On July 3, 2012, there appeared a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter for “a new kind of video game console” bearing the cryptic name “OUYA.” The pitch described the game system as an inexpensive, open-source game console that would be friendly to developers and users alike. Developers were promised an inexpensive development kit and a chance to hold thirty percent of the sales profits. Meanwhile users could open up the system and do whatever with it.
Needless to say the upstart Kickstarter generated a lot of buzz among video game critics and players alike. Some praised the opportunity for homebrew development while others cited the potential for unchecked piracy. Developers argued the potential merits and pitfalls of the allegedly indie-friendly game console (There have been some interesting debates for and against the OUYA at Gamasutra so be sure to check those out). Still others called the ambitious project an outright hoax (see here and here), citing among other things the project’s misleading advertising (the pitch video showed Minecraft on OUYA’s game library even though Notch made no promises of his game’s inclusion) and vague, lofty promises. Hoax or not, there certainly was a demand for such as system as evidenced by the fact that OUYA reached their $950,000 goal within hours and went on to raise nearly $8.6 million by the August 9 closing date.
The sheer intensity of the fundraising was unprecedented; however, the promises made by the makers of OUYA is reminiscent of earlier attempts to break into the video game industry. Over the next two posts I will highlight the history of two earlier video game systems in order to approach the OUYA from a historical perspective. My hope is that it will help offer some fresh insight into the impact of the OUYA and its role in gaming history.
The first one is likely one you may not have heard of. It does not have the mass nostalgic following of other game systems or a noteworthy library of iconic titles but it has had quite an impact on gaming history all its own. It could even be argued as the original “open source” video game system. Here is a brief introduction to the Bally Professional Arcade.
In early 1978 pinball and slot machine manufacturer Bally entered the burgeoning home computer and programmable video game market with the release of the Bally Professional Arcade. Early marketing for the Arcade emphasized the new system’s versatility, celebrating the Arcade as capable of tackling a wide variety of tasks from gameplay to teaching math skills to balancing budgets. In addition, ads created by JS&A, a Chicago-based mail order firm tasked with distribution and sale of the Arcade, enticed potential customers by promising they could use the Arcade to learn about computer programming and develop their own software. (you can check out the various print ads here). In keeping with this theme, following the Arcade’s release, Bally released Bally BASIC, a cartridge that allowed users to develop and run programs coded in BASIC. A special attachment allowed users to retrieve or dump the code onto cassette tapes, making it possible to distribute programs to other users. In order to appeal to the emerging home personal computer market Bally also promised the future release of an expansion unit (later called the “Add-On” or “Add-Under”) that attached to the Arcade and provide expanded memory and a full-fledged keyboard (in the meantime, aspiring Bally programmers had to enter data via a 24-key keypad built into the system). Future attachments were also promised, including a printer and modem.
Faced with delays, hardware issues (many of the early units were susceptible to fatal overheating) and a high pricetag ($300), the Arcade never made the kind of economic or cultural splash that Bally had hoped. It was quickly overshadowed by the Atari Video Computer System (aka the Atari 2600), which while technically inferior was cheaper and had a robust library of popular arcade titles. Bally abandoned the system in 1981, selling the rights to Astrovison, a Columbus-based start-up that attempted to market the Arcade under a new name–Astrocade. Despite a $10 million ad campaign in 1982, Astrovision–renamed Astrocade– failed to gain success. Astrocade fell in and out of bankruptcy and folded in 1984, one of the many victims of the home video game industry crash of the mid-1980s.
Despite the Arcade’s rocky financial history, a group of dedicated users embraced the system. An engineer living in San Jose, CA, named Bob Fabris founded a newsletter devoted to the Arcade in November 1978, titled Arcadian (the full run can be found here). Arcadian quickly became a gathering point for hobbyists across the country interested in exploring the hardware and software capabilities of the system. Driven by user content, Arcadian published code for programs created in BASIC, reviews of first- and third-party games, and tutorials for using the limited capabilities of the system to the utmost. It also became a rallying point for users to create local fan clubs, the largest of which was the Michigan BUGs. The Arcadian community even outlived the makers of the Astrocade, remaining in circulation until 1986. The user community lives on today on the web through Bally Alley, a web-based user community founded by Adam Trionfo. Trionfo, an enthusiast of obsolete computer technology has maintained a detailed collection of materials related to the Arcade. on his website dedicated to the system.
The Arcade became a point of entry for people interested in getting involved in the burgeoning home computer and video game industries. Several of the more advanced programmers among the Arcadian community founded their own indie game companies, developing and marketing their software through the pages of Arcadian. Sometimes they were original programs; in other cases, they created Bally adaptations of commercial titles, such as Pac-Man and the infamous E.T.. When Bally and later Astrocade failed to deliver a memory expansion unit, several users developed, marketed and sold their own. One company–Alternative Electronics–even earned the nod from Astrocade to produce the official Add-On (although their version never reached beyond the prototype phase).
So what can the Bally Arcade teach us about the OUYA? Bally certainly used the prospect of home programming as a selling point. Whether or not that is what Bally intended with the release of the Arcade is another question altogether, and the vague, broad nature of Bally’s marketing of the Arcade suggests a lack of clear vision for what purposes users would apply to the system. This ambiguity could be attributed to the amorphous nature of the early home computer industry as companies such as Apple and Tandy attempted to determine how average consumers would use computers; it would explain why so many advertisements of the time fell back on the idea that users could do anything they imagined computers could do (an early ad for the Apple II promised the computer could go “as far as your imagination can take it”). OUYA is also trying to entice potential consumers with high promises. Time will tell if their system can live up to them.
However, one thing to keep in mind is some of the most active times for homebrewers on the Arcade were some of the worst financial times for the system. Indie producers were often the only source of new hardware and software, especially while Bally moved away from supporting the Arcade and Astrocade languished in bankruptcy court. Astrocade, a newcomer to the video game industry, was never effective as a business, and faced an uphill battle when it decided to market a system during a saturated game market. It will remain to be seen how OUYA, another newcomer, fares in the current gaming world.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Bally Professional Arcade, be sure to check out my discussion on homebrewing that I presented at Drexel University’s W.W. Hagerty Library. I also recommend you take a look at Bally Alley, the modern iteration of the Bally user community and the best resource for information on the Arcade. They also maintain a Yahoo Group where current and former enthusiasts keep in touch and discuss the Arcade, so be sure to drop in and say hello.
Next week, I’ll examine another historic parallel to the OUYA: a game system that never actually existed.