GameGadget has been a bit of a PR disaster. It was billed all wrong by maker Blaze; don't market a device on promises of publisher support that six months after launch still haven't materialised, and don't string customers along and then leave them in the dark. Twice.
They're harsh truths, but apparently they've now been swallowed. I've been assured by a GameGadget spokesperson that GameGadget has a future: it hasn't been left to die while Blaze concentrates on the new NeoGeo X Gold Limited Edition instead. There's even new GameGadget hardware on the way. But there we go with another promise, and GameGadget has a bad history with those.
GameGadget's story began in January this year. Back then I spoke to Mark Garrett, one of two men in charge of GameGadget. He introduced me to a handheld device with its own download store that wanted to be the iPod of retro gaming - a stellar ambition. More accurately it wanted to carve a small niche. But at £100 it was a tough sell, and no games were confirmed. All Mark Garret could promise due to NDA contracts was, "We're in communication with all the major publishers."
Eurogamer readers were unconvinced. But Mark Garrett wasn't deterred: he registered a Eurogamer account and got his hands dirty in the comments thread. So too did Blaze marketing manager Andy Pearson, who said the GameGadget business had "a lot of success" contacting some of yesteryear's biggest publishers. "We're doing everything we can to try and bring back games that people may have forgotten about (or never even heard of)," he pledged.
Meanwhile, the GameGadget website promised (and still promises) that:
"GameGadget is the future of retro gaming - imagine one device with access to potentially every retro game in history and you are thinking of the GameGadget."
"GameGadget's mission is to create the largest database of retro video games ever, with legal downloads for every game for every retro gaming format."
"Each GameGadget is capable of playing potentially over 100,000 classic titles across multiple platforms from the early years of gaming to more recent times. "
"We had to start somewhere, Like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar."Xploderadmin
Fast-forward to GameGadget's April launch, however, and only Sega had signed up - a publisher Blaze had worked with before developing the "Blaze Sega Megadrive [sic]" handheld. Fast-forward to October 2012 and still only Sega has signed up. GameGadget promised publishers a secure way to make a bit of money by licensing their old games that were being emulated here, there and everywhere. But in an ironic twist of fate, it's as an emulator that GameGadget is best used today.
It didn't help that GameGadget turned out to be a weak piece of hardware for £100. The speakers are tinny, the screen suffers from pixel problems and struggles to present a picture unless you're looking straight at it, and there's no volume control button, which means you have to quit out of a game to the main menu to turn the sound up or down. The machine's innards are weak, too. Damien McFerran's GameGadget review for Eurogamer didn't paint a pretty picture.
By late April - not even a month after launch - there was a substantial price cut to £60, and early buyers were refunded the difference. This wasn't an admission of bad sales. Quite the opposite. The other man in charge of GameGadget, Blaze's Jason Cooper, said there had been "phenomenal demand" that enabled production costs to be cut "well ahead of schedule". GameGadget had "reached its optimum price in record time", apparently.
Nevertheless, GameGadget owners were miffed. They were promised lots of publisher support and they didn't have it. There were other gripes about firmware updates and hardware problems, but publisher support was the main issue. GameGadget owners were pointed towards the GameGadget forums for discussion, where they met with an unusually belligerent moderator and GameGadget representative, Xploderadmin. (Note: by this point, in late May, Xploder had taken control of GameGadget. Blaze is a shareholder of Xploder but doesn't necessarily control the company. Xploder is known for cheat devices and typically deals directly with customers. Blaze is traditionally a distributor and doesn't have that relationship with customers. That was the thinking behind the temporary handover, a GameGadget spokesperson explained to me this week - more on that later.)
The GameGadget forums are down and they have been since last week. But I saved some Xploderadmin excerpts, spellings unaltered, for this piece.
"I think you are already barking up the wrong tree, I shan't warn you again. If you want to keep moaning please close the door on your way out.
"We are adding new games and whether they are freeware or megadrive or something else - It is not for you alone to judge or decide whether that is bad or not. For example DOOM has been added today and is an extremely popular game but as it is freeware, you probably dont want it."
"I happen to think along with many others that the GameGadget is a nifty device for £60 it allows you to play many retro games.
"The shop will fill up and Blaze will not enter liquidation.
"I have banned people who constantly break the forum rules and post off topic with no other agenda other than to bad mouth and be negative about GameGadget. Concentrating on what it doesnt do yet rather than what it does.
"The updates will happen, and I work everyday to make this happen, I think what upsets people is a cant release new stuff everyday, becuase we encounter problems we didnt forsee and that's why we try not to promise anything, becuase if we miss a dead line there are a group with metaphorical pitchfork waiting to critisize.
"It will not deter me or the rest of the team though we will make a sucess out of GameGadget.
"What you fail to realise is that we can prove to Namco, Atari etc that the main reason for negative feedback is becuase people want to buy their games and cant, and therefore get grumpy.
"Blaze may have failed to launch the product and live up to everyones expectation, but since Xploder has taken over the distribution we aim to deliver the product in the future how it was meant to be."
