Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why the Famicom Has Aged Well Part 2: No Planned Obsolescence

This is the second part in my series examining why the Famicom has aged well. Oh boy.

This time I make the basic argument that the Famicom has held up well simply because it was designed to do so. In this regard it is a wholly different, and vastly superior, creature than the type of consoles that producers are interested in making today.

I start off with an interesting, though not entirely scientific, comparison. Here is a pile of 11 old-school Famicoms:
These are all of my red and white Famicoms, gathered here and there over the past couple of years. Here are a few relevant statistics about this pile:

91% of them (10 out of 11) come from junk piles.

82% of them (9 out of 11) are in working condition.

26 years is their average age (rough estimate).

300 yen (3$ US) is the average price I paid for them.

1051 games were released for this console.

100% of those 1051 games can still be played on this console.

I think these stats are fairly impressive, and I'll be referring back to some of them throughout this post. The first one I want to draw everyone's attention to is the fact that 82% of these 26 year old consoles are still in working order.

Compare that with this rather shocking article about the failure rate of the current generation of consoles. Within 2 years of purchase, a whopping 23.7% of XBox 360s and 10% of Playstation 3s had failed. Within 2 years! The Wii was the only one with anything near a respectable rate of 2.7%.

These were all, it should be pointed out, purchased new and not damaged by their owners (ie they just stopped working on their own without anyone dropping them, etc.)

Lets take the PS 3 as an example as its failure rate falls roughly in the middle of the 3. If we extrapolate that ten percent every two years forward for 26 years we are left with only 25.41% of PS3s that have not failed. Yikes.

Of course we have to account for the fact that Sony is repairing the ones that failed under warranty. I don't think this will make much difference in the long run though as their warranty only lasts for 1 year (though it can be extended, I doubt few would pay to do so). Also we have to take into account that the 10% per year failure rate is for brand-spanking new models. As these things age it is reasonable to assume that the failure rate will go up. It is hard to tell how much it will go up, but I think it is safe to say that far fewer than 25.41% of PS3s currently out there will still be functioning 26 years from now.

Again - compare that with these babies:
Almost all of them come from JUNK bins, yet 82% of them are still working after 26 years.

The gist of what I am getting at here is succinctly laid out in Table 1-1 below.

Table 1-1 Piece of Crap Comparison Table

Not a Piece of Crap?

Piece of Crap?



Playstation 3


To appreciate the significance of the findings in Table 1-1 it is necessary to discuss a concept that has been slowly creeping into the video game world for some time now: planned obsolescence.

The idea is simple and probably something you all have a visceral hatred for. Manufacturers deliberately making their products less long-lasting so as to force you to buy more of them. The classic example is the light bulb. Early light bulbs produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were quite long lasting. Then in the 1920s the major bulb manufacturers realized they could sell more bulbs if they just made lower quality ones that burnt out quickly. So they formed a cartel and agreed that they would not make light bulbs which lasted more than 1,000 hours.

Video game makers aren't quite that evil, but this sort of thinking is clearly working its way into the industry. The Famicom was made to last - and it has. Current gen consoles much less so. This isnt' necessarily part of some evil plan by the makers - the fact that current consoles are much more complicated and have moving parts explains much of the difference. The old Famicom Disk System for example is way worse than the Famicom, simply because of that bloody drive belt.
So I'm not saying the manufacturers are deliberately designing consoles to break down quicker, though in fact the consoles (except maybe the Wii) do seem to be doing just that. I think its more a case of the manufacturers simply not caring if the consoles last longer than a few years, which is how long they figure they'll be able to milk them as cash cows and then move on to the next gen.

Where planned obsolescence is coming into play with the newer stuff is more with what is generally referred to as "systemic obsolescence". That is, where something like software becomes incompatible with newer systems and hence obsolete.

You can see that the video game industry is consciously moving towards making every game you buy obsolete in this sense within a few years. I don't mean obsolete as in "outdated" but obsolete as in "cannot be used at all". This article here in which the author relates his frustration at being unable to play his copy of Heavy Rain because the Playstation Network was down illustrates the point nicely. As the writer aptly points out:

"...what does bother me is that Heavy Rain is a single-player game. There is no logical reason that the game cannot be played off-line, yet because of this reported error, I was completely unable to play the game at all."

