UPDATE 3-Feb-2016After completing this rambling I'm not going to ask everyone to read this wall of text. The TL;DR is we're doing well, thanks for your continued business and patience during some life changes over the past year. NES flash boards are up for sale and NES EPROM boards are coming back within the week. SNES production is starting up again this week, and if things go as planned the SNES boards will be available for purchase before the end of Feb2016. I rant and excessively long time on EPROM vs Fully assembled flash boards. Price structuring is changing slightly for fully assembled NES flash boards, and significantly for NES EPROM boards. Feel free to skip to the last paragraph if you're only interested in what goals we have for the foreseeable future.
Finally getting things back in order around here. Website updates always take me much longer to complete than I expect.. Lots of progress in business operations have been made with the business since we last made updates to this page back in Nov2014. I (Paul) quit my day job back in March 2015 leaving the traditional lifestyle behind and opting to live on the road with my wife and two children in our RV. We spend summers up north in Minnesota near my family, and winters down south in Texas near my wife's family. Finding parking locations and getting settled into both a northern and southern 'base camp' proved to be a challenge. But we've got ourselves pretty well settled in now and finally getting into the rhythm of things on a daily/weekly basis of juggling family, work, and play time with other boring life responsibilities. I have a small 6x12ft enclosed trailer that we tow around which I use as my workshop/office/mancave. It's plenty big for the items I've been handling such as homebrew NES game production, customer support, parts ordering, and other ancillary tasks needed to keep things afloat around here.
Things have gone much better than I had hoped when I took this leap last year since I've been on my own. I would like to thank all my customers over the past 6 years who have provided me the opportunity to take my small side hobby into something that could become my full time passion. It's taken us 2 years now to complete my transition into this alternate lifestyle. It all started Jan 2014 when I thought my wife was crazy for wanting to sell our house for a smaller domicile of some sort. It wasn't until she started hanging carrots in front of me with potentials to quit my day job that I got on board with the idea. I will openly admit that I haven't done the best job of keeping things up to standards I expect from myself and any business since then. I apologize for these shortcomings on my end and want to thank you for the patience you have all provided us during this challenging time. I've finally gotten things to the point now where I don't feel like I'm no longer struggling to keep my head above water, take a deep breath, and start to devote time to gradual improvements and new development. I also happily report that I am now able to find time to pick up the controller for leisure play instead of just testing.. Finding time to play video games again has been therapeutic in many ways relieving stress and rekindle the light inside that initially set me on this path...
As some of you may know all of our NES and SNES circuit board assembly is done in house as opposed to outsourcing the assembly to a factory somewhere. The primary benefits this provides us is the ability to make boards to order vice making large batch assembly orders from a factory. This is especially valuable with NES boards where there is an excessive number of different board configurations all with different parts to be soldered onto the board. My brother Todd has been handling NES board assembly, and one of my good friends Zach has been handling the SNES side. Without a doubt things wouldn't be where they are without their hard work over the past 3 years. Their efforts on a daily basis to devote the bulk of their free time outside of a day job and other family obligations is what has allowed us to have a product to sell since they are not suited for outsourced assembly at the prices and various configurations we offer. I will be removing this wall of text from our NES supplies page and leaving it on the homepage until I make the next ~annual update. Small updates to the NES supplies page will remain in this location so you can see what's changed since you were here last.
I'm sure many of you are aware that SNES board sales have been shutdown since Fall 2015. This is due to Zach deciding to move on to other opportunities including ones abroad. With this change I started to question the future of us having a SNES flash board product, Todd was already at his limit of what he had time for, and the idea managing all the headaches and costs of outsourcing sounded dreadful.. The wide open opportunity for Todd to add SNES board assembly to his responsibilities provided him the final push he needed to quit his day job as well. He recently took that leap and is wrapping up his necessary move as a result of those decisions. He is now handling the slight backlog of orders from the past week and will start experimenting and learning ins and outs of moderate scale fine pitched soldering of the SNES boards this week. Assuming all goes as planned we will be able to list our SNES boards back up for sale by the end of Feb2016 with full production capability.
Now for an update/explanation on the NES supply side of the business. Things were in a bit of hiatus since Nov2015 when we burned through our final reserves of larger 'EPROM' boards. The issue stems from Xilinx discontinuing the CPLDs we use to replicate the mappers on all boards. If I would have had my act together last summer after learning of this news, I would have completed the transition to a new CPLD around the same time we ran out of PCBs in fall 2015 just in time for Xilinx to close production new years 2016. But that didn't happen, and we ran out of EPROM boards while uncertain of how best to juggle the CPLD conversion. Luckily I did stock up on a decent number of parts while they were still available, but Xilinx flaked out on my previously agreed pricing when I went to make one big year end stock pile order. I cancelled due to the 25% price hike and choose to make a small EPROM PCB order identical to the previous design that will use up what remaining discontinued CPLD inventory we have. The EPROM PCB's should arrive early next week. I expect those to last us for the next 6 months while we transition to new CPLD solutions.
