper is enough to generate national hype for your indie rock tour. Why should we have the same expectation from blogs or review sites for our games? Marketing is a lot of footwork and time, no matter which industry we’re in. It is unrealistic for musicians to believe one gig and one article is enough, no matter the size and circulation.
  4. Free games are all over the market. A concrete example is the free Flash games market. Yet people have been making decent money from these games for years. And now some developers are just beginning to spearhead a new market in HTML5 games. Why are some people so certain that people won’t make money from games and yet there are companies willing to pay money up front, even upwards to $200 in advance for each game you make? The data shows that there are people making money from games development. But, like all things you have to be smart about it.
  5. People enjoy remixes and cover songs by different bands who can give their own spin and personality to some of their favorite songs. Do song covers hurt the original? Games are the same way. No two games, will ever come out alike.
  6. Is every musician aiming to be sustained by their music? Some bands are just for fun. Some are hobbyists. Some are professional and self-sustaining, most musicians are not. So long as you had a healthy and responsible expectations, why stop trying?
  7. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of realism. But are we going to discourage people, especially the young, to not learn how to code and have fun making games because not everyone is going to be a rock star? Are we going to tell young musicians to not learn to make music simply because they won’t make money?

As indie game developers we should realistically have the same income expectations as musicians. We should expect to put long hours and the insane amount of work and dedication for our passion.

Where's my money?

But where’s my money?

Not all of us are going to be rock stars and build the next Minecraft, Fez or Braid. If we make money and find ourselves where our passions are our only job, then we are counted as the few lucky ones. But the rest of us should be ready to pull double time in our primary jobs just to make it to the next gig. However, we are all going to have a hell of a good time going from jam session to jam session, gig to gig, convention to convention doing what we love.

The last thing we should do is discourage others from pursuing their dreams in the creative arts. Because in the end, what truly matters is that our games, our music, our lives, our passions and our talents are meant to touch someone’s heart and that makes all the difference. That is what truly matters.

Making money is just the bonus level!

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