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For reasons that nobody cares about, I was sent two companion threads, one closed and the other basically so, regarding the release of an Atari 2600 cartridge. This is interesting in itself to some people, but in fact I’m more fascinated by the body of it and where things went wrong. And things did go wrong! A discussion announcing the availability of a new rendition of a 20+ year old Atari 2600 program quickly turned into a free-for-all and was closed. Then, a week and change later, a reference to this thread was made in another forum and even more vitrol occurred.

I am an objective observer, and a student of the discussion thread and its myriad implementations. Let’s consider then, what the hell happened.

Here’s thread #1:

My summary of the subject matter is this: Rob Fulop, an established and historical figure in Atari history, announces that he is looking for input for the price of a limited edition Atari 2600 cartridge he has made of a game he worked on in the 1980s called “Actionauts”. Here’s that message:

I'm about to release a new 2600 cart - Actionauts. I have no idea how much such a
thing is 'worth' in the Atari 2600 collector's marketplace. What I know are the
following two facts.
1) I've released a game into this community before. The name of the game was
Cubicolor,  and I released it almost 20 years ago. At the time, I had no idea what
to charge for the game, so I picked $50 pretty much out of the blue sky. The
fifty available copies sold out pretty fast. Today the sale price for one of these
games hovers around $1,000. OK, personally I think this is sort of a high price
for a game unworthy of release at the time it was made, but who am I to know
how these things work. For whatever reason, the 2600 collector community
has decided a Cubicolor is worth $1,000. Regardless, I think it's a fair statement
that I certainly didn't get the better end of THAT particular transaction!
Suffice it to say the $50 is probably below the price of what an Actionauts cart is 'worth'.
2) I do know what the COST is for Actionauts to exist. The game took about
3.5 months of my time to make in the first place. Then it took about 1.5 month
of time to make it available ... figuring how much time it took to make 300 copies,
design boxes and labels, figure out how to take and fulfill orders, etc. And then
it cost about $5,000 in hard cash to build the 300 carts, print the boxes and labels,
etc. So the "cost" of Actionauts is $5,000 + five months of my time. Such is the
real cost of making the game available to this marketplace.
Since nobody knows the real "value" of the game, all I can go by is the cost
of making the game. Which comes down to what is a fair "wage" for me to
earn here? How much is five months of my time worth? I'd like this community
to help answer this question, before I put a price tag on the game.
Once the community has designated what they think a reasonable "wage" is
for somebody like myself .. and I concur ... I will use the following formula to
establish the price for the game. (5 * (monthly wage) + 5000) / 300. In the
interests of this community, I think it would be wrong to attach any sort of
profit to this price. Thus I'm asking people to be fair and reasonable in the
poll questions, and not answer the questions from a purely self interest.

The Numbers

The thread begins on Monday, March 31, 2008, at 4:22 PM. It is closed on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 1:01 PM, for a total lifespan of roughly 45 hours. It contains 198 posts, or an average of about 5 posts an hour. Of these, 40 of them are by the thread originator and main subject, Rob Fulop. Of the 62 participants, 30 post just one message.

Already, there’s an obvious imbalance or unique aspect here: the conversation is Rob Fulop (that big blue slice) posting an amount equivalent to at least 30+ other participants. Taken another way, he posts messages frequently and in response to others, all the way through to the end of the 45 hour period. Being that this post is about soliciting questions, the warning sign is that Fulop does not in fact merely post a question (and related poll); he immediately and consistently engages the posters in debate and discussion.

The problem with a “what do you think about this”, or the hardest portion, is listening to what people say and then waiting until it’s all died down to give a summary thanks and move on. Fulop instead begins a conversation and ultimately a quasi-interview/roundtable masquerading as a poll.

A web-based forum (in this case, AtariAge) is no longer imbued with the limitations of bulletin board systems; multiple simultaneous posters are a breeze, images can be embedded into discussions, and the software allows for instantaneous restructuring of the postings to satisfy a linear or threaded regard. While in many ways this is a positive set of innovations, it also brings along with it potential for flamewars and flare-ups to immediately consume the parties involved. There is no waiting period. There is an abundance of meta-discussion due to the non-scarce resource of access. There is a lower barrier to entry with commercial and societal interests in lowering the barrier even further. This is the modern environment and it’s the way it is.

