History Is Littered With The Corpses Of Failed Consoles

History Is Littered With The Corpses Of Failed Consoles
Having made over $US1 million from Kickstarter backers in a single day

Why? Because there’s a lot more to making a video game console than just raising the money.

I’m not guessing at this, I know it. I know it because history has taught me, like it does with most things. Designing, manufacturing and getting a console to market is one of the most difficult tasks in the entire field of consumer electronics, with companies needing to find a delicate balance between specs, cost, market size and developer support.

That’s why only a handful of outfits, at least in the post-1983 era, have ever actually managed to do it. For every Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft console that sells tens of millions there’s an Atari, Philips, Amiga or even Sega machine that hits the market, bombs and then almost (or in many cases actually manages) to drag an entire company down with it.

Assuming, that is, the console even makes it to market in the first place.

Perhaps the two most glorious examples of the perils of entering the console market come from the 3DO and the Phantom.

The 3DO was first released in 1993. Backed by Panasonic, and with models also later released by Sanyo and Goldstar, the 3DO was a true “next gen” console of the time, boasting horsepower that demolished that of its competition. It had been led to the market by Trip Hawkins, the man who founded Electronic Arts. It looked, at the time, like a sure bet. The first genuine challenger to Sega and Nintendo’s console dominance in years.

Yet three years later it was no more. The 3DO was too expensive, didn’t get enough games and was soon being matched in terms of performance by the likes of the PlayStation. When production ceased in 1996 the 3DO had become more of an industry joke, a byword for failure, than an industry leader.

At least it made it to market and into some people’s homes, though. An even more poignant warning for the Ouya comes from the Phantom. If the 3DO was a byword for failure, then the Phantom was the very definition of the word.

Its history reads much like that of the Ouya, in that it was an all-new product with an innovative twist seeking to enter the market and shake things up.

The Phantom was first unveiled in 2004, and like the Ouya, promised something extraordinary: it would bring games associated with other devices and places and drag them into the living room. Where the Ouya wants to bring small indie games to the couch, though, the Phantom boasted that it could play PC games, making a market that at the time was expensive and restricted to desktop computers cheaper and more accessible.

What a great idea! And it was. In theory. The problem Phantom’s creators, Infinium Labs ran into, though, was that as a new company bringing a new device to an established market, they found themselves quickly in over their heads. While the concept sounded great to casual observers, and the console’s technical hook – that it would include an innovative keyboard controller – was neat, the fact was Infinium had grossly underestimated the amount of preparation, work and most important of all, support it would need to get the Phantom off the drawing board and into people’s homes.

Two years of delays, which in the end became the butt of industry jokes, sullied the console’s name before it faded quietly into oblivion before it had ever sold a unit.

Now, I’m not saying the Ouya is destined to share the same fate. For all we know, it could indeed revolutionise the way we play video games. Or even if it doesn’t, find a small, yet comfortable niche in the market.

What I’m saying is, as Ian Bogost pointed out earlier today, pledging support for a Kickstarter cause can be fun. But a pledge is just a vote with money attached, it’s not a guarantee the console will even be made, let alone find a modicum of success.

So, just…enjoy the hype while it lasts, but if it all ends in a vacuum of money and a trail of broken promises, don’t say history didn’t warn you.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends. You’ll find Total Recall stories every Mon-Fri between 11pm and Midnight ET.


    • Exactly why i funded. I could get a 1st gen xbox and XMB, or i could get this and fund something that has potential.

    • it is pretty much going to be an emulator box. I dont really see people spending money developing new games for the platform.

  • The Phantom was a classic pump-n-dump scheme. The guy in charge, Tim Robers is *known* for doing this dodgy sort of stuff. He’s doing it again at the moment: http://www.wholou.net/2012/04/19/feds-threatening-savvis-co-founder-tim-roberts-regarding-tampa-based-savtira-corp/

    Meanwhile, the Ouya has the strong advantage of an existing Operating System that is mature and proven to work. Developers already know how to write games for it since they’ve been doing it for years. That’s not to say it’ll take off and be a success (I’m hesitant to fund it at the moment), but the cited examples of failed consoles are mostly really bad examples.