"We are going to prove you all wrong eventually,
"We may be not moving as quickly as you would like, but we are doing our best, I'm sorry if that's not good enough for you.
"The DRM built into the GameGadget and Application will allow publishers to embrace GameGadget with confidence.
"If we were asked could we have done it better of course I would say yes, but your blaming the wrong people, Publishers are the ones that have been dragging the heels not us. We have given them a platform and they are now beginning to realise it.
"We had to start somewhere, Like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar."
"Although I cant confirm who yet, we have signed a major publisher after some very sucessful meetings at E3.
"Apologies to all those people who are impatient for answers, I will make official announcement as soon as I can.
A regretful cluster of comments to say the least. And still there was only Sega. After that, the lines went quiet, and irritated GameGadget owners were left with more empty promises.
"We grossly misjudged how quickly we would be able to get content and we should have made it clearer at launch."Andy Pearson
GameGadget's next PR push was much more promising. Andy Pearson - remember that name? - took over with his PR company PQube. (Andy Pearson was marketing manager at Blaze when GameGadget was announced.) He held his hands up and apologised for what had gone on before and pledged to get GameGadget's relationship with its customers back on track. A thread was set up on the RetroGamer forum at the suggestion of Andy Perason, titled "GameGadget - How to Improve it". The point being that Andy Pearson had no powers to moderate it and was open to feedback. The RetroGamer forumites let him have it, but Andy Pearson came across well and soothed lots of negativity.
Andy Pearson apologised for the fake product reviews of GameGadget on Amazon.
"I agree that some of the decisions in the past have been the wrong ones. After discussing this with the team, the reasoning is actually part of a bigger picture and not simply to try and 'con' you guys into buying one (although I can obviously see how that might be seen as the case).
"One of the major complaints is 'lack of games' - however, it is a catch 22 situation with the publishers. They want to see where there content is going - if they were to look on Amazon and see it has been trashed by negative reviews, it would severely hinder the potential to get new content (meaning we can't give you guys what you want to try and resolve the problems).
"Obviously, I am not condoning what was done. I am just clarifying the reasoning behind it. I appreciate that you are all frustrated by the expectations that were set and that you expected (rightly so) more content than was delivered."
Andy Pearson addressed the unfulfilled promises of publisher support.
"With this I am referring to the updates and announcements of 'new content is coming soon' and 'we are still in discussions' etc.
"This should have been managed better. We grossly misjudged how quickly we would be able to get content and we should have made it clearer at launch, exactly what you would be getting at that time.
"I will state that at no point was this a 'lie' (although 'coming soon' could have been phrased better) - we are still in discussions with all the major publishers and content owners (excluding Lord Sugar... for obvious reasons) and until we get concrete 'no's', there is still hope for GameGadget.
"Realistically, we could get 100 games tomorrow or we could get them in 6 months... that is the truth. This makes giving you guys 'updates' difficult. Would you rather have updates saying 'yes we are still in negotiations, discussions etc.' or would you rather we keep quiet until we have results?"
Andy Pearson accepted that GameGadget had launched badly.
"It should have been much clearer when the GameGadget was finally launched exactly what you guys would be getting at that time, and how much of the initial 'idea' was still an 'idea'. Within the next week, I will update the GameGadget website to reflect it's current status much better and to reflect what it can do now and what we can do when we get new content.
"I think it is more important that we re-build the current brand. That we acknowledge that the launch was a disaster and that we now understand this is more of a long term project and that we communicate that to you guys properly going forwards."
Andy Pearson apologised about Xploderadmin, who'd been "dealt with accordingly". "Nothing like this will happen again," Pearson stressed. "If you have important issues, please come to me directly."
And then Andy Pearson disappeared, his last post written on 25th July. No goodbye, no replacement. Their hopes lifted, GameGadget customers were back in the dark. And that's largely how it's been left, until now.
"I have no axe to grind with the guys at Blaze and the article you did where I was quoted didn't exactly do me any favours."Mark Garrett
Notably absent during all of this was any communication from Mark Garrett or Jason Cooper, the men in charge. I discovered in August why Mark Garrett had gone quiet: he'd left. He had a few things to say to me in an email at the time.
"I have no axe to grind with the guys at Blaze and the article you did where I was quoted didn't exactly do me any favours.
"I believe in the GameGadget concept and the guys have done a great job getting it this far. It is an hugely ambitious project and while has it has failed to live up to expectations for both Blaze and the customer (and I'm speaking from my own point of view I have no real idea as to the reality of the situation since leaving Blaze) the idea still remains powerful and the opportunity for publishers the same.
"I left because the opportunity with Equanet came up and I couldn't refuse to chance to work with the team here and as a professional retailer the chance to be part of the wider Dixons group.
"I wish the team at Blaze and GameGadget all the best and really hope they are able to turn the tide of negative press by developing GameGadget into the device they, the customers and the industry really want it to be."
