The Fear of Disappearing Servers and Rare Systems Unplayed
Somewhere deep within the cob-webbed recesses of my attic, nestled within a cardboard diaper box and taped up using Family Dollar’s finest scotch, you’d find a system that I went to great lengths to purchase a few years ago and got to play a total of zero times. It’s called the Zeebo and, in the event that you’ve never heard of it, allow me to recap.
Tectoy, a Brazilian company founded back in 1987, boasts a long history of publishing and distributing Sega’s consoles and software to South American countries had come to the realization that a large segment of the market there simply couldn’t afford to lay out the exuberant costs of modern video game equipment coming out of Japan and the United States.
If You Build It Cheap, They Will Come
Tectoy’s hardware consisted of a gaming processor from Qualcomm’s BREW mobile gaming chip-set, not unlike those used to turn cellular phones into Game Boy wannabes.
Their solution, it would turn out, would be an entirely new console that required the participation of 12-companies around the globe. Officially announced in November 2008, and calling their new platform the Zeebo, Tectoy’s hardware consisted of a gaming processor from Qualcomm’s BREW mobile gaming chip-set, not unlike those used to turn cellular phones into Game Boy wannabes.
However, unlike the fairly limited specifications hampering most cells at the time, the Zeebo would boast some beefier specs that larger television screens demand: an ARM11 central processor clocked at 528Mhz, 1 gigabyte of NAND flash storage, an ATI Imageon graphics card and support for both wireless and motion control.
The real catch, however, was the game medium itself; specifically that there would be none. There were no cartridges (sorry Nintendo heads), no CD-ROM, no DVD drive. Part of the means Tectoy employed to keep the cost of their hardware and software affordable to the South American masses was by emulating the market model cell phones used at the time (and still do now): All of the console’s 50-game library would exist as downloadable content through their proprietary network.
Their network model was another interesting thing as broadband/WiFi wasn’t quite all the rage in Brazil circa 2008. Thanks to an agreement with AT&T, Zeebonet 3G was carried across the then-cutting edge 3G cellular network.
Not only did this vastly increase the system’s user-base due to coverage availability, it brought the internet to the television set of anyone who had a Zeebo. An official keyboard accessory made web surfing and emailing doable and there you go, no need for an expensive PC to get your interwebs on.
While this was all good in theory, the bad news is gamers, regardless of geographic location, are no dummies. It was tough for Zeebo adopters to get excited about what boiled down to playing cell phone games on their TV while the rest of the world was busy enjoying Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. Long story short, Zeebo went the way of the brontosaurus in 2011 and permanently shut down their servers shortly thereafter.
That’s about where I come in. Thanks to a formula that included heavily discounted hardware, a credit card with a bit of wiggle room and the magic that is eBay, I located a brand new Zeebo console in July of 2011 and pulled the trigger. It arrived a few days later in said diaper box loaded with goodies such as the official keyboard, analog stick controller (creatively named the “Z Pad”), and the boomerang controller (their version of the Wii remote).
Everything a person could need to get some serious gaming on... except for some games. Those are now unavailable.
Lack of Physical Media Spells Trouble in the Long Run
Therein lies the problem with digital distribution, cloud gaming, browser gaming and any other form of digital entertainment that lacks a piece of honest-to-goodness physical media in my opinion. Once the company in question goes belly up, moves on to something new or just plain decides it’s through with hosting content, the hardware becomes worth less than the scrap value of the metal in its circuits.
Therein lies the problem with digital distribution and any other form of digital entertainment that lacks a piece of honest-to-goodness physical media.
This was a bitter lesson to be sure; one that you’re probably thinking could easily have been avoided given that I had already read up on and was well versed in the nuances of the console before purchase. You’d be half right.
Yes, I realized that the shutdown of its servers meant there would be no way to purchase new content for the machine but I also learned that the systems left the factory with three titles preinstalled in the flash storage: FIFA 09, Need for Speed Carbon: Own the City, and Brain Challenge.
How were these games you wonder? Would being good at Need for Speed really aid in one’s ambitions to own a city? How did Brain Challenge end up with so generic a name? Who knows. The moment I booted up the system for the first time I was quite unable to get past a popup screen that informed me the system was no longer supported.
Imagine if you were to dig out your NES out of the attic, pop the Super Mario Bros./ Duck Hunt pack-in game into the deck, and turn it on only to receive an impassable screen from Nintendo telling you the Nintendo Entertainment System is no longer supported. A humming blank screen with a flashing power light on the console, maybe, but a screen stating the obvious and thus rendering the system unplayable? Unacceptable.
I fear for future generations as game manufacturers continue to move toward digital distribution models. Valve and its Steam platform have proven precisely how popular and all-encompassing the digital distribution can really be for gaming. There was considerable contemplation to eliminating media drives altogether in this, the 8th Generation of consoles prior to their actual release. It will be a sad day indeed when a console’s shelf life will only be as long as the manufacturer keeps its servers up and running.
As for the Zeebo, I will say that the hardware looks pretty neat. If you or anyone you know may be in the market for a sweet diaper box and a $349 paperweight, call me.