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In the old days, game consoles were usually sold with a pack-in game, including some iconic titles like 2600 Combat and NES Super Mario Brothers. This makes sense; it provided clear value for the customer, thereby presumably increasing sales.

One thing that surprises me is that the pack-in games were in most cases literally that: a game cartridge packed into the box with the console. It seems to me that it would've been cheaper to put the ROM for the game directly onto the console mainboard, and let it be the default program the machine runs on boot when no other game is present, thereby saving the cost of a circuit board and cartridge case. A small saving to be sure, but small is greater than zero, and these machines were very cost sensitive. (How cost-sensitive? For the 2600, Atari started with the already insanely cheap 6502 CPU, then talked MOS Technology into making an even more cutdown version with several address pins omitted, and followed up by putting only 128 bytes of RAM in the console.)

In addition, putting the game directly on the mainboard would halve the number of cartridges needing to be plugged in and out when switching between that and other games.

Is there a reason I'm missing, why pack-in games were provided as actual cartridges rather than ROM chips on the mainboard?

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    There is at least one example of this - Mine Storm on the Vectrex.
    – Alan B
    Nov 18 '20 at 12:28
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    Don't forget that the cartridge included with the Atari on launch was "Combat" and it was changed to "Space Invaders" after that became available and popular. If Combat was built in and nobody cared about it, you'd still have to ship S.I. later.
    – JDługosz
    Nov 19 '20 at 22:34
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    If the replacement pack-in fit in the same ROM chip (or even a higher capacity ROM that fit in the same footprint) the cost of changing the loaded software would be insignificant. Nov 19 '20 at 23:58
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    One of the Alex Kidd games was build into later Sega Master Systems
    – Phil
    Nov 22 '20 at 22:25
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While I agree with both answers given so far, I feel they are touching only some aspects and somewhat miss the most important one:

It is actually less expensive to not build a game into the console.

With this fixed, several other abilities come for free:

  • Different default games for different markets
  • "New" seasonal packages like "Terminator" for Thanksgiving, "ET" for Christmas
  • And, as Stephen mentions, easy exchange of the default game if it sucks (*1)

Related to the last but somewhat less "glamorous":

  • Exchange of bugfixed versions without opening the console.

And of course, we all know,

  • Marketing likes to be able to change a setup until the very last moment.

In Detail

It seems to me that it would've been cheaper to put the ROM for the game directly onto the console mainboard,

Not really. The cost of a PCB is directly related to its size and number of holes drilled. While integrating them might save a bit of PCB area (not much), it will carry at least the same amount of holes to be drilled.

But more importantly, as Martin mentions, there need to be switching hardware. Even with just a switch, it will be far more expensive than the saved PCB area, not to mention at least two more holes. Anything more considerable than a mechanical switch (*2) will at least need some TTL and/or some I/O pin to control it. While the first adds lots of through-holes, I/O is as well a rare resource on these early systems.

In any case, mounting a default game in a simple console like the VCS will always increase cost, as the relevant factors do not scale by volume. Such consoles already start at a production volume that maxes out the usual volume related savings, so every square centimetre and every hole will add linearly.

This of course changes as soon as it's about a console that already includes a boot ROM. A great example here is the Vectrex which came with Asteroids preinstalled. The console had a preinstalled OS ROM, so adding a game was rather a case of more ROM/filling up the ROM. Having a Full 64 KiB Address range it was "simple" to put the built-in game at a different address and use OS software to detect the presence of an external game or not. Here it really comes down to just another socket.

and let it be the default program the machine runs on boot when no other game is present,

Which does mean a way to detect and switch, adding to the cost of the base device by either hardware, or some OS plus hardware.

thereby saving the cost of a circuit board and cartridge case.

But at the cost of an increased base PCB, increased by more than the cartridge PCB would be, making it more expensive. Not to mention that basic game PCBs had to be manufactured anyway. Similarly for cases: they are needed anyway and production cost is negligible once the forms are made.