Getting hold of Jason Cooper has been a much trickier affair. I arranged an email Q&A with Jason Cooper through Andy Pearson during his stint as GameGadget PR. I was put directly in contact with Jason Cooper but made no headway after multiple phone calls and emails. Contact with Andy Pearson dried up until he confirmed what I suspected: "I'm no longer working on GameGadget," he wrote earlier this month. A draft of this investigation was written earlier this week with no contact from Blaze or GameGadget. But on Monday there was a breakthrough: a spokesperson who wished to remain anonymous, but who could speak with authority, phoned me for a chat. And then emailed me a statement clearing some things up.
"Hands up! We are sorry! We got the launch wrong in a number of ways. Firstly the price was too high, although we refunded all early adopters down to the revised £60 retail price (due to increased production runs).
"We also over-promised on the titles we believed we could bring to the table quickly. We had a lot of contracts on the table at the time we made the announcement for the GameGadget and we thought we would complete them. Although a number of them are still either in negotiation or with various legal departments, we have not got them over the line, so you can fairly say we didn't deliver on the number of games we said could be available within a reasonable time from the launch of the product. Though there was never any intention to mislead anyone.
"On day one, GameGadget could play tens of thousands of games but unfortunately we could not get the licences with the biggest players, so these games were not legally available to GameGadget users.
"What we should have said, and what we are saying going forward, is a much simpler message: 'GameGadget is a slicker version of the Dingoo, but at half the price.'"
Dingoo is the emulator and homebrew handheld that's been around since 2009, and is incredibly popular out in the Far East. Prices range around the £70 mark on Amazon.
"We are simply not going to promise anything other than the GameGadget being an incredibly able piece of kit. It comes with 10 free great Mega Drive titles. Users can find dozens of freeware titles on the Gamegadget website and there are hundreds more on the internet for them to discover.
"When we get more licensed games we will announce them, otherwise we won't be making announcements. "Although the GameGadget is capable of playing tens of thousands of games, we have not been able to licence these yet, so we are not going to make any other grand statements, but we will continue to make very good hardware, particularly when you consider the price and the competing products. "For GameGadget going forward, we are simply going to let the gaming community support it or not, like the Dingoo."
So no more promises of publisher support. GameGadget is what it is.
"We miscommunicated and have paid the price in the UK for that."GameGadget spokesperson
With three hardware revisions planned - the first to launch as soon as mid-November - the brand also has a planned future. It hasn't been left out to die as I suspected it had after talking to distributors, publishers and retailers when compiling this report.
"We have made another production run for this Christmas, the GameGadget 1.1.
"We have taken on board the comments from various people who purchased the products originally and we have changed the screen supplier and also altered the circuit slightly for the battery functionality. Small but important modifications.
"To ensure we are offering best value in the UK and Europe we are not distributing the product through other channels (as this increases the retail price).
"GameGadget will only be available from GameGadget.net and at the new price of only £39.99 - exactly half the price of the Dingoo. The GameGadget 1.1 will be available 14th November with 10 free Megadrive games - and that is it!
"We are also launching the GameGadget Pocket in Q1 2013 and GameGadget 2.0 at £60 in Q2 2013."
The GameGadget Pocket will be a smaller version of the GameGadget. I don't know how much it will cost. GameGadget 2.0 will be a more powerful, revised version of the GameGadget.
"There will be no claims when we launch, we will keep very simply to the facts. We believe we will create the right hardware and let the market decide if it is a success or failure.
"Although GameGadget is starting slower than expected in the UK, it is growing very very strongly in The Middle East, Africa, Russia, South America and Asia. Perhaps our 'no frills' approach and very aggressive pricing may allow us to build a decent user base in the UK too. We certainly hope so and we do want to get the UK market back on board."
Across all territories, GameGadget has apparently sold 20,000 units, which is much higher than I'd thought. There are still dribs and drabs left at shops like Amazon and The Hut and Zavvi, but I presume that original model will be phased out and replaced by version 1.1 here on out.
"Lastly, despite the negativity towards the GameGadget in some camps, we have not tried to defend it. A lot of it has been warranted, some of it, to be fair, hasn't, but we are not complaining. We miscommunicated and have paid the price in the UK for that.
"We want to put this right by providing a product that is technically more able than our nearest rival but at half the price. There are also a lot of very positive people who have supported GameGadget from the start and we are incredibly grateful for that.
"So, we are sorry, no doubt about that, and we would like to move on. If anyone can help us to licence games, we would love to reward them commercially too."
I'm told there will be a renewed PR push and with it, perhaps, some communication with GameGadget owners again.
On the surface it's a frank admission of a wonky product launch and a vow to do better. It's a start, even if we've heard it all before. Mind you, the niche GameGadget occupies isn't iPod-colossal. The people most enthusiastic about GameGadget were those who spent £100 on it back in April. They could have been invaluable preachers of the GameGadget brand, but instead they became vocally disgruntled customers. In the UK at least, it's a steep uphill PR battle GameGadget will have to fight.
So I'd urge trepidation. Are these quick-given promises to detract negativity from the NeoGeo X Gold Limited Edition launch on 6th December? And how will Blaze recompense those GameGadget supporters who bought the inferior launch model?