Crispy Gamer

What If? Vol. 2

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It's sometimes comforting to think that the way things are is just the way they were meant to be -- that events were simply fated to turn out the way they did. But any honest look at history shows that changing just a few small decisions at key moments would have had a profound impact on the state of the world today. This is no less true in the 40-odd-year history of the videogame industry, which has already had its share of truly momentous moments. In this feature, I examine what might have happened if those moments had turned out just a little bit differently.

For each hypothetical here, I tried to imagine a semi-plausible situation that could have caused these seminal events to turn out differently. While not all of these situations are entirely believable given the state of the industry, I tried to give each "What If?" at least a minimal grounding in reality. These stories are meant to be entertaining thought experiments, not definitive historical takes.

With that, let's take a trip into an alternate universe where nothing is quite as we know it.

What if there was a single, standardized videogame system?

By the great videogame crash of 1983, Ralph Baer's patent for a "television gaming apparatus" had earned Magnavox much more money than the defunct Odyssey and Odyssey2 ever had. Licensees like Atari, Mattel and Coleco had to pay tribute to Magnavox for the right to sell and market their systems in the United States.

When a Japanese company named Nintendo starts teasing its Famicom system for an American release in 1985, Magnavox feels it is time to take a more active role in the market. Wielding its patent like a finely honed weapon, Magnavox presents Nintendo with a choice: Sign over the exclusive American rights to the Famicom for a small percentage of the profits, or resign itself to being locked out of the American market forever. Nintendo balks at Magnavox's restrictive terms, deciding instead to fight the patents in court. When the court rules in Magnavox's favor, though, Nintendo has no choice but to agree to the deal, figuring a small slice of the profits from American market is better than no profit at all. The renamed Magnavox Odyssey3 becomes a huge hit with Americans as soon as it hits the market, riding interest in revolutionary new games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda to bring the domestic video game market back from the brink.

What if? Vol. 2

By 1997, the names Magnavox and Odyssey have become synonymous with home videogames in the United States, in much the same way VHS became synonymous with home video recordings. The system has sold over 100 million units, and many more hundreds of millions of game cartridges representing thousands of games that push the system to its limits. A few competitors try to break Magnavox's lock on the market in the intervening years, but the company's legal team has a perfect track record defending its broad patent and defending its system from any undue competition.

But many industry watchers are unhappy with Magnavox's stewardship of the domestic game industry. They point to the arcade market, where technology has advanced well past the kinds of games that can be effectively ported to the Odyssey3's now-ancient technology. They point to Japan, where the lack of patent protections has led to a robust, competitive market, including new systems from Sony, Sega and even Nintendo.

All three companies say they'd be happy to release their latest systems in the United States, but Magnavox is reluctant to introduce a new standard into the American market. Sure, the new systems with their fancy graphics and CD-based storage might have been cutting-edge, but the Odyssey3 was familiar, dependable, a known quantity. Why confuse the market with a new system that won't work with the hundreds of millions of Odyssey3 games sold so far, Magnavox asks privately? Why ask gamers to spend hundreds of dollars on a new system when they're perfectly satisfied with the Odyssey3, for the most part? Why risk alienating the established base of consumers when there's no risk of competition?

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What if Sony developed the SNES-CD for Nintendo, as originally planned, rather than the PlayStation?

It's hard to imagine a bigger marketing blitz than that for the SNES-CD's release in the summer of 1993. In development for nearly two years as a joint venture between Sony and Nintendo, the CD-based add-on for the Super NES is heralded as "the future of gaming" in preview press and seen as a much more viable product than Sega's already-faltering Sega CD add-on.

But the highly anticipated launch fails to live up to the sky-high expectations. All but the hardest of hardcore early adopters are turned off by the $250 price tag and early reports of extremely slow loading times for the early CD drive. The software library doesn't exactly sell the system, either -- Nintendo's Super Mario World+ is largely seen as the half-hearted, rushed expansion pack that it is, and cautious third parties save their major releases for the established customer base and proven technology of the SNES base unit. Over the next two years, the SNES-CD will play host mainly to a selection of barely interactive full-motion-video-heavy games (many ported directly from the Sega CD) and tepid spin-offs to established Nintendo series. Few if any must-play games emerge for the system.

By the spring of 1995, CD-ROM technology has become a running joke in the game industry. Most publishers and consumers see the technology as a costly, unnecessary upgrade that didn't add much, if anything, to the state of the art in gameplay. Nintendo officially gives up on the SNES-CD in April 1995, focusing instead on the Nintendo 64. Sega similarly abandons its growing array of Genesis add-ons to focus on the Saturn, which returns a focus on cartridge-based games. Sony, stung by the reaction to its first foray into gaming, retreats to more familiar consumer electronics like VCRs and televisions.

What if? Vol. 2

As Sega and Nintendo's new systems battle each other to a virtual standstill out of the gate, the cartridge format is threatening to burst at the seams. Big-name games for the Saturn and Nintendo 64 increasingly require more and more memory to hold 3-D graphics textures and complex programming routines. The cost and size of cartridge memory fall much more slowly than the demand for more storage space, leading to cartridges stacked tall with arrays of ROM chips, rising like obelisks out of their top-loading systems. Cartridge prices slowly creep up to keep up with the cost of materials, topping out around $100 in late 1997.

But not everyone has given up on CD-ROM technology for gaming. Panasonic, after learning its lesson from the do-it-all CD-i, markets its 3DO system solely as a new direction in gaming. Sure, the system stumbled out of the gate in 1993 with a shockingly high $700 price point and no real system-selling games, and Panasonic struggled to attract interest from publishers and consumers, slashing the system's price and spending a fortune on marketing, all to no real effect.

That all changes in 1996, when SquareSoft shocks the world by announcing its next Final Fantasy game won't come out for the Nintendo 64, as expected, but for the 3DO. "Only the 3DO's CD-based storage can contain the grand vision we have for Final Fantasy VII," the company declares in a press release. The announcement sends shockwaves through the gaming world. When Final Fantasy VII is released to universal critical acclaim, gamers begin to snap up the now-$200 3DO in record numbers. Many publishers, tired of seeing slowing sales for their $100 cartridges, give Panasonic's system a second look. Developers begin to realize that CD storage could be used for more than grainy video and CD-quality soundtracks. By 2000, when Panasonic announces its follow-up M2 system, it's carved out an impressive 30 percent of the market with games like Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Read more What If? speculation.