Posted on August 28, 2008
The Temptation Of The Unreleased Game
The second installment of my History Of Atari for gamasutra.com was published last week. It was very difficult to write Part II (1978-1981), not for a lack of information, but because there is simply too much . Believe it or not, since there is not much written material about Atari from 1972-1977, the first part of the article was a easier to create because I could focus on what was known, secure interviews from key players on some questionable areas, and cover the finite number of products and events in a swift, but thorough manner. I thought I had done a pretty good job, but one comment about the article struck me. It was on Atariage.com, and the person who wrote it asked why I did not cover the Atari Game Brain. For those who don’t know, the Atari Game Brain was one of several competing, unreleased cartridge-based platforms that Atari created from 1976-1979 when trying to perfect a video game system with interchangeable cartridges, and explore the successor to the Atari 2600 VCS. The Atari Game Brain was built very early, and scrapped before the VCS was released in 1977. It is an interesting footnote, but since I was attempting to cover all known and released coin-ops, consoles, and cartridges, it seemed to me that covering unreleased games and hardware was simply unnecessary.
However the topic has had me thinking for the past few months about the concept of unreleased products, and just why collector’s of nostalgia want them so badly. What exactly is the lure of something that has remained “unreleased” as time passed? Rock bands have been using the “temptation of the unreleased” for years to sell re-packaged albums with “bonus tracks” to established fans who already own everything else. However, these “bonus tracks” are rarely great songs (although “Naked Eye” by The Who is one notable exception). Most of the time they contain flubs, missed notes, poor melodies, experimental song structures, alternate mixes, etc. While they are interesting, you can usually hear exactly why they were left off an officially released album. To casual fans, there really is no use for these unreleased tracks, but for die-hards fans, they are essential. In fact, many die hard fans start listening to ONLY unreleased tracks because they are convinced they are better than the material that made the band popular in the first place. A fan crosses the line to “die hard”, is when the “temptation of the unreleased” takes a firm grip of their conscience mind.
Over the course of the past 37+ years of video game history, there have been 100’s, if not 1000’s of games and gaming devices that have gone “unreleased”. You can find many of them at places like system16.com and atariprotos.com, as well as many others. The truth is, a multitude of these games and gaming devices deserved to remain unreleased. For ex maple, the aforementioned Atari Game Brain was not really a game console at all, but a receptacle for the ICs from unsold Atari dedicated-game consoles (i.e. Super Pong, Stunt Cycle, etc). It was a ploy to get rid of old hardware, and it would have been a confusing customer relations disaster if it was released. The same can be said about the Atari Cosmos, an LED based game system that used non-interactive holograms as backgrounds. The holograms were cool, the games were not. It was never released. The Atari VCS game Wizard by Chris Crawford remained unreleased until it was included on the Atari Flashback 2 console in 2005. The game was never released originally because it was primitive looking 2K game in an era when 4K games were the norm, and because it was really not much fun to play. When Activision Anthology was released for the PS2 and PC in 2002, it contained two unreleased games: Kabobber and Thwocker. While both are interesting, neither looks like it was developed in the Golden Age of home video games, or would make you forget classics like Pitfall! or River Raid. This same story can be multiplied across every platform and gaming device. Even here on our own site, we have a list of “Demos” that are really games that we started and never finished (and there are three times are many that I have not spent the time to post). Why did we never finish them? The ideas were simply not good enough to spend any more time exploring. Still, the “temptation of the unreleased” continues to persist, and it has very little to do with quality.
So what if the “temptation of the unreleased” is it not really about the quality of the products, then what is really about? To me, it is a form of grief. Going back to those rock bands and their “unreleased songs”, one can observe a pattern to the desires of many die-hard fans when it comes to unreleased material. If the band has long-since broken-up, they might want to anything the band might have produced and not released. If the band is still a going concern, then die-hards might only be looking to find “unreleased tracks” from a time when the band was at the (purely subjective) height of their creativity. Either way, the “temptation of the unreleased” is all about the death of something the person truly loved and truly affected them in some important way.