  • I’m wishing someone would standardise the Raspberry Pi as a gaming platform, allowing devs to easily make games for them. That’d be a surefire win.

  • wow, a real article from plunkett, i didn’t know he had it in him :O /trolll

    beyond that, it’s actually a well done article, it raises a good point of whether this console will survive or die miserably. and if it does survive, hopefully it wont be full of viruses, ripoffs (like that of the appstore), bloatware, etc…

  • I don’t think it’s fair to compare the 3DO and this because of a few major differences:
    – It’s using basic off-the-shelf and proven hardware
    – It’s Android-based so it has access to an existing operating system, libraries, developers etc.
    – It’s 2012, manufacturing consumer electronics is a hell of a lot easier and more streamlined than it was in the 90s.

    I’ve got my doubts about Ouya – it reminds me of the GP2X handheld – but I don’t doubt their ability to create a tangible product. A good product, that’s probably a different story. But no one really expected a two-man startup in the 70s making personal computers in their garage for a local electronics shop to make it big either. My main worry is whether this product even has legs in the first place. It’s not as if the Android marketplace is some kind of vast untapped resource of amazing games that are completely unavailable anywhere else. It’s sort of like the problem that gaming handhelds have compared to smartphones, but in reverse: smartphone games are ‘good enough’ for most people’s on-the-go gaming. I think when you’re sitting down infront of your home theater system with a controller in your hands, most $1 android games are going to struggle against expectations of what is ‘good enough’ in that setting.

    Additionally if it turns out there actually is a market, how long until Apple release a new AppleTV unit with the same sort of specs that can run iOS stuff?

    • What you say, NegativeZero, is true, but as they said, this is going to be driven by independent developers. It’s open, which mean people who root their Android phones may like to root this. And it also means ANYONE can make games available for it easier than X-box, or PSN.

      For instance, the X-Box Indie market. Which can only be accessed in America. No matter who/where you made it. So I’m hopeful. I’ll probably get one of these to develop on too 😀

  • I hope it succeeds. I know its a huge ask to delivery what they have set out at the price they are asking…

    good luck to them, this could shake up consoles much like mobile gaming has already

  • You’re right Luke, they are far from guaranteed success at this point. For starters, they need to get *at least* 100K preorders to reach any kind of critical mass to attract decent game dev talent. I’m cautiously optimistic though, I think they’ve made some great calls on design , specs and console pricing, and game sales model – they’ve definitely done a better job here than 3DO or phantom. Also, they really have picked such a great time for launch at the end of a long hardware cycle, and it’s true there really are so many experienced game devs out there doing mobile and social gaming that are probably excited by the prospect of developing for this console. Also in their favour is being first to apply a good app store to a console (as the main sales platform), the recent explosion in indie game dev thanks to quality affordable game engines and tools, and the advent of crowd funding allowing a unique opportunity to get critical mass support out the gate. The world is so different than it was last time ANY console was launched, and these guys seem to get it. Fingers crossed, this could actually work!

    • 100K preorders? They’ve pretty much done that with the Kickstarter campaign… There’s over 60,000 that have pledged at a tier that qualifies for a console… That, $3.5mil worth of startup, and 28 days to go? I’m cautiously optimistic too =)

  • My big question about this whole thing is are people buying into it because they want a new console? The machine is a cheap and very hackable platform, meaning, like the Raspberry Pi, you can run it as your TV box, or an embedded system, or any kind of device other than the original purpose.

    To say that this proves people want a new console is a bit of a premature conclusion. I’m actually seeing this as more of a potential competitor to Apple and Google TV. It would be cool to have the same sort of interconnectivity that Apple machines have, only with the more open Android OS.

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