Please do not give Retro VGS any of your money

At least not without seriously thinking it through.

A crowdfunding campaign for what the creators call “a high-quality, network independent video game system and first to play new games from cartridges in nearly twenty years”. I am convinced that they are either willfully misleading people with their pitch, or they do not have a clue about how the games industry works in the 21st century. Perhaps more charitably it could said that they are exaggerating their claims for effect, that effect being to coax money out of people’s wallets. But once you start to pin down the details, it becomes rapidly apparent that giving them money is going to be setting yourself up for disappointment.

They are appealing to the nostalgia factor of a console that calls back to an era of gaming familiar to Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings with disposable income. People have fond memories of these times, and romanticism for the memories of youth is a valuable commodity when it comes to crowdfunding. They are pitching a console with no networking capabilities, no frontend that appears before loading your game, no digital distribution, no optical media and no patches. I’m positing that this is also going to mean “no games”.

On of the most revealing aspects of the plans for the Retro VGS is this, taken from their official website:

This is not a closed console, meaning If you make a game for the RETRO VGS, and you wanted to order 50 copies of your own game to take to PAX and sell them on your own, you could! The plan is to be able to submit your box, cartridge & manual artwork, game code (for the cartridge), instructions and how many you’d like to order and you’d get your 50 shrink wrapped plastic cases with your awesome game cartridges all professionally packaged and sent to you.

Say I were a professional developer, making a game with pixelart and retro design elements. Let’s put to one side that I’d probably be using Unity or Game Maker, which Retro VGS has no mention of native support for. Let’s also put to one side the variety of proven healthy platforms and marketplaces where I can access a huge install base of users. Let’s also put to one side the notion of wanting to be able to sell games without dealing with the hassle of needing to either be physically present wherever the customer is, or establish some kind of physical distribution system for remote sales. Let’s also put to one side the fact that unless I’ve allocated a massive amount of funds for QA, there’s no way I can ship a game that will even approach being entirely bug free, even with the best of intentions. The real question is: Why on earth would I want to spend money ordering cartridges on which to sell my game?

There’s so many platforms that do not have this requirement. Having to pay up front for inventory and then hope you are able to sell it with a decent margin on top is a return to the dark ages. These kind of market conditions are the exact reason that the early Sega and Nintendo consoles shut out so many of the smaller developers. Developers that today are making the kind of games Retro VGS are alluding to would have been unable to exist within the market conditions they are attempting to resurrect. The very reason we have so many small studios independently creating and releasing games with a retro aesthetic and design is because of the democratizing effect of digital distribution, because of a wide variety of easily accessible tools with broad industry support, because of the scale of the install base and userbase of today’s network capable platforms and marketplaces. I can’t see many developers even being curious enough to buy the hardware to test/develop their game in the first place, never mind investing in a physical release for a platform with a tiny install base.

There are clear advantages to some of the aspects of the platform they are pitching, but these come at astronomical costs. The principals they have designed their platform around ensure that there is no possible way their platform will manage to secure broad industry support, it will be the exclusive domain of hobbyists and vanity projects. I think in 2015 it is entirely possible to do a good job of developing and releasing hobbyist hardware that might not be commercially viable outside of a niche audience, and I’d say Raspberry Pi and Oculus Rift are successful examples of these. You simply have to pitch it for what it is, not make exaggerated claims that you have no capacity to back up.

the purpose of RETRO VGS is to…become the leading and best platform to play newly created 2D/Early 3D, retro/classic style video games, a fast growing and popular genre in today’s game space

The people behind Retro VGS are either utter fools, or entirely disingenuous when they talk about this as a possibility. Without providing a platform where releasing these kinds of games are economically viable to the studios creating these kind of games, all they’ll get will be scraps. It is extremely telling that they have absolutely non-binding, vague and unspecified statements of support from developers on their IndieGogo page. They are even struggling to keep hold of the developers they initially got some commitment from, PikoInteractive who own the rights to amonst other games Super Noah’s Ark 3D have entirely pulled out of the project, despite still being listed on the Retro VGA homepage. I hope no one gives Retro VGS money hoping to be able to actually play the games they are claiming will be on their platform!