When is comes to video games, the “temptation of the unreleased” is usually the strongest when a game system or game company has experienced an untimely demise, leaving legitimately good products un played. Sometimes these products are finished, or close to it, sometimes they are not even close. The great video game crash of 1983 killed of so many game companies so quickly, that many good games never saw the light of day. In fact, some games are still be being unearthed 25 years later (for instance, Rob Fulop’s Actionauts ) that were at least as good as many of the games released at the time. Like a rock band that suddenly broke up, video game fans were left hanging when suddenly exited the market. The most significant of these deaths was Atari. In 1984, the consumer division of Atari Inc. was not simply put-down, it was shot point blank in the stomach and left to suffer. Over the next 12 years it slowly bled to death. Atari was such a significant part of the lives of many people, this death was something they could simply not put behind them. Nothing new will ever be created with the Atari name on it (the real Atari anyway), so trying to locate and experience anything that might have been created when Atari was still alive, no matter how insignificant, is of paramount important to these die-hard Atari fans. Even something that had little merit when it was first designed, the Atari Game Brain for example, is significant because it means the spirit of Atari can live on in a product that very few if anyone has ever experienced.
Did I miss this concept in Part 1 of my History Of Atari ? Should I have included something about the Atari Game Brain, even single a sentence, to make sure that these still grieving die-hard Atari fans could get a modicum of solace from its mention? Probably, but I also believe focusing too much attention “unreleased” products can be be a trap unto itself, especially if it is not something significant. Atari history from 1972-1977 is all about innovation and successfully released products that changed the face of electronic entertainment the world over. If I had focused too much on things that never made it to market, they might have taken away some of the importance of the story I was trying to tell. I mentioned a few unreleased products in Part II, but will I cover even more in Part III? Probably, because the death of Atari in 1984 left such a huge number of unreleased products that they make-up a significant part of the story. While I believe that these “unreleased” products don’t deserve any more space than things that legitimately made it to stores, it is definitely cathartic for grieving fans to focus on “unreleased products”, at least for a little while.
However, while “the temptation of the the unreleased” might be an interesting diversion for die-hard fans, it can be deadly for artists and game developers. Especially if the unreleased game becomes an obsession that always remains “90% complete”. Take Brian Wilson’s “Smile” album for instance. It was never released in the last 60’s, then Wilson became a recluse. He tinkered with the album for nearly 40 years. In that time, there was talk of how “brilliant” it was, or how it was Wilson’s “masterpiece”. When he finally released it a couple years back, it might have been good, but was it worth 40 years? Maybe to die-hard Wilson fans, but to anyone else? What other great music was not created while Wilson toiled on his magnum opus?
Game designers and developers can fall victim to the very same trap. They come up with what they think is a great game idea, and try to implement it, but fail. There are a multitude of reasons why it might be a failure (technical, design, game mechanics, etc), but the inability to “let a project go” could mean that the world might miss other significant, fully-realized games that were otherwise never created because of this focus on something “unreleased”. Several game developers have told me that they have as high as a 75% rate of projects that end-up in grave yard of ideas because they could not work them through fully. For people who make their living creating things, this seems like a very healthy attitude. If it doesn’t work, move on. If there is time to revisit it later, fine, but make sure you complete something else before you go back to it.
There is one game that I have been tinkering with for almost 4 years. The idea started as a “turn the tables” version of Star Castle where you played the bad guy from the original game (i.e. the big space cannon inside the rotating vector walls). I worked on it for a couple weeks, but when I could not get the collision detection to work correctly, I put it aside for some time. Months later, I was at an actual car-wash and it occurred to me that a game where you cleaned cars might be fun. When I got home I converted the aforementioned game into something I call “Extreme Car Washer”. The game was fundamentally the same as before, but instead of shooting at on-coming ships trying to destroying your space fortress, dirty cars come at you from all sides and you need to “wash” them before they run into your base. I could not think of any way to enhance the game beyond that point, and even though I have gone back to it many times, I’ve never found a way to make it work as a game. However, many times in “GameStorming” sessions, when Jeff and I are stuck, I will say something like” hey, there’s always Extreme Car Washer!” Which always elicits a sad laugh from him. A laugh that says “yeah, sure, when will you get that piece of s**t completed so you can move onto something else?”
So while I don’t fault die-hard fans and their desire for “unreleased” material, the negative aspects of spending too much time focused on them seem apparent. I can understand why die-hard fans (of which I am one myself), still in the process of grieving over a band, gaming platform or something else entirely, might focus on unreleased content to fill the void. However, in the long-run, it can’t be healthy to not only live in the past, but live a past that really never was. In reality, every time I spend one extra minute trying to mold my work on “Extreme Car Washer” into a workable game concept game is a minute wasted on something worthwhile. A minute I will never get back. Keep that in mind next time you realize the project you are working on might not be going in the direction you first intended. If you have to cut it off, throw it away, and start over, go ahead. Otherwise it might remain in that “unreleased” state, haunting you for years to come.