What 1996 May Hold For Game Technology

(This column first appeared in the January 2, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal last week, which stated that 16-bit console game sales were almost as strong this last Christmas than the year before, while the newer, costlier 32-bit and 64-bit console systems had a tough time competing. To underscore this point, Atari even permanently slashed the price of the Jaguar 64 to a mere $99 to try and be more competitive with yesterday’s platforms. The WSJ article claims that almost 4 million 16-bit consoles were sold in 1995, most of them in December, and several hundred thousand more could have been sold if the supply hadn’t temporarily run out. That’s compared to under a million units sold of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation combined. This also means that Nintendo’s delay in coming out with the Ultra 64 seems to have hurt them less than analysts predicted when Sega and Sony started shipping their next generation systems.

Looking at Sega’s strategy, for example, it’s plain to see that while they are pushing their new Sega Saturn system, they are also not neglecting the old and new owners of the more common Sega Genesis 16-bit console, with new games like Vectorman, which includes 3-D like features.

So why are 16-bit games and consoles still so much more popular that the obviously better and sexier new systems? The best indication seems to be one of price/performance. Many users are quite happy with the broad range of games available to them on the much less expensive 16-bit systems. In PC terms, this could be deemed a resistance to upgrades.

The next question is, will this attitude carry forward into the PC market, and more particularly, will it have an effect on the up and coming 3-D graphics board market? Will users be content to continue running games like Doom, Hexen, Terminator, and others which simulate 3-D entirely in software, at low resolutions? I predict many will be content with  today’s software only 3-D technology, and won’t feel a need to shell out more money for 3-D hardware acceleration. As I see it, the potential consumer 3-D market will be split into two categories: 3-D upgrades and new 3-D systems.

The first category includes people who already have systems they are reasonably content with, or who purchase new systems which don’t have innate 3-D ability – either because of cost or because they are not on the leading edge. My guess is that many of these people will not be willing to part with $200-400 in 1996 just to get 3-D hardware acceleration, being more likely to spend such money on increasing CPU speed.

The second category covers those people who buy leading edge systems which include consumer-grade 3-D hardware. This group will, by nature, be significantly smaller than the former.

All in all, the people who are most likely to buy 3-D graphics hardware in 1996 are early adopters – either those upgrading, or those buying new leading edge systems. The whole 3-D hardware game then comes down to the question, how many early adopters will surface in 1996?

Perhaps Christmas 1996 will spike the curve a little more, but I think it’s really too soon to tell.

On a separate note, some of you may have been following the controversy surrounding Synchronys Softcorp, and their hot-selling SoftRAM 95 product. SoftRAM 95 is touted as a RAM doubler that will help boost system performance and memory utilization under both Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. A press release from the company on December 20th touts SoftRAM 95 as receiving the top honor from Multimedia World – an All-Star Award – in the January 1996 issue. Well, I certainly would not want to be in the shoes of Multimedia World. Shortly after this press release was issued, Synchronys admitted that they were being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission because of complaints that their software didn’t do anything at all for Windows 95, despite claims by the company to the contrary.

Apparently, when reports that the software did nothing for Windows 95 first surfaced, the company starting putting stickers on the package that stated the software only worked with Windows 3.1, removing any mention of Windows 95. Even then, some experts claimed the software wouldn’t even help under Windows 3.1. Things got even worse for Synchronys when Microsoft said SoftRAM 95 did not pass the necessary certification to use the “Designed for Windows 95” logo, which the software had on the box. To top it off, PC Magazine found that part of the code used in SoftRAM 95 was lifted from shareware, and Andrew Schulman, noted Windows 95 critic, documented where a chunk of SoftRAM 95 code was virtually identical to the PAGESWAP.ASM code found in the Windows 3.1 DDK. Synchronys officials finally admitted the product was basically a placebo. The culmination of this sordid tale is that Synchronys followed up the Multimedia World press release with an announcement that they would refund customers the price paid for SoftRAM 95, with proof of purchase, no questions asked. If you are among the masses that has SoftRAM 95 and proof of purchase you can apply for a full refund from Syncronys at Syncronys SoftCorp, c/o Starpack, Inc., P.O. Box 12130, Greeley, Colorado 80631.

I question how something like this could have gone as far as it did. Was it greed? Was it stupidity? Only time will tell. One lesson that this does teach, though, and that’s not to try to snow your customers by selling them a cure that doesn’t even come close to working.