The Atari VCS is the Best Way for Atari to Break Into the Console Market

And it’s exactly what I would make if I owned the Atari name.

Let’s talk about the hate the Atari VCS is getting. A few people are complaining about several aspects of the VCS that I think are actually benefits of the system. If I had the brand name, the VCS is exactly the kind of system I would make. I think it’s the best way to break into the current console market, and it’s what the market really needs right now. It’s also the best way Atari could become a contender in the next console market. Let me explain.

The VCS is not a powerful system.

So what? It doesn’t need to be a powerful system to be a usable console. In fact, if you want to appeal to the kind of people who are looking for a living room gaming machine, trying to sell them a $1200 beast of a gaming PC is the wrong approach. This system is meant to appeal to casual gamers who don’t want to build their own gaming PC. For that purpose, it has enough power to be enjoyable.

Clearly a system for casuals, and that’s not a problem.

Not only that, but it has enough power to be a great emulation machine, meaning you can play tons of retro games on it. I’ve heard a few people say if you want to play retro games, you should just get a Raspberry Pi. These people have obviously never tried to run more demanding retro games on a Raspberry Pi. The VCS is much more powerful, and it will run x86 and AMD64 instructions without hardware emulation.

One last note on this subject is that the VCS can be upgraded with more RAM and an NVMe SSD. You cannot do that with a Raspberry Pi.

The VCS costs nearly as much as a next gen console.

Well, no, it doesn’t. The VCS 800 All-In bundle is $389.99 right now. It comes with 2 controllers. Those two controllers, individually, would be $60 each. The system itself is $270, and you can likely find it for that after release. Try building a gaming PC for $270. If you could manage it, you certainly wouldn’t get a system that looks as nice as the VCS. It’s a gaming capable PC system that fits nicely under your TV and looks good for $270. That is a perfect price.

The VCS looks better than any $270 budget gaming system.

But, you might say, I’ll be able to buy an Xbox Series X for $500. Ok, do it. If you don’t want to play PC games, and have the versatility of a PC, then a Series X might be the right decision for you. In terms of price, though, let’s break it down. If we assume that an Xbox controller goes for the same price, and the Xbox comes with one of them, then the console itself is $440. That’s $170 more than the VCS.

The VCS runs Linux.

Awesome! I game on Linux, and almost every game I’ve tried runs fine. Steam Play is amazing. Some notable exceptions are games that require incompatible anti-cheat programs to run, like Destiny 2. If Linux is absolutely a deal breaker for you, the VCS can run Windows, too. Having a controller enabled GUI on top of Linux is absolutely the best console I could imagine.

Trying to use Windows with only these would probably be fairly frustrating.

In the current state of gaming on Linux, I would estimate that Linux has access to around 80% of the Windows gaming library. This includes some big, notable titles like Halo: Master Chief Collection, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Counter-Strike: GO, and Minecraft (both Java and Bedrock), which I play on my Linux rig regularly. At launch, the Atari VCS will have access to a huge game library, without the Windows tax.

The VCS runs apps like Netflix in the browser.

Also, awesome! That means Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc. don’t have to spend any extra effort on supporting the VCS, and they won’t be dropping support for it even if its sales figures crash. The fact that the VCS supports progressive web apps (through a Chromium based browser) means there are already tons of apps for it on day one. Things like Twitter and Instagram will work out of the box. That’s a great thing. I guess if there’s any downside to this approach, it would be that Atari is going to have trouble monetizing the apps for the VCS, but that brings me to my next point.

There aren’t any exclusives for the VCS.

Here is where I might agree that this is a bad thing, but not because it’s bad for the consumer. That’s actually good for the consumer, because it means besides standing on its own merits, there’s no compelling reason to buy the Atari VCS. It has to compete solely based on how good it is. Also, since there are no exclusives to Atari’s proprietary system, you wouldn’t lose anything by permanently using your VCS to run a different OS, like Windows 10. Atari has left the system open so you can do exactly that.

Where I would say that this is a bad thing is that Atari won’t be able to monetize anything on your system if you don’t run their OS and use their shop. This may be a bad business decision for Atari, but it’s definitely a good situation for us as consumers.

The VCS is Atari’s best shot at breaking into the current console market.

I mean, let’s face reality. There’s no way Atari could break into the console market with a brand new, proprietary system. Their name recognition will only go so far. Plus, everyone knows that the Atari of today is not the same company as the Atari of 1977.

What do consumers want out of a modern gaming console? Well, they want to play games and consume media on it, at an affordable price, usually in their living room setup. In order to be successful in doing that, you need a system that:

  1. Has enough power to run a number of games.
  2. Is relatively affordable.
  3. Has access to a large library of games (that people want to play).
  4. Has access to streaming media apps.
  5. Is profitable.

