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 cause these seminal events to turn out differently. While not all of these situations are entirely believable given the state of the industry history, 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 Atari never released the arcade version of Pong?
Undeterred by the commercial failure of the overly complex Computer Space (the first coin-operated videogame), Nolan Bushnell bullheadedly pushes on with the release of Computer Space 2 in late 1972. The sequel runs on more powerful hardware, which Bushnell puts to work towards more realistic physics modeling for the game's black-and-white spaceships. CS2 is even more complicated that the first game, with new buttons and switches added for directional retro-thrusters, multiple missile launchers and even a limited-use cloaking device. After an amazingly successful test run in a bar frequented primarily by M.I.T. physics students, the game goes on to receive an incredibly poor reception at coin-op trade shows. Less than a dozen units are eventually ordered and produced, and none of them grosses more than $10 in its original location.
Magnavox, meanwhile, starts to find some niche success with its Odyssey home videogame system, thanks primarily to intense, focused holiday marketing. In February 1973, an enterprising young bar owner in Lansing, Michigan, struggling to attract new patrons, brings in the Odyssey he got for Christmas and hooks it up to an old, underused black-and-white TV in the corner of his bar. Word of mouth starts to attract lines of curious, thirsty players to the end of the bar. The drunks seem especially taken with the Odyssey's simple, built-in Tennis game. The bar owner starts charging 25 cents a play just to keep the crowds manageable.
Other Lansing bars quickly start to emulate the play-and-drink idea. The micro-trend leads to a major lifestyle story on the front page of the Detroit Free Press, which then gets picked up by the New York Times. Spurred by the article, bars nationwide experiment with their own corner Odysseys. Magnavox, intrigued by this totally unintended use of its hardware, quickly creates and markets a set of "do-it-yourself" instructions for installing an Odyssey system and a TV in a free-standing wooden "cabinet," complete with a coin slot and money box to free up busy bartenders. The idea is a smashing success, not just in bars but convenience stores, doctors' waiting rooms, airport terminals and other open areas where people congregate. The success of the 25-cents-to-try cabinets drives demand for the home system, which quickly becomes hard to find at retail. Magnavox creates an Odyssey division that quickly grows to rival the size of its venerable TV production unit.
Following the money, other electronics companies try to copy Magnavox's success, including an underfunded Atari. Magnavox will have none of it, though, unleashing its massive legal department to defend its patents against anyone with the temerity to try to create an interactive game designed for the television. This strident legal wrangling gives Magnavox a near-monopoly over the domestic videogame market for over a decade. In Japan, however, a traditional card and toy company has developed a videogame system of its own...
What if Atari had avoided the "crash" and faced Nintendo head-on?
In early 1982, a forward-thinking Nolan Bushnell begins to recognize that an increasing flow of low-quality, third-party software could cause permanent damage to the image of the Atari 2600. To extend more control over the market, Bushnell spearheads development of what will become the Atari 2700. The new unit plays all old Atari 2600 games but also introduces a new, more-powerful chipset that supports an improved two-button joystick. The 2700 also includes a revolutionary lockout chip, which allows Atari to block games from companies that don't pay a hefty licensing fee. The system launches in time for the 1982 holiday season and quickly becomes a must-have item thanks largely to Pitfall!, an amazing new run-and-jump game developed by Atari's first first-party developer Activision (rumor has it that Atari paid over $50 million to acquire the fiercely independent company). Soon, games designed for the 2600 are considered "old-fashioned" and "boring," and a dozens of third-party developers are clamoring to pay for access to the 2700's new chipset and constantly growing base of gamers.
By 1985, when Nintendo first tests its new Entertainment System in America, Atari has had uninterrupted control of the lion's share of the home console market for nearly eight years. At first, the NES fails to cause much concern at Atari, but the company slowly begins to take notice when the revolutionary Super Mario Bros. starts dominating industry chatter and the sales charts. Shaken by this brash foreign newcomer, Atari speeds up its plans for the long-planned Atari 2800, an incremental update to the 2700. The newest Atari system is technically slightly less powerful than the NES, but it comes with a lower price tag (subsidized by years of Atari profits) and a copy of Pitfall III, the sequel to the first videogame to sell 10 million copies.
In the great console war of the late '80s, most game-makers are forced to stick with Atari's proven success, thanks to restrictive non-compete clauses in the Atari 2700 licensing agreement. Still, Nintendo attracts support from Japanese companies like Capcom and Konami that have never operated in America, thus securing exclusive rights to the home versions of some of the biggest arcade hits of the late '80s. Nintendo also attracts some new up-and-coming American developers, who use the NES' power and lower licensing fees to experiment with bold new experimental gameplay genres. While "in-the-know" gamers tend to prefer the unique, import-infused library for the NES, the masses prefer Atari's well-known domestic brand, which is bolstered by a massive advertising campaign that buries Nintendo's largely grassroots efforts. By 1990, Nintendo has managed to carve out a niche that represents an impressive but relatively insignificant 25 percent of the market. But Nintendo has a new system in the works...
What if Nintendo never released the Game Boy?
With sales of its once-popular Game & Watch units starting to flag by 1989, Nintendo decides to abandon the portable market and focus its efforts on the extremely lucrative NES. Atari's Lynx, a clunky, overpriced, battery-hog of a portable system that had attracted minimal interest at first, gets a new lease on life when Atari acquires the exclusive portable licensing rights to an addictive little Russian puzzle game called Tetris. To capitalize on the surefire hit, Atari designs the Lynx Lite for the 1990 holiday season. This new version of the system is the same on the inside, but sports a much smaller form factor, longer battery life, a brighter screen and, most importantly, a copy of Tetris included in every box. Sega's Game Gear puts up some token resistance, but the Tetris-powered Lynx takes off, selling 5 million units in during the 1990 holiday season alone.
Some investors begin to push Nintendo to create a portable system of its own, but the Big N decides it can't afford to take on the Lynx while also defending the newly launched Super Nintendo Entertainment System against the threat of the suddenly hot Sega Genesis. Third-party developers increasingly decide to create simplified, portable Lynx versions of their games alongside those for the Super Nintendo and Genesis. Nintendo and Sega eventually come to the same conclusion, effectively ceding the portable market to Atari by publishing portable versions of their top franchises for the Lynx.
By 1994, the Lynx has a library of over 600 games and near-uncontested control of the portable market. Nintendo decides that it's suddenly not too fond of letting another hardware maker profit from its hottest software franchises (flagging cash reserves from the punishing home console wars might have something to do with this). The company quietly slows down development of games for the Lynx as it prepares to take the portable market by storm with a new kind of system -- one that has a stereoscopic, 3-D, head-mounted display. The Virtual Boy makes a minor splash when it's first released, but the system's clunky design and headache-inducing display fail to attract the support of both gamers or third-party developers. A year later, Atari releases the Lynx Next, a traditional 16-bit portable with a backlit screen that cements Atari's control of the ever-growing portable segment of the market.
By 2000, Sony's PlayStation has effectively sucked up the majority of home console gaming dollars. Without an alternative revenue stream, Nintendo is forced to team up with an equally ailing Sega to release the DreamCube, a desperate joint effort to compete against the Sony juggernaut. When inter-company infighting between Sega and Nintendo causes the DreamCube to predictably fail, the cash-strapped companies decide to drop out of the hardware business and focus exclusively on software. Shortly after dropping out of the hardware race, both companies announce major new releases for the just-announced Lynx DS, expected to be in stores by the end of 2005.