Things with the EPROM board shortage caused further problems as I the original checkout options provided fully assembled flash boards as a upgrade to the EPROM checkout option. So even though we weren't out of flash boards, it looked like it because I couldn't make the time to update the site to allow checkout of flash boards without EPROM boards. Well I've got most of those changes complete over the past week and an publishing them now. I've spent time trying to explain the details of each board configuration we have been offering for the past couple years in efforts to try and help newbies in making proper shopping cart selections for their needs. The layout of MMC1, MMC3, and FME-7 is effectively complete, and I will be grooming the other discrete mapper sections to match. Part of this page rearrangement includes moving EPROM boards to a separate page in efforts to keep things simpler. I expect to post that page in the next couple days in time to start selling the batch that's due to arrive next week.
Many of you caught wind of the rumors that we were considering discontinuation of our NES EPROM boards. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the reasons for consideration from our end. While even I once considered EPROMs to be the best memory solution when I first started making these boards, I quickly started to question that idea when I first hand assembled a batch of a couple hundred cartidges. It's just not feasible on a scale that size with the handling required by EPROMs:
- Scrape sticker from 20 year old salvaged EPROM previously used for some other purpose because they're no longer manufactured.
- Wait close to an hour for the chip to erase by UV light exposure.
- Attempt to program with high blank check failure rate to be sent back to re-erase.
- Let the programmed chip sit on the shelf for a few days as some phenomenon caused the write verification to pass minutes after programming, but fail after a few days time (~1 out of 100 EPROMs were confirmed to have this issue for me.)
- Complete the operation above twice for each board because there's PRG-ROM and CHR-ROM.
- Hand solder in all 64 pins. While I got rather quick with it using the 'drag' method, a stack of boards still consumed more time than I enjoyed.
- Verify all went well with testing. If things failed somehow, desolder the EPROM and start the process all over again...
Considering everything there, that whole process took 2-3 week's effort I had when publishing a game in larger volumes, I had to find an alternative, and I did with flash chips. I could now surface mount solder all the components to the PCB at the same time nice and easy. The erase-program-test operation now took ~1min compared to ~1hour with EPROMs for a single board. I said, "Brilliant!" and I started offering fully assembled flash boards to be programmed via USB with the INL retro programmer-dumper figuring everyone would agree and EPROMs would fall to the wayside.
Well not everyone agreed and a decent number of customers held on to their EPROM solution dearly. I realize that many people aren't working on the publishing scales I was. I understand a couple hours' extra work can be worth saving a few dollars when you moonlight with a soldering iron in hand on a limited budget as I was once in those shoes. And when you used to using EPROMs for other projects and can't fully convert all projects away from EPROM it's nice to keep those windowed ceramic ancient artifacts in use for everything you do. I will admit they are kinda cool in a nostalgic way when you're working on a small scale or just for hobby. I will not however credit any misinformed objections that EPROMs are superior to NOR flash based on data retention because the 'research' presumed NOR flash suffered the same issues as all other types of Flash. The reality is both EPROM and NOR Flash stand a decent chance of to out live any desires we have of them if properly stored. That and should something unfortunate occur flash can be erased and reprogrammed in circuit without the need of desoldering like EPROMs. Never mind the (isolated?) issues I've seen for myself with faulty EPROMs not retaining their data for a full week.. ;)
But there are flip sides to every coin. While I can only recommend people select fully assembled flash over EPROM boards people will some people will still stick with their EPROMs boards. I can respect that, I'm sure people say I should let go of the NES and move on.. For most customers who have lots of EPROM experience under their belt, we don't have and significant issues. But frequently people new to the scene will select EPROM boards out of lack of information on my part that there are easier more user friendly solutions to learn on. The time and money costs for us to handle customer service for newbies who choose EPROMs has become significant. I'm making changes to mitigate that by better organizing the website, and hoping to make a series of youtube videos once some other user friendly changes to the INL retro programmer are complete. I will also be putting a minimum order quantity of 2 for EPROM boards. Having that second board in the customer's hands significantly helps me in customer service efforts being able to eliminate a single uncontrollable 'fluke' issue. There is yet another change that I feel is long over due in this regard, but I'll address that in the next paragraph.