In addition, putting the game directly on the mainboard would halve the number of cartridges needing to be plugged in and out when switching between that and other games.

Beside that this is a very long term consideration, and it depends on how often one will use the base game - which is an argument that can be made for any game cartridge, as the first one is no different. Also, how often will people have played Combat after they got more sophisticated games?

Is there a reason I'm missing, why pack-in games were provided as actual cartridges rather than ROM chips on the mainboard?

It's cost and flexibility, but mainly cost.


Historical Footnote:

Browsing thru Curt Vendel's faboulous book Atari, Inc: Business is fun, to understand a different question, I stumbled about a related direct quote:

"Shortly after the design was conceived, we went to an external ROM connector instead of the ROM being on board. Other concept ideas were to use a stack of ROM chips and be able to select a game, like a jukebox" recalls Steve Mayer

(p.252/253)

Steve Mayer was part of Cyan Engineering, a division of Atari, responsible for the development of many of Atari's hardware, including the VCS. The quote is reffered for as 1975 during the very first stage of VCS development.

So while it's not surprising that various concepts were considered, it's nice to find a hint about.


*1 - Just think what a huge success the ET-package would have been. Having the game not on board makes refurbishing the unsold boxes to some other special edition a simple task of replacing the game cartridge (pack) and slapping a new banderole before shrink-wrapping again.

*2 - A switch will of course add mechanical issues when being operated every single game change.

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    If there was no perceived need to have the Atari 2600 leave the address range 0x1800-0x1FFF available to external cartridges, and if other games were designed to use addresses 0x1000-0x17FF, including a built-in game would have required no extra switching circuitry--just the ROM itself. Further, if 2K cartrdiges could use of some code from the built-in game for things like score display, that would free up more space for extra game functionality. Early Atari 2600 boards have a non-populated space for a ROM, so that was likely considered.
    – supercat
    Nov 19 '20 at 17:40
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    Also, in depletion mode NMOS times, a sometimes-unused ROM would constantly waste power and dissipate heat (unless you actually cut the power to it automatically - which is trickier than you think). Nov 20 '20 at 18:48
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I suspect a major factor is the availability of games. Shipping a game on a console’s motherboard requires that the game be complete quite a long time before the shipments start; including a game cartridge in the final box can be done with a game that’s ready much later.

There have been instances where later iterations of a games console were changed to include a game; see for example Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Sega Master System.

There are a number of marketing advantages to using cartridges:

  • not shipping a game in the console hardware avoids tying the console’s success to the chosen game’s success (which can be hard to determine before its release);
  • the bundled game can easily be changed based on local preferences, seasonal preferences, or for game-related tie-ins (e.g. a strong game franchise which can be used to sell consoles).
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    This smells right to me, a software guy who's written code to run on custom hardware boxes. The software is always last, in part because although we fool around with emulators, we need something approaching the final hardware in order to really test and debug. Nov 18 '20 at 13:02
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    Having a loose cartridge in the box also made it easier if you needed some type of localisation (either technical like NTSC/PAL or by language) Also , you could easy make those season special boxes.
    – UncleBod
    Nov 18 '20 at 13:05
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    @UncleBod yes it does. I’m not sure it’s much of an advantage in all cases, since some of the changes which would make game localisation useful could also require changes to the consoles themselves (video output in particular). I suspect the season special boxes had quite an impact at least in some countries... Nov 18 '20 at 13:13
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    @StephenKitt NTSC/PAL would require more changes, but releasing a game in French vs Norwegian wouldn't.
    – Ángel
    Nov 18 '20 at 23:30
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    @Ángel French is an interesting language to choose; consoles for France used yet another output standard, SECAM ;-). But yes, in most cases changing the language only involves changing the game’s resources. Nov 19 '20 at 6:37
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The cartridge is a "free gift" from a marketing standpoint and primes the customer to purchase more cartridges.

