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I saw a remark in a documentary on the 1990s game console industry, The Story of the Nintendo 64 - Nintendo's Defiant Innovation - The Complete Deep Dive Story, that a key point that swayed third-party developers from Nintendo to Sony was the time taken to manufacture games. Specifically, not in the sense of throughput but latency: the time elapsed from getting the news that your game is selling well, and getting on the phone to Nintendo/Sony to order a new batch, to having it manufactured. With Nintendo cartridges, it was months; with Sony CDs, it was days.

Some of that difference is obviously due to technical reasons; cartridges are inherently more difficult to make. But was some of it organizational?

What's the shortest manufacturing time that any company ever achieved for game cartridges?

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    Also bear in mind that Nintendo America would have to approve your game, then Nintendo Japan would have to.approve your game, then Nintendo Japan would manufacture it, then they would ship it by sea freight to you. It all adds up. Interview with Ed Magnum about Game Boy development at theretrohour.com/cinemaware-and-microprose-ed-magnin-ep407 has some helpful details. Mar 26 at 11:41
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    @MarkWilliams I would think the question seems to focus on reordering an existing and already approved game.
    – Raffzahn
    Mar 26 at 12:02
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    The accepted answer doesn't actually answer the question. I think this question needs some refinement. Mar 27 at 10:15

3 Answers 3

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TLDR: getting ROMs manufactured.

I actually built game cartridges in between coding them. We could turn around "hundreds" quantity of cartridges a couple hours after the last component arrived. Drive em down to the airport to the UPS depot if needed. We used our own cartridge design instead of partnering with the OEM, who had severe content and revenue share restrictions.

In fact we scaled up considerably after other studios asked us to make cartridges for them, as we were easier to work with than OEMs. Eventually, production for other studios dominated our business, and we were acquired for our production capacity.

Front and back cartridge cases were injection molded locally, I've handled the molds. Lead time on those, and double-sided PCBs, was a week or two and our supplier understood "rush". We had our own wave solderer. Commodity items were solder, screws, high-temp tape (so we didn't solder the gold edge connector), and shrink wrap for the box.

Our main production constraints were, in increasing order of pain:

  • The carton/box which had custom art obviously. Locally sourced, but we often went out of state for a better price but longer lead time.
  • The cartridge label, which obviously had durable custom art, but also had to be die cut. Again locally supplied.
  • Getting ROMs, and here's the pinch point. By far the cheapest is to have ROMs manufactured at a chip fab in thousands quantity, with our code photo-etched right into the silicon. But that also had a lead time of over a month.

The day the ROMs arrived from the fab was generally a busy day with all hands on deck, as there was pressure to get products out.

An order of magnitude higher in cost was "one-shot" PROMs. We could burn them ourselves same-day in "dozens" quantity, but we tied up dev machines to do it. We never bothered to buy bulk burners for higher production rates.

Anyway, all that to say, if you suddenly got a mad rush for far more cartridges than you anticipated, your first call would be to your bank to finance this, the second call would be to the chip fab or to rent a PROM mass burner if the economics even let you go that way. Your third and fourth calls will be to box and label makers. Fifth is to your cartridge case injection molder. Any of these could hang you up depending on their production schedule and what you're willing to pay to jump the line. I had more than one workday where we were sweeping the shop and changing burned out fluorescent tubes because promised bits had not arrived. During some of our growth spurts, we were actually taking delivery of the thermoplastic pellets that our molder would turn into our cartridge cases, not sure why. Probably logistics on a rush job.

Sixth call would be to round up a LOT more workers. Now thinking about factory floor logistics, the pinch point in our production would have been (of all things) the shrinkwrap machine that wrapped the finished product. You could seal the boxes with stickers instead, but then they'll get a lot more shop wear and returns for that.

