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The Retro Machine, a pipedream

Where I discuss my fever dream of there coming into existence a new console platform that leaps backwards in console cycles instead of forward as has been the norm.

Kamruz Moslemi, Blogger

June 29, 2011

10 Min Read

From the onset of this generation of home consoles we as players as well as creators have been witness to a growth of a disturbing level of homogony and conformity in this side of the market. There are clear and easily identifiable culprit forces at work behind this phenomenon, but that is best left for other discussions.

The rise in homogeny at the AAA end has resulted in a similar rise of awareness in its antithesis, the indie development movement. In this new age of hundred men teams and hundred million costing marketing campaigns it is the simple garage developer whose lone quality craft spreads by virtue of word of mouth alone who has become the underdog darling.

These indie developers have found their way into the spotlight largely by ignoring the complexity and bloat of modern game design often by going back to the simple 2D roots of the medium which was carelessly abandoned at the dawn of the 3D era. Alas the lone indie developer has so far been something of a nomad, with no home to call its own they are prone to wander between different platforms to peddle their craft and each of these offer their own set of advantage and disadvantages.

The easiest platform to get into, the iOS category, is perhaps also where their wares are least likely to get the exposure they deserve. Apple's storefront for their iOS devices is a chaotic crapshoot which is further hindered by its lack of tactile control interfaces, thereby immediately excluding a lion's share of the most favourite indie design tropes such as tightly wound platforming.

In contrast stands the hardest platform to get into, the digital distribution store fronts of the current crop of home consoles. These venues offer an environment better suited to the indie developer by featuring a very suitable standardized tactile control interface and a much more manageable flow of new content which results in better exposure at the time of launch. Alas, these benefits only apply given the indie manages to clear the significant hurdles involved in getting their wares an illusive spot on said fronts.

Lastly there is the classic fallback for the indie, where the vagrant movement has always had an uneasy existence, the PC. Needless to say that the PC is a harsh inelegant mistress which offers its own set of challenges by lacking standardized hardware and control interface beyond the awkward keyboard, a tool for typing, and the mouse which is only well suited to a very specific subset of gameplay purposes.

But despite these challenges the indie developers have marched onwards with their dreams of turning back time and ignore 20 years of technological arms race in favour of falling back to a simpler, more comfortable era where playing and making games was a more intuitive affair. Despite mostly flying under the radar until very recently the sheer quality of the simple craft from these developers has sometimes managed to capture mainstream attention and some titles are considered legitimate hits borne from this movement.

So it is that for the longest time I have had a pipedream of sorts, one involving there coming into being a platform whose sole raison d’être is to support this retro movement, a platform which is tailored to suit the needs of the movement’s developers more adequately by reviving a bygone era where every developer was equal under the same low technological roof, a retro console if you will.

Here is how I imagine such a contraption:

To combat the shortcomings of the previous three venues this machine will need to have standardized hardware, an standard tactile control interface and be easily accessible to developers as well as end users.

Retro developers are often of the one man operation sort whose development philosophy favors stylized 2D sprite graphics for ease and rapidness of creation and prefer to feature 2D gameplay from the days of yore. So it would stand to reason that this hypothetical retro machine platform tailored to their needs would feature hardware designed to play these aspects as its strength and focus.

The CPU should be an off the shelf processor clocked at a very modest rate. The GPU will similarly be something modest with focus on sprite rendering with little or no 3D capability. The focus of the choice of hardware should be to give developers enough power for them to be able to do the sort of games they desire but at the same time try to keep the physical dimensions of the machine tiny and keep costs low.

This retro machine will seek to play to the strengths of design philosophies of yore by having restricted hardware. Thereby the faux retro style graphics and gameplay of current retro style games played on powerful current hardware, which lack a sense of genuineness due to them being forcibly limited will be made legitimate on the retro machine.

Since retro games often favor simplicity of control the control interface should resemble that of the NES, a d-pad with 2 action buttons and a single start button, that is it. The hardware should come bundled with this NES like controller, perhaps two of them, and a cable for connecting it to a television. There should be a simple WiFi adapter inside the machine that at initial startup will ask to be connected to the local network, after which an online storefront will be loaded up with a list of offerings available for purchase. In short the distribution method is digital and the purchased games will be stored on internal storage.