With the exception of #5, all of the criticisms I’ve heard of the VCS are exactly the points that could potentially create a successful entry into the console market. As for #5, if the VCS becomes a hit and makes enough profit through hardware sales alone, Atari could venture into exclusives with their next console. (Or offer additional services that I’ll talk about later.)

Let’s talk about game libraries.

There are several ways to build a system that has access to a library of games.

You can just build a Windows PC, and compete with the likes of Dell, Walmart, HP, etc. That doesn’t really set you up for the console market though, and it’s already a very competitive space. You’re also constraining yourself to the expectations of consumers who buy Windows PCs. Console consumers aren’t usually looking to buy a gaming PC to hook up to their living room TV and interact with solely through a controller. Gaming PC consumers also aren’t usually looking to buy a PC made with non standard parts that only has 32 GB of storage. The $270 Windows gaming PC market doesn’t really exist.

You can build an Android gaming box. You’ll have access to tons of games that were designed to be used on a touch screen, often times with controls permanently overlaid onto the screen. This is what multiple other companies have attempted before, and it’s never worked out. Android is a mobile OS, and as much as other companies try to massage it into a console OS, it just never quite works. You’re also at the whims of Google when it comes to the direction of the API. If you build out an entire system on Google’s current API, and their next update breaks that API, you’ve got a lot of work to continue support for that system, or you eventually lose access to the game library. If you can’t put in the effort to keep that system updated, your customers now own a very expensive paperweight. (I’m looking at you, Ouya.)

You can build an emulator. This is an approach with a history of success. Lots of devices have been relative hits with their only attractive quality being “good at emulating old consoles”. I own a GPD XD for exactly this reason. But this approach can only get you so far. Nobody is making new and more demanding Dreamcast or N64 games, so there’s little reason to get a new system if someone already has one that can emulate what they want. These systems also often suffer from the same problems as the Android gaming boxes, because they usually run Android. You’re going to have a very difficult time breaking into the console market in any meaningful way making specifically emulation boxes.

You can build a Linux PC. This approach has been tried before, with varying degrees of success. Valve tried this with the Steam Machine platform and SteamOS. At the time of launch, Wine support for Windows games was lacking, so there wasn’t much crossover from the Windows game library. Nowadays, SteamOS on a Steam Machine is a viable option for gaming, but its requirements and resulting price are more demanding than most console gamers are willing to shell out. The kind of consumers a Steam Machine would appeal to are usually the ones who would build a gaming PC themselves (like me). Valve’s Proton has come a long way, though, and there are tons of Windows games as of 2020 that will run perfectly on a low power Linux box.

What makes Atari’s approach (and position) different?

Basically, they’re not going after hardcore gamers. If you look at their first marketing image on their VCS product page, it’s two kids playing a retro game in their living room. That’s not something you need the power of an RTX 3090 for. That allows them to keep the pricing low enough that you could buy this thing as a holiday present for your kid.

Atari’s leading marketing image on the VCS product page.

I don’t think their approach to local gaming is all they have going for them, though…

The VCS is Atari’s best shot at being in the next console market.

They’re also in the best market to release a new console since the early 2000s. Right now, gaming is going through a transformation. Within the next decade, I’d bet that almost all casual gamers will transition to gaming in the cloud. High priced and high powered consoles, I think, will become a niche market. Low powered, connected thin clients are the future of console gaming. Atari is in a great position to enter into the console market with a unique console that’s performant enough to run casual games on its own, and open enough to connect to multiple streaming services for demanding games, all at a reasonable price.

If the VCS becomes a hit and gains some good market share, Atari could (or maybe has already) partner with a cloud gaming provider to build support directly into their OS, giving consumers an easy way to play cloud games on a VCS. And of course, since the VCS is open to running other OSes, you can also use any cloud gaming service available on Linux or Windows. This could set Atari up to start providing exclusives on their platform. At that point, they could be a real contender in the future of gaming consoles.

I hope the Atari VCS succeeds, and you should too.

The current market of consoles is kind of stagnant. The Xbox 360 and the Xbox Series X are basically indistinguishable aside from performance. The PS4 and PS5 have a touch pad on their controller, but little else (besides performance) has changed since PS3. Nintendo has brought consistent innovation with each console, but their ecosystem is entirely proprietary, and their consoles are completely locked down. We need more companies like Nintendo that compete on innovation rather than graphics performance, and having an open platform just sweetens the deal. Maybe the new Atari could be exactly the company we need.

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