Atari VCS is Failing Fast Even Before Official Launch

How to kill a customer base.

Atari is asleep at the wheel again. Yet another junk title was released for the Atari VCS recently, Utopos, and it is pretty much the last straw for me in so many ways:

  • No apparent quality assurance (QA) or curating from Atari for store entry
  • A mini game priced at $10 instead of $1 (dev’s fault… but why?)
  • Apparent favoritism towards those who already have another game in the store
  • No communication from Atari to all signed-up developers
  • No access to the VCS platform as promised

Utopos appears to be an unfinished piece of junk in a candy wrapper — but there is no indication in the Atari store that it is an early-access title. The store version says 4. The in-game version says 1.10. Sure sounds like a production release. The Steam store, however, for the PC version says 1.11… but it is also somehow still in early access on Steam. Regardless of the version and production status, this game shows that Atari hasn’t learned a thing from the video game crash last century. QA matters.

The launch version of Utopos on the VCS has the joystick hooked up backwards in the menus. How do you miss something that obvious? Clearly there is no QA check for the store. Furthermore, if you launch the game with a classic controller connected in the first Bluetooth slot, you can’t play the game with the modern controller even though you can navigate the menus (backwards) with it. That’s a bit less obvious but also something any decent QA step would catch.

Perhaps the bigger problem with Utopos is that there just isn’t much there other than a bunch of pretty particle effects. Otherwise, it’s just a shallow multiplayer game with Asteroids-like controls, spaceships that look like cow skulls, and somehow steals 1GB of the VCS’s 20GB of storage. I don’t mind small or, even, shallow games… but they should still have a spark of fun game design in them somewhere. Is Atari so easily wowed by simple, 21st-century effects — effects that any average programmer can add in afternoon in most game engines these days?

Worse, the VCS fans seem to be thus easily wowed. I see lots of gushing on the Atari VCS Founders Discord server over anything released on the VCS, and trashing on those who may say otherwise. Atari’s Discord feels like a creepy cluster of mid-life-crisis men (my age) with stupid grins for Atari and who haven’t touched a video game in thirty years. If that’s a video-game customer base that you think you can rebuild an empire on — even a niche sub-empire… yeah, good luck with that.

Currently, there are 21 games in the VCS store and the lowest-rated ones are still 4 stars. All sunshine and roses here. Maybe Atari is curating the store well after all and I’m just biased. Maybe. It seems to me, however, that all games start out with 5 stars up to around 25 ratings before the more-discerning players get suckered into it and drop it to 4 stars (if they drop it). If that’s not a sign that an abundance of VCS fans are simply happy with pretty pixels coming from an Atari machine, then what is it?

The warning signs of this lack of QA were there from the start when one of the launch titles, Mutazione, came with this warning on the store page: “NOTE: Action button on controllers is ‘Y’.” What!? How is a note on the store page a fix? I haven’t played the game so maybe Y for action makes sense somehow but: Why then put a note about it on the store page if it makes sense? It just looks like another QA failure to me. Yet another game makes an obvious fail by using X for the back button instead of B. No standards on button layout for store acceptance, obviously. Whatever.

Even Atari’s own launch title, Atari Vault 1 & 2, is a total QA failure, which I previously covered in my post about the Atari Vaults and won’t get into again here.

To be clear, not all the titles are junk — just too many of them seem to be thrown onto the store just for the sake of bulking it up. To be fair, I haven’t played most of them because I don’t have the budget for that (I have just six titles so far). Thus, I’m left to gleaning secondary information to deduce some of what is going on. Lack of careful curation seems evident everywhere I look. Such lack of curation is exactly what I was worried about most — by far — in my first post about the VCS.

My personal issue with much of this is that there now appears to be an exclusive club for “indie” developers that is hard to break in to. If you’re in, you can publish junk (apparently). If not, good luck getting any kind of developer access to the VCS from Atari.

I’ve been on Atari’s developer email list since May 2018. Since then, I’ve heard from them only twice: May 2019 and December 2019 (16 months ago). Given that it is what the developers publish that mostly makes or breaks a system, this is more than just a mind-numbing failure. You would think that they would be hitting us with information once a week right now. I’ve tried emailing them directly. Nothing. I’ve tried making noise on their super-poorly-organized Discord. Nothing. No, this is not a mere failure with developers — it is total (as in, total) incompetence.

Atari teased us that if we built Linux games with Unity, we would be able to run them on the VCS when it came out.

From Atari’s Indiegogo campaign page:

Enjoy access to all-new games, remastered favorites, classic console emulators, streaming multimedia services and personal apps — or create and share your own.

Is Atari VCS going to have a fully-compatible 2600 (or any Atari system) emulator on it? Yes. We hope to have a 2600 emulator available at launch, with others to follow at later dates.

So far, 4 months after receiving my VCS for backing the Indiegogo campaign, the most interesting parts of those statements are nothing but lies!

“… create and share your own.” The biggest deceit of all. I don’t mind not being able to get my games into the Atari store yet — even I know they aren’t ready for the store (even though one of my games is probably more ready than some other titles there). No, what I mind are all the hints that we would be able to sideload our games onto the Atari OS if nothing else — that this would be a platform for emulators, indie devs, and homebrew. It’s just a big bait-and-switch so far.

I received my VCS in late December 2020. The first thing I was planning to do with my new VCS (other than to make sure it works by checking out the Atari Vault for a minute) was to get to work loading the Linux build of my early-access game onto it. The VCS, after all, was the primary motivation for pushing to get a Linux build of the game working. But, no, there was to be no such Atari happiness for Christmas 2020. The VCS promises were a dud.

(Yes, you can boot up in other OSs on external drives to run whatever but… big deal! What’s the point in that? If I wanted that I would have just bought an NUC or Pi. The Atari OS and launcher is what makes this a console maybe worth targeting.)

So, okay, the VCS itself was still early access. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Silence from Atari while I poked these topics here and there. And yet… stuff like Utopos continues to hit the store… magically.

Sure, maybe I’m being a bit unfair here because I’m hurt that Atari is ignoring me because maybe my games are terrible. (Personally, I suspect Atari is ignoring me because I haven’t gotten to the point of adding polish like music, final art, overused camera shake, and overblown particle effects — never mind the craft of good design, engineering, and fun. To get Atari’s attention, I should maybe instead build pretty polish first while hoping a good game somehow emerges under all that fluff. Yeah… no thanks.)

Regardless — aside from my personal feelings — how does Atari explain all the silence, the broken promises, and lack of curation and QA?

Do I want the VCS to fail? Of course not. The hardware is nice and I still have plans for games to release for it. But, right now, I’m terribly miffed about it. I know I am not alone in this — I have heard others with similar feelings. I say the hard words other may fear to say, with the impossible hope of making things better. Otherwise, I wouldn’t waste the time.

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