Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review: Racing the Beam

I just finished reading Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort's Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies). Definitely the geekiest book so far this year for me and I really liked it.

It's the first of a series called 'Platform Studies', the goal of which is to look at the games of a given platform in the context of the platform's development, technology and business context, etc. The hypothesis is that these things end up shaping the games as much as their designers intent, and that therefore platform technology and business end up shaping the medium that is gaming.

The first of the series certainly does a good job making this case. The go over detailed looks at landmark games on the platform (e.g. Yars Revenge, Pitfall, etc) and how the hardware shaped their development. They also discuss the culture at Atari and Activision at the time, and how games built upon previous game development knowledge and innovation.

It's a great idea for a series, and Racing the Beam is a great start.

Two things like to see in future books in this series (or second edition of Racing the Beam?):
  • There was no discussion of the European release of the VCS. The limited memory of the VCS meant that programmers had to program the graphics by re-writing the memory for each scan line in well-timed dance following behind the electron beam's trace across the CRT. Display and game simulation were hard-coded to one another, not asyncronous systems like on today's platforms. So, I'd imagine that games that were to run on a PAL televison would have needed modification. Were these the same programmers that did it? Were there games that couldn't make it because of some limitation, etc? Anyhow, would have been nice to know.
  • While mention is made of the unit sales of some of the given game titles, it would have been interesting to include some tables spanning the console's life cycle. sales vs installed base vs unit sales of game titles. Were there 'evergreen' titles for the VCS? Did the sales curve decay grow steeper as the market was flooded with content?
This minor complains aside, I highly recommend the book.