a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

jaguar homebrew: why

🥇 Thanks to maya.land and goofpunk for sponsoring the blog! If you'd like to learn how to support my writing and get a shoutout here every week, check the sponsors page. 🥇


One of the games Jeff Gerstmann played in the Jaguar CD stream I linked to the other day is an unlicensed homebrew game released in 2017. It's called Fast Food 64.

imgur

This is doubly impressive because it's homebrew not only for a system that's been dead for 20 years, but one that practically nobody cared about even when it was new. (the developer stopped selling Jaguar CD games, but it's still available as a cartridge. I don't know if it's different. It doesn't seem like it.)

As perverse as it is, I can sort of see the logic here: sure, your maximum lifetime customer base might be 50 freaks,1 but each of those freaks is probably dedicated enough to be a guaranteed sale. Supply for new Jaguar games is so limited that I expect anyone who's still interested in buying them will take whatever they can get.

imgur

I make computer games, and I haven't sold anywhere close to 50 copies of any of them, even at 1/30th the price of a Jaguar game, because there's just too much supply. If I could find a niche I was interested in working in, I would. But I've never had the capital to invest in development hardware or software beyond the computer I already own, and certainly not production of physical goods, so I dont't have much choice.

Of course, anyone buying a Jaguar game in 2023 isn't really buying a game, they're buying a feeling. There is some number of adults in the US whose parents backed the wrong horse when they were children, and got them an Atari Jaguar. When we're kids, we don't have as much capacity for really thinking critically about our entertainment, and our options were severely limited pre-internet, so we played what we had, good or bad, and we learned to love it.

I expect few people in the market for new Jaguar games in 2023 are going to see a new homebrew release and go "I'm not buying that, it looks like garbage!" unless it doesn't meet a minimum standard of graphical fidelity, and even that's not always a dealbreaker --- AtariAge sells Jaguar carts that are just straightforward ports of Amiga games. It doesn't really matter what the game is, and people are willing to pay a lot of money, because they're not buying the game: what they're buying is the almost unobtainable feeling of getting a new game for their favorite console. Of reading the back-of-the-box copy and looking at the screenshots that sparked their imaginations when they were young. Of peeling off the shrink wrap, the smell of plastic as they open the box, the smell of fresh ink as they flip through the manual, the sound of the click as they slot it into the console, the infinite possibilities the title screen holds.

Will they actually play it? Maybe for a few minutes, maybe once or twice. They'll probably spend more time admiring it on their shelf, popping open the case to look at the pristine label and manual art. They're buying the idea of the game more than the game itself.

Of course, supply is finite. Homebrew carts are made by taking a "donor cart" --- like a loose Cybermorph cartridge or something --- re-flashing or replacing the ROM, carefully removing the label and sticking on a new one. The more the homebrew market expands, the harder it'll be to find donor carts, and once they're gone, they're gone. No one's making any more. Not at any kind of scale, anyway. It might not be impossible to 3D print the case, get new custom PCBs, and source new rom chips, but it might not be economical, or they might not be as sought after as authentic carts.

Once there are no more carts, you could still make homebrew Jaguar games and sell ROMs people can play in an emulator, or on the console if they own a flash cart, but I doubt there'd be a market for that at all. People don't buy new Jaguar games to actually play them, they buy them to acquire a new Jaguar game. There's no point if you don't get an additional physical object.2

So I can understand why Wave1Games got out of the Jaguar CD business, even though it's much easier to burn a CD than to create a cartridge: Jaguar CD games were physically unremarkable compact disks in fold-out cardboard cases, not dissimilar to what CD singles or some PC games game packaged in. Getting a CD and putting it in a drive isn't a particularly magical experience. Shortly after the Jaguar CD flopped, optical discs became the de facto format, just the way everything worked for about a decade. Each different type of cartridge had its own unique shape and feel.

The physicality of putting a cartridge in a slot is memorable. This also applies to magnetic disks, cassette tapes, records and 8-track cartridges: handling the media is a positive mechanical action that creates a feeling one can feel nostalgia for. That's why you see Megadrive homebrew carts but very rarely homebrew Sega CD games. That's why music CDs will never have a nostalgia market the same way records and cassettes do: they're just too boring.

Of course, in real life, there's no reason to do any of this. What matters is the data, not the thing the data is stored on. Being able to distribute media without making more plastic crap was supposed to be the future, but clicking a button to make a digital purchase (or get files another way) doesn't provoke the same feeling as acquiring and using a new physical object. That's why the name of the game since the mid-2000s has been figuring out how to emotionally incentivize people to spend money on artificially scarce goods. Most of the emotions they target are negative: guilt and fear of repercussions for piracy, FOMO for each of the dozen streaming services you're supposed to subscribe to if you want to be part of the zeitgeist, addiction for free-to-play games and platforms like Steam that have gamified shopping. And good old-fashioned anxiety for people who are still exposed to ads. Compared to all that, I can understand why someone would be into collecting physical games.

It's kind of a bummer for me. I just want to be able to make stuff, put it on the internet, and have people who like it pay me to keep doing it. I don't want to sell trinkets or lock stuff behind a paywall or make people feel guilty. But there's no dopamine rush associated with rewarding someone whose work you benefit from. We saw this recently with the developer of core-js lamenting his lack of funding. I have no idea what a "polyfill" is, but if as many billion people have downloaded it as he claims, it's absurd that he's not getting fairly compensated for it. His attempts to ask people to pay him are met with scorn and derision, whereas companies that use the aforementioned tactics (artificial scarcity, guilt, fear, FOMO, addiction, ad anxiety) get rewarded because that's just the way business is done.

Anyway, good news for speccy players and fans of old bullshit: my next collection of games will be released exclusively for the Sinclair Microdrive!

imgur

MSRP $600 🦝


  1. hello, fellow freak and weirdo here. I use the term endearingly.↩

  2. there are lots of reasons someone might make a homebrew Jaguar game: they themselves have nostalgia for it, they want a tough programming challenge, they're masochists, etc. No disrespect to homebrew in general, I think it's cool to make stuff for weird platforms, it's just the cartridge business I find confusing.↩

#games #tech #essay