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:
"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.
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.
Andy Pearson addressed the unfulfilled promises of publisher support.
Andy Pearson accepted that GameGadget had launched badly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?