The storage should be modest in size to encourage developers to make games that take up very little space. These limitations of storage and hardware power might seem counterproductive but they offer advantages. For one, since this platform is meant to recapture the magic of an era where simple, easy to understand mechanics were the order of the day having limited hardware host these endeavors will keep developers in check. Secondly a limited hardware fidelity can act as an top barrier below which everyone’s offerings will seem to be more equal, at least in technical terms, which will hopefully dissuade the counterproductive graphical horserace practices that led to current state of affairs on consoles and instead allow developers to focus on art direction and game design as an distinguishing mark.

On the development side of things all you would need to create games for the system would be the system itself and a development PC into which the free SDK is downloaded. To facilitate ease of development the SDK should do its outmost to make things easier for the developer.

The SDK should come bundled with a versatile suit of tools such as a fully featured tile engine suited for making 2D games of any variety so that developers can dive directly into game design without having to wrestle with technology first should they wish to.

The goals:

The goal of the platform is three things, first, to try and revive the era of 8-16 bit game design. The benefits of that era which make it such a favoured theme for retro developers today are intuitive control interface enabling gameplay just simple enough that anyone can pick it up and play without much forethought or struggle with a lot of depth waiting for them once they get into the deep of things.

One of Nintendo's goals with the Wii was exactly to try and rewind game design to the NES heyday by simplifying the control interface. The reason for this being, of course, that home console games were much more accessible back then, and the restrictions of a simple control interface nevertheless led to many varied cleverly designed game mechanics with a lot of depth.

The second goal of the hardware is to provide an ideal home for the subset of indie developers who specialize in making retro games with inspired mechanics featuring simple controls and stylized graphics. In fact the ideal way for the retro machine to come about is via a collaboration among retro developers themselves. That way they could ensure that they would never have to answer to any higher power. This would be a platform by themselves for themselves. With standard hardware, an ideal control interface, ease of development and an unrestricted distribution method this platform would be tailor made for their needs.
Lastly, and the most important part of the equation, the third goal of the indie machine would be audience accessibility. There are many facets to this accessibility, the simple and intuitive control interface would be but one. The second would be a hassle free storefront.

The third and most important facet would be cost of the hardware itself. This is the most crucial part of the equation. Seeing as how this platform is not made to compete with anything else in terms of fidelity and in doing so will feature very modest CPU/GPU capabilities (basically if it can run Symphony of the Night then it is powerful enough) then it stands to reason the price of the hardware should reflect that fact.

The hardware should be so cheap in fact that its price should fall in the impulse buy category. The ideal cost of such an item should be 30. Manufacturing of readily available modest hardware can be done for surprisingly little with help from Chinese manufacturing partners. The goal price point of the machine is important as the hardware itself is, as Yamauchi once said, just a box that you buy because that is what you need to play the games, and the games are what you are really interested in.

This is all a pipe dream of course, retro developers are unlikely to band together and birth for themselves such a utopian home and thereby potentially revive a bygone era in full force. It is not even clear wither there is a place in the market for such a device if it were ever to be made. But whenever I see some phenomenal 2D throwback made by a garage developer such as Cave Story or La-Mulana I cannot help but desire a platform that exists with sole purpose of seeing such titles come into being. There have been a multitude of such games lately of a very high quality and perhaps the ideal home for these would be such a cheap, accessible, standardized platform.

Some would argue that the PC/console DD/iOS already provide this, but I would not necessarily agree. Each of those platforms has majour drawbacks keeping a retro revival movement of significant momentum from occurring there. I cannot be the only one who wonders that, since the console industry has cornered itself into a very unhealthy corner by too much focus on fidelity why then can we not release a platform that goes backwards in generational leaps and recreates a 8-16bit era like milieu. One where developers can once again make games like they looked and played in those days with teams numbering no more than what can be counted on one hand equipped only with talent, inspiration and a modest budget?

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