So saying that there were an average of 4.4 posts an hour is not all that helpful, in fact; you have no idea of the distribution of the messages. Since people can be writing multiple additions simultaneously, the forum can actually “breathe” in a manner not unlike a bellows or chamber in an engine; with posts queuing up in great numbers and blasting across the message base in waves. With this in consideration, here is a different observation of the posting metric: the number of posts per hour across the 45 hour period:

The “breathing” of the forum discussions becomes more clear with this view. We see the usual flurry of initial response and activity of a healthy thread, which then reverberates in a more quiet fashion for a while before it all flares up again, followed by the same reverberation, and then a small up-ramp at the end that is cut off by the thread closure.

Not surprisingly, that second flare-up is caused by a post by Fulop. So let’s address the content.

The Content

As mentioned above, this thread is ostensibly about the future release of an Atari 2600 cartridge and the suggested price points by the “community”. It is a question posed by the cartridge’s creator, a man of strong pedigree and historical credit named Rob Fulop. Once an Atari engineer, he is a co-founder of Imagic, a third-party maker of Atari 2600 cartridges, which ultimately shut down. He has his name in a good amount of productions throughout the years. He is, in other words, the Real Deal.

In his poll, he asks two questions: Should the author of a new 2600 release be paid for their time spent? and What is a reasonable monthly salary for a 2600 designer to earn? Since the title of the thread is “Actionauts price tag?”, we run into another problem: the poll is not related to the question. The question should have been “how much would you pay for the following item” followed by “what is important to you in buying a package like this”. These are the questions one would reasonably expect.

Within the first fifteen minutes of the thread, a user named Mirage1972 answers the poll (which is anonymous) and then writes this message:

I voted $2000/month, but I wanted to say that that's
not what I really think the programmer's time is
"worth". It's  "worth" a lot more. It just has to be balanced
with what people can and will pay.  Also factor in that anyone
choosing to program and release a 2600 game in the
21st century should be doing it primarily because they
"want" to, or, in other words, for intangible benefits.
I don't think it's possible for you to be paid as much
as you (or any other 2600 programmer)
should get, or as much as I would "like" to pay you.
Now that I think of it, $2000/month with your calculation
works out to $50/cart (with box/manual).  That should be
the low end of what you charge, probably. I'd say $50-$65
would be fair, and  you'd easily sell out at that price.
Realistically, you'd probably sell out at $100 each, some
people  just wouldn't be able to buy them. But, that's the
breaks I guess.

Mirage’s response is informative, helpful, complimentary, and even does some basic research to accompany his opinion.

Almost immediately, Fulop responds:

You do realize, that you are suggesting that a 2600 programmer,
one with reasonable credentials, should expect this community to
pay them no more for their time then they could earn as an
assistant manager at Jack in the Box, right? Maybe you are
right, and such is how this community truly values people like
myself ... I guess we will see based on the result of the poll!

FOUL! Here we see the roots of the problem: Fulop takes Mirage’s statement and throws it back into his face, implying not only that Mirage has degraded his skills and dismissed his efforts, but that he considers his time equivalent to a fast food restaurant’s “assistant” manager. Note how this is all crafted; the $2k/month figure was one of the original (poorly chosen) poll questions; Mirage simply selected it. It turns out that Rob conisders some of the potential poll questions wrong. This is not how polls work; you poll people to get answers. That people might answer incorrectly with regards to objective knowledge is not the issue; with a poll, you realize there’s a problem (too many US citizens can’t find Australia on a map) and you then use this information to create a counter-campaign. (More geography lessons; make Australian tourism commercials include graphical representation of Australia’s location on a globe, etc.). If the poll-taker immediately turns around in the same public forum, and implies that he is personally insulted by the answer, then the poll is no longer relevant and certainly not objective. Additionally, he takes the answer from a single responder on a single thread on a single site and immediately indicates that “[this] is how this community truly values people like myself”. Now we have a double-edged sword: the “community” has been accused of sub-par character quality, and the poster has indicated he considers himself very important/worthy, a problematic non-humble position not sure to win favor.

Fulop quickly falls in love with the Jack in the Box slur; he uses it multiple times in his subsequent postings:

  • What I’m getting out of this conversation is “about the same as our society values an assistant manager at Jack In The Box” .. which puts it into perspective nicely.
  • These guys basically are saying I should earn less doing this then i would earn as assistant manager at Jack in the Box .. my view .. these guys aren’t going to be interested at any price .. and even then .. they will weep that the game isn’t as good as Pitfall. So the low votes don’t count especially given the discussion surrounding their justifications.

The insults don’t stop there. Fulop quickly takes his own thread downhill as fast as his fingers can conjure the words.