Pricing! So please recognize I understand the sensitivity of this topic, I don't like the idea of price changes any more than you the customer. I too get frustrated when my suppliers change pricing on me, but all things change over time and pricing too must come under question over the course of a few years. I've tried to make some compromises here making an effort to level pricing, not just blindly raise them. I hope you'll agree there is some good news here too. Let me explain the history and details if you haven't fallen asleep yet. I originally setup pricing with my first products (EPROM boards) back in 2012, within a few months of releasing EPROM boards, I added fully assembled flash boards to my product line up. At the time I justified the higher markup of a couple dollars for flash chips based on the value added for the customer. As the years rolled on EPROM boards have become a burden compared to fully assembled flash boards. It took experience with manufacturing and customer service to fully realize these differences. EPROM boards cannot easily be tested after our assembly process due to them not being fully assembled like the flash boards. EPROM PCBs are also at least twice as large in area as their flash counterpart causing yet another cost/price in balance. And now with Xilinx discontinuing PLCC packaged XC9500XL series, and raising pricing by 25% on QFP packaged versions I am forced to make a decision on how best to move forward. Xilinx is doing a very good job at making that series an undesirable design solution. After much consideration my conclusion was that I will be able to keep flash boards very close to previous pricing, but EPROM boards must go up. There was enough room in my initial mark up on the flash boards to do this, but that's not the case with EPROM boards. In efforts to come up with a fair pricing scheme between all board variations I came up with a complicated spreadsheet that used Digikey part pricing as it's primary input. But the added costs of larger PCBs for EPROM boards, complications of testing EPROM boards, and added customer service costs associated with EPROM boards compared to flash, quickly eats up the relatively small ~$1-3 cost of the flash chips. So if your motivations for using EPROM versions of my boards are cost based, you are going to need a dirt cheap supply of those ancient artifacts to keep the pricing edge that EPROMs previously had. The good news is I have plans to continue offering EPROM boards as long as you continue to buy them. I did hear the pleas for them to stick around, and this is me making my best effort to do so.
As for pricing on fully assembled flash boards you will typically see a small price increase on individual quantities, but there are now options to checkout with bundles of 10 boards for a ~7% price savings. EPROM boards will also receive similar bundling savings. Those prices for bundles of 10x flash boards are very close to previous individual pricing. On top of that I am also setting up a formal means for added savings on even larger orders. Which will include an extra ~3% for those using forms of payment which we don't incur paypal fees. Complex price structuring like this is beyond the limits of paypal add to cart buttons. So it will be done by filling out a .pdf with your order selections applying explained discount calculations, and submitting a ticket with specific title. We'll then provide the shipping total and request payment method of your choice. The goal is to streamline the process and make things easy for you to quote out yourself with increased bulk discounts. More details about how to go about the process in this general area in the next couple weeks.
Phew! That was a lot of rambling, hope it was informative for those who chose to read through it all. Now for the good stuff, what are our plans for the foreseeable future? Well first thing to do is finish all of the website updates discussed above including posting up all the NES mappers that say "coming soon" dated Nov2014... First ones up are MMC2 and MMC4 based on recent requests. Soon followed by more discrete mapper options. I will probably hold off on listing several of the more complicated mappers for sale until the new board designs are complete in a few months. The new NES board designs will be packed full of capability that wasn't previously capable with our old design such as multi-mapper enabled boards and increased memory capacity and other random features I make up now that there is plenty of logic to spare. We are also working on overhauling our kazzo INL retro programmer-dumper including fancy enclosure options, proper pitched SNES cartridge connector slot, speed boost, added cartridge dumping capabilities along with a complete firmware/software rewrite that will finally bring it to an acceptable level of user friendliness. We are also adding JTAG programmer capability so that the retro programmer will be able to reconfigure mapper chips. This will allow advanced users the capability to experiment with their own NES mapper creations, while at the same time allow the same low cost board to work with a library of different mappers and memory configurations. We also have an exciting few months ahead with more than 2 homebrew NES games being released. I'm also about to release a couple NES chiptune albums I should have completed last fall. We now have a stable supply of 60pin famicom shells, and I'm working on a couple board designs for them to offer all my 72pin NES products in 60pin famicom form. This development will also allow us to start releasing homebrew games in 60pin famicom form for the win. We also have cases available for a few other retro systems motivating me to finally try to start providing similar products for those consoles as well but slim chances of getting to that this year I'd guess.. One small addition to our NES supplies coming soon is a legitamate solution for front labels on NES cartridges. We've had a die made to supply us with a 8.5x11" sheet of precut labels just like the Avery brand mailing labels. We'll offer them for you to print yourself, and services to color laser print them for you. There are a few other mystery projects I'm brewing up in the event I can scrounge up some time with everything else we have lined up!
Thanks for reading! I would like to extend the invite for public and/or private feedback on any of the above, I'm all ears. Email works firstname.lastname@example.org, but I would prefer using our ticket system if you don't mind InfiniteNesLives.com/support.