This is the sort of thing people should be really mad about. The comments to the article generally responded by saying stuff like "Yeah, but don't worry. Sony fixes these problems quickly and the system will be back up quick, so why are you complaining?"

This kind of thinking misses the long-term point though. That game will only be useful for as long as Sony is willing to incur expense to maintain the Playstation network for PS3 users. Do you really think they are going to still be doing that 26 years from now? The answer, I think, is a resounding "no". When Sony decides (as it will) that it wants everyone to buy PS4s and ditch their PS3s, all they have to do is flip a switch and presto - your PSN dependent game becomes useless.

I'm not saying that they will do that, I don't know. But the fact is, with Famicom games (and of course all old games) you don't have to worry about that. You know that so long as the thing is physically fine, it'll work. It will never be made obsolete to the extent that you cannot use it.

Of course most new games still don't require a network to function, but I predict that within a very short time, pretty much all video games will be released in this way - your continued use of it will after a certain contractually guaranteed time period be completely at the whim of the manufacturer. It'll all be digitally distributed and your use of the game will be dependent on them completely. This is the sort of thing that I dislike strongly. When you buy a physical item, you acquire full property rights to it. You can use it and dispose of it as you see fit.

When you buy something digitally, it is more like you are buying a service rather than an actual product. The company always has a string tied to the thing you bought - such as through making your use of it dependent on a service (like the PSN) that they control. You can't dispose of it as you see fit, but they can.

I think people should be concerned about this not just because of the fundamentally anti-consumer bent all of this has but because of broader concerns related to the environment and social responsibility. This point can best be summed up in one image:

This is where E-waste ends up. Poor countries with no effective health or environmental regulations where kids scavenge the toxic components for metals.

You know what doesn't end up as E-waste? Famicoms.

You know why Famicoms don't end up as E-waste? Because of what I wrote above. Famicoms are durable and they were NOT deliberately engineered to become obsolete within a few years. All 1051 game cartridges still work on them. This means that there is still a thriving market for used Famicoms even though the things are now 28 years old. Even broken ones don't usually get thrown out as they can be scavenged for parts (hence my keeping the two Famicoms I have which don't work).

Today's consoles though? Nope. Future E-waste is what they are, unless the console makers get off their asses and start taking the issue seriously (which they, and Nintendo in particular, don't). They aren't built to last and the games they have are increasingly being designed to no longer work after a few years.

To a certain extent this is by accident - the increased complexity of the consoles seems to naturally lend them to breaking down easier than simpler cartridge based consoles of the past. To a large extent though this is deliberate policy by the game makers themselves, who have a very open hatred for the used game market and seem to be doing everything they can to snuff it out by increasingly making new games nontransferable and completely useless without their networks.

So anyway, that was a much longer post than I thought it would be. But basically it all boils down to this: Old consoles like the Famicom are built to last and will never become obsolete. This is good for consumers and good for the environment. The video game industry today hates that. It wants you to have to buy stuff again and again and it really doesn't seem to give a crap about the consequences. This is one of the reasons I never buy new stuff. Partly its economic considerations, but to a large extent it is because I find all of this very disturbing and want no part of it.

Vive la Famicom: the socially responsible console.

To end on an upbeat note, I present me latest salute to the Famicom: A new world record in console-stacking. 11 consoles.


  1. Another interesting and superbly piece, thanks! I have no interest whatsoever in buying any of the current consoles for many of the reasons you mention. I would like a 360 for a couple of games and some of the Live Arcade stuff but there's so many reasons why I shouldn't get one. The poor reliability and the reliance on the online stuff are the two main reasons as you say. The PS3 is even worse - the amount of times I see someone complaining on Facebook because they just bought a new game but it had to be installed first which took an hour, then had to download patches and various other crap. Whatever happened to releasing COMPLETE products? I have an intense hatred for the current games industry and in particular the way it's heading...

    I know far too little about the Famicom/NES. I didn't know the controllers slotted in the side like that for one thing, that's awesome! :P

  2. Thanks!

    Yes, that is my problem with the new stuff - the fact that the transaction isn't simple anymore. I like the old way: I give them money, they give me the game. End of story. Now its just getting way too complicated and I don't like it.

    I'm not entirely talking from personal experience, but like you I've also noticed friends on Facebook with XBox 360s and PS3s complaining.

