Retro gaming is nothing new. Neither are micro-consoles with a limited number of titles included (such as Nintendo’s NES Classic). Atari is only the latest to jump into the retro-console realm, and it’s leading us to wonder how these gaming companies are missing such low-hanging fruit by ignoring independent developers.
Atari is teasing an “Ataribox” device that’s akin to Nintendo’s NES Classic. If you’re old enough to remember the original Atari 2600, the Ataribox will undoubtedly surface memories of 8-bit graphics and indestructible joystick controllers. The company will release classic games along with “current content,” though it’s still mum on what that really means. The company still publishes software, though its current trajectory is all about Rollercoaster Tycoon.
We saw this pattern recently with Nintendo’s NES Classic, and the incoming Super NES Classic. Both are small, fully enclosed ecosystems with a limited number of games, meant to highlight classic titles the company doesn’t release elsewhere. Sega has been issuing similar Genesis hardware for years, though with less fanfare.
It works, too. Fans clamored to get NES Classics. Demand increased in large part to Nintendo’s insistence on a limited hardware run (the $60 console is still available via eBay and Amazon for around $250).
Capitalism aside, a major problem with these platforms is their ecosystems. While we don’t yet know what Atari has planned, Nintendo and Sega have turned their back on independent developers. On the hardware front, the NES Classic is simply a Linux-based Arduino board; nothing there dissuading independent developers.
Nintendo has a developer community for the Switch, so branching out into less graphically-intense games is entirely possible. Many Steam games would also work on limited hardware, should developers feel compelled to port them to a new platform (Nintendo would never consider a secondary platform like Steam). Who wouldn’t want the next Super Meat Boy for their gaming console?
Unfortunately, these mini-gaming consoles are positioned as a means to re-introduce classic titles, not open up a new platform for gaming or monetization. Unlike Nintendo, neither Sega or Atari have flagship consoles to lean into when the nostalgia wears off. Both companies are also diligently re-introducing their classic titles to mobile gamers, further limiting the need for their own hardware.
Instead of forging a new path, they’re trailing Nintendo. App Annie reminds us time and again how huge gaming is for the app economy. Microsoft showed us how easy it would be to port titles from one platform or language to another. We can’t speak to how well Sega or Atari would do in opening up their respective hardware to third parties, but it may be worth exploring.
A cautionary tale exists. Startup Ouya tried this very thing and fell flat on its face. A precursor to Android TV and its own gaming initiatives, its situation isn’t wholly applicable – but shows that competing directly with mobile is a bad choice. So would trying to usurp Steam on Xbox. A niche is waiting to be filled, and a Sega/Atari tandem could drive a new market for game developers.