  • To be told by people in this community that the think my time is worth $2k per month .. is sort of weird, actually. I mean, in the same breath, the person who says this can’t seriously tell me how much of a “fan” they are of my work, right?
  • I certainly understand that this market is small, and unable to compensate people like myself for the effort involved. Thus there are very few new releases. This makes sense. But it’s really weird to me that you use the term ‘profit greatly’ when talking about somebody asking $4k a month for their time. How much do you charge for yours?

In these cases, landmines are being laid, landmines ensuring someone will come along and trip on them.

The second-flareup is interesting; it concerns what represents a living wage.

Specifically, Fulop takes umbrage with the “$2k/month” atari developer wage, the idea that he should only make $24k a year. In fact, it’s easy to interpret this poll question many ways; what’s a good wage to make doing atari carts in your spare time? What’s a good wage to make with atari cartridges after you’ve done all the work and am collecting new items? But it turns out the secret answer was that Fulop was asking how much poll responders thought any Atari 2600 Developer should make in toto in a given year while working full-time in that sole capacity. When he then indicates that $4k/month would barely be a living wage (this is $52k a year), then cultural issues come into play.

For some locations, $52k is a princely sum, while in others it can’t support an apartment, much less food and transportation. Within Fulop’s position (and he is a man well along in years, having been involved in this industry well beyond a quarter century), it is entirely possible that $52k can’t possibly support a healthy lifestyle and living wage; but this was not asked in the poll and is not the point given in the poll. What starts as a simple question about the price of a cartridge becomes a man’s last stand of sanity against an onslaught of cartridge collecting zombies, firing randomly into the sea of grabbing hands to protect his livelihood.

Much of the thread, then, is meta; people defending Rob Fulop’s talents (which are not in question), people discussing a living wage and what that means, people discussing where everything went so wrong in the thread, and people defending other people’s positions as various sides are taken. A parallel conversation occurs as to the definitions of “gamer” and “collector”; Fulop sees them as distinct and disparate groups, while others see more of a grey area or spectrum. This discussion muddies at the core level from that point on, until Fulop throws up his hands and requests the thread end; he’s gotten what he ‘came for’, although it is not entirely clear how he could have possibly achieved this.

Ten days later, on another web forum, a new thread begins, starting with the pricing of the cartridge and disagreement on the price. This brings the players back into the same fight again, the one that should have never happened in the first place, based on a poll question that was poorly asked and poorly discussed afterwards, and a range of insults and finger-pointing that naturally come from this discordant, foolish melee.


Forum Referee rules that Rob Fulop is a very talented man who is also a dope. Seeking assistance in pricing a product does not give you slack to insult anyone who takes the time to give their answers. Twisting around words and then throwing them back at faces, indicating insult where there is none, and giving your poll answerers a total of 30 minutes before you jump in and start swinging indicates what the kids call a “total n00b”. Unsportsmanlike Conduct!

Stay off the forums and do your good work when time and money permit.

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  1. Darius K. says:

    Jason, you’re great, but come on: the 3D infographic line chart makes me cry.

  2. Stuart says:

    Nice post. The only thing I would add is that the developer is choosing to limit his salary by producing only a few copies of the game. While the rare status helps keep the price high, there is probably a sweet spot on the price/demand curve where people can access the game and the developer can make a “living wage” per whatever definition he chooses.

    Second the graph comment.

  3. Rob Fulop says:

    Jason, I wrote you a longish email earlier. I didn’t have a whole lot of time earlier … but I stumbled back tonight and ending up spending a solid 90 minutes reading back through your archives.

    I really enjoyed the time I spent here. Lots of food for thought, especially regarding the use of Forums as a form of new media. I learned a lot.

    Rob Fulop

  4. Rick Dakan says:

    Awesome. I kind of only want to ever read detailed breakdowns of forum debates like this for the rest of my life. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I find this kind of thing really fascinating. You should try this with some of the long threads on “framing” and the debate over intelligent design-creationism over on scienceblogs…

  5. Chris says:

    Mr. Fulop’s efforts to develop games for a 30-year old platform like the 2600 should be treated (by him) as more a “labor of love” than a way to pay for his groceries.

    Really, kudos to this man that has obviously done some really great work during his career, but turning on your customers/fan base is always a bad idea.

  6. Church says:

    Slightly OT, but fortuitous that this came up. I’ve recently encountered a tough troll on a forum I moderate, and I remembered your posts about dealing with such. Do you have a tag for, or a collection of, those posts?