You say, "It provided clear value for the customer, thereby presumably increasing sales." I would say a physical, discrete cartridge provides clear extra value to the customer as a free gift. A pack-in title included on the board, on the other hand, feels like part of the console and psychologically might not be interpreted as a "free gift".

The concept of "a free gift" is classic marketing strategy that increases buyer willingness to pay and reduces returns. I think that, from a psychological/marketing perspective, including the pack-in titles on the mainboard would not make the buyer feel like they are getting an additional physical gift.

Indeed, it seems that the goal was to sell to the consumer more cartridges rather than the game console (the razor and blades model). Including a cartridge with the console might prime the consumer to to buy more cartridges in the future. Given that it was new technology, a console with a built-in game might have the issue that some buyers might not realize that they could insert new cartridges to play other games and would not seek these out.

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    +1 for teaching buyers that cartridges can be changed. Very early home games consoles did have a fixed set (or single) game, so forcing the buyer to use this new technology of cartridges means that other cartridge based games might exist. Nov 20 '20 at 16:56
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It's simple: this method allows only one way to run a game: put the cartridge into the slot and power it on.

With games incorporated on the board, you have to provide some kind of boot loader, menu, switch, or some other way to select an onboard game.

Another reasons could be:

  • some cartridges had extended HW (more ROM, added RAM, etc.)
  • it provides a more flexible way to change bundled games - they just put another set of cartridges to the box.
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    Game selection was often done using a user-inaccessible switch: if a cartridge was present, the system used that, otherwise it used whatever was built-in. This was also the case on cartridge-equipped computers such as the 8-bit Ataris, and on at least some consoles with no built-in game (to ask the user to power off and insert a cartridge). Consoles with a ROM which runs in all cases handle this differently (see the related question on the Game Boy). Nov 18 '20 at 12:30
  • This is true, but the main point is: "cartridge only" is the cheapest way, so this could be an answer. Nov 18 '20 at 12:58
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    Yes, I’m not disagreeing (I upvoted your answer). Nov 18 '20 at 13:10
  • Having just one way to run software has an important benefit in testing, too. Nov 19 '20 at 13:02
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There's another aspect, that at the time there were game consoles with pre-installed games and that they weren't non-expandable and actually weren't using microprocessor.

A new console with a fixed set of games and an expansion slot, could have been looked like these older models and not being new and different. People could buy them but use only the preinstalled games and not the extra cartridges.

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The main reason is that for reasons of per-unit cost, the firmware for a game machine would be in a mask-ROM which involves sending data to the chip manufacturer for metal fuses/links (could have a mask ROM version of a fusible link ROM too) to be diffused onto the top layer of the ROM chip, then it would be tested, packaged and shipped. As a result, there was a high one-off cost in putting code in mask-ROMs , and about a 3 month delay in implementing even a small change, as the chip had still to be packaged and tested.
If the product-with-game did not sell then you were left with a warehouse full of less-attractive machines.
Easier to expect the game manufacturer to take the hit on a less-than stellar sales performance for their game, while your machine sold many more times absolutely identical products. (seem to remember $5000-$50000 one-off cost per mask ROM )

And if you used EPROMS, it was cheaper to use a non-erasable version in plastic packaging - I can remember working with Teletext decoders that were test-programmed on the silicon wafer, UV erased on the wafer then plastic packaged as erased . Which allowed the final code to be programmed into packaged chips just before shipping to the customer.. except on the Bad Day when somebody shipped blank chips to a major manufacturer of TV sets, and the customer had a belt stop as the soldered-in blank chips were not in-system programmable..

We are so used to Flash-ROMs now which can be reprogrammed many times and erased in circuit, that we think nothing of firmware updates.

I am also reminded of the Acorn home computers that used some mask-ROMS but used the memory management capabilities of the ARM chip to map small areas of RAM for patches to the ROM, as this was cheaper than re-doing the mask-ROMS...

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