Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Game Over, Continue? The Alternate Console Wars, Part One

Guest post Ben Ronning.

No one can argue that video games have not made an impact on popular culture worldwide. What started as a primitive electronic version of table tennis has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry whose releases rival Hollywood blockbusters in terms of hype and anticipation. The medium itself has been a childhood staple for Generation Xers, and Millennials like myself who made blowing dust from our cartridges a ritual (before I learned that the enzymes in my saliva slowly corroded the pin.) I recently purchased a Nintendo Wii U and I could not help but appreciate the fact that such an action would have appalled my younger self twenty years ago.

You see, dear reader, I was born in 1984 and the great 16-Bit Wars waged by Nintendo and then-rival Sega is a vivid memory to me. Back in Christmas of 1993, my parents bought me a Sega Game Gear and a Genesis (better known as the Mega Drive on the opposite sides of the Pacific and Atlantic) the year after. I was an avid fan of Sega and joined their camp in a war waged on the schoolyards across North America. My birth year is also an important touchstone for the industry, because that is year the industry collapsed, toppling the titan known as Atari and bringing the second generation of video games to a close. Atari’s fall brings up an interesting question: “what would have happened if the market did not collapse in 1983-4?” As does the final fall of Sega fifteen years later where the company bowed out of the hardware market to focus on becoming a third-party game developer. Could Sega have prevented it?

To answer the former question: Atari’s ability to prevent the crash depended on a number of factors. First and foremost, is that Atari’s corporate policy did not allow its employees to take credit for the games they programmed. Many programmers, such as David Crane, creator of Pitfall, left the company to form their own studios. Unfortunately, the rise of third-party developers led to a loss of quality control, which deluged the market with sub par games. Unfortunately, Atari also overhyped games that underperformed such as the infamous E.T. The Extraterrestrial and 2600 adaptation of Pac-Man. Atari produced 12 million cartridges despite having sold on 10 million 2600 consoles at the time, which resulted in the now-confirmed burial of the surplus carts. Several other companies like Mattel, Coleco, Bally, and Fairchild produced their own systems that varied in quality. Unfortunately, as noted by TV Tropes, the wide array of choices hindered their ability to succeed in the long term.

Dirty Laundry: An Alternate 80s” by Andrew T manages to create such a scenario where the video game industry avoids the crash of 1983. While the timeline focuses on pop culture in general, Atari plays a significant part. How did Atari survive the crash? By building a better version of E.T. based on Steven Spielberg’s vision for the game, which he imagined as similar to Pac-Man. (So does that mean we swap Power Pellets for Reese’s Pieces?) Warner Communications, which then owned Atari, CEO, Steve Ross ordered Ray Kassar to replace Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer of the game in our timeline, with Carla Meninsky over a matter of two hundred grand plus expenses. The game itself becomes the best-selling title for the 2600. Still, despite this aversion, Mattel and Coleco both bow out of the console wars as they did in ours.

However, one other interesting consequence is that Nintendo partnered with Atari to distribute the Famicom in territories outside of Japan. It was something that nearly happened in real life until Jack Trammel killed the deal in 1984. In terms of the games Nintendo produced, such as the iconic Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, very little would have changed. However, in terms of hardware, the mention of non-volatile random access memory in one post possibly means that players would possibly be able to save their game data on the cartridge itself. That means gamers in North America would not need to use lengthy passwords for games like Metroid and Kid Icarus. The long-term repercussions of a successful Atari/Nintendo partnership are still unknown.

One of the main reasons Nintendo dominated the industry in the late eighties and early nineties are its restrictive policies towards developers that prevented them from releasing games for competing systems. This “quality control” (though reviewers like an infamous nerd with anger issues would argue otherwise) allowed Nintendo to prevent another deluge of shovelware that plagued the previous generation with its lockout chip, though companies such as Tengen (Atari Games) and Wisdom Tree managed to bypass it. Nintendo also enacted strict censorship on the games it published. As noted by Douglas Crockford, Nintendo was quite selective in the language used in their games. Would the partnership be less restrictive in its policies towards third-party companies? Perhaps. Nintendo would have a captive Japanese market but Atari’s attempts to stem third party software were flimsy at best. If Nintendo still controlled the production of the cartridges, then I would not see a significant change in that respect.

The largest flaw I see with "Dirty Laundry" is that it only half complete and thus has not fully explored the implications of a video game market without the crash. While Andrew T confirms that Mattel bows out of the race and Coleco remains on its trajectory towards bankruptcy as it did in our timeline, there is little mention of any video game platforms to challenge Atari/Nintendo outside of the Intellivision III, now produced by Tandy. The platform itself boasts a Motorola 68000 processor (the same chip used by the Mega Drive/Genesis) with wireless controllers and boasts the ability to display 3D graphics for the low, low price of $599.99 plus tax. Andrew T leaves the system’s fate to the reader’s imagination, but it probably went the same route of another technically superior system with a similar price point in the nineties. Still, polygonal graphics still have the potential to be a game changer that could affect the next generation of consoles, particularly the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and the successor to the Atari Nintendo System, but will need to wait a while. Andrew T last updated last May so the next update may take weeks perhaps even months. I recommend giving the thread a look; if not for the video games, then do it for pop culture in general. You will not regret it.

Alas, there are only a few pop culture alternate histories with a point of divergence predating 1982. Brainbin’s "That Wacky Redhead" focuses on video games a handful of times but it is only a sideshow to the larger cultural and even political trends. However, there are a few elements I liked, notably that a licensed Star Trek arcade game was one of Syzygy’s (as Atari is known as in that timeline) earliest hits. It also appears that several genres that rose to prominence in the nineties, like fighting and adventure games, became popular earlier with a fighting game with Bruce Lee as its main character and an adaptation of Mission Impossible as the template for adventure games. As with "Dirty Laundry", it appears that with greater emphasis on creating a quality product will mean that the market will not crash in "That Wacky Redhead". While the eighties were formative for the fledgling industry, I believe that the console wars of the next decade set the tone for the industry and its players as well as provide fertile ground for alternate historians.

Next up, Genesis Does What Nintendon’t

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Aspiring writer and platypus enthusiast Ben Ronning has lurked the AH.com boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.

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