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    I don't understand why this was accepted as the answer. It's good information but doesn't actually answer the question of what the shortest manufacturing time is. Mar 27 at 10:13
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    @Parrotmaster: If someone had a game whose manual, boxes, and cartridge labels were all complete, but whose code wasn't, one could start shipping product within minutes of the code being complete if one used OTPROMs, but the per-unit cost would be much higher than if one could accept longer lead times. If one knew in advance that one would need to ship thousands of units on the day the code was done, one could have purchased or rented bulk programming equipment to allow such a schedule to be met. I don't know whether anyone did this back in the day, but it would have been simple...
    – supercat
    Mar 27 at 15:08
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    ...to design a cartridge in such a way that it could be assembled using blank chips, and then bulk programmed afterward (if one were making e.g. an Atari 2600 cart, one could make one of prongs which unlocks the dust cover be a of the PC board that includes some extra contacts used for programming).
    – supercat
    Mar 27 at 15:12
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    @supercat PROM cost is the same or usually lower than EPROM, thus cost for sall series isn't a big deal, especially not compared to not making the business. After all, that's the very point the question asks. In case of incomming orders it's all about fulfilling them before the interest vanishes. Doing so at lower profit margin will always be a preferable case. There are many examples where late delivery destroyed even tripple A games.
    – Raffzahn
    Mar 27 at 22:21
  • @Parrotmaster Well, maybe because it's an example - although a very limited one of what seems to have been a rather low production company - so you're right, it only says they didn't do it, not that it was the same anywhere else. . Gang-programmers aren't rare nor expensive and a great way to solve intermediate deliveries. More so it only focuses on a single situation, when there are no ROMs in stock - usually one produces a lot more ROMs than boards or packaging, so the common situation will be that ROMs are in stock.
    – Raffzahn
    Mar 27 at 22:23
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If you take the Nintendo 64 as being the last cartridge-based console then the 'two to three weeks' mentioned in this 1997 article must surely be as low as anyone got it.

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  • The Nintendo Switch is a console and it uses cartridges. I've also seen "console" used for exclusively hand-held systems like the Gameboy and the many DS iterations. Mar 27 at 10:11
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    I am assuming the orignal question referred to systems that use memory-mapped ROM chips in the traditional sense as opposed to anything Flash-based like the Switch and DS.
    – Alan B
    Mar 27 at 13:23
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    If ROM chips are the major deciding factor in this I could see that distinction being important, but then I'd expect the answer to OP's question to be "cartridge X because it is flash based". Mar 27 at 13:36
  • ? The Switch doesn't use cartridges.
    – Fattie
    Mar 28 at 11:44
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    @Fattie It does, though I think a lot of people buy most or all their games online instead. They're branded "game cards".
    – Sneftel
    Mar 28 at 11:59
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That sounds way to broad, and at the same time comparing non comperable technologies (cartridge vs (CD) media).

Cartridge' includes a large number of different technologies from (E)PROM all the way to mask programmed ROM and company describes a continuum from flexible one man basement operations the same way as bureaucratic giants - not to mention low volume games and mega sellers.

Now, having that out of the way we may have a short look at the parts involved:

A PROM based cartridge can be out produced at day notice - even in larger companies, while mask programmed ROM based ones may need several month up to a year if the chips are not present.

With chips (and other parts) in stock, cartridge production is again something that can be started on short notice and deliver rather quickly - if production capacity is available.

CD based is not only a complete different class of consoled, but also a very different technology from semiconductor based. While primary setup (creating glass masters) may take a week or two, CD production itself can be started in day's notice and in a similar region than cartridge production when all parts are present. CD production facilities re quite used to ad hoc orders.

In either case, one shouldn't ignore the case (SCNR). Neither CD nor cartridge are delivered as is, but in a packaging including printed materials - like boxes or cover sheets. So either company needs to have that ordered as well before any deliverable may be finished and send out.

Considering this, it's obvious that reaction time to unexpected orders are mainly a logistics operation, thus slow delivery being a result of less than perfect organisation - or more likely, byzantine management and decision structure.

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