    And yes, the Famicom's controller slots are cool, aren't they? The NES doesn't have them for some reason.

  3. Just noticed I missed a word out of my comment! It was supposed to say 'superbly *written* piece', oops!

    Yes, you're right though, the complexity of playing console games these days defeats the object of console gaming - you're supposed to be able to buy a game, take it home, put it in your console, turn it on, and play it. That simple. Grrr!

    p.s. I like your second to last picture the most - skyscraper of Famicoms :P

  4. LOL, yes I thought there was a verb missing from that sentence!

    Simple = good.

    Actually the more I think about it, you could probably write a whole book criticizing the changes the industry is making. I suspect that the big difference between today's generation and the Famicom (and other early-80s systems) is actually the used market.

    IN the 80s (and even 90s) new consoles didn't have much of a "back catalogue" of older games on older systems to compete with. Also because the technology was developing so quickly new consoles offered a big difference over previous gens, so it was probably a lot easier to convince people to buy new stuff as it came out.

    Now though there must be tens of thousands of old games out there, many of them selling for maybe 1/10 the price of a new game or less. In functional terms, they all basically do the same thing as new games too (ie they entertain the user for a few hours). They might not be as graphically advanced, but I think people are starting to realize that graphics aren't as important as the hype would have us believe. A good game is a good game, regardless of whether it is from an Atari 2600 or an Xbox 360. And the "pay off" of jumping to a new gen console is getting less and less (The PS3 isn't as much of an improvement on the PS2 as previous generational leaps were). The Wii sold a lot, but the PS3 and Xbox 360 much less so when compared to the previous gen, indicating it is getting harder for them to convince people of the benefit of upgrading to the newest console.

    I think basically the makers have wizened up to the fact that having cheap, used games out there is eating into their bottom lines and want to just stamp that out by only offering stuff digitally. Not that this is the only reason for going digital, but it is definitely one of the motivations for it.

    It makes sense from their viewpoint, but it also has this very unpleasant "big brother" type of feel to it. Creeps me out.

    I'll stick with my good old Famicom and other ancient systems.

    And thanks, I like that photo too. Console stacking is one of my specialties!

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  6. Agreed, wise words sir! :)

    I also forgot to say that your 'table' made me chuckle most heartily! :) By the way, I hope the two Famicoms that don't work are the bottom two ;)

  7. LOL, thanks!

    I should double check that they were the bottom two!

  8. Lucky duck, I've only gotten one free NES (Front loader US model) that was being tossed out, works very well though.

    But the complexity of modern technology is becoming an issue, or as my Dad says "Its more stuff to go wrong", usually this is speaking towards cars.

  9. Thanks, Pinhead! Your dad's expression explains it perfectly! There is just more stuff to go wrong with consoles like the PS3 when compared to the older ones!

  10. Coming in late to the party here...

    I think about this issue a lot. One of my favorite games on Xbox 360 is Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (I am a TF nut), but probably about 50 to 60 percent of that game is its multiplayer mode, for which the developers elected not to include any local support at all. In other words, you can't play it unless you're using Microsoft's network.

    I recognize that at some point in the future, that network isn't going to exist - and much sooner, I suspect, the audience required to create rewarding online play is also going to be gone. When that happens, half the game will be completely unplayable.

    Similarly, even though I love my 3DS, I think about how much that console depends on Nintendo's network support. At some point that'll be gone.

    The same will never be true for games and systems of the Famicom's generation, and it's one reason that I keep going back to those games and am increasingly reluctant to buy into the current-gen stuff.

  11. Yeah, I feel your concern!!

    Actually, its been over 3 years since I wrote this, during the PS3-gen. Now that the PS-4 generation of consoles is here I`m wondering how the trends I talked about have changed (I haven`t bought any of them so I don`t know myself)!

    Hopefully your 3DS support will continue. Its not a gaming thing, but in a similar way MIcrosoft`s discontinuation of support for Windows XP more or less zonked one of my older laptops earlier this would so piss me off if something like that could happen to a console!

  12. famicom: back when they were made, console were built to last!!(except the famicoms American version, the NES) also I think the xbox 360 would have been a better example of a pile of crap system

  13. Yeah, I understand the X-Box is the poster child for crap systems :)