I’d also raise the serious question over whether they actually have the rights to sell a console in the shell of an Atari Jaguar. They have acquired the molds originally used to make the Atari Jaguar console, and are using these manufacture the shells of their console. With Atari Inc. Atari Corporation Hasbro Infogrames/Atari SA nuAtari being so famously litigious, I wonder if successful, whether a large chunk of the funds generated on IndieGogo will actually end up being used as legal fees. I see no evidence that they’ve done their due diligence here, owning the molds is not the same as having permission to use them to manufacture and sell a console using them.

Update: There is no mention of this on their Homepage or the Indiegogo campaign, but commenter PlaysWithWolves directed me to this podcast where Retro VGS’s Mike Kennedy does indeed state that they have the rights to use the molds as they intend here. I have no idea why this isn’t spelled out anywhere else, but taken at face value this would suggest they may indeed have such rights. That might not stop Atari from disputing their rights, but who knows.

They’ve repeatedly protested that they are nothing like the Ouya, and I agree. The Ouya was a slow motion car crash from beginning to end, but at least it supported digital distribution and broadly used industry tools. This has neither of those advantages. You are clearly out of touch with reality when you think this is a feasible and preferable alternative to supporting patches:

bugs

Yes I’d like to see modern platforms put a greater emphasis on reducing the time between deciding to play a game and actually playing the game. Yes I’d like to see the industry as a whole do a better job of ensuring games function as advertised prior to release. Yes I’d like to see modern consoles do a better job of not throwing a hissy fit when they can’t connect to the internet. Giving these clowns money achieves none of this.

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8 Comments Leave yours

  1. Jack M #

    Glad you did an article on this, i was VERY tempted to do a video on my youtube channel about this whole concept but i knew you would cover it and a million times better.

  2. PlaysWithWolves #

    I tried to keep neutral, if not hopeful, through the months leading up to the Indiegogo campaign. I even defended them many a’time. Once the campaign was released and it was still vague, if not less-than-promised (i.e., it would take the stretch goal to get the FPGA they’ve been promising for months), I went fully on the other side. They claim transparency, but it’s not been. The important things, like hardware, have always been opaque.

    If it fails, they only have themselves to blame. Having an “Underpants Gnomes” business plan typically isn’t good (e.g., “Phase 1: Collect Jaguar shell. Phase 2: ??? Phase 3: Profit!”).

    At any rate, I’ll again come to their defense and say they (like Imagin before them) do own the full rights to do with the shells as they please. At least, according to the paper Kennedy says in an early podcast — starting at about 0:26:00 and reading from the paper a couple minutes or so later: https://youtu.be/IuZJ8S_zQIg?t=26m

  3. Nick C #

    So, you’re out then? 😀

    I’m all for retro, but that’s more Dark Ages they’re trying to do there. I like this bit too “developers will be instructed to give us bug free games”. That is practically impossible. Hence why although it irks me sometimes with all the day 1 patches, I’d rather be able to patch over the internet to fix whatever the bugs are than have a cartridge I can’t. Good luck guys; you’re gonna need it.

    • chris lee #

      well.we used to buy and play cartridge games before that were “bug free” .
      I still have a load of n64 games+console.

  4. JSF #

    Godamn, I read the article and thought “yeah, he’s right, but the console must be like between 50 and 100 bucks, worst case scenario I get a novelty item with a couple of games”

    But 300 godamn big ones? And they want 2 million? Holy crap, they’re delusional.

  5. The Angry Internet #

    Re: possible legal issues around the Jaguar mold–Hasbro “released all rights that it may have” to the Jaguar back in 1999 ( http://www.atariage.com/Jaguar/archives/HasbroRights.html ). Now if I were crowdfunding a console based on the Jaguar’s form factor, I would certainly do some additional checking to make sure that the design is legally free and clear, since there’s no explicit mention of that in the press release. But it does seem plausible enough.

  6. Jim Huxter #

    And it’s on IndieGoGo rather than Kickstarter so whatever happens they’re still getting money from a few hundred sods. I sincerely doubt those 11 people will get much for their $500.

    • Lewie Procter #

      Nah, Indiegogo supports flexible or fixed funding, they’ve opted for the latter here, so much like Kickstarter, they won’t receive a penny unless they hit their goal. Which is almost certainly not going to happen.

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